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

In published reports, inmates have described the sexual relationships that exist in prison as a reaction to their isolation. A 20-year-old says, "Eventually you come to accept having sex with women. A lot of women get into it out of loneliness, just for a touch. Just for that human touch. You just say, 'This is the environment I'm in.'"

From her long experience, Wilson has learned that what the women hate most about being here is being away from their children, their families. Visits are rare, and telephone calls are infrequently allowed. Most relatives have little money or time to visit. Add that lack of resources to the shame generally felt by prisoners and their loved ones, and the sum is unhappiness. Wilson says it's little surprise that there is a constant underlying internal tension: "It will boil over."

As we finish our lunch of roast beef with gravy, mashed potatoes, okra, pinto beans and apple pie, she adds, "A lot of women don't want to look at any more time. They want to get out and get with their kids, get with family as soon as they can. Of course, there are many that keep coming back over and over again."

After lunch, Wilson moves us along to the reception center, which houses all newly received female inmates. The average monthly intake is approximately 225; roughly the same number are released from the site each month. In addition, this unit houses administrative and punitive segregation inmates, and the young women's boot camp.

The military solution
"Line up," orders the major.
Six young women of all descriptions -- short, sturdy, lanky, towering, black, white, brown, tough and not-so-tough faces, all scrubbed clean

-- move quickly to line up, standing at attention, military-style. Their shirts are tucked in and their boots are shined. Standing in the middle of the room, straight and tall with fixed stares, they bark in unison: "Sir, yes sir!"

The mostly bare, long and lusterless rectangular room is soldierly tidy. Metal bunkbeds are bolted to the floor. There's a card table with folding chairs. More gray, more linoleum. The six women are participating in the military-style boot camp program for first-time young offenders at the Gatesville Unit. The old infirmary of the reception center was converted to the boot camp (administrators call it the Sentence Alternative to Incarceration Program). The room is set up dormitory-style, toilet behind a curtain, a few personal effects. It can house up to 20 inmates.

Upon their convictions, the women were given a choice between a ten-year prison term and the 90-day boot-camp stay; they agreed that the strenuous program was an easy decision. They are from various places -- Houston, Navasota, San Antonio and a tiny west Texas town -- and were convicted for offenses ranging from failure to report to a parole officer to auto theft, robbery, cocaine abuse and aggravated assault on a police officer.

The program is only open to those who have never served prison time. They have to be at least 17, no older than 25, and have no physical or mental handicaps that would prevent them from strenuous physical exercise. Every day they rise at dawn to run two miles; they work outdoors in the mornings (they may pull weeds, mow grass or fix potholes), and they march in cadence in the afternoon. They attend two hours of class each day. Lights-out is at ten o'clock.

hey remain standing at attention, but several, as required, ask the major for permission to speak. The major looks to me for approval. I have no objection.

Several say they are pursuing their high-school equivalency degrees. Those that are mothers say they miss their kids. The tallest black woman says she is from New York, and came to Texas to visit her uncle stationed at Fort Hood in Killeen. She's now at Gatesville, convicted for robbery. The camp is intended to scare them out of crime. I don't get the sense that they are either scared or bad -- just unlucky.

Some success has been realized from the relatively new program, but the participants are still too few to measure its potential for deterring criminal patterns. The site has only been fully operating for more than a year.

"The same bad influence is going to be there [on their return home]," agrees Whitmire. "We'd be kidding ourselves if we said it's not going to be tough."

He asks the six who are still at attention if they plan to come back.
"Sir, no sir!"
In the darkness

Down the hall from the old infirmary is administrative segregation and solitary confinement. Violent prisoners are housed here, in tiny cells set back in inner walls, for up to three months at a time.

There are 32 cells available for troublemakers -- twelve more places than for the entire boot-camp program.

"We're full today," comments the male guard on duty. "But they're pretty quiet. Sometimes it's so loud in here, it's deafening." He buzzes the lock and more iron bars slide back, allowing us to walk down a gloomy narrow corridor parallel to a line of dark cells. Even though the major leads the way and I know I'm not in danger, for the first time today I feel a slight panic. Here is prison reality.

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