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New Program to Help Prior Convicts Get a Job

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NEAR EDINBURG – A new partnership in the Rio Grande Valley is set to help offenders rejoin the workforce.

The Reynaldo V. Lopez State Jail holds around 1,800 inmates. Many say once released, getting hired with a prior conviction is tough.

A new program between the Windham School District and Workforce Solutions hopes to prevent those offenders from returning to jail.

Cooks in the kitchen are whipping up original creations with careful technique with the help of a kitchen knife, secured with a lock to prevent it from making it far.

It isn’t your typical restaurant cooking grounds.

“I used to sell drugs and then that started, just partying going out late at night. Wrong choices,” says inmate Cesar Gutierrez.

The Windham School District student says greed got the best of him.

“Well, you kind of seem invincible at the moment, like if nothing will ever happen and you won’t get caught, but eventually, it’ll catch up to you,” he says.

Daniel Cantu, the culinary instructor at the jail, says majority of the offenders are serving time anywhere from six months to two years. The top crimes: DUIs, theft by check and identity theft.

Over 50 percent of the inmates are from the Valley.

“Even if they come in for the first time, we don’t want them back,” says Reynaldo V. Lopez Unit Principal Maria Latorre. “We want to make sure these offenders are able to stay out and be part of society, be part of their family… make sure that they do not allow their family members to follow their tracks.”

Gutierrez says he wants his four children to learn from his life experience, so they don’t have to.

“It’s not worth it. You’re ruining your life and also the lives of others,” he says. “You’re hurting other people’s family. You’re not really hurting that one person, you’re hurting everyone involved with them.”

He says he’s learning skills beyond what’s served on the daily menu to guarantee a toque blanche when he leaves.

“I want to get started as a line cook and then work my way up possibly to a chef,” he tells CHANNEL 5 NEWS.  

Others in the room will also prepare their resume and skill set to prepare for a new life path.

“Once they leave here, out of the culinary arts program, they are work ready,” says Cantu.

He says the culinary certification is just one way of many other vocational programs offered at the Lopez Unit.

Restriction in the past prevented the agencies from associating and keeping up with offenders after their time served. Now, students can help in providing feedback.

“In the past, we did not track the individuals who did vocational programs or an academic program with Windham,” says Latorre. “Now, we’re trying to find out, where are they now? What has happened to those students who took a vocational program with us or who attained their GED with us? We’re trying to find out if they’re being successful.”

The vocational programs include culinary, GED classes, life skills courses and other trade programs. 

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