Things don’t always go as planned and when that happens, I find I am only marginally successful at altering my thought processes to adapt to changed circumstances. The day I met Stoney was one of those days and Stoney himself was the new paradigm. When all was said and done that day, I knew that I could have done better if I had a more flexible brain that didn’t take so long to switch gears.
Waiting for the arrival of the prison van can be tedious and frustrating. We all want to be there when it arrives, we all want to help the women stepping off that van, but we sure as hell wish it would be more predictable so we could do our thing and then go on about our business. Last Wednesday was one of those days when it was getting close to 2:00 and still no van. We had been waiting since about 11:30. Every time a white vehicle approached we got our hopes up, only to be disappointed as it pulled close enough for us to acknowledge that it did not have the blue Texas Department of Criminal Justice seal on the side. Then finally it came, the van with the “blue tattoo,” and all the volunteers jumped into gear to race out to meet it as it pulled up along Webster Street.
Only it didn’t make the turn onto Webster. It just kept going. The driver tried to pull up alongside the front of the Greyhound station on Main, only to realize that there was no parking there, no place to stop. So it kept going, all the way through the light at Gray St. Meanwhile, we were chasing after it, realizing there was a new driver who couldn’t figure out where to park, and realizing that wherever the van finally stopped, that’s where we needed to be. It pulled into the parking lot of the McDonald’s at Main and Gray. I had a head start, so I got there first and as the prison guard stepped out of the driver’s door, I said breathlessly, “Whoo, I was afraid you’d keep going and lose us. They usually turn on Webster and park, so we’ve been chasing you down the block.” The guard gave me an odd look and said, “Why are you chasing us?” Ok, so this really was a newbie who didn’t realize that a group of “church ladies” would be there to meet the van and assist the newly released prisoners trying to get from downtown Houston to wherever home happened to be.
“Oh, we’re here as part of a ministry group to assist the ladies after they’re released,” I said.
“You help the offenders when they get out?” she asked.
“Yeah, the ladies.” I replied.
She brightened up and said, “Thank goodness! Maybe you can help this man!”
Wait, darn it, this wasn’t the van we were waiting for after all. This was the men’s van. We usually don’t see the men get dropped off but when we do, we stay focused on the women. Not that we wouldn’t like to help the men, but we have limited resources and volunteers and the women are more vulnerable on downtown streets with no money and no way to call home. If we run into newly released men, we sometimes offer a McDonald’s hamburger because we know they’re hungry too and we sometimes offer use of a cell phone to call home or enough money to hop on the metro if they are Houston locals. But for the most part, we stay focused on our mission, which is serving the newly released female prisoners. But the attitude of this guard prevented me from walking away to wait for the ladies’ van.
Another female guard had stepped out of the front passenger seat and both of them were acting like we were a sight for sore eyes as they jumped into telling us about their prisoner. Now this just doesn’t happen. At worst, the guards who drive the vans are hostile to our presence as if by being there to greet the women we are interfering with their authority. Most just seem indifferent to us while a few are friendly and polite and seem glad that someone is there to help when they drive away. But by this time, all of them know who we are and why we’re there. But they simply do not discuss anything with us regarding the prisoners. They drop off and leave. No discussion.
But these two guards, who had no idea who we were other than what we had told them, quickly launched into an explanation of what they were doing and who they were dropping off and what his situation was and why they were really glad to see us. First of all, they were from Huntsville, which explained quite a lot. Usually, the prison in Huntsville releases prisoners at the Huntsville bus station. The ex-offenders we see in downtown Houston come from facilities in Dayton, a small town with no bus station of its own. So they get transported to the nearest big city, Houston, to the Greyhound station here. So why were Huntsville prison guards bringing a prisoner to Houston for release?
Their passenger, it seems, had been taken to the UTMB medical facility in Galveston for hernia surgery the previous morning. He was close to his release date so rather than take him back to the prison, TDCJ decided to just release him directly from the hospital. No doubt to save money on providing follow up medical care. They sent two guards from Huntsville to Galveston with instructions to pick him up, take him to Houston, and drop him off at the Greyhound station there. I can only assume that they wanted the guards to get him out of TDCJ custody as quickly as possible to avoid any complications that might arise from driving around a prisoner with a one day old surgical incision. Otherwise, why not just drive all the way back to Huntsville and release him there, as was standard? The guards had to continue on back to Huntsville anyway. But their instructions were to leave him in Houston.
