As one of many volunteers with the Freedom Bus Ministry, I have, on occasion, felt moved to record my experiences on a personal level. These writings I shared with friends on Facebook as my “Freedom Bus Diaries” in an attempt to convey why I am devoted to this ministry and what it means to me, individually. Now, I am sharing them here so that those visiting this site to learn more about the ministry can hear the personal perspective. Over time, we have been forced to adapt our routines and approaches to changing circumstances, so what you read here may, in some instances, not reflect the way we currently do things in this ministry. But the way the work impacts the women we serve, as well as the way it impacts us personally, as volunteers, is the same today as when these diaries were written. Thank you for reading my Freedom Bus Diaries. Kathie Gallagher
It was December 23, 2015, the last day to get out of jail before Christmas and we were expecting a big release. We did, in fact, end up serving 16 women arriving in two shifts, far more than on a typical Wednesday. But what stands out in my mind is not the chaos and busyness of that day or the great turnout of volunteers for which I was, and always am, extremely grateful. What stands out is just one small moment, a brief exchange with one woman that tugged at my heart and continues to make me teary eyed every time it comes to mind.
We were standing in the Greyhound bus station, several of the women still in line to cash in bus vouchers, others borrowing volunteer cell phones to call home. A thin, blonde woman stood next to me using my phone to talk to family members. Sadly, I cannot remember her name. The station was noisy and I was alternately talking with several different women regarding their situations and with volunteers about how we could address various needs, multiple conversations going on all around me. I was vaguely aware that the woman using my phone was speaking with different family members as they passed the phone on their end around from one to another. I heard her voice catch several times, struggling with the intense emotion the moment must have invoked.
Finally she told the party on the other end that there were others waiting to use my phone. She said, “I love you. I can’t wait to see you,” and with a final “goodbye” she handed the phone back to me. Then her eyes brimmed with tears and her voice wavered as she said, “My son…his voice changed.” The words caught in her throat as the tears spilled over. “He’s 15 and his voice changed while I was away. He didn’t sound like that when I left.”
In that moment I had to fight to keep my own tears at bay. I put my arms around her and hugged her and told her it was going to be ok, which, I realized was a very trite and unhelpful thing to say. But anything more meaningful escaped me in the emotion of the moment.
I wish I had told her that he still needed her. At 15, the person behind that manly voice was still just a kid who, whether he could admit it or not, was going to be glad to have his mom back. We both knew there was no getting back what she had lost. But I wish I had offered her the simple reminder that there was a lot of mothering still left to do and she had a lot of motivation to make the best of the time that was left. I suppose my own emotional reaction got in the way of finding those words for her. As the mother of two grown sons, the thought of missing that transitional phase of their lives filled me with empathy but left me without the tools to express it in a more helpful way.
There was much to do, much busyness and noise around us, and as the moment passed, we collected ourselves and I got back to the tasks of passing my phone around, asking about bus schedules, addressing food and clothing concerns. But later as I drove home, I teared up again thinking about that mom and her 15 year old son. The brief moment settled on my heart. a frozen, crystalized moment in time that reflected both the light of joy that is my love for my own sons and the shadow of loss one mom can feel in empathy for another.
When I got home I had the chance to hug both my sons, as the older is usually around and the younger was home from college on Christmas break. Later that evening I found myself sitting across from the youngest, looking at him, filled with love and the emotions of the day. I tried to relate the earlier moment to him, with my voice catching and my eyes starting to brim again. I’m certain my emotional response made very little sense to him and probably seemed over the top in that “it’s a mom thing” sort of moment my sons have learned to accept without fully understanding. Nevertheless, he did exactly the right thing. He put his arms around me, hugged me tightly, and said, “It’s ok, Mom. I love you too.”
I don’t know why the thin blonde woman was in prison, what she did, or why she did it. I don’t know how much time was lost during that separation between mother and child. I do know that both parents and children grieve deeply the separation that comes when a parent is incarcerated and I wish that, as a society, we would look for better ways of dealing with non-violent crime; ways that do not involve breaking up families. Every week, when we pray with newly released women, we ask for healing and wholeness in their families. For what is broken to be put back together again, even with the cracks and scars. And quietly, in my heart, I pray for big hugs and for the women to hear the words,, “It’s ok, Mom. I love you too.” Kathie Gallagher
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
“Let’s just admit it. A woman’s gotta have her chocolate.” There were giggles and nods of agreement with my friend Pixie’s confession as we all savored the sweet deliciousness of the chewy brownies being shared around the table. “Oh, this is heaven!” “It’s been sooo long since I had chocolate!” “Oh, it’s too good!” These were the exclamations that accompanied sighs and sounds of pleasure as we reveled in the sweet treat. Leave out a few reference words here and there and a group of men would have concluded we were talking about sex. Only women would have this kind of conversation in reference to chocolate.
