A Visit to Gatesville

A gray November day spent in the gray world of the inmates and staff of the Texas State prison for women

A small tear slides down the face of the new mother clad in prison-issue whites, silently confirming John Whitmire's words concerning the luck of her own three-week-old son. I let my own tears fall. The plain, gray-walled classroom serving as the inmates' library is quiet.

"Yeah, that's a big part of it," agrees Katharine Sanderlin, who never wanted her seventh child to be one of the 69 babies born in Texas prisons this year. "I tell you, having a newborn and leaving him, to me, is the most heartbreaking experience in my life. I cried all the way back." (To give birth, female inmates are transported to the University of Texas medical facility in Galveston, a five-hour ride from the women's prison.) The thin, long-haired brunette from the tiny east Texas town of DeKalb, is serving a three-year sentence, her third time in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice system for a total of five DWI convictions.

After only a few brief visits with Katherine, the baby went home with his father. His mother returned to 1401 State School Road in Gatesville.

An admitted alcoholic, Sanderlin was sent to the Gatesville Unit when she was five months pregnant. Now, struck by the loneliness she experienced following birth, coupled with the intense alcoholic treatment program she attends four nights a week, Sanderlin feels for the first time since she was fifteen some confidence that with this stay, her trouble with the bottle and authorities will finally end: "The day I got arrested, I knew it was coming. I knew that I needed some more help. [She had been enrolled, off and on, in Alcoholics Anonymous.] See, I'd been wanting to be sober. It wasn't that I just wanted to stay drunk. I needed some help, you know.

The time doesn't work here "I have almost a year of sobriety in me. But this is the first time I feel like, well, the first real sobriety I ever had. Because I've started changing the way I look at life. Changing my ideas. I've been drinking since I was fifteen. I was young and crazy."

Sanderlin's children range in age from 18 years to three weeks and are scattered, living with various relatives.

She says she wanted every one of her children, but also knows the pain of growing up in a dysfunctional family. She describes her own mother as an alcoholic and her first husband as abusive. "That's when I really got drunk. My counselor says I 'got drunk at him.' " After 17 years of marriage, the husband died from cancer. She married her new son's father a couple of years later.

Sanderlin admits that prison may have been the only way for her to help herself. "My help began from the fact that I was ready to get help, and I came here specifically to find it. I looked for it simply because I was sick and tired of being sick and tired."

"See, you're the classic person I want to talk to," says Whitmire. "If you weren't here, is there anything the state could do to help you not drink, help you stay out of here? Something to help you stay with your children?"

She nods and says quietly, "Yeah, I knew I needed some help. I asked them to let me get some treatment. But with no money I had to come to prison to get it."

A day in the country
From the car, the distant view of the orderly cluster of low red-brick one-story buildings, surrounded by fields planted with crops and set against small, rolling hills, is misleading. There is an eerie peacefulness to the place, masking its punitive function. There are small groves of trees: scrub oaks, mesquites, cottonwoods. Not much else dots the gray skyline this chilly November day. Sidewalks, trees, flower beds and the grass are all neatly tended. Texas and American flags fly side by side.

Traveling a couple of miles east down Highway 36, you can no longer mistake where you are; double chain-link and barbed-wire fences mark the maximum security unit. Armed guard towers dot the horizon every 50 feet; stiff guards on horseback and armed with rifles ride down through the hills, watching over the single file of a field work-squad, all women, marching in. The male and female guards are dressed in drab gray, the inmates in stark white with green army jackets against the chilly day. There are guards at every point -- some gazing out at the prison yard, some gazing down the road. I think I've had prepared myself, but the severity of the six-strand barbed wire atop forbidding fences stretching for several miles makes me nervous, and slightly fearful. A red-brick sign ahead is marked "Texas Department of Corrections -- Gatesville." We turn onto the narrow asphalt road where the warden's office is located in a small ranch-style brick house across from the official marker.

A couple of inmates are tending the beds, landscaping the administrative building.

Whitmire stops and speaks with one, a tall African-American woman whose hair is covered with a blue-print scarf. "Where are you from?" he asks. Rosie is from Brenham, and this is her second time in Gatesville. The first time was for cocaine use, this time for forgery. She's in for 15 years, but hopes to be out in a lot less than half of that time. Her son and daughter stay with her parents in Austin.

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