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An employee publication of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice
March/April 2010

The SVORI Program: Aiding reentry of administrative segregation offenders

By Tom Mechler, Board Vice Chairman
  portrait of Tom Mechler
  Tom Mechler

Preparing offenders for reentry is fundamental to their success upon release. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice operates a number of effective rehabilitation programs, each geared to help offenders prepare themselves for reentry into their communities. One such program, offered through the Rehabilitation Programs Division, is the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative. Better known as SVORI, the initiative is designed to address the needs of offenders to be released directly from administrative segregation.

The first of its kind in the nation, the SVORI program received initial funding through a grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Justice in July 2002. The grant provided funding for start-up costs, including the computer equipment for in-cell programming. With the expiration of the grant in 2006, the program's operating expenses are now funded through TDCJ's annual budget.

Established at the Estelle High Security Unit in Huntsville, the SVORI program is administered in two phases. Phase I, an in-cell pre-release program, begins six months prior to release. Phase II begins upon release and follows the offender through post-release supervision. Administrative segregation offenders participate in the first phase of the program by way of audiovisual computer equipment installed in their one-man cell. The computer is encased in a tamperproof stainless steel box and is accessible for use through a mouse and flexible keyboard. The two-way computer system, controlled by program employees, provides both audio and visual learning to as many as 63 offenders at one time. Offenders and instructors communicate through audio headsets or instant messaging. Instructors can also view the offender by way of a miniature camera mounted within the computer workstation. Offenders without computer skills are trained to navigate and respond using the mouse and keyboard. In addition to general education, the program's curriculum offers cognitive interventions to address the primary needs of the offender for reentry. They include life skills, health, parenting, anger management, substance abuse education, and reentry education and awareness. Class instruction lasts about eight hours a day and self-paced after-hour work is available to improve literacy and typing skills.

During Phase II, the offender's rehabilitation and care continue through services provided by the Parole Division's district resource centers (DRC). Case managers at the DRC communicate with the offenders prior to release to discuss needs and challenges associated with the release. This is accomplished through videoconferencing and interactive computer equipment at the DRCs. In addition to the offender's needs, the case manager will also discuss the challenges to be faced by the offender and his family and then consider services available for both in the community. Following release, case managers supervise and continue to work with the SVORI offenders to help in their transition. This includes providing further cognitive intervention services and access to fundamental services, such as housing assistance and employment resources.

Placement in the SVORI program is either voluntary or by vote of the Board of Pardons and Paroles as a rehabilitation requirement to be completed prior to release. Offenders must meet stringent eligibility requirements. In addition to being classified a Level 1 offender, the lowest risk category within administrative segregation, the offender must be within six to eight months of release, cannot have any major disciplinary cases within the past year, must have no active detainers or consecutive sentences pending parole review and must have a minimum of 12 months scheduled parole supervision. Placement priority is given to offenders who will be releasing to counties and surrounding communities with a DRC to facilitate the administration of Phase II. Currently, DRCs are located in Bexar, Dallas, El Paso, Harris, Hidalgo, Jefferson, Lubbock, McLennan, Nueces, Tarrant and Travis counties.

As with many TDCJ rehabilitative programs, volunteers play a significant role in SVORI, during both Phase I and Phase II. Volunteers provide faith-based curriculum, substance abuse support groups, victim awareness, parenting classes and reentry coordination. Volunteers from the offenders' home communities also serve as mentors, communicating with the offender prior to release through videoconferencing or the DRC's interactive computer and then again at the DRC following release.

A review of program results shows offenders have benefited from participation in SVORI. They incur fewer disciplinary infractions and file fewer grievances and sick calls than nonparticipating administrative segregation offenders. A self-reporting survey of SVORI participants also indicates that offenders feel the "in-cell" program helped them work toward their rehabilitation and that access to the case manager during Phase II is useful to their reentry.

A fundamental tenet of the TDCJ's mission is to reintegrate offenders into society. The SVORI program works toward that goal by addressing the needs of high-risk offenders and providing cognitive intervention and services that promote accountability, personal growth and responsibility.

 

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