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

Cranford frankly feels somewhat beleaguered by the courts' demands. "What I wish that we could get out of is the crisis mode and get back to doing what we know how to do, which is dealing with these people we have in our prisons. We have a lot of people influencing our decisions and the way we do business, that are perhaps well-intentioned but not well informed." She declines to name them specifically.

he acknowledges that the system is light years ahead of where it would have been, had their been no lawsuits like the long-running Ruiz lawsuit that brought an end to overcrowding in prisons. But Cranford insists bureaucrats aren't afraid of change, they just don't have the funds. "I'm convinced that we have high quality people of good moral character, and that everybody wanted to get to the point where we could offer more, but we didn't have the funds without the court order. The legislature would have been unlikely to give us the money that it costs to have a really good system. We were dragged, screaming and kicking into the future as the result of the court order."

Now, she says, programs exist for special needs offenders, mentally retarded and mentally ill inmates, programs for substance abuse, non-traditional job training like welding. Even college classes are available, through Tarleton State University and Central Texas College. "We have a much better health care system now. Fifty bucks a day for housing and treating each woman, it's a pretty expensive proposition," Cranford points out.

"But still you're not willing to give [the inmate] everything she needs. I'm not sure the taxpayers would want to pay for that."

As we drive across Lake Belton on our way back to Austin, I feel like the day's weather: dreary. A pair of inmates are walking in the distance behind us. A few more guards herd a short line of field workers. It's almost supper time.

Anticipating my visit to Gatesville, I had expected more drama. Instead, I was struck by the simple endless monotony of the prison, disappointingly mundane rather than what I expected. More than hard-time punishment, alienation and loneliness seem to be the goals, or at least the most obvious effects, of the institution. Still, it's clear, Gatesville is a pretty rough place to be.

A few days after our trip, in a letter received at John Whitmire's office, new mother and alcoholic inmate Katherine Sanderlin writes frankly, "There is, in my opinion, nothing wrong with prisons themselves. In fact, I understand the necessity for them, unfortunately. I've learned a lot in this place, even if it was an extreme measure.

"Now hopefully, I can right the wrongs I've done to my family and raise my children the right way so that they'll never fall victim to this disease themselves. Since I couldn't find any other way to help myself, then this was the next best thing.

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