Jennifer Toon’s complex journey through the Texas prison system

When Jennifer Toon was offered parole, she was ecstatic and ready to be back with her family in Kilgore. The excitement soon faded when she found out the halfway house she was assigned to was five hours away from her hometown. Toon is the Loop's newest criminal justice columnist, and she takes us along a complex journey through the Texas prison system.

Photography by Yasmeen Khalifa

It was still dark outside when I walked to the prison library with a stack of books to start my day of work. It was June of 2018 and I had been in prison nine long years. Though I had made a life and friends here, I still longed for home.

The officers and my fellow inmate coworkers were uncharacteristically quiet when I came in the door. The officer handed me a piece of paper. Now everyone seemed unsettled. I took the note from her hand with mounting anxiety. Was this a write up? Am I in trouble? I opened it slowly, anticipating the worst.

Then there it was. The answer I had been hoping for was finally in my hands. I had finally made parole.

The onlookers broke out in applause as my knees went weak. I burst into laughter. Everyone in the building swarmed me. “Congratulations!” “Well deserved Toon!” “You are an amazing person, you finally made it girl!” “You’ve done a good job during your time. It will all pay off. You’re gonna do great.”

I felt a surge of confidence. Despite all the mistakes that led me to prison so many years ago, it was possible to change, and to become a better citizen. If my jailers embraced and believed in me, I had no reason to think that my home community, Kilgore, wouldn’t.

Little did I know how difficult my journey would be.

Recently I read an article in the Longview News-Journal announcing that a proposal for a halfway house in East Texas had been withdrawn after local officials voiced concerns. I am all too familiar with the need for a program in this area.

My release from prison was contingent upon the completion of programming at the In Prison Therapeutic Community, (ITPC), or also known as the Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facility, (SAFPF). This six-month program would include a transfer from the prison in Gatesville to Henley State Jail in Dayton, Texas. I immediately called my family to break the good news. It was the Friday before Father’s Day in 2018.

“Daddy, I made it. I’m coming home.”

He had plenty of questions about the program, none of which I had answers for yet, but we were content to make the move forward. My mom waited patiently for her turn on the phone, but her excitement was evident.
“Honey, we knew it was all in God’s timing. This is the best Father’s Day gift your dad could have received. This is a new start, you’ll see, everything is going to turn around.”

Dayton was much further than Gatesville. My parents were not able to make the long drive from Kilgore to visit. Their continued emotional support had remained instrumental to my survival in prison during my stay in Gatesville. Physically being able to embrace them and hold their hands, even if for two hours, was enough to see me through the long weeks in between without them. We made it almost a decade, we could wait six more months.

Intensive therapy and counseling in a therapeutic community is not a walk in the park. Classes included cognitive intervention, daily AA peer support groups, alcohol and drug education, communication skills, and process groups. Even on holidays the schedule did not deviate from course. “Ladies, sobriety does not take a holiday.” We were learning to prepare for life on the outside. It was drilled into our heads to ask for help, attend meetings and utilize community resources. We were reassured that our hometown communities would be more than willing and ready to help us to succeed.

Toon in her childhood safe space, the Kilgore Public Library. Photography by Yasmeen Khalifa

Six months would prove to be a bit longer than I expected. I was required to transition to a TDCJ-approved halfway house to complete another two months of outpatient treatment. I hoped there would be one closer to home.

“Ms. Toon, you will be going to the halfway house in Beaumont.”
I was dumbfounded by the news the reentry counselor delivered.
“WHAT?! Beaumont? That’s even further than Dayton. I don’t know anyone there! I’m paroling to my parents’ home in Kilgore. Why would I be sent to Beaumont?”

She sighed and took her glasses off. “I’m sorry. I know that it is not what you want or what we think is best, but it’s all we got. There are no SAFPF TDCJ approved halfway houses in East Texas for females. Almost all the women who are paroling back to that area are sent to Beaumont. It’s the closest thing to East that we have.”

“It’s Southeast by like four or five hours!” She nodded her head. “I know, we try to send y’all to the facility in Fort Worth when they have a bed, but they have their own people to fill beds for first.” I left her office dejected.

I called my dad. He was concerned about me living in an area I didn’t know, and at a distance where they could not make it to visit. “Sugar, we are just too old to make those kinds of trips.” I understood and would have opposed them attempting to. I was already worried about them trying to pick me up.

I arrived in Beaumont and discovered that most of the residents were from Tyler and the surrounding East Texas area. The Beaumont residents who were staying there seemed to transition well, knowing where to locate churches, resource centers, AA meetings and jobs. Us East Texas women bumbled around the best we could. Prospective employers would hesitate when they heard the facility address.

“Are you from Beaumont? If you ain’t, I don’t want to waste my time when you will be leaving in a few months.” Beaumont embraced their own, but had little patience with the rest of us.

I watched with sad envy as the local women went on their weekend passes for free time with their families. They always returned rejuvenated and much more stabilized. I was afraid and lost, not knowing the city or area. After almost a decade in prison, I felt disoriented. The staff were as helpful as they could be, but this wasn’t home.

Finally, my parents picked me up and we made the long journey back to Kilgore. The landscape and the people slowly began to change. Big dually trucks, cowboy hats and mud-caked work boots. Tall trees stretching towards the sky. Home was the scent of pine cones and marshes. I was getting closer to that new life my mom mentioned.

I immediately set about doing what the program trained me to do. But without the supportive services of the halfway house, I stumbled around looking for resources for medical assistance, food, and housing on my own. I hadn’t quite mastered using the internet again. I gathered names of agencies through word of mouth at local AA meetings, but the contact information for most of those resources were outdated.

The few that did exist didn’t seem to understand my unique concerns and needs as a female. No one understood why I felt uncomfortable in support groups comprised almost completely of men, or why I would not accept transportation services which consisted of crowded vans comprised solely of men. I had not been around the opposite sex in almost ten years. I couldn’t get anyone to understand how difficult this adjustment would be.

I also struggled to find a job. Agencies that help with unemployment had no clue what to tell me as an ex-con. I was given a badly photocopied list of the already outdated contacts I had. Silent hostility met my answer to the question that all prospective employers would eventually ask. “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”

It began to occur to me that home, my community, might not really want me here. I had believed you could always go home to the place that raised you and taught you the values you strayed from, but desperately wanted to return to. Where was the unconditional love and support I had seen Beaumont give their own? Would I ever find it here among the pines, among my own community?

Judging by the response to the proposed halfway house, I’ve got a long way to go. It looks like the journey home isn’t over, it’s just beginning.

Jennifer Toon is a formerly incarcerated criminal justice advocate who was born and raised in East Texas. She attended Kilgore High School, and U.T. Tyler, and studied journalism at The University of Houston. She has 25 years of criminal justice involvement inside and outside the gates. Jennifer has written for the state prison newspaper, The Echo, for over ten years and as a freelance writer she has published work with The Texas Observer and The Marshall Project

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