A Visit to Gatesville

Last month, I traveled with Houston-area state Senator John Whitmire on a site visit

to the Gatesville Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The central Texas unit is the largest of the three penitentiaries clustered together in Coryell County, where all the state's female inmates are imprisoned. Gatesville is equipped to keep 2,014 criminal offenders and includes all custody levels: minimum, medium, maximum, administrative segregation, punitive segregation and protective custody. The compound consists of seven separate satellite units, run by a staff of over 800 employees. Each satellite serves a distinct community of inmates. For example, the Valley Unit has 72 beds for mentally retarded inmates, and pregnant prisoners (of which there were more than 90 last year) await giving birth there.

Last January, Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock appointed Whitmire chairman of the Senate's Criminal Justice Committee. Whitmire was given the crucial task of overhauling the state's criminal-justice system. During the last session of the Legislature, he won praise from his constituents, colleagues and media (making Texas Monthly's Top Ten Lawmakers List) for his efforts in passing a package of penal measures promising dramatic sentencing and correctional reform in Texas. The measures created a system of state jails to relieve jail overcrowding and to free more prison space for murderers, rapists and other violent offenders. Another bill doubled the time most violent criminals spend behind bars and called for constructing 22,000 new jail beds. The bills also included more money for treatment programs.

Having succeeded in passing laws that he believes are tougher on criminals, Whitmire has now turned his attention to the facilities and the inmates themselves. He has been traveling around the state, talking with criminal-justice careerists -- wardens, officers and offenders. Since the state still faces limited prison space and a finite pot of tax dollars, there remain plenty of reasons to study the massive, multimillion-dollar prison system that serves to punish close to 60,000 wrongdoers.

Of the 60,000, only 3,100 are women. But nationwide and in Texas, the numbers for female criminals are rising rapidly, and in the last decade female inmates have become a topic of increasing interest and concern. In the last ten years, the number of incarcerated women nationwide has doubled, the percentage increase greater than that of male offenders. In December 1986, there were 2,771 incarcerated women in the federal prison system. By 1992, there were more than 5,000 women, a 75 percent increase in the female population in slightly more than five years.

Texas's numbers are no different from the national norm. In 1973, there were 470 women in Texas state prisons. Today there are more than 3,000, and 3,000 more are backed up in county jails waiting for beds to open in Gatesville. One thousand eight-hundred of the women are from Harris County. Still, statistical information has been scant about the social impact of women in prison.

Women are convicted of all types of crimes: murder, assault, robbery and other violent crimes. But a 1991 legislative report indicates that most women are sent up for non-violent offenses -- 44 percent for property offenses (theft, forgery and fraud), 45 percent for drug offenses, and one percent for DWIs. Eighty percent of the women convicted have abused alcohol or illegal substances.

No doubt, says Whitmire, guilty women should have to account for their crimes as much as their male counterparts do. But, in a 1992 national study, the National Bureau of Prisons recognizes that men and women may serve their sentences in very different ways. The bureau argues that what has always been an acceptable accommodation for the needs of incarcerated men has fallen short of addressing the complex situations of women prisoners. The bureau suggests that apparent solutions for men doing time -- seemingly workable programming, housing and custodial practices -- fail to address the larger problem presented by locking up many children's mothers. Rehabilitation is no longer the overall goal of the male correctional system; the numbers and cost prevent any such lofty goals. But the same policy, they recommend, should not be applied to females across the board. Although the availability of short sentences, community service and restitution is considered innovative, the fact remains that female offenders require additional special considerations.

Any discussion of women in the criminal-justice system, Whitmire says, needs to begin with the painful reminder of the state of life for so many impoverished single mothers and young children. For many of these women, poverty has led to alcohol and drug abuse, causing them to commit petty crimes like theft, prostitution, selling small quantities of drugs and forging checks to support their habits and their kids. Substance-abusing families are often in crisis; lack of money and poor daily living skills often affect not only the current generation of children but also future generations. Prison records indicate that it is not unusual to find three generations of families in prison - grandmothers, mothers, daughters and sons. Some female family members house together in cell blocks.  

During our site visit, we talked to Gatesville prisoners, guards and administrators about the special concerns regarding women and imprisonment, and we observed the programs currently in place to address these larger social concerns.

"I was young and crazy"
"You know, a big part of life is just luck," offers Whitmire. "A big part of luck is where you're born. That's the first lucky thing. Some who are born have a strong family that stays together. Some don't."

