Cohort Helps Inmates Re-enter Society | United Way of Metropolitan Dallas

Cohort Helps Inmates Re-enter Society

The good news: Someone’s getting out. Someone who has served their time in a local jail or state/federal prison is being released to go back to their lives.

The bad news: As we see time and again, most of those former inmates’ lives have been irrevocably changed, too many times for the worse. Re-entry into everyday society poses dispiriting hurdles to former inmates; employment, housing, racial inequity, relationships, technologies—basically everything in that person’s life likely will have altered when they are released, especially it it’s from long-term imprisonment.

The challenges can be scary and worrisome for all involved. That’s where the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas Re-Entry Cohort comes in, conducted in partnership with the State Fair of Texas. Many North Texas nonprofit agencies devote substantial time, energy and funding to helping ex-inmates, along with the families and loved ones who are also seriously impacted.

But these agencies, too, need assistance; they’re often underfunded, understaffed and misunderstood. So, this spring and summer, agencies that are members of the Re-Entry Cohort are looking at ways to work more smoothly—and by extension, benefit their formerly incarcerated clients.


We raised $45,000 from Blue Cross Blue Shield and Union Pacific to fund the project. Of that, $30,000 goes to the agencies—$3,000 each to help their efforts—and the rest is spent on trainers and speakers for the program. Cohort classes and training sessions started in April and continue through August. “We work with them (the agencies) on capacity-building training—everything from board development to networking, relationship building and marketing,” said Ashley Brundage, United Way senior vice president of community impact.

“The biggest piece of it, besides the education they get, is the network they build among their peers,” Brundage said. “Even on a Zoom call in the very first session in April, we were seeing them learning more about what services they all provided, and how to work better together or help each other out.”


Education, income and health, the building blocks that we believe are essential to opportunity, will almost certainly have been severely disrupted for anyone serving time behind bars. It’s an enormous problem in Texas, which at the end of 2016, had 218,500 incarcerated individuals, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. In 2018, more than 41,400 incarcerated individuals were released statewide, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

For many released inmates, education will have stopped when they entered the prison doors, and their health will have suffered from lackluster prison diets and limited exercise.

The biggest struggle for most ex-convicts comes in making a living, and subsequently, finding a home. They’ve been released into a society that distrusts and hesitates to hire them—few things are more daunting than seeing this on an employment application: “Have you ever been arrested/convicted of a crime?” Thirteen states—but not Texas—have made that less stressful with “Ban the Box” laws prohibiting employers from asking applicants about criminal history on initial job applications, according to online legal information site Nolo. Legislation was introduced in the Texas Senate in 2019 but died due to an end-of-session deadline.

Racial inequities also impact ex-inmates. According to Dr. Froswa’ Booker-Drew, State Fair vice president of community impact and strategic alliance, Blacks make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but comprise more than 30 percent of those who are incarcerated. “We recognize that there are barriers to those impacted by incarceration because of their background, and then you add to the inequities because of race on top of that. It makes housing and employment even more difficult to obtain,” she said.


Ten area agencies that provide resources to released inmates were selected to be part of this year’s cohort: Adult Rehabilitation Ministry, AES Literacy Institute, Alert Ministries, CARDBoard Project, FAWC Conservatory of Arts and Sciences, First Step Community Empowerment, Heart of Courage, Hopeful Solutions, Lone Star Justice Alliance and Trinity Restoration Ministries.

In addition to the typical issues of re-entry into society, cohort members may also be able to help one another with some uniquely 2020 challenges: Because of the coronavirus pandemic, many of the groups cannot physically serve clients at jails or prisons. Some are exploring technological solutions to providing services. And with the pandemic’s effect on the economy, it’s hard for anyone to get a job right now, much less someone who’s been incarcerated.

Not only that, recent nationwide protests around police brutality and racial inequity have given some Black, LatinX, and other people of color reasons for distrust that may make it harder for former inmates to assimilate.


Nearly everyone knows someone who’s affected by the state’s high rate of imprisonment, and children are significantly impacted: According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, in 2017, nearly 6 million children had parents behind bars.

“Mass incarceration is very personal to me,” Booker-Drew said. “When United Way started the cohort, I had three friends who were behind bars; one was recently released.” And at the State Fair’s Mapping Your Future event in 2019, Booker-Drew said, she saw something about the helping agencies: “We had a number of organizations partner with us to host the event, and I noticed that these agencies did not collaborate often, and they were challenged for funding because the populations they serve are not necessarily ‘trendy.’


We hope that through the cohort, agencies can build their expertise and muscle so that they can step up to a new level. “For instance,” United Way’s Brundage said, “many are just shy of having the requirements to apply for United Way funding—they need an audit, or detailed outcomes on programming. We help them learn how to do those things.”

United Way has facilitated four past cohorts, each focusing on nonprofits providing more generalized services, Brundage said. “Three were focused in Southern Dallas, all in partnership with the State Fair, and the fourth was with grassroots organizations in Collin County, in partnership with Communities Foundation of Texas.” This year, we drilled down to a specific problem with far-reaching impact.

Not only does the cohort help nonprofits and, by extension, former inmates, Booker-Drew said it also helps the sponsors. It’s important to the fair, as a funding organization for more than 60 organizations annually, she said, “that we ensure that our agencies are sustainable, and have access to resources that can enhance their existing infrastructure.”

With each other’s assistance and counsel, cohort members hope they can boost their clients over those barriers—and help them start making strong strides toward happy, successful futures.

“United Way has been wonderful in believing in the vision to support these organizations. It’s been a great partnership and I’m grateful that we’re doing this work,” Booker-Drew said.

Want to get involved in United Way’s efforts in education, income and health? Help by giving, advocating or volunteering. We can’t wait to have you join us in bringing opportunity into the hands of all North Texans.


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Daughter on shoulders of father Live United

United Way of Metropolitan Dallas is a community-based social change organization that puts opportunity in the hands of all North Texans. Working with our determined supporters, we lead the charge to improve education, income and health—the building blocks of opportunity. We invite all change-seekers in our community to Live United to achieve lasting results right here at home.

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This article was published on: Jul 15, 2020