RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Huntsville, Texas is one of the largest prison towns in America. Last year, 21,000 inmates were released here and walked to freedom. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice gives each of them $50 or $100 depending on whether they're paroled or discharged for time served. They also get a bus ticket back to their county of residence. For most of the men, their new life begins at the Huntsville Greyhound station, the first place they'll go without bars, guards or inmate counts. NPR's John Burnett paid a visit to that station and spoke with some of the men in their first moments of freedom.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Monday through Friday, the glass doors swing open in front of the imposing redbrick prison they call the walls and out come the ex-convicts. Some smiling, some pensive, they shuffle along the sidewalk swinging potato sacks full of belongings. They've already changed from their prison whites into bad-fitting street clothes donated by a church. For a lucky few, family awaits. Most of them don't have loved ones waiting. Most of them continue walking the two blocks to the bus station, single file, out of habit. The first stop is usually the bus station store where they can cash their release checks, buy some more appealing street wear and get their first taste of tobacco which is forbidden inside Texas prisons.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You all need anything from back here? There are cigarettes. If somebody - y'all just let me know. I can take it out of your check.
BURNETT: The next stop is the ticket counter for an audience with the formidable manager of the Huntsville Greyhound station, Elroy Thomas. He's been here for 24 years exchanging vouchers for bus tickets and sending inmates home.
ELROY THOMAS: When I first came to work here, inmates were called convicts - convicted felons. It went from them being convicts to them being inmates, went from inmates to offenders. And now they are called clients. And I tell them you're not a client of mine. (Laughter).
BURNETT: Repeat clientele is what bothers Elroy Thomas. Some of the released inmates show up here at the ticket counter again and again.
THOMAS: Now everybody coming through here today, y'all are going to tell me that you've never been here before.
STEPHEN HUMPHRIES: I've been here too many times. I can't talk.
THOMAS: He's been here six times, six times.
HUMPHRIES: Yes, sir. It ain't...
THOMAS: And I'll see you in about a year.
HUMPHRIES: No. You know what? The seventh is a charm. And I'm not coming back no more. Beautiful women and drugs do not mix. (Laughter).
BURNETT: The man who has concluded that drugs and beautiful women are a poor combination is a 51-year-old convicted drug dealer from Rockport, Texas named Stephen Humphries. His skin has a prison pallor, and there are dark circles under his eyes. He's asked what it's like to be free.
HUMPHRIES: I'm not really happy. I don't know why I'm not really happy. That's what's really freaking me out. I mean, I know I'm free. But I don't feel free. You know, I - everything's coming to me at once. You know, getting your leg monitored. You've got a deal with, though. So I've got all this stuff on my mind right now. And I'm worried about if I'm going to make it. I have no intentions to go back to selling drugs again and doing drugs. I've got to stay clean. Or I'm going to come back, and I'm going to die in prison.
BURNETT: Statistics tell us that 1 out of every 5 of these released inmates will re-offend and return to prison after three years. On the outside, they won't find a decent job or a supportive family. They'll get in trouble again with the same faces in the same places. The men know it's going to be tough out there, but right now what they want most is what they've been missing.
GLENN HOLMES: My name is Glenn Holmes. I'm from Houston, Texas. Evading arrest, I did two and a half years. First thing is I'm going to get me some seafood, fried fish, shrimp, you know, hush puppies - something real nice and tasty. Then I'm going to sit down and have a long talk with my kids because they have done things while I've been locked up that they shouldn't have done. But, you know, who was there to guide them? I'm very jittery because I hope things fall in place as I planned. And I know some things don't come as we plan. But I'm praying and asking God to lead me each day to accomplish what I need to accomplish and stay in this free world.
BURNETT: The mood in the waiting room is subdued. The former offenders sit on steel benches chatting or keeping to themselves. After serving a seven year sentence for armed robbery, the first thing for Damian Francis is to call home.
DAMIAN FRANCIS: Mama, hey. Well, I'm out right now. I'm at the Greyhound bus station. Where am I going when I get to Houston?
BURNETT: After the call, Francis sits down stiffly, puts his sack on the floor and holds his bus ticket as though waiting for someone to tell them what to do next.
FRANCIS: It hasn't really sunk in yet that I'm a free man because, like I say, the last good part of my life has been in incarceration. I don't have that structure no more. Prison was a safe zone by comparison to what's going on out here in the real world. Now I've got to deal with other people's issues. You know what I'm saying? I can't just go to my cell and be left alone when I want to now. I can already tell there's going to be some tension just by talking to my mama for three hot minutes on the phone - you know? - 'cause she's still got the same picture in her mind of the person that I was pre-incarceration rather than the person that I am now.
BURNETT: Damian Francis reaches into his property sack and pulls out 11 manila envelopes, each a half inch thick.
FRANCIS: I've written 11 urban novels since I've been locked up. I've written some fantasy. I've written some erotica, (laughter) Apocalyptic Love Affair, volumes one and two. Some things that have been on my mind, you know? That's what I hope to be able to do, to become a published writer - you know what I'm saying? - an author. Maybe see if I can't get a screenplay or something, write the next "Hunger Games." (Laughter).
BURNETT: Most days there's a white-haired man in a cowboy hat and suspenders sauntering around the premises offering help and advice to the dazed ex-convicts. He is Bill Kleiber, founder of a group called Restoration Justice Ministries Network. Just before a bus leaves for Houston, Kleiber forms a group of men into a circle.
BILL KLEIBER: We've just got to go follow the rules. It's not that hard. I got out 14 years ago. You can do it. We just messed up. Just move on, OK? All right, here we go. Father God, we just thank you for this day. We thank you for the gift of life. And we thank you for setting us free, not just from prison but in our hearts and in our minds.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: All right, let me have your ticket stubs.
BURNETT: The men line up at the door of the big silver coach to hand their tickets to a parole officer.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: San Antonio, be there at 10:40 tonight. You change buses in Houston.
BURNETT: The free prisoners settle into the most comfortable seats they've felt in a long time.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: There should be no smoking or use of alcohol on this coach. If you are caught, you will be dismissed.
BURNETT: And they watch the Huntsville bus station pass from view, hoping this is the last time they ever make this trip. John Burnett, NPR News, Huntsville, Texas.
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