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.

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."

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.

t first, the only sound is our heels against the linoleum floor. Peering into the dark cells is difficult. The row of tiny cells is so dark that I can barely see whether anyone is behind the bars. I can make out the stacks of white sanitary napkins on the one steel shelf in the windowless 9-by-5 cells.

As my eyes adjust, I can see figures with their faces pressed up against the bars. It's still nearly impossible to make out facial features. One or two call out to us to take their pictures. Another wants to know if we are investigators. "I want to talk to you if you are the investigators," she demands.

Steel bunks, toilets and sinks are bolted to the floor. Human odors are strong. The guard says that prisoners sometimes set fires or intentionally stop up the toilets to cause a flood. Leg irons and shackles are often required. Prisoners are allowed out for one hour a day, to exercise and to shower. Strip searches occur twice a day, and include removing the inmates' tampons. The guard says that 80 percent of the women in prison never get in a fight. The other 20 percent generally end up in ad seg more than once.

Adjacent to the row of tiny cells, on a parallel hallway, is solitary confinement. Prisoners who present extreme behavior problems are confined in a dark enclosure sealed off with a heavy steel door. There's no way to tell who's in the few locked rooms. One stands empty. For prisoners here, there is no freedom, no light, and little hope.

There's no reason to stay here long. The guard buzzes us out.
Thinking or stinking
We wander down another antiseptic hall and through a door, outside the slightly worn, dull building. The day is turning colder and more overcast, as gloomy as our surroundings. We trudge across a gravel parking lot to the Valley Unit, a low rambling structure like the others, our last stop before death row.

Along with pregnant and mentally retarded inmates, older or more physically handicapped offenders are generally assigned to this 174-bed facility. Jobs here include beauty operators, kitchen workers, cooks, landscape gardeners and clerks. Inmates unable to perform these jobs are placed in a Special Projects Program, making craft items. They are allowed to sell their handiwork for money, deposited in their commissary accounts. Their customers include some of the guards and local church groups.  

The inmate's library is located here. Books ranging from reference to nonfiction stack the 30 or so shelves. At some point during their stay most women, even the worst of the worst, are enrolled in a life-skills class here. Behaviorist Les Reed teaches one such class. His classroom is papered with slogans: "positive attitude," "success," "learn to love yourself." Light-green curtains hang in the windows. A colorful banner stretched across the gray rear wall reads, in big letters: "If you're not thinking, you're stinking."

Nineteen women ranging in age from the young twenties to nearly 60 listen to Reed talk about positive attitudes, behavior, values, relationships, drug education and job-search techniques. The atmosphere is relaxed; most of the students lean back, or turn sideways in their chairs.

I sit and listen, too. A woman wearing glasses sitting behind me taps me on the shoulder. "Excuse, me, ma'am. I just wanted you to know this is the best part of my day. On Friday I can't wait for Monday."

Reed interrupts his lecture while we talk with his class. Sitting near the front, an older black woman from San Antonio says she looks forward to the class everyday. "When I come into this class, I have total peace, but learning at the same time."

She wants Reed to know she appreciates his message. "He has taught me to feel good about myself and not let other people bring me down. I know I can't hang around bad kind of people. I want to be a good woman."

Another thin, tired looking woman has written down Reed's advice. "I got it all wrote out . . . "learn to love yourself," because if I don't love myself I can't love anybody else. I write my kids and tell them things like that because my baby is 22 and my son's 31. They're not exactly okay right now, but they're better. I use it for my whole family. My mom will see that I am changing, because it's more than me just saying I'm changing."

It turns out that every woman except one has kids at home; several are grandmothers. Most say they've been at Gatesville before. Reed says he's hoping they get his message this time.

The courts and the crisis
Time runs out on the Gatesville leg of our visit. We are expected now at the Mountainview Unit, where the four women on Death Row reside. The major leaves us at our car, strolling down the road to another one of the seven satellite camps. It's getting colder and windy outside. We drive a short distance down the road to Death Row (See "Following the rules," page XX.)

In a final conversation before we leave to drive back to Austin, Warden Cranford talks about various changes that have occurred in recent years in the women's correctional system, some not wanted by prison bureaucrats and some long needed but only brought about by successful lawsuits instigated by inmates demanding better conditions and rehabilitation programs.

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.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >