Story by Kacie Frederick and Jennie Trejo. Photos Provided by Unlocking Doors.
“Each year, 70,000 people are released from Texas prison systems and are only given a bus ticket. What are we doing to embrace them?” That question drove attorney and Dallasite Christina Melton Crain to create Unlocking Doors, a nonprofit that aims to support men and women looking to get a fresh start in society outside of prison.
Christina has dedicated her career to improving all aspects of the criminal justice system. From a young age, she wanted to be an attorney because she knew a profession in law would give her the platform to guide meaningful change. She specializes in child/juvenile representation, mediation, and legislative issues in her practice.
Beyond her private practice, Christina is also the former Chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice– the first and only woman to lead the nine-member board to date. She says these unique experiences allowed her to witness firsthand the good and the bad of the criminal justice system in Texas. Particularly, how ex-offenders being released back into the community often lacked support and resources.
“I personally witnessed individuals who greatly struggled to find a job, housing, health care, etc., because they had no understanding as to how to navigate the various needs,” Christina says. “Bottom line– we were not doing a great job assisting those with criminal records find their way to a self-sustaining future that was crime free.”
In response, Christina founded Unlocking Doors in 2010 as a way to take a holistic approach to guide individuals with criminal backgrounds into a successful future.
Christina’s unique model treats criminal justice reentry as a business, using digital innovation to track deliverables and outcomes. The organization acts as a one-stop shop for those who have been incarcerated. Their services include mental and physical health, transportation, education, housing assistance, and more.
Unlocking Doors’ reach is significant, and it’s growing. They service over 1,000 new and existing clients each year. After almost 14 years with Christina at the helm as president and CEO, the organization has outreach in Dallas and Tarrant counties, and is working on expanding into the Houston area.
They receive clients through self-referrals, prison newsletter advertisements, and over 280 partner organizations in Texas. The organization also keeps data on every client served for 2-3 years after their release to ensure their success rate.
“I’m really proud to share that we have a 92 percent success rate, with only seven percent of Unlocking Doors’ clients returning to the prison system,” says Christina.
Christina believes that statistic is significant because recidivism rates actually impact all Texans. Unlocking Doors improves public safety by reducing repeat crime, but it also provides considerable relief to the state’s economy by keeping people out of jail.
“When an individual reoffends, there is a new victim or victims, the community is less safe, and tax dollars are spent to re-incarcerate the individual. And, it is quite common for individuals to re-offend over and over.”
On average, Christina shares, it costs the State (really, taxpayers) $80 a day to incarcerate an individual, totaling roughly $29,200 annually. If someone is reincarcerated repeatedly, the cost to the State can be exponential.
“Instead of contributing to society, the individual is costing society,” says Christina. “At the end of the day, if we can assist one individual in finding a self-sustaining future that is crime free, we can have saved a life, saved dollars, and made our community safer.”
Christina’s resume is impressive. Aside from her work with Unlocking Doors, she has a Texas state prison named in honor of her service: the Christina Melton Crain Unit in Gatesville, the largest female prison in Texas.
Christina also instated the GO KIDS (Giving Offenders’ Kids Incentive and Direction to Succeed) program within the Texas criminal justice system. As 80-90 percent of children with incarcerated parents get involved in the system themselves, Christina decided she wanted to change this statistic and give the kids a better opportunity.
The GO KIDS program offers ongoing resources to the child’s caregiver that was left behind. Working with Big Brothers Big Sisters Texas, GO KIDS allows the child to visit their parents in prison, showing both sides that there is a different way of life. Now, thousands of kids have broken the cycle of criminal injustice, many of which have gone on to become first-generation students at universities nationwide.
As Unlocking Doors’ resources are in high demand, Christina is excited to share potential expansions into Houston and aims to eventually reach San Antonio and West Texas. If you are interested in donating, please visit https://www.unlockingdoors.org/donate.