Laura Sovine, Past Chair, Austin/Travis County Reentry Roundtable Planning Council
Director of Operations, Austin Recovery
What brought you to this work?
While I was in graduate school to be a therapist, my mom married a man with two sons in prison; one was incarcerated in Georgia and the other was in Huntsville, Texas. My mom and step-dad asked for my help because the step-brother in Huntsville was having mental health challenges. My response was that surely there was help available at the prison; there were probably many options and mental health care available for him, but as we researched the situation, we found out that was not the case. My step-brother and I were the same age, our birthdays were only two days apart. I began to write him and then visit him in prison. I had been a pretty privileged and sheltered kid, so to know someone personally impacted was really a wake-up call for me. We wrote a paper together on prison gangs during his incarceration. I began to take more classes that related to that topic and then applied for an internship at the federal prison, where I fell in love with the work. Sitting there in those groups with clients who were either addicts or big-time dealers, I would hear very shocking things in terms of the amount of grief and trauma that these men had experienced both in that lifestyle but also as children growing up in poverty. I began to see how unjust the whole thing was and how unlikely it was for these offenders to be seen as victims.
Why is doing reentry work in Texas challenging?
Part of the problem is that if you look at what works, at evidence-based practices, the literature says that we need to be working with folks six to nine months before they go home in intensive programming. My experience is with people who are in state jail who are at high risk of recidivism who are typically at risk for chronic homelessness and chronic addiction. Those things aren’t quick fixes. It isn’t “go in have a meeting and knock down some barriers on the outside.” It requires intense therapy and treatment and – most importantly – building relationships with people. Those relationships need to start on the inside with peers and community-based social and mental health workers. The way our system in Texas is set up, it is almost impossible to do that because people are generally locked up so far away from home. It might be different if we had a really small state. There isn’t currently an effective way to manage people going home to communities across Texas as a statewide effort.
What is your vision for the future of reentry in Texas and Travis County?
The first part of my vision is that more people would go into [substance use] treatment in the first place, because the solution to a massive public health problem is treatment and not incarceration. Once that happens, the prison population would be reduced to a more manageable level. Then if there are those who have to go to prison, they could be moved closer to home so that social workers and the community can interact and actually do something more restorative. Healing the whole community and addressing how actions have impacted the families and community has to be done on a small scale. It can’t be done through a massive deployment of resources across the state. It has to be done on a personal level.
Kenneth Thompson, Member and Nominating Committee Chair, Austin/Travis County Reentry Roundtable Planning Council
Fatherhood Program Specialist, Texas Department of Family and Protective Services
How long have you been involved with the Roundtable and what brought you to this work?
I have been involved with the Reentry Roundtable since about two years after it began. I was invited to a meeting by someone working in the District Attorney’s office because of his role at Child Protective Services, the thought being that reentry is going to be dealing with men that perhaps had family issues and reentry ties into all those things. I am also more intimately familiar with the system. I had a brother who has done 33 years off and on and a younger brother that is currently incarcerated, so I am familiar with the system and the imbalances.
Tell me about your professional background.
I was actually the first black man elected to political office in Pflugerville, Texas. I started out as a member of the School Board and moved through every position there up to and including the president of the Board of Trustees. I never missed a meeting. Prior to working at that agency, I used to facilitate a workshop at the Travis State Jail, it gave me opportunities to have a broad range of discussions. It was fascinating and rewarding talking to men about emotions and connecting with their children in a jail facility. The men would write thank you letters, the most powerful thing was when they recognize things for themselves and call and say “I get it now.”
I started working at Child Protective Services because of a disproportionality assessment that happened here in Austin and I was asked to be on a task force at the same time I was doing work in the community and doing a talk radio show called the Dad Show as well as facilitating a workshop called Fathers Matter: The Father Factor. A job opening came up at the agency and I applied for it and was fortunate enough to get it. It was just a natural fit and it was good because I came from an environment very similar to many of our clients.
One of the first things I did there was to revamp incarceration issues in the policies around visitation and accessibility. It was fascinating to take a policy that at one time was maybe a paragraph and to build it into three or four pages of content. Now those things are not only part of policy, but part of our practice. So now when you have a client who is incarcerated now there is a set of criteria that is used to try to engage that parent who is incarcerated around their rights and also to try to stay connected with their children.
Fatherhood seems to be a theme in your work. Why is that?
Actually, the focus is on service. Many times when there is an absence of a father it has to do with incarceration, the rights haven’t been terminated so they still have a right to their kids whether they are in the system or not. We are also learning that just because a parent or father is incarcerated doesn’t mean they can’t have a healthy relationship and be part of their children’s life, and for many people who are incarcerated the light of knowing that they are still connected with their children is the spark for them to keep going and trying to do right. When I look at all these things and try to tie them all together, it is all about family and trying to change the dynamic, not just for the father but for the next generation.
I try to convey lessons about the language we use and how impactful it is and I also try to be creative with them particularly those that have not had role models. I try to help them understand that they still have value and try to tie that value to them and their children and community to begin to break cycles and enhance relationships. The impact is generational, so I try to help [fathers] connect their value and their purpose in life and let them know they are going to leave a legacy, whether they intend to or not, so what is that legacy going to be?
Do you have children?
I grew up without a father and then became a teenage father. My wife Alisha and I have one son who lives in New York – he is the greatest gift in my life, he gave me something to build upon and break cycles. I have had a lot of pride watching my son grow up to work under President Obama and knowing as a father I got to play a role in that, and to take that back into the work with other fathers and relate that it isn’t about the work or the money, it is about the time and quality of time that you invest in your children.
What does successful reentry look like?
There are various components. The first is what door is someone coming through? Is the door receptive and supportive? Is there stability? Is there room for failure? Because the people with the most challenges, we expect the most out of them, yet we give them the least amount of tools and expect them to build the most secure building.
Interview conducted by Lauren Johnson, Advocacy Fellow