By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications

Dominique Prince, center, and Dieter Cantu, right, at the recent regionalization meeting.
Dominique Prince, center, and Dieter Cantu, right, at the recent regionalization meeting.

Two new voices have joined the TJJD Regionalization Task Force, bringing a fresh perspective and expanded dimension to the task force’s efforts to strengthen diversion and keep youth as local and shallow in the system as possible.

These new members, Dieter Cantu and Dominique Prince, join several Juvenile Probation Chiefs, and others who are working with TJJD on the task force. They have a special interest in helping young people who are justice-involved because as teenagers they were committed to the care of the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) and each spent significant time at Giddings State School and other TYC facilities.

That was years ago, and both men now have successful careers and fulfilling personal lives. They share a passion, forged in experience, for helping young people avoid the harm that justice-involvement and incarceration can bring.

“We didn’t have diversion programs, well, there were, but we didn’t get access to that. We went straight to TYC,” said Prince, who spent four years at Giddings State School, from age 16-20, after being adjudicated for aggravated armed robbery in 2006.

“I felt like there were (some good) programs at TYC, but the environment was too much to allow you to focus,” he said.

Prince, of San Antonio, and Cantu, of Houston, talked about their pasts and their plans in an interview after the January regionalization meeting in Austin.

As a teenager, Prince had done well in public school, and he continued to progress in classes while at TYC. He even connected with certain staff members at Giddings State School who became life-changing mentors he remembers fondly. But his experiences at the secure facility were overshadowed by the constant nagging fears and worries that came with being confined with large groups of youthful offenders who were not, he recalls, always under control.

“It was survival of the fittest when I was there,” Prince said. “It was a difficult transition (from home to TYC), so I feel like personally, these diversion programs, taking steps before we send kids to TYC or TDCJ, that’s a better route.”

Today, Prince’s life looks nothing like some people might have predicted. He's worked his way up to a six-figure job with an oil company that provides what his family needs. He and his wife own a home, travel and enjoy a rich family life with their three young kids, who’re all involved in sports or dance.

Prince, 33, says he rose above difficult circumstances, the gangs and “rough” background of his own youth, through sheer grit and determination and not because of his incarceration.

“I was one of these kids people thought belonged in jail . . . but I did a complete 180. I’m a family man. I donate to charities, and I do ‘feed the homeless’ projects,” he said.

Having completed his parole without a hitch and climbed the job ladder rung-by-rung from his first post-release minimum-wage work chopping vegetables, Prince feels compelled to advocate for “the kids casted away, the ones people don’t have any hope for.”

He knows that so many of them, like himself at their age, have untapped potential.

Cantu has a similar story. He has been a successful advocate for youth rights and juvenile justice reforms for several years, before and since getting his BA in public administration, and has won many accolades and awards. He currently serves as executive director for, which is dedicated to mentoring and supporting justice-involved youth. He is widely known for one of his earlier projects, a book donation program called Cantu's Books to Incarcerated Youth Project.

Cantu’s initial inspiration for putting books in the hands of incarcerated youth came while he was confined years ago at the Victory Field Correctional Academy, a TYC boot camp-style operation in Vernon. He had received and been moved by “Soul on Ice,” a memoir by Eldridge Cleaver written while he was in prison.

Not only did Cleaver’s writings resonate, reading in general had become Cantu’s lifeline during what he recalls as a nightmarish time at Victory Field, which closed in 2011. Committed to TYC in 2005, at age 16, to serve a 10-year sentence for his participation in an aggravated robbery, he was first assigned to Victory Field and later transferred to Giddings State School.

Victory Field, he says with clear disdain, was simply “one of the worst places I’ve ever been in.”

“There weren’t even chairs to sit on. You sat on the ground. You had military uniforms. There was no TV, no trades and you have to sit on the ground in knees-to-chest (position), and there’s 24 kids in a limited space. It was horrible. I had everything from strep throat to pink eye and they’d say, ‘just drink some water’,” Cantu recalled.

The problem with the harsh approach at Victory Field, he said, was that kids would come in with a four-month sentence that would turn into years as they got written up for multiple small violations, such as having an untucked shirt.

Cantu saw that this “pencil whipping” set kids up for failure and inflicted long term damage on children who might have succeeded in a less restrictive, more therapeutic situation.

When he got to Giddings State School, Cantu saw similar problems with staff being verbally abusive or overreactive toward youth, though it was not the scary place that Victory Field had been for him. Still, he saw many youths who needed more help than they were receiving.

“There were kids that I knew were supposed to go to Corsicana (for mental health care) and they weren’t, they were at Giddings and Gainesville, and I mean I could see it, and I was a kid!”

Today, Cantu, 34, hopes to have impact on the task force by finding ways to keep youth lower in the system and receiving appropriate care. He wants to contribute not just as a person with “lived experience,” but to bring his youth advocacy, grant-writing, and policy-making skills to bear.

The juvenile justice system needs to improve to provide a higher level of service and “mentorship and competency,” Cantu said. Importantly, the people working in direct care need “to see a child needs extra support in some ways, behaviorally and mentally.” Some staff do, but some others are “not up to it,” he said.

When a correctional staff member “makes a mistake” with a youth, it can have “huge ramifications,” Cantu said. The outcome is adults who’ve been formerly incarcerated with inner turmoil. They may “put a smile over it” but they’re walking around dealing with the history of microaggressions and humiliations they endured as a kid.

Added Prince, “I see a lot of kids (now adults) who are struggling now who we (he and Cantu) were incarcerated with.”  He sees their struggle as evidence that juvenile authorities take on a delicate matter when they’re entrusted with the care of children and their developing minds.

Despite the darkness they see shadowing those who've been in the system, both Cantu and Prince say they are hopeful about helping bring improvements and look forward to having a voice on the regionalization task force.

“I do commend the changes I see with TYC and TJJD,” Cantu said. However, he added, he is looking for assurances from authorities that “when incarceration is on the table” there’s solid, clear “due diligence.”

Cantu stresses that he will continue to support justice-involved youth and those in state care currently, despite a fairly rigorous schedule of driving to Austin for meetings and Giddings State School for mentoring.

“I don’t mind driving and going to Giddings. And all the volunteerism because who else? These kids need that.”


About the Regionalization Task Force:

In 2015, a new Texas law required TJJD to develop and adopt a regionalization plan to assure that youth are kept closer to home in lieu of commitment when possible and to work with juvenile probation departments to track post-adjudication facility capacity and develop local resources for youth.

The agency was tasked with defining regions of Texas served by detention facilities operated by local probation departments, counties, and private contractors. TJJD was to assure that each region had defined research-based programs in place to serve youth and monitor program quality and accountability. Another goal within the law requires that certain numbers of juveniles get diverted from commitment to state facilities.

The TJJD Regionalization Division is also responsible for providing training on best practices, monitoring local programs and analyzing data to assist probation departments.

In addition to new members Prince and Cantu, the task force members are:

Juvenile Probation Chiefs Darryl Beatty, Marc Bittner, Karina Browning, William Carter, Ed Cockrell, Jeremy Burrell, Matthew Haynie, Gerardo Liendo, Jill Mata, and Linda Ricketson; Jasper County Judge Mark Allen; legacy member Diana Norris (TJJDP) and Lauren Rose with Texas Network of Youth Services.

TJJD’s Regionalization Manager is Deborah Harris-Wiggins.