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?
Gambrell wasn't always like this, a faucet of tears. Growing up in Port Neches, she was taught to bottle her emotions, to obey and never question. Her father had served in the navy and worked in a chemical plant, her mother in a credit union. Her two brothers excelled in sports. In high school, during the height of the Vietnam War, Gambrell sang in the choir and shook pom-poms on the drill team as her classmates were drafted away. They were a traditional middle-class, churchgoing family. A perfect family -- but even perfect families lack something. Hers didn't communicate.
"I see now I didn't know how to talk about things," she says. "And so I didn't talk."
In high school, Gambrell and her best friend volunteered to mentor disadvantaged children. Once a week, she took home two Latino girls, sisters ages nine and ten, who lived in the projects of a neighboring town. She read to them, fed them and studied up on head lice when she noticed the girls persistently scratching their heads.
That experience led her to consider teaching. But after her first semester at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, she realized she wasn't cut out for it. While she was flipping through the course catalog in search of another major, criminal justice jumped out at her. She threw herself into her studies but put them on hold for a few years as she married (three weeks after her 21st birthday), moved (to Philadelphia and back) and had a daughter (McKenzie).
In 1980, fresh out of college, Gambrell, a 26-year-old white woman, was assigned as a parole officer to the volatile African-American communities of the Fifth Ward and Settegast.
Allen Provost, then her supervisor and now a school board trustee at North Forest Independent School District (which includes Smiley), says Gambrell possessed limitless compassion and unwavering faith in her clients.
"Some parole officers would ask for warrants and all this stuff without investigating enough," he says. "But she would spend a tremendous amount of time going out there .She would say, 'I know he's a good person, I just have to locate where he's at.' "
In 1983 the parole board started a pilot project, choosing 75 parole officers, including Gambrell, to start support groups with their clients in an effort to reduce recidivism. With the transportation needs of her clients in mind, Gambrell held meetings in the neighborhood instead of at the probation office.
"They felt safe there," she says. "If anyone was at risk, it was me."
She also opened the discussion to any and all topics, while other groups limited their focus to jobs and recovery. As the weekly meetings progressed, more parolees attended, including some who were not Gambrell's clients.
Then one night Victoria Acosta, who had spent more than 25 years in prison, recounted the time in Catholic grade school when a nun rapped her knuckles with a ruler and told her she was so ugly that even God didn't love her. For a nun, a messenger of God, to tell her that, it must have been true. From that day on, Acosta felt worthless.
Hearing Acosta's story, Gambrell realized that even events that occur early in a child's life can profoundly shape the adult. Gambrell examined her own childhood and the high expectations that had turned her into an overachiever, but an unhappy one.
"I knew I had value because people told me," she says. "But I didn't feel connected to these good things I did. I didn't feel like I deserved them."
A year after the pilot program began, the state of Texas dismissed the support groups as a failure and disbanded all of them -- except Gambrell's. Her group of parolees had achieved a remarkably low recidivism rate, especially considering that some of her clients had committed violent crimes, including murder and rape.
She continued the lone group, and in 1986 group members told her that they needed a name. Someone nominated "Perfect Blend" to describe how well Gambrell fit into an African-American neighborhood. They talked of expanding and offering services and made a pact, piling their hands together, to really do it right someday.
Gambrell's success gained the attention of administrators at several private correctional facilities, and she left in 1989 to direct a male prison in the Dallas area, then a transitional female facility in Houston. Both experiences tried her patience. A negative attitude seemed to infect staff members, who treated clients without respect. At the second location, the staff wasn't even properly trained.
She realized she had to do it her way. She resigned in 1993 and called her old clients, asking, Remember that pact we made?
What took you so long? they said.
The bell signaling the start of seventh period rang some time ago, but kids keep straggling in and out of room 2001 at Smiley High School. Some carry backpacks, but many don't even have books or paper.
Lettering on the front wall spells out "We Are Family" five times in a row, and paper cutouts shaped like leaves, each bearing a class member's name, surround the words. Anyone new to the class -- students, visitors, guest speakers -- must take an oath of confidentiality.
