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The ex-cons next door

11:53 PM CDT on Wednesday, October 10, 2007

By Dave Fehling / 11 News

11 News tracks down the 7 most popular neighborhoods in Houston for ex-cons.

Texas is tough on crime.

Some 150,000 inmates are locked-up in state prisons.

But the state is also releasing thousands each year, and no city in Texas has more ex-cons returning to it than Houston.

But where exactly are they ending-up?

The El Dorado neighborhood just outside the loop in northeast Houston and looks pretty ordinary.

It might be hard to imagine it’s home to the city’s highest concentration of people who used to live in prison.

In fact, six more neighborhoods are very much like it.

They are neighborhoods where there’s a good chance the guy living behind you used to be living behind bars.

New research tracked where inmates go to live after they leave prison. Turns out, they don’t just disperse all over Houston. They end up in several specific neighborhoods.

“No matter how many people Houston sends to prison, they are coming back,” Tony Fabelo said.

Fabelo is in Austin and is the researcher behind the report.

“And they are probably coming back a lot faster than what the people of Houston probably think,” he said.

Lawmakers who’ve seen the report call it a shocking eye-opener.

Fabelo found in just one year, 861 prisoners—that’s a quarter of all returning to Houston—returned to live in just seven neighborhoods.

The small El Dorado neighobrhood is first mostly because it has a halfway house, but it's followed by Kashmere Gardens, South Park, Fifth Ward, South Acres, Acres Homes, and OST.

Vic Rocha lives in the El Dorado neighborhood.

“I didn’t think that many people lived here coming out of prison,” he said.

But maybe he shouldn’t have been surprised: he’s lived around here all his life, except the three years HE spent in state prison.

“I got put on probation and everything else until finally they sent me over there to the big house,” Rocha said.

The research also calculated the concentration of ex-inmates living within the boundaries of school districts.

The highest of any urban area in the state: North Forest ISD.

Where the most ex-cons lived, the research found the lowest school test scores and highest dropout rates.

“We’re not trying to blame schools,” Fabelo said. “We’re trying to look at the neighborhoods and the schools and the economic situation and get more into the big picture.”

That big picture is of a state that’s now locking up four times as many people as it did 20 years ago.

It’s at a cost of billions, and look what the research found when the prison budget is broken down per neighborhood: $7 million, $8 million, $13 million a year spent to lock up so many residents.

AP

The guard tower at the John Connally Unit State Prison in Kenedy, Texas.

Lawmakers continue to debate if that makes sense or if less should be spent on incarceration and more in neighborhoods on substance abuse programs, education, and job creation.

“In the past, there really was this belief we could build our way out of crime by building more prisons,” State Rep. Scott Hochberg said.

A good question now because next month the state will be asking voters to approve borrowing money to build possibly three more state prisons.

At a YMCA in the North Forest school district, Director Demetta Landry would like to hire people from the neighborhood but often can’t because so many have records and therefore aren’t allowed to work with kids.

“School’s a must,” she said.

Rocha said he knows one thing he can do: Make sure his kids now get the attention he said he never got growing up in a part of  Houston where going to prison is just part of life in the neighborhood.

“Being on them every day,” he said.

The report also looked ahead to try to predict what neighborhoods would be seeing large concentrations of ex-prisoners in coming years. They include: Gulfton, Spring Branch, Downtown and the Eastex-Jensen neighborhood.

E-mail 11 News reporter Dave Fehling

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