Pixie and I had just shared lunch with a group of 7 other women, all of whom had been dropped off by the prison van less than an hour earlier. They had clearly enjoyed the burgers from McDonald’s but the brownies were the big hit on this day and they were finished off in short order. Aside from chocolate, the main topic of conversation was children. “I have 4 boys and 2 girls.” “I have 3. The youngest just turned 2. I missed his birthday, but not by much.” Whatever wrong turn it was that landed these ladies in prison, they were still moms and they had missed their children terribly. We’re moms too. And grandmoms. We empathized. But today we gave thanks for freedom and going home and reunions and new beginnings. There was a lot to smile about.
And so, with lunch over, it was time for “shopping.” Or, at least, the closest thing to a shopping trip these ladies had experienced in a long time. They got to pick out clothes. And shoes! And handbags! Oh My! Granted, they were used clothes and the choices were somewhat limited. But they weren’t prison clothes. The garments they arrived in were tossed away with relish as were the red grapefruit bags they were given to carry their few possessions: letters from loved ones, a Bible, medications, photographs. These they packed into attractive tote bags along with the toiletries we offered. “A real tooth brush!” “Deodorant!” “Look, hand lotion! Oh my skin has gotten so dry, thank you so much!” And then it occurs to one woman, it would be ok to ask about the one item she needs most at this moment: “Do you have any tampons?” Of course.
Time to accessorize. I showed one of the ladies our selection of donated jewelry. “Oooo! Girly stuff!” she exclaimed. Yes, we have girly stuff. A pair of earring maybe? A bracelet with pretty blue stones to go with that blue shirt? A ribbon or a scrunchy to tie back your hair? Or perhaps a cap. A pretty dark haired lady picked out a glittery gold baseball cap that she perched on her head at a jaunty angle. It gave her a kind of Christina Aguilar look and all the other women complimented her and one another on their transformation from prisoner to person. Indeed, prison has a way of stealing one’s humanity but oddly enough, a change of clothes and a glittery gold cap can go a long way toward restoring it.
Later, when all the ladies had been escorted to the Greyhound station, ready to board buses to homes around the state, Pixie and I got into our cars and drove home. Along the way, I thought about all the ladies we’d met, about how different our lives had been and yet how much we still had in common. And I thought, as I always have, that it is that woman to woman connection that makes this ministry click. My friends and I, the volunteers in this ministry, have never been locked up in prison. And yet we know instinctively what these newly released women need and we quickly bond with them over things both simple and profound: Chocolate brownies. Motherhood. The terrible ache of separation from children and grandchildren. Photographs of the ones we miss. Clothes shopping. Hand lotion. Feminine hygiene products. Jewelry and other glittery accessories. Girly stuff, both simple and profound. Kathie Gallagher
Her demeanor was puzzling to us. She obviously needed help but she was so reluctant to accept it. Jessy had climbed out of the back of the prison van a free woman on a busy downtown Houston street along with two other newly released prisoners. Our ministry group greeted them warmly and explained that we had come to offer our assistance. We knew they likely had little or no money and that they would be hungry. The prison fed them breakfast at 3:45 A.M. and they probably wouldn’t get another chance to eat until they were able to make contact with friends or family. They had to figure out how to do that and they needed to make phone calls. They needed to lose the “prison look” so they would not be viewed as easy prey by pimps and drug dealers.
We suggested walking across the street to our ministry space where we could offer hamburgers, properly fitting clothes, and use of our cell phones. The other two ladies trusted us immediately. After all, it probably seemed unlikely that a group of middle aged suburban women standing on a street corner in a run down part of town had come there with sinister motives. Plus, word gets around. They had been hoping we’d be there to meet them.