Each class begins with a call to share worries or news. One boy says he received a letter from his incarcerated father. Another girl in the back row says her grandfather just died. In front, a girl stands up and announces that her boyfriend was arrested over the weekend with codeine and marijuana on him. He was supporting her and their two-month-old baby; now what would she do?
Laesha Powell raises her hand and says her father came home on a weekend pass, but she couldn't stand to see him and left the house. He has missed all her birthdays, including the first one. "And he wasn't even in jail then." When he does come around, he just joyrides in her mama's car.
"The only reason I give him respect is because of my mama," she says. "I used to fight him just to start a fight with him 'cause I don't like him."
"You got to give him a chance," says Antonio Bass. His father died when he was 12, and they never talked out their problems.
Maybe he's addicted to drugs and he's not his real self, another boy suggests. "My dad was on crack, and he swore on the Bible he wouldn't smoke crack," he says. "But he did."
Girl after girl raises her hand and says she can relate to Laesha.
Forgive him, the boys say.
Forget him, the girls snarl.
The girls don't reserve their hostility for just their fathers, either. They get livid at Mom too, especially when she sides with the boyfriend or stepfather. "It hurt your feelings when your mama don't take up for you," one says.
When the last bell rings, Gambrell doesn't let anyone get away without a hug. The boys may fight, but the girls hold all the rage, she says. Next time someone goes on a shooting rampage, it will be a girl, she warns. Maybe they're angrier because they identify so much with their mothers. They need male role models as much as boys do.
Which is why Perry Beasley tries to make every class. The kids call him Daddy Beasley. Even if he sits quietly atop a side desk, his presence tempers the room.
"When they meet Perry, they're fascinated with him," Gambrell says. "They've never seen a black male who was consistent."
"Some of it has to do with Marilyn being a white female too," Beasley replies. "They've never had a white female care about them. That just overwhelms them."
Beasley has known Gambrell since 1982, when they both worked as parole officers. Back then, in the often justified but sometimes emotional business of arresting parolees, they witnessed kids screaming and crying, clinging to their parents' pant legs.
"No one would take the time to reassure them," he says. "Some people would slap them and yell, 'Stop getting in the way.' That's when we realized that we needed to really work with these kids."
Beasley and Gambrell invite guest speakers to the class, people from the community who have made it: business owners, rappers and athletes like Tyrone Smith and Stepfan Jiles. Smith, who grew up in the Third Ward and played for the San Francisco 49ers, started a mentoring program, First and Goal, with other professional athletes. His sister leaves prison this month. Jiles was raised by a single mom and just returned from playing pro basketball in Europe. They visit a few times a week and sit among the teens, blending in.
But the kids need more than guests. They need food, clothes and school supplies. These kids "become men and women before their time," Beasley says. They've seen cousins shot to death and mothers beaten. They take care of little sisters because no one else will. One child stopped coming to school because he was deeply embarrassed about his shoes. He had worn them for so long that holes developed in the soles. Gambrell took him shopping for a new pair. And when one girl told the class she had been molested, two others said they had been raped too.
"They have no parents helping them. If they're at school, we should all be amazed," Gambrell says.
"People say why should I care? That kid's nothing but a dope fiend and a criminal. But that child is sitting next to yours in the third grade."
The next day, Reagan and Laesha turn two desks to face each other at the front of the classroom. They have volunteered to role-play, a staple of Gambrell's curriculum. Role playing helps students learn how to communicate in healthy ways. The girls announce they're doing a prison scene of a daughter visiting her mother, a situation Reagan knows well. Her mother spent three and a half years in prison, Reagan's eighth to tenth grades, after "she stabbed the lady real bad." During that time, Reagan moved in with her grandmother and worked part-time as an office clerk.
Now she pretends to be Mom. A boy jumps up to play the guard; someone must frisk the prisoner. Laesha sits down in front of an imaginary pane of glass. The boy shoves Reagan into the other desk, slapping her on the back.
"You forgot to do the head!" a kid shouts. "They always do the head!"
