Monday, March 11, 2013

Jorge Renaud on reentry; Grits on Jorge Renaud

Jorge Renaud has a well-done column in the Austin Statesman focused on the perils of prisoner reentry and suggesting ways the state and  TDCJ could help ex-offenders succeed when they get out of prison. Few would know those perils better since, as he notes, Renaud has "been to prison three times, serving a total of 27 years for burglary and robbery until my release in 2008." The central questions posed in the article he framed thusly:
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.


Anonymous said...

Grits, thanks for your honesty and openness about this subject. It's a topic not many (I feel) discuss or emphasize on the importance of an inmate being successful upon reentry: emotional support from friends/family during incarceration. It's not only someone who is talented at writing that makes that one last mistake that sends them to a long term prison sentence...I pray that many read your post and realize they too need to reach out to someone they have forgotten to stay in touch with. There is not much inmates have to look forward to (during incarceration); visits and mail is about it. Well now they can make phone calls!
Thanks again for that honest post and I hope Jorge continues to do well!!

Blessings said...

Mi mamá me enseño a amar. Mi hermano siempre fue exitoso, y siempre lo sera. Estoy tan orgulluosa de ti mi hermano! Susana Renaud

Maria said...

The first time I met Jorge was through his writings. When I learned he'd written his book while on the inside, my jaw dropped open. I never imagined that we would one day be roommates, that we would dance with abandon at my wedding.

Jorge's insight and perspectives helped see me through one of the most difficult periods of my life. I will consider him a member of my extended family to the end of my days, regardless of the fact that we rub each other the wrong way more often than I'd care to admit. That pain in the ass has my back, and I know it. He will always have a home in me.

The experience of learning to care for and being cared for by someone on the inside taught me that grace doesn't float down from the heavens to land lake feathers on our shoulders. It's hard won, cobbled together from the large and small moments where we connect and make room for each other's flawed humanity. Grace can rain down like hail, leaving us bruised and hurting, a satisfied smile on our faces.

Watching Jorge make his way in the world since his release has taught me that it's never too late for anything.

Thanks for your honesty and your apology, Scott. Reading your post, I felt you sent some grace my way. I'm brushing feathers off my shoulders, a contented smile on my face.