So here they were, grateful to grab onto us and leave him in our care rather than just drop and leave. They even handed me some of his paperwork and explained that they had tried to fill his prescription for pain medicine before they left the hospital but the hospital pharmacy was out of Tylenol III and they had to go, so he had no pain medication to get him through his journey. Of course, there was no way for us to help him fill his prescription, because it was to be covered under contract between TDCJ and the hospital system. No local pharmacy would fill it outside of that contract. Did we have any Tylenol or Advil we could give him? Well, yeah, but….
His name was Stoney and he was a tall African American man, and skinny as a rail. The pants they had given him were way too big and in constant danger of falling off. He still had a surgical cap on his head, the ones that look like a shower cap, only made of paper. He struggled out of the back of the van looking confused and dazed. The guards explained that “these ladies are going to help you,” and he responded with thanks. The guards were compassionate and gentle in their handling of him. Clearly, they were uncomfortable with their assignment to leave him there and grateful to turn him over to someone else who might show some compassion. They handed him a voucher for a Greyhound ticket to Waco, and, with that action, he was no longer the responsibility of the State of Texas, so it was time for the guards to head back to Huntsville. One of them suggested, as she left, that he might want to take off that surgical cap, but he wanted to keep it on. Maybe it helped keep his head warm.
It was windy and damp, temperatures in the low 50’s but it felt more like low forties. The first order of business was to get Stoney inside out of the wind, because he had only a light weight cotton shirt, his baggy pants, and his blue surgical cap to keep him warm. We were in the McDonald’s parking lot and considered going inside there, but if he was going to catch a bus out of town, we didn’t want any more delay than necessary in getting him to the station. So one of our volunteers (Dyann) went inside to buy him something to eat, two of our group (Kathy and Cheryl) headed back to Webster Street to watch for the ladies’ van, and I began a slow and tedious shuffle with Stoney back down the block to the Greyhound station.
Now Stoney was stoned. I didn’t make up that name, it was on his hospital records and his offender I.D., but at that point in time it was as descriptive as it was accurate. He was clearly not quite all there, probably either from the lingering effects of anesthesia during surgery, or from pain medication he received while still in the hospital, or both. Regardless, it was difficult to communicate with him so it was good that the guards had explained as much as they had. We went to the counter and were told that the bus to Waco had just left. The next one would not leave until 2:35 A.M. the next morning and he would have a 2 hour layover and transfer in Austin. He would not arrive in Waco until 9:30 A.M. Obviously, this was disturbing news but not unexpected so we cashed in the voucher and got the ticket and, luckily, found a place to sit down. Dyann arrived with some chicken nuggets, french fries, and orange juice, which is what he had requested from McDonald’s.
Normally, we would walk our new arrivals across the street to the Salvation Army facility that loans us some space in a small back room. There we can sit and let them eat a hamburger and change into some street clothes. But we never take any men over there, since we are only set up to serve women, and besides, I really didn’t want to strain Stoney’s incision by having him walk another city block and cross traffic twice to get over there. So we sat in the bus station and Dyann headed over to our space to find him a coat. Stoney was pleasant but spacey and kept picking up his food and putting it back down again, never actually eating. I wanted him to eat because he had a long journey ahead but he clearly didn’t have any appetite. After a while, he became touchy and flirtaceous, kissing my hand, and telling me I was an angel. I was getting uncomfortable. Dyann returned from our mission space with our usual donations for the ladies including a toiletry kit, and a snack bag with crackers, granola bar, and bottled water. She also brought him a pullover sweater and a long black duster coat, probably the only coat we had that could remotely pass as a men’s garment. He fawned over the coat while I tried to convince him to eat something. Dyann had also brought him a travel bag, so since he was in never never land, she began repacking his stuff, transferring it to the travel bag from the white plastic bag he’d been given when he left the hospital.
I had given Stoney three large safety pins and had been trying to persuade him to go into the restroom and pin up his pants, which he had to hold on to every time he stood up. Finally, he decided to do that. I felt a small sense of victory to have finally accomplished that one thing. Hopefully now he would be able to make his journey without losing his pants.