The boy pretends to smack Reagan on the head.
Reagan has emerged as a leader in the class but has always been strong-willed and wild, a tornado of a person. "She'll come after you in a minute," Gambrell says. Reagan used to argue in her classes, snap back. Now, she calms down and reacts less defensively. No More Victims gives her a sense of belonging.
"Before they came, we had nobody," she says.
Months ago, faced with an emergency, the first call she made was to Gambrell. Reagan tried to stop a man from beating her mother by hitting him in the head. He shot at her, injuring her uncle in the process. Gambrell and Reginald Spivey, an assistant principal at Smiley, called the police, then stayed on the phone with the family. The man was locked up for several months.
Spivey brought No More Victims to Smiley. Striding down the hall with a walkie-talkie in a muscular hand and standing over six feet tall, he cuts a solid, stoic figure. When a fight breaks out anywhere on campus, he's on it.
A lot of administrators concentrate on getting TAAS scores up, he says, leaving at-risk kids by the wayside. A mistake. "If we don't do something, it's going to come back and haunt us, and I mean us as a society," says Spivey, who was recently promoted to principal of the guidance center.
Spivey met Beasley at the mayor's inauguration and thought No More Victims was just what Smiley, a school with a day care, needed. He held an assembly in the auditorium for each grade level and introduced Gambrell and Beasley. The class was optional, they explained. They would have to get out of their regular classes to attend, so it would take place during a different period every day.
At first, many teens were too embarrassed to attend a class like that and admit to having a parent in prison. But the students who came dragged their friends, and their friends, and now out of a student population of 1,650, more than 100 kids attend the class, though only 40 show at any one time.
Soon after No More Victims arrived on campus, teachers noticed a change, Spivey says. Students mellowed out in class, actually attended class in the first place and picked fewer fights. During spring break, winter holidays and summer, the four No More Victims staffers make home visits to maintain contact with the kids and keep them out of trouble.
For one single mother (who asked to be identified only as Ms. B), the class has improved her relationship with her eldest child. She has two daughters by two different men. Both fathers went to prison, didn't write and never visit. Her eldest developed a petulant attitude: talking back to teachers, rolling her eyes, smacking her lips and ignoring her mother. Almost immediately after enrolling in the class, she seemed happier.
"What are you learning in this class?" Ms. B said.
"I'm learning to be myself," her daughter said. "Ms. Gambrell said I was something special."
"I've been telling you that all your life."
"Yeah, but you're my mama."
"I think that's what she needed," Ms. B says now. "For someone else other than her mom to tell her that." Ms. B now volunteers at every No More Victims class, standing at the door like a gatekeeper.
So much of Gambrell's work involves developing self-esteem. These children have never been recognized for the good things they do, Gambrell says. So she prints "Student of the Week" awards from her computer. Few people remember their birthdays, so they celebrate in class.
During one class period, she surveyed the students. "Do you feel precious?" she asked each child, going down the rows. They shook their heads, mumbled or nodded. Half said no.
"Do you know you're precious?" she said. You can know it even if you don't feel it, she explained. Everyone said yes.
"How do y'all know?"
Answers popped up around the classroom.
"Because I love myself."
"Because of my personality on the inside."
"'Cause God made me."
Then Dorothy Galloway, who sat in a chair instead of a desk because of her five-month pregnancy, raised her hand. A few years ago Dorothy's mother married a man who kicked Dorothy and her oldest brother out of the house, whipped Dorothy's little brother and molested her sister. Dorothy wanted to kill herself.
"I didn't know anything about being precious until I was in this class," she said quietly. "Ms. Gambrell and the staff told me."
The exercise is simple, but that doesn't mean it can't be hard: Say your children's names. Say their ages and their birthdays. Say it aloud, Gambrell urges a room of male inmates at Kegans State Jail. They take turns. Some men are the same age as a few of Gambrell's high school students, 18 or 19, fathers of little babies. Some are 40 or 50, with grown children.
"We never did that before, just say it," says Durwyne Cummings, a father of four. "Some of us didn't even know."
The first time Cummings saw Marilyn Gambrell, he thought she was just another person coming in to get paid. (In fact, she volunteers.) "To be honest, I thought she was full of shit," he says. But one day he sat on the steps and listened. He heard her say, They don't ask for you to be here. It's not their fault you're in here.
Cummings had never thought about that, how children blamed themselves when parents left. "That really touched me," he says. He walked down the stairs and joined the class.
In her adult classes, as with the high school ones, Gambrell helps her clients see the big picture, the cycle of victimization, how children learn their parents' behavior, learn to become criminals.
"We're breeding them in front of us and not even paying attention," she says.
While some inmates recall happy childhoods, most saw their parents split at a young age. Many of their fathers did time. But just because you fit in the cycle doesn't mean you aren't responsible for your actions. Being a criminal is like being an alcoholic. First you have to admit you have a problem.
For James Lawrence Tillis, a repeat offender and father of three, that realization did not dawn on him until he took Gambrell's class. Tillis's parents were poor but got their son everything he wanted. The first in his high school with a car, Tillis drove it straight off the showroom floor.
But he started smoking crack cocaine, landing himself in jail.
"I thought jail was a bad coincidence, like the world was against me," he says.
Then in class Gambrell asked the inmates to role-play. They played father and son, brother and brother, and Tillis started to see scenes from his own life acted out before him. Right there in the classroom, the role playing triggered a flashback, a whole lifetime of memories.
"Until then, I had never realized I put my kids through the same thing," he says.
During role playing, Gambrell often acts the part of the angry daughter. In class one day, she folds her arms and leans against the chalkboard as Allan Bennett plays the father. Bennett has four children and five grandchildren and has spent 39 of his 46 years doing drugs.
"What the hell are you doing here? What are you doing in my home? Does Mom know you're here?" she says.
"I have her permission," Bennett says.
"Well, you don't have mine. I hate you. You're not my dad." She starts to yell and cry at the same time. "You need to go. I hate your motherfucking ass. Fuck you."
"You're allowed to hate me," Bennett says softly.
"You need to go."
"Maybe some other time." He turns to leave.
The scene ends; the prisoners clap. "What did he do right there?" Gambrell asks the class.
"Validate the feelings of the daughter," says one.
"Returned her hate with love," says another.
"Allowed her to be mad."
"But was it proper to leave like that?" someone asks.
Yes, Gambrell says, because the child sets the boundaries. "Usually you would go, 'I'm the damn daddy. You're not allowed to talk back to me like that.' But remember the child is raging, on fire. And you're the one who poured emotional gasoline on it."
At least the daughter acknowledged the father's existence, albeit with cusswords, she says. Just because you want to start a relationship does not mean she does, Gambrell warns. Then she and Cummings perform another skit. This time, Gambrell ignores the father, pretending to turn up music with a remote control. Cummings finally leaves but vows to return the next day.
The child may ignore you, Gambrell explains, but she will look out the window and watch you leave. Don't give up. "Your children have never seen you be consistent," she says.
Gambrell also teaches the inmates to write letters. Stop writing those typical jailhouse letters, she says, the hello-I-miss-you-why-haven't-you-written letters that children compare then throw away when they realize they say the same exact thing. Write about your mistakes, honestly. Tell them how sorry you feel for hurting them, and ask if they will allow you into their lives.
That lesson helped Donovane Montgomery reconnect with his son. He credits Gambrell with teaching him how to express himself and for showing him that even grown men need to cry. Even now, as he speaks, tears escape from his eyes.
In 1986, as Montgomery prepared to graduate, he heard an inmate speak at his high school. But a few years out of school, he was arrested for drugs, did four years and urged students to stay away from drugs himself. For three years Montgomery stayed sober. Then he relapsed. His wife of 16 years can't believe she stays by his side.
"She says, 'How can I be with a person who doesn't love himself or his child?' " His nine-year-old son stopped wanting to visit.
Then Gambrell taught him how to write a letter, he says. He wrote to his son. The boy wrote back, drawing pictures. Montgomery keeps writing. His boy sleeps with Daddy's letters in his pillowcase.
