Hope and sleep are probably the two best friends of the prisoner. That is probably also why they are the two greatest tools of torturous interrogators. Keep a man awake long enough, and he’ll be confessing to having kidnapped the Lindbergh baby and shooting John F. Kennedy all while flying a jet into a tower full of people. But even more powerful than this wonderful door that opens up to the prisoner every time he can put a few precious minutes or hours of shut-eye together, is hope. Hope is the food that keeps one foot in front of the other, that makes it possible to endure the seemingly unendurable, even to wake up from the wonderful escape of sleep each day-one day closer to the end of the sentence.
I believe that hope is the most powerful tool in the aresenal of the war against criminal behavior and the only real chance the serious-minded reformer will have of shaping a convict into a free citizen. One serious advantage of the penal system as they face wave after wave of prisoners washing up on the shores of the prisons in our nation, is that hope is universal. Surely, EVERY human being hopes for something, be it ever so humble.
Most of the men whom I have met in my time of incarceration have lost every material possession they ever accumulated as well as a host of friends and family members who, like leaves falling from a tree deep in winter, cling more and more scarcely, until at last, the only remaining one falls away, too. Ah, but Hope says to the prisoner, “When you get out, you can win back your wife and kids. You can make new friends. “Hope lets that man get out of bed the day after he reads the dear John letter that inevitably comes, as long as the sentence is long enough. Wise Solomon said, Hope deferred makes the heart sick. This is why the TDCJ has not effectively deployed one of its greatest potential tools in its war on crime, but also why the Christian volunteers who minister inside the prisons are so successful.
There are unsung heroes walking in your midst. They might be the deacons who greet you as you walk into church on Sunday morning. They might be the teachers who try to fill your children’s heads with useful knowledge. They might be the man behind you in the grocery store who offers to make up the last nickel your missing to pay your bill. The men and women who volunteer in prison come from many backgrounds and walks of life. Some have never had a firsthand brush with the law. Others took the gift of hope offered during their own incarcerations and bloomed into “regifters” of that same hope. Hollywood makes a great fuss over those tragic hero, tough-as-nails cons who can’t face the prospect of parole and end up slugging a guard or swinging from their own sheet to put an end to any thought of being discharged out into that cruel, cruel world. I’ve Peen locked up a dozen years, and I have yet to meet that guy. I’ve had peers who’ve done 35 years in here, and, sure, they’re nervous about getting out. (I mean, really, these guys were locked up before cell phones went main stream, before Play Station existed, before any Bush had been in the White House!) They’ve got to learn about living in a world very different from the one that existed when they went to prison. But every single one of them has HOPE! They hope they can make the transition. They hope they have a good parole officer who will help them find the resources they need to be successful instead of breathing fire at them every time they check in. They hope they mass a few dollars to live on before no company will hire them because they’re too old an have spent half a human lifespan in prison. They hope. They hope. They hope.
The first time I came up for parole, a little over four years ago, I had two living parents and a still-rich community of support for when it was finally my turn to hit the streets a free man- or at least as free as parole can be considered freedom. I submitted two parole addresses to the parole Board. (I even included Google maps.) I had a car with my name on it. I had two job offers in two different cities depending on which parole address was accepted. I even could have left the State of Texas if the Board so desired. I would have gone to live with my Dad in Tennessee, and they never would have had to look at my mug again. (That would make three, THREE, parole addresses!) I also had a nearly spotless discipline record while inside, and I had taken every class or program permitted me by the TDCJ. There was absolutely nothing I could have done to better my own prospects for parole. After submitting my 75-page parole packet with all the most important information richly condensed and placed right up front, as per instructions, and praying and pleading and anticipating… I received a three-year set-off. No chance for parole for three years. The next time came up, I’d served 10 years on a 15-year sentence. A few of my friends had drifted off. The car “with my name on it” had been sold so it wouldn’t sit in a drive way and rot. Instead of two job offers, I had none. Still, I had my Mom and my Dad, and at least one very solid address to parole to in a decent neighborhood where I could register as a sex offender and not be too close to any “places where children gather”. I received my second three-year set-off, making me eligible for my next parole about a year before they HAVE to cut me loose. As you already know, both my parents passed away in the first year of that set-off. One of them was my only good parole address. So now, I have no house, no car, no prospect for work, and because of this, I’m almost sure that I will make the next parole. Cynical? You bet your sweet bippy.
Against this flood, the only consistent and reliable ark has been Christ, and the volunteers who act as His hands and feet on the Stevenson Unit. They embody the Very hope of which I speak, and to my mind, they offer the only real substance of hope not only FROM bondage, but while in bondage. Moreover, and especially because the TDCJ’s implementation of parole policy offers a cagey chance of freedom regardless of your good behavior, these ambassadors of Christ present a rare bulwark from violence, alcohol and drugs. The same hope Christ has given the poor and downtrodden throughout two millenia, his ministers bring to this little prison unit, with much love and faithfulness. This being the case, you would think that the TDCJ and its administrators would bend over backwards to facilitate the training and maintenance of these precious resource, but it simply isn’t so. My observation has been that the treatment of volunteers waxes and wains with the temperment of the head and assistant wardens on the unit. Godly administrators, or at least decent ones, recognize the value of the volunteers, and go out of their way to meet the needs or even the wishes of those who come in to minister. But at least as often, there are administrators indifferent or even hostile to the “hug a thugs”.
