Group helps prisoners turn around their lives

November 23, 2011 10:38:09 AM PST
It is a huge challenge for sociologists, criminal justice workers and politicians: How do you rehabilitate criminals and keep them from returning to prison? Now there is a Texas program that may have cracked the code. And what's surprising is a victim is the person behind the solution.

Albert Cotton has only been out of prison 17 months and already he has a home, two jobs and Michelle, his old junior high girlfriend who is now his wife of five months. It's an impressive ability to reinvent himself after being locked up 24 1/2 years for a murder conviction at age 17.

"I mean I'm not the worst person in the world but if they can help me, they can help anybody who really wants to help themselves," Cotton said.

The help Cotton received came from, what many of us, would call the most "unlikely" place.

"It's in the confession; her last words were 'Please don't kill me, I've got two kids.' It was overwhelming. It overwhelmed me for a few years, I was not a fully functioning person for three to four years," Bridges to Life founder John Sage said.

Sage is talking about the murder of his younger sister Marilyn in 1993. His desire to spare other families from suffering like him prompted him not to advocate for victims, but instead to rehabilitate criminals like Cotton. He started Bridges to Life, a group made up largely of volunteers who've been, in some way, crime victims. Those volunteers help prisoners understand how their crimes impact families.

"The first two years, I wouldn't have thought about doing this but it wasn't working for me -- the hate, the revenge, the anger -- and then I tried this and it was very healing," Sage said.

The healing seems to be working both ways. When the program's 13,000 graduates were tracked for three years after their release, only 18 percent returned to prison, compared to a national average of 40 percent. And even better, though a third went in for violent crimes, less than two percent returned to prison for violent crimes three years later.

"I did something that was terribly wrong and maybe this is one way that can make it right -- or somewhat right so to speak," Cotton said.

Cotton has joined Bridges to Life, even becoming an approved volunteer with the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department, to go into juvenile sites. He's hopes his journey is proof there is a bridge to life after prison, if criminals are willing to take the steps to get to the other side.


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