Drug counselor Henry Pittman dimmed the lights. It was storytelling time for his clients at the Henley Unit in Dayton, a substance-abuse facility for female inmates. He passed out the slim paperback books titled "Mommy, Who Will Take Care of Me?" Though the book was aimed at adults, it looked just like a children's book, with big lettering and colorful pictures. The main character in the story, a brown teddy bear named Precious Little One, wore a white bandage on its left knee.
"Please stay home, Mommy, / And take good care of me," the book began. "You can't hold me if you're in prison, / Or give me what I need."
As Pittman read the book out loud, he heard a sniff in the back. Then another one. Soon, a cacophony of sniffling and nose-blowing filled the room. When he finished reading, he pressed the play button on the portable boom box and let loose the earnest lyrics of "A Song for Mama," by Boyz II Men.
Mama, Mama, you're the queen of my heart
Your love is like tears from the stars
Mama, I just want you to know
Lovin' you is like food to my soul
"That was it," Pittman recalls. People started falling out of the chairs, onto their knees, sobbing, blubbering, muttering to themselves. "Baby, I'm sorry!" they said. "God help me," they whispered. Grown women folded themselves up into the fetal position, rocking back and forth.
Pittman, then in the middle of a practicum in 1998, had never seen anything like this. He tiptoed around his clients, careful not to touch anyone because some of them had regressed and were mumbling to their own mothers. Who knows how far back they had gone, maybe to days of abuse. He dropped down gently in front of them and waved his hand, asking, "Hello? Do you know who I am? Do you know where you are?"
The reading was meant to awaken inmates to their children's feelings. Instead, many clients were taken back to their own childhood relationships with their parents, Pittman says. Often, prisoners' parents pass away while they're locked up, and people try to hold on to being a child.
"The funny thing is it's a little baby book," says Pittman, now a counselor at New Directions, a transitional correctional facility. "It's short and simple and effective. It does not bullshit around. It goes straight into it."
He didn't meet the author of the book, Marilyn Gambrell, until a year later. "Do you have any idea what effect it has on people?" he demanded.
By then, Gambrell had built No More Victims into a five-person effort, with offices housed in a Third Ward duplex, the bottom half serving as a food bank and the top as administrative offices.
In 1993, with hardly any money, donated office space and two lawyers volunteering to file the paperwork, Gambrell resurrected the Perfect Blend support group, changing the name to No More Victims, "meaning stop it," she says. "Stop the trauma. No more." In the four years since she had left the Fifth Ward, some of her former parolees had earned degrees, and now they returned as volunteers. (Today, six former clients serve as board members.)
Her initial project was publishing 5,000 copies of her book in 1994, the first in a collection called "From a Child's Perception." The books came in "Mommy" and "Daddy" versions, and earned Gambrell some media attention, but not what she needed most: funds. She sold some of the books to prisons, the Houston Independent School District and a victims group in Austin, and used the proceeds to sustain No More Victims.
The support group met at the Settegast Heights Apartments in the same room where Gambrell once counseled her parolees, only now they met every night instead of once a week. But Gambrell yearned to expand her reach. She talked to mental health professionals at workshops and to prostitutes in motel parking lots. She offered to place the women in shelters. And if they said no thanks, as they often did, she passed out little baggies containing toothbrushes and tampons. In the winter she brought them socks.
"It's not something you'll get beat up over, but if you go to jail, it's not a big loss either."
In 1997 she teamed up with former Geto Boy Willie D, who started his own talk show, Reality Check, on 97.9 FM, the Box. Meeting Willie D "was like forever," she says. Every issue he wanted to talk about, she did too, and she became his research assistant during the show's short-lived broadcast.
In those early days, though, Gambrell feared No More Victims would not survive. The organization subsisted on an unsteady diet of donations, barbecue plate sales and weekend car washes. Then Anita Shareef, a social worker, came aboard in 1998 and showed Gambrell how to apply for grants.