But Jessy was reluctant. She smiled shyly and said, “No thank you.” Could we just tell her how to get to the county jail? We tried to discern more. Why the county jail? Did she have any family in Houston? Did the prison give her a voucher for a Greyhound bus so she could travel elsewhere? She really didn’t want to talk to us but we finally figured out that she had a friend who lived a short distance from the county jail. If someone would tell her how to get to the jail, she could walk to her friend’s house. She had no bus fare. She wouldn’t know what bus to take if she did. We offered to let her call her friend to see if she could pick her up. No, the friend didn’t have a phone.
She began to understand that her only options were to allow us to help her or trust someone else. We certainly weren’t very scary looking. She decided she would go across the street with us and get something to eat. She ate a burger and chips but turned down the offer of a cookie. “No sweets,” she said. “That’s how I lost my teeth.” She was missing 3 lower front teeth which marred her otherwise pretty face and smile.
Her clothes hung like loose bags so she decided she’d accept something to wear, but she was obviously reluctant. She seemed shy and spoke very little. She brushed her hair and tied it back, a huge improvement over the scraggly tangled mess she walked in with. But she wouldn’t accept any jewelry.
As we ate and distributed the clothing we talked with all three women about their plans for getting wherever they needed to go. The others made several phone calls and eventually had arrangements set up. Jessy made no calls. The one friend she could go to didn’t have a phone. We told her we would walk with her to the nearby metro station and figure out what bus to take to get to the county jail. We would give her bus fare. But we were worried. She seemed so lost. Would she be able to find her way? What if her friend didn’t even live there anymore? But she was adamant. That was where she wanted to go.
When everyone was ready we prayed together for God’s protection and for his power and strength in their lives and we gave thanks for friends and family and for second chances. Two of the women, including Jessy, needed to go the metro station. The other was going to McDonald’s to wait for a friend who had promised to come for her. As we walked down the block we talked about the wonderfully, unseasonably, cool weather and the breeze that an earlier rain had brought to us. We walked past homeless people and detoured around a blocked sidewalk warning of dangerous debris falling from an abandoned building. But our new friends breathed in their freedom with obvious exhilaration. “Outside’ was beautiful to them.
We had to walk past the McDonald’s to get to the metro station, so it was easy to show everyone where they needed to go. Once at the metro we went inside to the information window. Jessy was given a bus number to get to the county jail and told she could catch it on the platform outside. The other woman with us needed to get on the metro rail from another platform. We said goodbyes and split up, heading in different directions. My ministry partners on this day went with the other ladies. I walked out to the platform with Jessy. “Would you like me to wait with you until your bus gets here?” I asked. “Yes!” she replied, with the most certainty and confidence I had heard from her all afternoon. Surprised by her unexpected change in demeanor, I said, “OK. I’d be happy to.”
Then, as a whirlwind gush of information poured from her, everything suddenly became clear. “I was afraid to trust you,” she revealed. “One time before, someone gave me some help, food and other things. But it was a trick. They played a trick on me, so I was afraid of you.” It seems Jessy had been down on her luck and desperately in need of help. She trusted a stranger who gave her something to eat and some things she needed. But it was not the kind gift she thought it was. The stranger demanded tit for tat. I did something for you, now you have to do something for me. Jessy ended up serving time for prostitution.
I often wonder how, by the grace of God, I came to live in my shoes when so many others here in my own city live a life of one hardship after another. No doubt Jessy made plenty of bad choices along the way, but you know what? So have I. I can’t judge her because I haven’t lived her life. And the life I have lived has been littered with sin and mistakes and wrong headed choices. Yet, here I sit, typing on my laptop in my comfortable home about a woman who had to force herself to accept our help and pray that it wasn’t a trap. I felt honored that she had, finally, decided she could trust us.
I hugged Jessy tightly before she got on her bus. It was hard to see her go. I would have preferred to take her to a homeless shelter but it was not my decision to make. Yet I knew there was no guarantee her friend would still be living in the same location or that she would be willing and able to offer a place to stay and a chance to start again. When the bus pulled away it was time to meet back up with my friends and head home. But as I walked away from the platform I prayed that Jessy would be able to find the welcoming friend she was looking for. It was, in my mind, such a slim hope to pin a future on.
* Not her real name.
