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Prison educators honored for excellence behind
the razor wire

Brad Livingston, Dr. Judi Benestante, Ponice Hartman, and Christina Melton Crain posing in front of TDCJ Seal
Educators Honored -- Left to Right: Texas Department of Criminal Justice Executive Director Brad Livingston; Windham School District Interim Supt. Dr. Judi Benestante; 2005 WSD Teacher of the Year Ponice Hartman; and Texas Board of Criminal Justice Chairman Christina Melton Crain.
Photo by David Nunnelee
Excellence in teaching within the state prison system was recognized by the Texas Board of Criminal Justice in January as eight exemplary correctional educators from the Windham School District (WSD) were honored during the Board’s regular meeting in Austin. The eight finalists in the 2005 WSD “Teacher of the Year” initiative were nominated by their peers and then selected through a rigorous screening process.

As employees of WSD, these educators teach vocational, academic, or behavioral management classes to eligible offenders within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. WSD employs more than 700 teachers at 88 prison and state jail sites.

“We are proud to recognize the WSD ‘Teacher of the Year’ finalists as examples of personal and professional integrity,” said Christina Melton Crain, chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice. “Their campus performance merits the respect of co-workers and students.”

WSD “Teacher of the Year” Ponice Hartman teaches literacy skills to women incarcerated at the Gatesville Unit. She is a 32-year veteran educator who has spent the last 22 years in correctional classrooms. The other finalists and their nominating units are: Teresa Butler of the Luther Unit (Navasota), Michael Cole of the Jordan Unit (Pampa), Kathryn Gant of the Darrington Unit (Rosharon), James Masters of the Estelle Unit (Huntsville), John Robison of the Torres Unit (Hondo), Rosie Shepherd of the Huntsville Unit, and Patricia Stephens of the Smith Unit (Lamesa).

“Teachers in every school district are heroes as they prepare their students for success outside the classroom,” Crain said. “Educators in the Texas prison system are no different. They play a critical role in helping change lives for the better. These special teachers are using education to help fight crime and stop recidivism. The students may be incarcerated, but they can learn to succeed with jobs, families and life outside of prison.

Members of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice serve as trustees for the Windham School District.

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Hurricane delayed PACT Conference gets rave reviews from attendees

By Byron Hays

Even though Hurricane Katrina tossed Texas Department of Criminal Justice planners a “delay of game” curve ball, the Fourth Annual Public Awareness – Corrections Today (PACT) Conference still earned rave notices from attendees who traveled to Huntsville on Saturday, March 4, 2006, for the day-long event.

Bryan Collier talking with a participant at the PACT conference
Bryan Collier, left, speaks with a participant at the PACT conference.
Photo by Bambi Kiser
Originally scheduled for the fall of 2005, the conference had to be postponed due to emergency response demands on both TDCJ staff and hotel accommodations created by Katrina, and then amplified a short time later by Hurricane Rita.

The PACT Conference was inaugurated in 2002 with the objective of providing a vehicle focused entirely on providing families of incarcerated individuals with direct access not only to information they need about TDCJ programs, services and policies, but also to provide an opportunity for them to go “one-on-one” with top agency leadership, unit wardens, and rehabilitation program providers.

This year's program content may have been the most exciting and inspirational yet, according to both written evaluation responses provided by attendees, as well as, on-the-spot recorded interviews. As in previous conferences, the opportunity to discuss concerns "in-person" with TDCJ leadership and staff was perhaps the most impressive feature of the conference setting. Wardens, regional managers and agency leadership from across the state traveled to Huntsville to be available to respond to participant queries.

This year, the conference centered around TDCJ's initiative to strengthen the bond between offenders and their families. Many of the presentations and informational booths highlighted programs identified as resources under the "Giving Offenders' Kids Incentive and Direction to Succeed," or GO KIDS initiative launched by TDCJ in 2004.

"I am tremendously proud of GO KIDS and was happy to have the opportunity to share information about this initiative with families of TDCJ offenders – they are the very ones this program is designed to help," said Christina Melton Crain, Chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, the nine-member board which overseas TDCJ. "GO KIDS touches the lives of both the offenders and their families, in particular their children. This initiative can make a significant difference in the lives of children, which ultimately impacts the future of Texas."

couple looking at information on the display at one of the tables
More than 18 different program information centers spread over 3 exhibit rooms were popular stops for the approximately 250 participants.
Photo by Bambi Kiser
"I was especially excited about this year's conference as our focus was on the Agency's GO KIDS initiative," added Kathy Cleere, TDCJ's Conference Chairman. "Most of our presentations involved programs and services that are available to the families and children of incarcerated offenders. We heard from Big Brothers, Big Sisters of North Texas; No More Victims, Inc.; and Chuck Norris' KICKSTART program, as well as TDCJ's own Storybook Project."

"What was most inspiring was hearing from children who have participated in these programs and gone on to become successes in life," said Debra Liles, TDCJ's oversight director for Administrative Review, which includes the TDCJ Ombudsman Program. "There were several times during these presentations that there was probably not a dry eye in the room. It is wonderful to know that there are people dedicated to helping these children break the cycle of crime in their families."

The next Public Awareness – Corrections Today Conference is scheduled for sometime in 2007. Although the exact dates have not yet been set, ideas and concepts for the 2007 event are already being discussed. More information will be available as conference dates and content become firm.

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