The first two grants they applied for (from the Hogg Foundation and the Houston Endowment) came back with stamps of approval. With $200,000 in grant money Gambrell hired Annette Taylor-Hughes, a former parolee from Perfect Blend. Taylor-Hughes had left her four kids with different family members to shoot up heroin. She had lived inside prison walls five times. Now, at 53, she was studying to become a drug counselor.
Gambrell started the classes at Smiley first but knew she had to reach incarcerated parents too. At a meeting at Texas Southern University, she met June Groom, assistant director of programs and services at TDCJ.
A few years earlier, the Board of Criminal Justice had instructed Groom to look into more family programming. "We realized that there needs to be a holistic approach," Groom says. "Not just getting the GED or going through recovery or becoming a faithful Christian or Catholic or Muslim or whatever."
She gave No More Victims a chance.
Gambrell targeted offenders in an existing program called Therapeutic Community. In 1992 TDCJ started TC, one of two substance-abuse rehabilitation programs. TC is a voluntary undertaking, involving one-on-one counseling and peer groups, that runs four to six months, during the final period of an inmate's sentence. (The maximum sentence at a state jail runs two years, the average sentence 7.7 months.)
Gambrell began at Kegans nine months ago. She has since added classes at four other facilities: Lychner State Jail, a male prison in Humble; Plane State Jail, a female facility in Dayton; and New Directions, which has one male and one female facility.
Recently, though, she put New Directions on hold, too burned out to teach night classes and wanting to reserve some time for her family. The need for services far outweighs her resources, and though she knows people ready to join her staff, she has no means to pay them.
Funding, after all, is a delicate matter. "I don't want to be funded by entities that stick us with all these rules," she says. "Then we have no quality time with the clients." Still, she recently turned in a batch of grant applications.
They need money to buy diapers and to stock the food bank, to pay for caps and gowns and prom dresses, to publish a set of coloring books Gambrell has penned called "Healing Color Workbooks" and to rent a house in the Fifth Ward, a safe place for the kids to hang out.
The organization grows like a flower pushing through concrete. Some months, Gambrell says, the bank account shrinks to $25, earmarked for the light bill. And then a child living in an apartment full of other children calls in crisis, and she has to spend the money on groceries instead. Light bill or groceries. The choice is clear: Turn out the lights. Then from somewhere, a $30 donation appears, like a godsend.
James Maxwell, dressed in a plain navy T-shirt, looks good sitting outside the downtown library one Saturday afternoon. His smile, which stretches wide across his face like a two-lane highway, says, without a doubt, that he feels good. And now that he's been out of prison for a month, he's ready to do some good.
Maxwell stepped out of Kegans State Jail on February 16, the first person in Gambrell's class to finish his sentence. He knew he had to set an example; he couldn't let the other men down; he couldn't let his sons down.
In 1996 he had moved to Houston with his fiancée (pregnant with his third child), leaving behind his hometown of Memphis and his two other sons. Maxwell didn't even tell his older sons where he went. He just disappeared.
Caught once in a crackhouse raid and another time selling to an undercover cop, Maxwell spent time in Kegans twice. He enrolled in TC twice. The first time, he didn't pay attention; he thought he could do drugs and live a normal life. "I really thought it was part of my life," he says. "I couldn't imagine going through life without" it.
The second time, humiliated and "spiritually bankrupt," he met Gambrell, who encouraged him to write to his older sons, now 23 and 13. The 13-year-old wrote back, telling Maxwell he felt confused. The 23-year-old did not. But his great-grandmother did, telling Maxwell she prayed for him. Maxwell continues to write his eldest every two weeks, waiting for a reply.
Since his release, he has moved into transitional housing (a structured environment with a curfew and counseling), works as an animal technician at Baylor and attends church. He visits his four-year-old often.
Last year TC cost an estimated $5.7 million, and appears to be worth the money. According to the Criminal Justice Policy Council's most recent biennial report, 13 percent of offenders who completed TC and were released from 1997 to 1998 returned to prison, compared to 21 percent of those who did not take the program. The program has improved over time; in 1993 the two-year recidivism rate for completers was 28 percent.
