Reentry and Integration Division
Walking free - now what?
This fall, the state is changing the way it releases men who have paid their debt to society
By Dane Schiller, Staff Writer
May 9, 2010, 11:09 PM
HUNTSVILLE — The first steps to freedom aren't between opening steel gates or beneath menacing guard towers, but through double glass doors and down the stairs to 12th Street.
It's just about the only way out alive from the Texas prison system.
About 90 percent of male prison inmates in the state are sent here for the home stretch of their sentence before being released back into society. That's around 32,600 ex-convicts a year who, ready or not, are funneled back into the streets through this town, an hour's drive north of Houston.
“Dazed and confused,” Gerald Butterfield said when asked how it felt to be back in the free world after 20 years. “It doesn't compute.”
Butterfield, convicted of an especially heinous burglary and rape in Williamson County, said he hoped to get back to Michigan, but his prison-issued bus voucher was good only to the Texas state line.
Those who have completed their sentences like Butterfield, as opposed to being released under the supervisory eye of parole, are free to go unsupervised with no safety net.
But this generations-old tradition at the 161-year-old prison Walls Unit — which has held Indian chiefs, gunslingers, horse thieves and Civil War prisoners — is about to change.
To save money and time, the Legislature mandated that starting in September, inmates will be released from at least six regional prisons — places closer to their homes.
Nearly a third, 27 percent, of the inmates released from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will be back behind bars within three years, according to state statistics. Those numbers concern state authorities who are evaluating how to improve the way ex-inmates are sent back into the free world.
Some loved ones wait
Within seconds of their release from Huntsville's Ellis Unit, luckier ex-convicts fell into the arms of teary-eyed mothers, children or wives who had not forgotten them and were waiting across the street under the shade trees.
“We have unconditional love; it is something we started as teenagers,” said Eva Gamez, who on a recent morning waited for her husband for 17 years. She held a hanger with a pair of men's pants and a shirt.
Most are on their own.
They make a quick left along 12th, which runs along the outside edge of a high brick wall topped with razor wire, and begin a journey back into a world that has gone on without them.
Many hold out hope friends or relatives will give them a place to stay or that a church shelter will offer a hot meal and a cot.
Each of the men released wore a pair of prison-donated used street clothes and have a state-issued check for $100, a voucher for a bus ticket home. Parolees get $50 and are told where to report next.
Two blocks up a slight hill is the Greyhound station as well as a place where they can cash their checks and buy a pack of cigarettes or clothes.
One said he wanted to see a movie. Another needed a Dr Pepper. A guy who robbed a convenience store was headed to a feast prepared by his mother.
‘Go be a good guy’
A recovering alcoholic who had multiple drunken driving offenses found religion and plans to remarry his wife, this time in a church.
“Tell them Little Reeso” is back,” said a smiling, heavily tattooed Maurice Martin, who was headed for Houston after his imprisonment for robbing a drug dealer thick with cash.
He spent his last six months in solitary confinement for fighting, said Martin, who prides himself on still having all his teeth, despite the violence inmates face. Now he says he just wants an honest job.
“I have changed, and I will be better if you look at me a different way,” he said. “Give me a chance.”
A prison ministry estimates that on any given day, 30 percent of the men have no idea where they will end up their first night, a recipe for disaster.
“Lock 'em up and dump 'em out,” said Emmett Solomon, founder of Restorative Justice Ministries. “It makes no sense to lock a person up with 2,000 bad guys for six years and after six years, open the door and say, ‘go be a good guy.' ”
News that Butterfield, the rapist, was freed was chilling for Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who for years successfully fought any early release. But Butterfield has completed his entire sentence.
“There is no question in my mind this guy did not get better in prison; somebody somewhere will face his violence,” said Bradley, a member of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's new Re-entry Task Force looking at how to better bring convicts back into society.
Feeling out of place
Ex-convicts need to end up with a place to live, a way to get a job and some avenue of not going right back into prison, Bradley said.
Some of the men were likely menacing on the cell block, but fresh on the streets, seem out of place in this small central Texas city.
“They are in a surreal world, their brains are overloaded,” said Bill Kleiber, a prison missionary and ex-convict himself.
Kleiber, who often greets those being released with a friendly “welcome back, brother,” is known to hand out Bibles and offer help to those wanting to stay out of trouble on the way home or find a place to sleep.
“Every one of these men is in some state of shock,” he said.
Kleiber offers cheese-burgers and fries from the hood of his pickup.
“I am glad to be a free man,” said Latravan Kinney, 26, who served eight years for robbing a convenience store. ”I am happy to have a second chance in society.”