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

Rosie is housed at the Trusty Camp, which has a unique design. One of the first to be constructed in TDCJ, it has no perimeter fence and is designed to house non-violent, minimum-custody inmates who are less likely to attempt escape, and who require less direct supervision. These facilities house inmates in an open dormitory setting; they work at jobs in food service, inmate and officer beauty shops, landscaping and transportation. Inmates from the Trusty Camp provide community service for local church groups and the Gatesville community.

Rosie considers herself fortunate to be housed in the minimum-security camp, and she tells us that she is ready to stay out of trouble. "The best place to be is at home with my kids. I know that, but it's hard to get a job when you've been in prison," she worries. "I hope to get a job as a nurse's aide."

For most of the other women in the correctional unit, assigned jobs are not so easy. They work seven hours a day at hoeing fields, fixing potholes, painting and repairing the site's buildings, maintaining and repairing large equipment such as boiler units. The majority of the women live in drab, low-slung dormitories. A typical daily schedule: The lights in the dorm come on at 4:30 a.m. Breakfast is at 5, then work, lunch at 11, more work until 3 p.m., dinner around 6, then showers. Lights out at 10:30.

A partition around each woman's cot provides her only privacy. They are allowed a footlocker for their clothes, a lockbox for any valuables or keepsakes, and a prison-issue lamp and nightstand. A maximum of five cards or pictures may be displayed. Small radios may be played quietly. They make their own beds and handwash their socks, T-shirts and underwear, hanging them to dry across their partitions or on the end of the bed. All the prisoners' uniforms -- white pants and white shirts -- are sent to the inmate-run prison laundry.

Inmate grievances filed against the Gatesville Unit are typical of what an outsider would expect: They find the work demeaning and the conditions degrading. They are counted six times a day and are strip-searched twice a day. They complain that male guards perform pat searches and that inmates must squat in the fields in front of male guards to relieve themselves. There are stories of violent and treacherous women, women warehoused in cramped quarters, women who turn against each other in anger one moment but who turn to each other in loneliness the next. Sometimes there are shackles, leg irons and isolation.

One long-timer sums it up: "I just want to go home. I mean, what worse can happen to me?"

Walking with the Major
Warden Susan Cranford has arranged for us to spend our afternoon walking the facility with her head correctional officer, Major Janice Wilson, a 15-year prison veteran. Dressed in her official gray garb, the major rarely jokes about her responsibilities. Wilson is charged with keeping the 2,000 women in line, and with supervising the guards assigned to disciplinary duty.

Whitmire asks whether the prisoners call her "Major."
The tall, serious-looking woman laughs as we head to the staff's tiny dining room for a lunch cooked by the prisoners. "Well, some call me other things. You see, I start my day off in inmate disciplinary. I review every discipline case written in the units. I review them, grade them and then I give them to the clerk who types them up. That's the first thing I do every day. And then from there, it's just whatever happens during the day. I talk to staff. I talk to inmates."

ilson describes the typical disciplinary problems; later she will take us to where the "bad apples" are locked up -- in administrative segregation and solitary confinement.

"Generally, [a major problem is] fighting among themselves. We have some staff assaults, but they're pretty rare. There are some pretty good fights. We have some women who can fight like men. Usually no one gets seriously hurt, unless it's in a housing area where they've got clocks and stuff like that they can pick up and throw. But not really like weapons. Women are not prone to do weapon-type deals. More likely a spur-of-a-moment-type fight. Their arguments usually end up over commissary items or who's best friends with somebody else they don't like, and all that kind of stuff. You know, who is mad at me today or she was mean to me, or she's being better friends with her than she is with me."

Do they form special relationships? I ask. Are they family-type relationships, friendships or sexual closeness? Do the women say they really miss having male relationships?

"Yes and no. To some, it is a relief that they don't have to. The women get real close to other women they feel sorry for or sympathize with, and they get real close to one another. Some of it is because of the relationships they got out of, because they have been battered. Those that had bad experience with men, they'll find someone else that had a bad experience. Before long, some of them, it becomes a homosexual relationship. But that's against the rules. We have a code for that. It's a two-level offense for which they can lose time in class, if they're caught in the act."

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