The success of No More Victims, though, is harder to measure, since inmates who have taken the class are just now being released. It takes years to track those who leave, says Groom. And the recidivism rate is just one factor in determining the program's effectiveness.
"It's an emotional program," she says. And she doesn't like to gauge success or failure of programs on emotions.
Groom and Warden J.J. Pitzeruse (who oversees Kegans and Lychner) both saw the Smiley students speak to the inmates. Pitzeruse, who has worked in the system for 18 years, says he has never seen a program like No More Victims.
"They're having to look at themselves and do some soul-searching and say what they're going to do better when they get out," he says.
Groom, who has approved other parenting programs at various units, reacts more cautiously, saying No More Victims is still under evaluation. If the program receives high marks, it could expand to other segments of the prison population and to other units.But TDCJ does not provide funding to volunteer groups, and the program would have to find its own way to pay for its growth.
Groom plans to review Gambrell's curriculum and interview offenders. Meanwhile, she has many concerns: How does the class work with inmates who have older children? What if an inmate, after hearing the teens speak, thinks his kids hate him and feels he doesn't have a chance? Does the program improve inmate behavior before release?
But James Maxwell knows it works for certain.
"If you're in a room with Ms. Marilyn Gambrell, and if you have children, and if you don't feel what she's putting down, then there's something wrong with you."
In the second row, an inmate stood up. Though he was of average height, he stood tall and held his hands in front of him, as if he were appearing respectfully before a judge. He pleaded, though, not with a robed figure but with five high school students. Please, he asked them, how should he approach his kids?
"I don't want to say something to push them away," he said.
The Smiley students gave mixed messages. They hated their daddies, yet they loved them too. Kids give you certain chances, they said. Eighteen-year-old Gregory Fransaw approached the microphone and said, "You pointing your fingers at each other's not going to solve anything."
Earlier in the evening, during dinner at the Golden Corral, Gregory, in the midst of a plate-by-plate eating contest with Antonio Bass, had remarked, "I'm going to put my daddy's face on all of [the inmates] and just tell them."
And he did. He stood at the podium and damned his father for disappearing for six years. When his father fell ill, he said, he didn't even visit him in the hospital. He played basketball instead.
Now, though, he seemed to feel sorry for the prisoners, these fathers who had never been dads and now asked for his advice. He told the man to write his children, to let them know he cared. And when he got out, to not boss them around. You have no right to do that when you haven't been home, Gregory said.
Then James Tillis took his turn. He rose from the field of white jumpsuits and announced that he had three children, ages 23, 20 and 17. Two boys and a girl. He had separated from their mother for eight years, and she passed away right before his current incarceration. One of his boys, Philip, was "a special child," he said pointing to his head. And his daughter, Jennifer, attended Smiley. Now, although Jennifer had written, he didn't know where she was.
Five hands shot up in the air.
"Mr. Tillis, we know Jennifer. She was in our class," Reagan said. "We were called twins at school." But then Jennifer left school.
"Jennifer never talked down on you, but she wanted you to be there. She never talk down on her daddy," Reagan said.
Dorothy Galloway came to the podium and said she and Jennifer used to do each other's hair and take Philip to the movies.
"She was always Daddy this and Daddy that. Don't think that we don't care." Gregory said he played basketball with his sons, both of them.
Hearing all of this, Tillis folded his hands, palm to palm, as if in prayer, under his chin and softly cried. Teary-eyed students hugged each other. Gambrell, of course, dabbed her eyes, and visitors in the back rows passed tissue around.
After the event, Gambrell and the students milled around outside under the incandescent glow of parking lot lights. Reagan stood tall, a windbreaker hanging as loosely on her as it would from a clothesline.
"I wished my daddy would get locked up again and have to go to Kegans State Jail," she said. "He would be a better daddy if he did his time there."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.
- This Houston Rockets Thing Is Going Nowhere
- Rice University President: Nobody Here Wants Campus-Carry
- There's No New Contract Yet, But UH's Tom Herman Says He's Sticking Around