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From sparrow to eagle, youthful offenders soar in COURAGE program

Rapper singing to group of offenders
Houston Rap artist Trea performs for offenders enrolled in the COURAGE program at the Clemens Unit near Angleton.

Photo by David Nunnelee

They start out as sparrows, fledglings of the flock. Over time, they may mature into hawks, gaining self-confidence as they grow. Finally, they can soar as eagles, respected and looked up to as role models by their peers.

They are the youthful offenders assigned to TDCJ’s COURAGE Program at the Clemens Unit near Angleton. Formerly known as the Youthful Offenders Program (YOP), the mission of COURAGE (Challenge, Opportunity, Understanding, Respect, Acceptance, Growth, and Education) is to provide a vehicle of positive change for youthful offenders through targeted programs, supervision, and management in a safe restorative environment. Housed together in a dormitory, about 94 youthful offenders are now part of the program that has a capacity of 100.

The program was initiated in the 1990s when laws allowing for youths between the ages of 14 and 17 to be adjudicated as adults were enacted. Since then, hundreds offenders have successfully participated.

“The program centers on the problem behaviors and developmental aspects of this young population,” said Madeline Ortiz, director of the Rehabilitation and Reentry Programs Division, which developed COURAGE. “Emphasis is also based on other intervention, such as education, life skills, creative expression, and positive communication skills.”

The three levels of COURAGE - Sparrow, Hawk, and Eagle – each have their own set of responsibilities, privileges, and limitations. To rise from one level to the next, a participant must complete a minimum number of weeks at his current level and petition the group as a whole for advancement. If the group agrees, the participant can be promoted. Conversely, based on his behavior, the group or a staff member can recommend that a participant be demoted in class.

A youth new to the program is a “Sparrow” and wears a white prison uniform with a yellow shoulder stripe (the uniform stripe recently replaced a colored wristband) to designate his level. As he progresses, he can become a “Hawk,” whose shoulder stripes are orange. At the Eagle level, a participant wears a gray stripe on the shoulder. To maintain their status, Hawks and Eagles must demonstrate proper behavior and participate in all required activities, school and unit assignments. A team made up of a counselor, security staff, and educators approve or deny the progress levels.

“Eagles serve as a role model in attitude, appearance and character,” reads the program description of the Eagle level. “Eagles know the rules and encourage others to adhere to the standards set by the community. Eagles demonstrate the characteristics of leadership, self-motivation and respect for peers and staff.”

At the other end of the pecking order, Sparrows have more limitations than privileges. They have limited recreation time and must go to bed earlier than those at higher levels. Further, a Sparrow cannot possess a fan or radio, and may leave his cell for required activities only.

As a participant passes from one level to the next, his privileges continue to increase.

The COURAGE program recently adopted a token economy points system through which the offenders can earn points for such things as being ready for school and work on time, by being properly dressed and groomed, by keeping their living areas in compliance with prison rules, and through positive group participation. Additional points can be earned or awarded if a participant attends religious services, participates in Toastmasters or Alcohol Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous meetings, or attends epiphany meetings.

Program participants can put the points they earn toward a privilege. Recently, for example, 77 offenders used accumulated points for the privilege of attending the first-ever concert held at the unit by Rap music artists. Featuring the artist “Trea,” the two-hour concert was filled with positive lyrics and spiritual messages. Program Director Dwight Edwards said the concert was an effort to reach the youthful offenders.

“It’s an effort to reach them where they are and bring them to a higher level,” he said.

Senior Warden Kenneth Reagans said the concertgoers were well-behaved, and although Rap music has its critics, he saw the event as a success.

“Rap’s got its reputation, but the reality is that that is what our kids are listening to, that’s what they’re tuning in with,” Warden Reagans said. “If we can connect with them where they are, we think we can make them better through consistent positive programming. Yeah, it’s a risk, but so is the development of these children. We’ve got to do something to reach them where they are.”

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