We can discuss the initial impetus into individual antisocial behavior, or the societal structures that drive inequitable rates of incarceration, all we want, but the question here is this: Should people exiting prison be left to their own devices, relying on the grace of family, the charity of churches, the kindness of strangers and the occasional service provided by an agency that sees a population in need of its assistance? Or should a community ensure formerly incarcerated individuals have access to services in recognition that, without immediate and individual assistance, many of them will either violate their parole or commit new crimes? Do we ease their transition to their communities, with a promise that they will be encouraged to eventually attain the status of full citizens, allowed to work in meaningful jobs and contribute to a healthy, growing economy? Or do we owe them only a modicum of freedom, lifelong constraints, an induced dependence on state and federal benefits and a hypervigilance to ensure they do not commit another crime?Read the whole thing. He makes a number of splendid observations and suggestions for how Texas can do reentry better.
Jorge was already a gifted writer and poet when he racked up his third felony conviction and was sent to TDCJ the last time. I know because we'd met while we were both students at the University of Texas and both working at independent student magazines - he at a Latino publication called Tejas and me at a long-defunct investigative rag called Polemicist. Jorge and I were friends. I knew about his criminal history, sure, but one couldn't help but envy his undeniable writing chops (Grits may be a prolific writer, but never much of a poet). When I became an associate editor at the Texas Observer, convincing him to write for the publication was one of my first priorities. No one was more shocked than me when he was convicted of a string of armed robberies and sent to TDCJ. (That was several years before Grits took up the cause of criminal justice reform.)
I mention this because of one line in Jorge's column that left me with pangs of regret. He wrote, "I have been blessed; I have had lifelong friends who communicated and visited when I was in prison, who believed in me despite a descent into drug use." I'm ashamed to say, while I never stopped believing in him, I was not one of those people who visited or communicated with Jorge while he was inside. The truth is, I was angry at my friend, not just for the senseless crimes that sent him to prison but mainly because I considered him one of the most talented Texas writers of our generation and was furious that he'd squandered his gift to feed a cocaine habit I could not at the time understand. There are many peers whose writing I respect but not that many I openly admire - who can routinely cause my jaw to drop in astonishment with a turn of phrase the way Jorge could back when we were young. The nearly two decades Renaud spent behind bars in what was his third and hopefully final prison stint to me was not just a punishment for him but a gut-shot to the world of Texas letters. None of us who consider ourselves writers would ever know how good we truly were, to my mind, because Jorge's work wouldn't be around for comparison. Part of me, if I'm honest, is still bitter about that.
I'm glad Jorge's post-prison life has gone well and was delighted when he went to work at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition on related subjects to those Grits covers. But I wish I'd been a better friend to him while he was inside and I guess the point of this post - besides referring readers to his latest op ed - is to say publicly, "Lo siento, amigo." I'm sorry. I'm glad you're back.