44 pages 1 hour read

John Hubner

Last Chance in Texas: The Redemption of Criminal Youth

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2005

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Summary and Study Guide


Last Chance in Texas (2005) is the fourth book by John Hubner, a former journalist and investigative reporter whose writing focuses on true crime subject matter. His other books include Monkey on a Stick (1988), coauthored with Lindsay Gruson, Bottom Feeders (1993), and Somebody Else’s Children (1996), coauthored with Jill Wolfson. Hubner and Gruson were nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime book of 1989 for Monkey on a Stick.

Last Chance in Texas follows the author’s nine months spent observing juvenile offenders, or students, enrolled in the Capital Offenders Group program (COG) at the Giddings State School in Texas. He observes the COG sessions from behind a one-way mirror in the group therapy room, watching as the students tell the stories of their early lives; all of them have experienced childhood neglect and abuse. Hubner also interviews the school’s staff to gain an understanding of the program’s extraordinary efficacy in rehabilitating violent criminals. While Hubner generally adopts the style of an investigative reporter in presenting his facts, he also relies on direct quotes from the therapists and the students themselves. As the author follows the progress of two students named Ronnie and Elena, he examines the themes of legacies of dysfunction, the value of role-playing in reviving conscience, and the importance of empathy in effecting personal transformation.

Content Warning: Last Chance in Texas is a nonfiction work under the categories of penology and criminology, and it contains graphic descriptions of child abuse, sexual assault, and other violence. Some readers may take exception to the book’s use of the word “victim” to describe the targets of crime, but because it is the author’s terminology and used at the Giddings State School, this guide also uses it.

This study guide cites the Kindle edition of the book.

Plot Summary

Author John Hubner begins by describing the lush grounds of the Giddings State School, where some of the state’s most violent juvenile criminals are incarcerated. The location seems like an upscale prep school instead of a penal institution. Likewise, the school’s purpose is restorative rather than retributive, using unconventional therapies for rehabilitating inmates, who are referred to as students.

In interviews with Hubner, the therapists explain that young offenders usually come from abusive family environments. Due to their childhood trauma, they lack empathy for their victims. The COG program therefore seeks to reconnect students with emotions other than rage. When they can finally feel empathy, they are on the road to recovery. The school’s therapists emphasize the pitfalls of “thinking errors,” cognitive distortions by which the students deflect accountability for their crimes. The greater therapeutic intervention, however, is the storytelling and role-play exercises (psychodrama) that allow students to reprocess their deepest traumas in a nurturing environment, helping them move beyond the pain and rage.

The author follows the progress of two students, a boy and a girl, who successfully complete the program. The first, Ronnie, was convicted of armed robbery. As children, Ronnie and his brother were neglected by their mother, Marina, who was sexually abused as a child by her own father and developed a cocaine addiction. Marina’s periodic abandonment complicated her sons’ lives. Later, when she obtained custody of them, her boyfriend, Jimmie, abused them. Once Ronnie became the school bully, Jimmie led him into drug dealing and burglary. With Ronnie now at Giddings, the COG team uses role-play to reenact his childhood and his attack on an elderly man. The reenactment is very painful for Ronnie to witness, because he only now sees things through his victim’s eyes; until now, his rage has eclipsed his empathy. Ronnie will eventually be discharged from the school and go on to create a productive life.

Next, the author switches his focus to the girls’ group and to a student named Elena. One of 13 children, Elena never knew her biological father but encountered a succession of stepfathers, one of whom chronically sexually assaulted her. Elena’s mother actively denied the abuse and was herself gang-affiliated in her youth, and her entire family was involved in crime. To be accepted, Elena helped rob an antiques store. She was ambivalent because she knew a woman who worked there, but she went through with the robbery, causing the woman to have a heart attack. Now, when Elena’s COG teammates confront her about her behavior, she is defensive and says she had no choice. She feared gang reprisal. Breaking down Elena’s excuses will require years of effort. It will also take her six years to learn empathy, take responsibility, and be released.

In telling the stories of these young people and their victims, the author is often moved to tears. The Epilogue expresses hope that other states will adopt the Giddings School model to rehabilitate young offenders and help them turn their lives around while they still have the chance.