Jail Break

See article here on austinmonthly.com

TO HELP SOLVE CRIME AND REHAB INMATES, TRAVIS COUNTY GETS CREATIVE BEHIND BARS

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For many felons, being out of the big house can be more difficult than being there in the first place. But a group of volunteers is stepping in to help the Travis County prison system by providing inmates with new skills that they can take with them upon their release. In addition, a new initiative seeks assistance from inmates in solving cold cases through playing cards. Altogether, these programs are making better use of time spent in jail.

Jailhouse Rock
The Austin offshoot of Jail Guitar Doors, a nonprofit founded by British musician Billy Bragg, started more than three years ago. Local singer-songwriter Kevin Hoetger and other musicians teach weekly classes to inmates, focusing on guitar technique and lyrics writing—both of which provide a nonviolent way to get out aggression. “They get to connect with each other and feel like dudes again,” Hoetger says. “And it gives them something to hold and build onto.” Jean Synodinos, who runs the women’s program, finds it rewarding for the musicians as well. “The experience has confounded every stereotype I had about the ‘typical inmate.’ These people are wonderful,” she says.

Police Sting
Starting this June, a local branch of the American Honey Bee Protection Agency began teaching inmates how to handle bees and harvest honey. And because people with a record have a hard time finding employment, any student who completes the program could be considered for a future job. “I have a waiting list for the next class already,” says Travis County Correctional Complex marketable skills program manager Pete Trotman. The agency provides all the supplies and keeps half of the honey harvest, while the other half is used in the food at the county prisons.

Good Deal
Last year, patrol sergeant Tom Szimanski attended a leadership course through the sheriff’s office that required a capstone project by the end of the year. The former detective pitched the idea of seeking help from inmates through playing cards. Starting in mid-May, decks containing cards printed with facts about cold cases from surrounding counties were distributed in prisons. “The more inmates we can get these cards into the hands of, the more likely we are to solve these crimes,” Szimanski says. Detectives in Florida and South Carolina, two states that have similar cards, have solved several cases from inmate tips. So far, no cases have been cracked in Travis County, but many leads have come out of the cards.