As a program provider at the El Dorado Correctional Facility, I teach cognitive and life skills programs to offenders preparing to be released back into society, including courses on money management and family transitions as well as Thinking for a Change and Youth Entrepreneurs. I’ve also spent time as an intern at the Wichita parole office and as a corrections counselor at the Winfield Correctional Facility.
When I was a kid, I had someone very close to me go to prison. It was a heartbreaking experience. My family member chose to do the crime, so there was never any arguing against the time she was given. But she was still my family, and that was all that mattered.
When she went prison, everyday physical contact and affections were exchanged for letters, and phone conversations were impossible because the state she was incarcerated in didn’t allow minors on the facility phone list.
In her letters, she would tell me how hard it was to be away, and of how lonely and unsupported she felt at times. She would tell me about having to deal with good and bad officers, counselors and prison employees, all while trying to navigate a prison political system lacking an atmosphere conducive to mental and emotional growth.
It was then that I decided what path I would travel in my college years: I would major in criminal justice and find a place in the system where I could be a positive presence for prisoners trying to pick up the pieces of lives interrupted by incarceration.
In 2015, the Youth Entrepreneurs program hosted a class at EDCF with a small group of offenders. It was a huge success. Even though I was not involved in that initial class, I would receive communications between offenders and staff stating that they had heard about the class and wanted to participate.
In 2017, my supervisor told me that the YE program was looking to have one of our program providers trained as a YE facilitator. I immediately jumped at the chance — it took no time for me to realize that this class could not only provide an alternative route for employment, but also be the type of class to excite and motivate offenders.
Offenders are not ignorant to the future difficulties of finding a job upon release. If they struggled before incarceration, finding employment is even harder with a felony conviction popping up on every background check. But starting a business and being your own boss is a way of creating a job rather than finding one.
And that’s exactly what this course teaches students how to do, concluding with a business plan pitch to EDCF employees, YE representatives and local entrepreneurs. Past business plans have included barbershops, food trucks, restaurants, cleaning supplies, vehicle safety lights and many others.
To date, I’ve had 18 offenders between the ages of 22 and 53 complete the YE program here at EDCF. Of these 18 graduates, their release dates or parole-eligible dates range from now through September 2043. In fact, the first of these graduates is scheduled for release soon, while several more will be released in the next 12 to 24 months.
I expect good things from these individuals. Just as any teacher hopes to have touched the lives of those they prepare for the next step, I hope to have taught and motivated my students to become positive and successful members of society.
Gabe Morales is a program provider at the El Dorado Correctional Facility.