One of the most faithful volunteers on the Stevenson Unit is Dr. Gary Hall. He is a Baptist preacher who has been coming here for five years. He has voluntarily missed only one Sunday in that five years, when he went to Australia to visit his missionary daughter and her family. He’s missed on several other occasions, too, but only if the prison is “locked down” or closed for other circumstances. This past weekend, services were cancelled after Hurricane Harvery blew in, devestating the Texas coast. It takes 125mph winds to keep this guy away, and he probably STILL would have showed up if the unit hadn’t cancelled all services! That is faithfulness, my friend. In addition to that, he takes great care over the walk of his inmate leaders. He’s repeatedly said that our behavior shouldn’t cause anyone else to stumble. That is the kind of attention that will turn men’s lives around, not to mention the unit. During the last administration, the warden was a Christian and very supportive of ministries on the unit.
During this time, Dr. Hall was allowed to, once a year, bring in some edible goodies, and his daughters, who sang beautifully, would present sacred music. Thenservice began at six, but at five, we were allowed to have one hour choir practice and set-up time. The choir grew to twenty members. Then, we got another warden who wasn’t predisposed towards the volunteers. He tried to shut down the church library. He cancelled two Christian services. Then he set his sights, unexplainably, on the unit’s most successful service and best chance for rehabilitated offenders. The service time was cut and the practice eliminated. Then there were compliants that the choir was too big. The source of these complaints was never given to us, and frankly, I’m pretty sure there weren’t any at all. Nonetheless, our choir was reduced to a maximum of ten members, but since we didn’t have any practice time, at least there were fewer people to try and learn the songs in the ten minute practices we now had. Finally, on the fifth anniversary of the service, Dr. Hall was told he was no longer approved to bring in the edible goodies that had marked the first four years of celebrating the church’s anniversary. He wasn’t given any rationale or reason for the change. (Unlike the choir and myself) Dr. Hall never got angry, didn’t get discouraged. This saint kept right on preaching and teaching and hopefully, the next time we get a new warden, God will send one with a little less antipathy to the church, and a much greater appreciation of the priceless volunteers.
This treatment was not limited to Dr. Hall, he was just the greatest example. There are some services that were cancelled altogether, including the time slot that was made available for several volunteers on Sunday morning. One of these men worked for the Salvation Army, and he would drive a circuit that included our unit. He travelled all the way from Dallas to the coastal plains of Texas to minister to us. Not any more.
What I’m saying is that the TDCJ is self-defeating its own rehabilitation efforts. Right out of the chute, the two best possible tools for reformation of the prisoner-reward of good behavior through parole and the life-changing power of the gospel- are being taken off the table. This unit’s administrators wonder why the incidence of alcohol and drug use have skyrocketed over the last few years and why violence has escalated to where gang violence is evident daily, all on a unit that is supposed to house only ex gang members who have gone through a gang renounciation program.
So, enough admiring the problem. What about solutions? For one thing, transparency is the single greatest weapon in the power of the public to turn things around for the TDCJ, and for prison reform in general. Yes, there is a genuine, penoligical interest in a modicum of sensitive Procedures that requires some secrecy. But anyone who has ever tried to get a parole board member or a prison administrator to explain certain policies or decisions can tell you it’s like collecting water in the desert- it’s a lot of work, and there ain’t much water when your done. This is NOT the CIA, for crying out loud. I am of the opinion that, especially on minimum security units, the daily activities and routines of the prisoner should be easily observed by interested members of the public, as long as those persons have been appropriately screened and submit, as do all visitors, to a pat-down search, then they should be welcomed during business hours, or even during scheduled tours of the facility. As much money as the taxpayers are pouring into this place, they should have the right to see what their money is paying for.
In addition, the attitude of the families of incarcerated citizens needs to change. There are very few people who know how to effectively work through the TDCJ beauracracy to get good information and advocate for their imprisoned loved one. Anyone who comes at the administrators “with attitude” isn’t going to get anywhere. But neither is anyone who isn’t willing to stand their ground and assert their perogatives as free citizens of a republic. In EVERY area of government, we need to remember that they work for us, not us for them. The same accountability we demand from elected representatives and elected judges should be held to prison administrators who are the appointees of elected officials. And if they don’t act right, family members or advocates shouldn’t hesitate to call their state congressmen and women. When all else fails, a letter to a widely read newspaper reporter or state-wide magazine may get results. We shouldn’t be combative, but we should be assertive.
If any of you are looking for a good place to start, I highly reccomend TIFA (Texas Inmate Family Association). They seems to have the most momentum and know-how in prisoner advocacy, and they are a dynamic force in pushing for a meaningful parole system and greater transparency.