Book Tracks 'Last Chance' for Texas Youths

A young Texas inmate in orange jumpsuit, with back to camera.

The author says the "last chance" program stems from a Texas tradition: The strongest man is the kindest. Random House hide caption

itoggle caption Random House

John Hubner's Last Chance in Texas: The Redemption of Criminal Youth, includes a profile of Antonio Alvarado. Hubner and Alvarado speak with Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Texas often has a stern and unforgiving image when it comes to crime and punishment. Admirers might put it that way as much as detractors. Texas is usually among the states with the highest rate of incarceration, the longest sentences and the highest number of executions. Yet when journalist John Hubner was reporting on juvenile courts in the United States, he learned that Texas also runs one of the most aggressive and successful treatment programs for violent young criminals. Mr. Hubner gained unprecedented access to the Giddings State School, which is considered the last chance for the worst of the worst, 400 teen-agers who have robbed, beaten and murdered people. His book is called "Last Chance in Texas: The Redemption of Criminal Youth." John Hubner joins us now from the studios of KQED in San Francisco.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. JOHN HUBNER (Author, "Last Chance in Texas"): Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: And from KUHF in Houston, we're also joined by Antonio Alvarado(ph), who's one of the young men who were profiled in this book.

Mr. Alvarado, thank you very much for being with us.

Mr. ANTONIO ALVARADO: Yes, I have no problem.

SIMON: And, Mr. Hubner, let me begin with you. Who--as a generalization, who winds up in Giddings? Who did you meet?

Mr. HUBNER: Kids who have done assaults or better, kids who have hurt somebody, usually very badly. Kids who, in other states, would be sent to prison for long terms.

SIMON: Mr. Alvarado, could you give us what I gather in Giddings they call your layout? This is how you would identify yourself to other people at Giddings when you're having countersessions.

Mr. ALVARADO: All right. My name is Antonio Alvarado. I'm 21 years old. I'm responsible for the committing offense of a capital murder. I have a sentence of 25 years with a 10-year minimum. I've been incarcerated for six and a half years.

SIMON: Now layout, we should explain to our listeners, is when you have these--May I call them therapy sessions at Giddings?

Mr. ALVARADO: Uh-huh.

SIMON: You would stand up and state your circumstances to each other, right?

Mr. ALVARADO: Yes, sir.

SIMON: Mr. Alvarado, may I ask who did you hurt?

Mr. ALVARADO: Well, it was in April 26th, 1999, when we were out looking something to do, looking for something stupid to do, so we decided to go and rob a store. I give--the clerk didn't let us do it so one of my co-actors shot him, the clerk. I took part in the crime by being there and, you know, by not saying anything about it.

Mr. HUBNER: Antonio can't go back and bring that clerk's life back. What he can do is look at what he did, what caused him to do what he did, and then live in such a way that it'll never happen again. And that's what the Capital Offenders Program, that's what the Giddings State School is about. Redemption, Scott; it's not retribution. If Antonio had gone to prison and served his 25 years minimum sentence, that would have been retribution. It's not forgiveness either. They don't make these kids cry and say, `I'm sorry,' and pat them on the back, and then tell them to go out and not do it again. Retribution is an internal change that results in a change in the way you behave.

SIMON: And, Mr. Alvarado, how--what was Giddings like for you?

Mr. ALVARADO: I can honestly say that, you know, I really didn't want to follow the rules. I wasn't used to it. You are here, you do whatever you want, and everything. And by you getting incarcerated, and going straight to a unit that is real straight, then you got to follow rules and you got to ask for permission to go to the rest room and get water. It was real hard. I mean, it was real hard because I was making it hard for myself. Not that anybody was making it hard for me. I mean, you just got to work with the program and learn.

SIMON: Mr. Hubner, maybe you can help us understand the atmosphere at Giddings. It's a tough place for tough youngsters.

Mr. HUBNER: It is. It's like a cauldron that runs on a 15-hour-a-day, 16-hour-a-day behavior modification program. These kids are--someone is watching them every moment of the day. They tell their life stories, Scott, and they don't want to do this. Each kids spend seven to 10 hours telling his or her life story and they don't want to do this because this population has been badly abused or horribly neglected and they've blocked it off. They've blocked off every emotion but anger, so exploring these events and exploring the feelings around them is something they've never done. At the end of the life story, they turn the group room into a theater and the kids and the therapists re-enact key scenes from that kid's life, and it's as if the kid's life is unfolding in front of them.

These are remarkably powerful dramas. They're there. They experience things that they never did before, which connects them with themselves in a way that's never been--that's never happened before. Then that segment ends, a family comes in who've lost a child to violence, and they talk about what violence does, what the effect is like of losing a child. It's very powerful. And then these kids begin telling their crime stories. They re-enact that twice, the first time as it happened, directly in front of the kid who did it. The second time, the murderer plays his or her own victim and these are astonishing to see because the...

