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Reagan Hamilton, thin as a twig, tough as bark, looked out over the podium at her captive audience. Dressed in prison whites and seated neatly at coated metal tables with attached stools, 25 male inmates at Joe Kegans State Jail listened intently.
They had all waited a long time for this event. In February, it was postponed for nearly a month because of the seven Texas escapees. Although the fugitives were caught in January and had fled from the Connally Unit near San Antonio, Kegans officials remained cautious about security at their downtown Houston facility.
Now, with cookies and water jugs arranged on a side table, and two rows of gray folding chairs filled with guests lining the back wall, a feisty 19-year-old demanded their attention. Reagan and four of her classmates from Smiley High School came here to let them have it, to describe how it felt to grow up with a father who floated in and out of prison, an absent father.
"I know there are a lot of daddies in here, and I don't mean to offend nobody," Reagan said. "But I can't stand my daddy. I don't want your children to say this, but me, my daddy is not my daddy, but a sperm donor."
She never met her father when she was little because he was in prison, she said. And when he got out, he told other people she wasn't his, even though he dropped by to see Reagan's mama. He even told her she had a half-brother but kept them apart. (They didn't meet until last year.) She didn't know why he "acted all stupid," she said. Maybe he felt ashamed.
When she finished her five-minute homily, Reagan turned to hug Marilyn Gambrell, burying herself briefly in the vivid red of Gambrell's dyed and sculpted hair. For a year now, Gambrell has led a class for the most at-risk of the at-risk students at Smiley -- those with incarcerated parents. As the founder of a nonprofit called No More Victims, she works to stop the cycle of violence that lands generation after generation in prison. Children of offenders are eight times more likely to end up behind bars themselves, she says.
When Gambrell teaches at Smiley, she delineates the diseaselike nature of drug addiction. Because many children blame themselves for their parents' absence, she reminds them that no child is responsible for a parent's behavior. It's not their fault, she says, but it is their problem.
Then, after class, she drives from northeast Houston to downtown and brings the same message to inmates at Kegans, where she has held classes every Wednesday and Thursday for the past nine months. She told the inmates about the children, and the children about the inmates, and soon she realized that they needed to meet and lay their hurt out for each other to see and understand.
So on the night of March 7, the two halves came together for the first time. And though these particular children did not address their own fathers, they addressed men who had lived the same histories as their fathers. After the five students spoke, Marilyn asked each inmate to give a two-sentence message for the five to take back to their classmates. Some said they were sorry, some asked for forgiveness, some said they could not make up for the past but vowed to do better when they were released this time around. Many openly wept. All went over the two-sentence maximum.
People often pour out their emotions in the face of Gambrell's teachings. She learned nearly 20 years ago as a young parole officer that the key to mending criminal behavior is to pry open the offender's indurate heart. But healing the inner child in the criminal doesn't fit well with Texas's tough-on-crime mentality. And Gambrell has struggled, first within the system, then on her own as a volunteer scraping together a shoestring budget, to save society's most unwanted citizens in her own way.
This is the story of one woman's vision, but of many people's lives. And of a program with a tenet of healing that seems to work. At Kegans, inmates are writing letters to children they left behind. At the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, officials are looking more closely at family programming. And at Smiley, students are attending classes more often, fighting less and chipping away at a mountain calcified by years of accumulated wounds.
Marilyn Gambrell is crying again. You don't have to know her well to know she cries often. She cries elegantly: tears streaming from the corners of her eyes, her voice rising an octave, a hand covering her mouth.
Earlier in the day, she stood in a hallway on the second floor of Smiley and cried tears of happiness as she recounted the prison visit to a teacher. Seeing how the inmates reacted with humility had softened the kids and helped them understand what their own fathers might have gone through.
Now she's sitting in the teachers' lounge crying about one of her students who ran away from home last night. This same child stood in front of the class one day, turned around and removed her jacket to reveal a topographical map of welts rising from her back. Although Gambrell called Children's Protective Services, the agency returned the child to the home. How many times must she run away before something is done, Gambrell asks. Before something more tragic happens?