I got a call on my cell from one of our ministry partners who had showed up at our facility across the street with some clothes to donate. I needed to walk over there and accept the donations. While I was there, I would pick up several single dose packages of Advil and Tylenol from our storage room. When the current meds he was on wore off, he would clearly need something else and if we couldn’t fill his prescription, at least we could give him some OTC pain meds. I left Stoney in Dyann’s care while I walked across the street. While I was gone, she had him make a phone call on her cell. He tried to call his niece in Waco, where he was headed, but the number was disconnected. More bad news. He was making a long bus ride to stay with a relative who may or may not still live where he thought she lived and who was unreachable by phone.
A man came up to them and, noticing Stoney’s uneaten meal, said he hadn’t eaten in two days and, if no one was going to eat them, could he please have a chicken nugget? Dyann took the man into the bus station diner and bought him a cheese burger, fries, and a Sprite. Meanwhile, I returned to more unwanted flirtations and hand kissing from Stoney. When Dyann got back from the diner we decided it was time for us to go. We had spent a little over an hour with Stoney. He had a coat, a bus ticket, what pain medicine we could provide, his pants were pinned on, and he had snacks for the bus ride. He was getting huggy and we were getting more uncomfortable with his flirtations. He begged us to stay, but to what end? He had a long wait until his bus would leave and we clearly couldn’t stay the whole time. We wanted to beat the rush hour traffic home and we wanted to get away from his amorous, if harmless, attempts at expressing gratitude.
And so we left him there at the Greyhound station in downtown Houston with his brain fuzzy from surgery and his wound still fresh and hours to go before a long bus ride. And there’s the rub. He was alone. He had major surgery the day before. He was still stoned from that. He might fall asleep and miss his bus. He might open his surgical wound and start bleeding. If he got as far as Austin he’d have a layover and a transfer. How much pain would he be in by that time? As his brain got sharper, his body might start screaming at him.
I go downtown every Wednesday with a mission: meet the women’s prison van and give them the assistance they need to avoid falling prey to the pimps and drug dealers who are eager to take advantage of their vulnerability. Help them cash in their bus vouchers, feed them some lunch, give them an opportunity to call home and arrange for someone to meet their buses. Give them coats and clothes and toiletries and travel snacks. Send them on their way.
And so, confronted with Stoney, I applied that mindset to his situation. Food, warm clothes, and the ministry of presence and hand holding for someone alone in a strange place, unsure about where to go and what to do to get home. Meet basic needs, help them get home, go on my way. The thing is, Stoney had no business sitting all night in a cold bus station in downtown Houston. He had no business taking a bus ride at all. He belonged in bed. Now his situation with his niece was not that unusual based on what we encounter weekly. Many of our ladies have trouble reaching family members by phone. But they are persistent in calling other numbers and they usually have enough presence of mind to make alternative plans. Stoney’s brain was too fuzzy to deal with the issues confronting him. He likely would have done whatever we told him to do. So I keep thinking of all the other options I should have considered. Could I have called an ambulance? Would they have taken him to a county hospital, recognizing that his earlier hospital release probably assumed he would be going to another bed, not making a road trip by bus? Should I have taken him to a homeless shelter where he could at least have had a bed and maybe a social worker? Could the folks across the street at the Salvation Army service center have offered me any other alternatives if I had just asked?
That evening as I sat browsing Facebook, I saw a posting from a cousin who lives in Waco. There was a picture of the snow with a comment about having trouble getting to the airport because the roads were bad. And all I could think was, if Stoney makes it all the way to Waco, will he be able to get to his niece’s house from the bus station? Or will he be sleeping on the sidewalk in the snow? I will never know. Don’t get me wrong. I am not exactly wallowing in guilt and regret. My heart was mostly in the right place even if my brain was stuck in a less helpful gear. And we did offer him some limited help. But still, I can’t help but hope that I learned something here about not getting stuck in a gear that doesn’t suit the situation. About shifting gears when confronted with a new paradigm. My prayer is that Stoney is right now lying in a bed in a warm apartment, healing, with family support. But truthfully, in my gut, I’m not sure I really want to know how things worked out for him. Kathie Gallagher