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. HUBNER: ...kid is on the floor having a conversation with himself, looking up into an eraser that represents a gun, saying, `Please, don't pull the trigger. Don't do it. You don't want to do this. It's only 'cause your homies are here,' that sort of thing. This is more rigorous, this is more harrowing than any kind of simple incarceration. What we think--what the public thinks is tough time. That's easy time because you can sit there, play con games, you don't learn a thing. Come out angrier and dumber and meaner than you went in.

SIMON: Mr. Alvarado, what was it like for you to play the role of the victim of the crime you committed?

Mr. ALVARADO: It's a big experience you go through because, I mean, you know, you're there because you hurt somebody. You're not there because, you know, you stole a candy or you took something from somebody. I mean, I was there for something big so it meant a lot to me really, you know? It got to me. Time for me to, you know, open my eyes and see what I'm doing, see that it's not all about me all the time. We all have feelings, and, you know, we're all the same. You just put your--you are able to put everybody in your family, you're able to put yourself in that victim's position. What if this would have happened to my mom, what if this would have happened to my dad? So it really opens your eyes to see the big picture of it.

SIMON: Did meeting, for example, the parents of someone who had been murdered in a brutal crime help you understand what murder actually means, what you had done that actually meant in someone's life?

Mr. ALVARADO: Yes, sir. I went through two victim impact panels when I was in there.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. ALVARADO: You know, by them sharing their story with you and, you know, being able to come to a place where there's plenty of us in there that have done something wrong to other people, and for them to come there and tell you, `Just keep on doing good and keep your heads up; don't give up just because you're here,' you know, and I listened. They're basically motivating us instead of putting us down. They went in there to motivate us and tell us that, you know, there's always a second chance. And we can take it or just leave it. And it really did touch me. It touched me a lot to hear the story from them, and to just--like I still think about it and I still keep my certificate that they gave me on the victim impact. I still have them and everything so it's nothing that you can just be over by the next day or anything like that.

SIMON: You write in this book, Mr. Hubner, that some people just do not understand how it is that Texas, a state that has such a, I think we can fairly say, famously tough criminal justice system, can have programs like this that deal, I think we can also fairly say, in an innovative, imaginative and even empathetic way with young offenders, that they find it kind of at odds with some other aspects of the state's criminal justice system. But you think, in fact, this program grows out of the criminal justice system.

Mr. HUBNER: I do, Scott. I think it's the flip side of the cowboy ethic, an absolute intolerance for discourtesy and you go immediately to violence. But the flip side of that--and I'm old enough to have grown up on the Westerns@ The flip side is the strongest man is also the kindest and you see that embodied in the Texas Youth Commission. The idea is that these are still kids, they can change, we need to give them a chance. By the way, Missouri is the only one I think that's equivalent, that does the equivalent of what Texas does.

SIMON: Mr. Hubner, what is the success rate?

Mr. HUBNER: It's remarkably good. In the first year, less than--of kids off--coming out of Capital Offenders, less than 10 percent re-offend. Over a three-year period, it's less than 25 percent. And I think Antonio would tell you that he's kept under very, very close watch. He has an electronic monitor. If he doesn't get home at a certain time, he will be arrested. So that counts as a recidivism. What really matters to me is that the kids who go through this program do not hurt people. They do not go out and do it--an upon-stranger crime where violence is involved. Because once you've got empathy, once you've got it connected with your own humanity, you connect with the humanity in others, and it just doesn't become a possibility.

SIMON: Mr. Alvarado, what do you foresee in your future?

Mr. ALVARADO: And now that I got my high school diploma, I mean, I really do want to go to college and, if not, I got a welding certificate. I was certified in welding while I was in Giddings, which gives me the opportunity to get a good job so...

SIMON: I have to ask you, Mr. Alvarado, how you doing now?

Mr. ALVARADO: Ah, can't complain, sir. I'm free. I mean, I got that--I got this second chance. I got that opportunity to get out and be out of here with my family and enjoy life and change myself and other, and I'm just real thankful for that. I got something that other people can't have so I'll--this moment, I feel like I'm living my life for my victim and trying to do my best for him. And that's all I want to do.

SIMON: Well, gentlemen, I thank you both very much for being with us.

Mr. HUBNER: Thank you for having us, Scott. We appreciate it.

Mr. ALVARADO: And I would just say anytime, sir. Anything that can help with--just more than willing to do it.

SIMON: John Hubner has joined us from San Francisco. His new book is "Last Chance in Texas: The Redemption of Criminal Youth." And in Houston, Antonio Alvarado, who's one of the young men profiled in this book.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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