Shelly Ogle, a retired editor, attended a Truth Be Told graduation at a women’s prison in Gatesville on November 20, 2014. These are her impressions as a first-time visitor to prison.
Gatesville: A first-time visitor’s observations
By Shelly Ogle
In lots of ways, my first visit to a Texas state prison was full of surprises. I’d thought we’d be driving to East Texas, but our van headed west out of Austin. I’d been ready for a lot of traffic and congestion, but the country roads we drove on were winding and open. A stormy day had been forecast; instead, the November skies were clear and sunny.
Within a couple of hours, under that gorgeous sky, our van turned into the prison’s entrance. All was flat. At our right was an empty guard’s shack and ahead was a big parking lot. There wasn’t any sort of main gate. Everything was ugly – fencing and razor wire and lights and cameras, big signs with commands and prohibitions, wire cages enclosing each of the chain-link gates.
I was among a group of 15 women visiting this women’s prison. We were there to applaud the graduation of 23 inmates who had just completed 18 weeks of Truth Be Told classes. The training teaches them to better understand themselves, to review their lives, and to write and speak the truth about what they know and remember and hope for. Of the prison’s 1,500 inmates, some 250 had signed up for the classes, but there was only room for less than a tenth of them.
In groups of six, we were led through a caged gateway and into a lobby with a shiny linoleum floor. It was 5 p.m., and it seemed like a shift was changing. The lobby was busy with uniformed guards, almost all female. Some looked friendly and bright; some smiled, some frowned. After a short wait, we were led into a room with tables and chairs and greeted by the warden, who was another surprise. I’d expected someone military and harsh; instead, this warden was a friendly and perky blonde, in civilian clothes. She looked like a yoga instructor or a vitamin saleswoman.
From her, we learned that the state has 150,000 prisoners, and that 12,000 of them are women, mostly housed in Gatesville units. The prison we were at was medium-security, but it had a maximum-security unit. Maybe that’s the same one that she casually called “adseg”; when asked what it meant, she explained that prisoners who violate institutional rules are put into “administrative segregation.” Not being in good standing, they’re not eligible to sign up for programs such as Truth Be Told. We were warned to expect aggressive language from them, as we’d be passing them on our way to the prison chapel where the graduation ceremony would be held.
We were also told to not give anything to a prisoner, to not accept anything from one, and to not touch them in any way except for a handshake, and even that small contact was permissible only on this special occasion.
The warden then led us outdoors toward the chapel. We had to wait at yet another inner gate while a guard got the key to it.
A strip of concrete pavement, about 20 feet wide, led to the chapel, past a few grassy areas with high chain-link fences around them; one area had a sad-looking little rock-lined pond and fountain. The concrete had a yellow stripe on each edge, marking off narrow shoulders where the prisoners walked – guards accompanying them strolled in the wide center. “Hi there, ladies,” I said to a few guards and to a few prisoners. They all seemed a little startled to be addressed.
The metal-clad buildings we were passing – there were no stone walls in sight – looked like industrial-district warehouses for welding or plumbing equipment. Though wide and squat, some seemed to hold as many as four stories, as I saw three layers of tiny windows, most of them numbered on the outside, above a windowless ground floor. At the windows, I’d often see more than one face, so I guessed that those cells are shared.
None of the “adseg” prisoners yelled out much of anything to us. I noticed little showers of birdseed or breadcrumbs being tossed out of their windows for pigeons, and I waved at a few of the prisoners in the windows; they waved back.
The chapel was another squat metal building, again with a highly polished floor. Its bathroom had to be unlocked by a guard for me to use it. It was immaculate. Its door locked automatically behind me, so the next person to use it also had to ask the guard to let her in.
In front of the chapel’s low stage, we arranged two rows of chairs into a semicircle, with our 15 chairs on one side facing the prisoners’ 23 chairs on the other. A few women, probably trusties, set up a microphone and fiddled with a sound system. While we waited for the prisoners to arrive, I admired a beautiful quilted banner on the stage and took in the wall-sized painting behind it, kitschy but earnest, showing the gates of heaven, a garden, a rainbow, and lots of shafts of light. That was the background behind each of the graduates as they stood and shared their insights with us.
A group of guards led in the 23 women we’d been waiting for. The prisoners wore white, not orange. Their pants were what my family called “bumper stumpers” when I was a kid: thick, unattractive sweats with a bunchy elastic waist. Their white T-shirts had polo-style collars. I was surprised to see makeup and elaborate hairstyles on some of the women. Shoes showed some variety, but all were closed-toed and flat-soled.
I was excited to see the prisoners, and they seemed excited to see us. After they sat down, their guards gathered at the back door and the graduation ceremony started. It was about 6 p.m., so the prisoners must have had an early supper. Over the next 90 minutes or so, each of them went to the stage and gave a short talk. A few offered performances – one lady played guitar and sang a song she wrote; a couple of skits and dances were also done, some in pairs. We applauded everything heartily.