Every one of the women we serve has her own story and each of us, my friends and I, connect with them individually in different ways. We all keep our own “Freedom Bus Diaries” in our hearts. My thanks to all the other “church ladies” who stand on Webster Street to meet the prison van. I am blessed to stand with you. Kathie Gallagher
I live in Humble, TX., a suburban area to the northeast of Houston. Every Wed. I go with a group of women from my church to the Greyhound Bus Station in downtown Houston. We stand at the corner of Webster and Main and wait for a white, windowless van to arrive and disgorge its passengers. The driver and prison guard opens the back door and unlocks the metal cage and the women step out, squinting in the blinding Texas sun after the dark inside the back of the van. The driver calls their names, hands them each a piece of paper, gets back in the van, and drives away. This is the way Texas releases its state prisoners, after they have served their time in jail.
Sometimes they are dressed in prison whites, but more often they are in donated civilian clothes that were tossed (indiscriminately, apparently) to them as they prepared for the journey. Often, the clothes are so ill-fitting they are pathetic.
Each woman carries either a red grapefruit bag or, if she’s lucky, a white mesh laundry bag that contains her few possessions: books she has accumulated in prison, a bible, her collection of letters, a month’s worth of medication, if she takes any. She wears brown canvas prison issue shoes. She is dazed and confused about what to do next. Everything about her appearance screams, “Vulnerable target, just out of prison,” to the local drug dealers and pimps. Given the chance, they will whoosh down upon these women to offer their “assistance.” But not today.
Today is Wednesday and the church ladies are there waiting for them. Arrival time for the prison van is unpredictable. We try to be there when it pulls up to the curb but sometimes it comes early and we have to walk around and look for the women when we get there after they do. They are easy to spot, but we try to meet the van when it arrives because we feel very protective. We surround them like long lost family, giving hugs and welcoming them to freedom. We find out who’s going where. We walk with them around the corner to the bus station entrance. No one is messing with our ladies today. They have all the assistance they need, thank you very much. Some have a Greyhound voucher to get to wherever they call home. We wait with them while they stand in line to cash in their vouchers for tickets. Others have family in Houston but no way to contact them. No money for a metro ticket or even a phone call. Our cell phones become their lifeline.
When bus tickets are in hand, most will have to wait two or more hours before they leave. It’s about noon. They had breakfast at 3:45 that morning. They have no money to eat again until they reach their families, if they have families waiting for them. We offer them a hamburger, escorting our new friends across the street to a room behind the Salvation Army service center. The Salvation Army has allowed us to use this room for our work with these ladies. We all eat together, hamburgers from McDonald’s, chips, and canned soda. The women laugh and tell us it’s the best hamburger they’ve ever eaten in their lives.
Now it’s time for clothes. Jeans or capris and a shirt that fits make them look and feel human again. The prison issue shoes are discarded and they choose from bins of donated sandals, flip flops and sneakers. Baskets of donated jewelry allow them to choose a bracelet or pair of earring. We give them bags with toiletries and help them transfer their possessions from the mesh prison bags to various totes, duffels, and purses that our congregations have collected. They look and feel like entirely different people. Their confidence soars. They are not prisoners anymore. They are just travelers, like all the other passengers who will board the Greyhound.
Some of the Houston ladies have gotten through to family on our cell phones. If no one can pick them up, we give them fare for the metro. We form a circle and pray for God’s love and strength to surround them as they reenter society and confront old problems. We all walk back across the street to the Greyhound station. The women don’t look or feel so vulnerable anymore and their confidence helps keep the predators at bay. Hugs are exchanged and goodbyes said and we watch the traveling women as they get in line to go through security before boarding buses.
We confirm that any remaining Houston ladies have arrangements either to be picked up by family or to catch the metro. Everyone has to have a plan for getting home and the means to carry out the plan before we will leave. But sometimes, there is no home to go to. Family doesn’t want them back or they have no family that cares enough to be bothered. But we don’t leave them there on the street. We drive them to a women’s shelter and we contact someone who can work with them to find housing. We often don’t know what happens after we leave them at the shelter, but making sure they don’t spend that first night on the street is at least something we can do and it puts them in contact with others who have services we can’t offer.