Women spoke of their childhoods, and it made me cry. One was abandoned at the age 5. Where was I when I was a 5-year-old? Not abandoned. Another ran away from home at 14, escaping abuse and hunger, and hung around the bus station when she arrived in a big city. No one came up to her to ask where her parents were or whether she needed any help – except, of course, a pimp. “He put a needle in my arm,” she recalled, “and I wasn’t hungry anymore.”
Not a single person said, “I was a victim” or “I was victimized,” but each one of them was. I was impressed by their avoidance of the word. I was horrified by their stories.
One lady spoke about how, as a child, she was abused by her family in numerous ways, starting with being fingered, as a toddler, by her uncles when she’d sit on their laps. That invasion of trust reminded me of how much I loved to sit, so comfy and secure, on my dad’s lap; one of my earliest memories is being fascinated by the golden hairs on his forearms. I loved sitting on my grandpa’s lap, too; it was the safest place ever, except when Gorgeous George did some fancy wrestling move on the TV and Grandpa would jump up out of his chair and cheer. It’s so sad that the lady in the prison chapel had never felt that same goodness and love.
Another lady spoke of being loved and safe for her first seven years, living with her grandparents, until her mother took her away from them, and a life of hell began. I thought, “Where would I be today if everything good for me had stopped when I was 7 years old?” That’s the age I was when John F. Kennedy was killed, and I was so innocent then that I assumed that Jackie would just be named queen. I had opinions and ideas, but I was basically an unformed blob, and if those had been my final memories before starting a life of suffering, I could have been turned into anything.
I was lucky. I could have been her, but instead, I was lucky.
And what became of that prisoner? She emerged from her years of pain with a defiant insight, only recently gained from her Truth Be Told experiences: “I am lovable for who I am.” That’s a big, bold idea for someone like her.
A thin woman with an impossibly thick braid proclaimed, perhaps metaphysically, “I am free.” Another woman, contradicting a widespread assumption that prisoners always protest their innocence, declared, “I am exactly where I belong.”
Only one lady, one of the last to speak, had anything specific to say about the crime that landed her in prison. Twenty years ago, she said, she shot her husband while he was throttling their baby and also threatening to kill her and himself.
“Good,” I thought.
“I called it self-defense,” she said, “but the state of Texas called it capital murder.” She got a 30-year sentence and has 10 years left to serve.
Put yourself in her place. Think of all the good things that have happened to you in the past 20 years, and erase them all. And then erase them for the next 10 years, too. Now try to be serene and brave.
After the last woman had spoken, we visitors were invited to go to the mike and let them know our reactions. I wasn’t brave enough to, although I’ve spoken in public in the past, yet each of those 23 women had been brave enough to get up there and speak.
So, I admired them all the more.
One visitor spoke for me, though, when she told the prisoners that she was impressed by their ability to bear the problems they do, compared with the minuscule worries we have. They have been through so much. They are survivors. They’re courageous, and in many cases heroic. They embody the best of the human spirit.
Well, I sure wasn’t expecting to ever have that thought.
My favorite part of the visit happened next, when the prisoners all lined up and we visitors went down the line, shaking each woman’s hand and briefly saying whatever we could think of. I thanked them and told them they were beautiful and brave. I said I admired their endurance, and I congratulated them on their self-awareness. I praised the two who had been signing throughout each performance for their abilities in American Sign Language. One woman “hugged” me in the permissible way: hugging herself while smiling at me. I “hugged” her right back.
She’s hoping to be paroled soon; the signs are good. She might be released in Houston. I asked if that’s where her family lives. “No,” she answered. “I hurt my family. They don’t speak to me.”
That’s right, I reminded myself, she’s a criminal, and she’s paying for it.
I worry about her.
Afterwards, dining at a long table at a restaurant in town, we visitors all reviewed the day. Many agreed that the women’s self-awareness gained through their Truth Be Told classes was all-important. “It heals their trauma,” said Nathalie, a Truth Be Told founder. “It works,” agreed Kathleen, the organization’s executive director. “And their new awareness isn’t going to go away,” added Louise who, like me, was a first-time visitor.
The drive home through the dark was mostly quiet. It had been a long day, and when I got into bed and stretched out between my fleecy sheets, I was filled with gratitude for the life I have. How exceptionally lucky I was to have been born into a stable family. As my mom used to murmur, whenever she’d pity someone, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
If you would like to attend one of the TBT spring prison graduations, watch our website for Upcoming Events and email: firstname.lastname@example.org . The next graduation at the GEO Lockhart Unit is April 17 and the Bryan Federal Prison Camp graduation is May 6. Other dates are pending.