I mentioned that I do this every Wednesday. But prisoners are dropped off on Webster Street 5 days a week, year round. My church began this work after learning about it through another congregation that meets the ladies every Friday. But every time we drive away and head home, it’s always there: a little nagging voice that says, “What about tomorrow? No one will be there to meet the ladies who are dumped on a downtown sidewalk, dazed and vulnerable. What about Monday and Tuesday? “
The women sometimes say to us, as they step out of the van, “Are you the church ladies? I’ve heard about you. I was hoping you’d be here on the day I got out.” I am a progressive Christian and until I began this work, the phrase “church lady” conjured up in my mind the Saturday Night Live caricature of the 1970’s. It was not a designation I would have appreciated. However, now I find it pleases me a great deal to be able to respond, “Yes, we’re the church ladies. Are you hungry? Do you need to use a phone?” Kathie Gallagher
Erica is 62 years old. I met her Wednesday at the Greyhound station in downtown Houston. That’s where the prison van had dropped her off that morning after she had served her time. She didn’t have a voucher for a bus ticket because she was from Houston. Unfortunately, being “from Houston” didn’t mean she had a place to go in Houston. She had been homeless when she was arrested.
Dropped off on a side street along with 5 other ladies, they assisted her in hobbling around the corner to the bus station entrance. Erica had very recently had hip surgery in prison and was not fully recovered. But the walker she was using had been taken from her. It was state property and had to be left behind. Three of the ladies waited outside. They had managed to contact friends or family in Houston and were waiting for their rides to arrive. The other two helped her inside where she was able to sit down on a bench. They went to stand in line to cash in their vouchers for bus tickets to Amarillo. They were expected at a drug rehab program there for a three month stay before they could go home. Failure to arrive would mean a return to prison.
Erica looked like the homeless lady she was. A security guard wanted to know why she was loitering around the bus station. Unless she was about to get on a bus, she would have to leave. She was waiting on her friends, in line to buy tickets, she said. She was close to a panic attack when we found her there.
The prison bus ministry meets these newly released ladies at the Greyhound station to assist them in those first few hours after release. Hours that are both exhilarating as the drink in freedom and terrifying in the sense of being alone and penniless in a strange place. We introduce ourselves to looks of great relief and gratitude.
The bus to Amarillo won’t leave for a couple of hours. We take our new friends across the street to a room behind the Salvation Army office. The SA has loaned us use of the space and we have hamburgers, clothes, toiletries, and prayers waiting for them. We sit and eat together and they share a little of their personal stories. We find clothes for them to replace the ill- fitting garments they were given at the prison. One lady is beside herself with relief that we can offer her some sanitary products for the long bus ride to Amarillo.
Most importantly, we have a walker we can give to Erica. It had just been donated and brought in two days before. God is good. She moves much better now. She says, “Bless you” to us about a hundred times. She asks if we have any ibuprofen. I find some in my purse. She changes into a pair of tan slacks and a pretty lime green knit top. From a basket of donated jewelry, she takes a silver tone necklace with lime green beads on it and a matching pair of silver and lime green earrings. She finds an unexpected treasure in her new toiletry kit: A small sample size lipstick. She dabs a little on. Erica the homeless lady is now Erica, somebody’s grandma.
We circle up in prayer, then head back across the street to the bus station. Erica makes the journey across more easily this time, with ibuprofen in her system and a walker instead of another person to lean on. At the station we say our goodbyes to the ladies headed off to Amarillo and they get in line to move through security.
Meanwhile, one of our volunteers, Betty, has been working her cell phone. There is a lady who volunteers in the prison and has her own ministry to those coming out with no where to go. Erica had her cell phone number and Betty calls her. She starts working on finding Erica some housing. She will call us back. Meanwhile, we can take Erica to Sally’s House for the night, but she will have to leave first thing in the morning. Sally’s House is a women’s shelter run by the Salvation Army. It’s a good place. We pile in the car and head that direction. Erica sees police officers on bicycles and starts to reminisce. She and her brothers and sisters used to pull a wagon behind their Schwin and pretend it was a bus, stopping at each driveway in the neighborhood, which were the bus stops. “Those were really good times,” she says wistfully.
The call back comes. Our contact will pick Erica up first thing in the morning and get her into a longer term shelter until she can arrange permanent housing. We’ve worked with her before. We know her to be a reliable, caring, woman of God. Erica will be in good hands. We arrive at Sally’s House and ring the bell. A wonderful, sweet lady comes out and embraces us. We have met her before and she is familiar with our ministry. She thanks us for helping Erica find her way to shelter at Sally’s. We say our goodbyes and Erica says, “I can’t thank you all enough. You have been such a blessing to me.” We crawl back in the car to head home, knowing that we have received a far greater blessing from her. Kathie Gallagher