HOUSTON — In the women’s block of the Harris County Jail, 20 women who share a dormitory cell discussed shameful slivers of their past and belted out simple affirmations as part of an exercise.
“To get well, you got to tell,” they called in unison.
Phrases like those are meant to help the women avoid re-entering lives of homelessness and prostitution after they have served their jail sentences. They are participating in a program called “We’ve Been There Done That," whose unconventional curriculum and charismatic leader have attracted attention across the country.
Kathryn Griffin’s program, which came to the jail this year, includes lessons on the “poor old me” syndrome, how to like yourself and re-establishing healthy relationships with men. Participants must serve a minimum of 90 days in the program, time that counts toward their sentence.
The women often hesitate to share humiliating details of how their lives took turns that eventually landed them in jail.
But Griffin, 53, is quick to address their silence.
"Can't nobody point no finger at anybody else,” she told Tricia Chambers at a recent session. “How you going to point when you got all of these fingers pointed back at you?"
Some 18 to 20 women, chosen by Griffin, take part in the program at one time. Several have a history of having been sexually abused. Some are victims of domestic human trafficking, sold as children by their parents.
"I'm not getting off free,” Chambers said. “I'm still looking at possibly nine months state jail, but I'm okay with that. Because when they cut my band at state jail, Kathy will be there to pick me up."
Griffin assures the women that she will be their recovery coach for up to five years following their release.
“Nobody starts off just wanting to be a prostitute,” Griffin said.
She certainly did not.
While touring as a singer with Rick James in 1983, Griffin became addicted to cocaine and turned to prostitution to support her habit.
After two decades of amassing drug and prostitution offenses, "I was facing up to 35-to-life," she said.
It was a turning point. She completed a drug treatment program and served her sentence. While volunteering at Houston City Hall, she met Adrian Garcia, then a city councilman and now the Harris County sheriff. She credits him with establishing the county re-entry program for prostitutes.
“I am grateful for her commitment to help others who are currently traveling a journey that she knows all too well,” Garcia said.
Before starting her work in the jail, Griffin offered a version of her program at Houston-area outreach agencies. She provided the services on her own dime and helped the women pay for rent, bus passes, food, their kids' clothes — so they could stay out of the life.
"Ever since I got started, I used my royalties from 'Let's Get It On.' My father wrote that song for Marvin Gaye and a lot of other songs,” Griffin said.
In February, three Harris County judges began sentencing women on prostitution charges to the program. Since then, dozens of women have completed it.
This legislative session, Griffin successfully lobbied to pass a law that created mandatory prostitution courts with a focus on rehabilitation.
“We only have so many criminal justice dollars, and we need to apply them, in my judgment, towards the areas where we’re afraid of the perpetrators,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. “We’re not afraid of prostitutes. We’re just mad at them.”
A spokesman for the Harris County sheriff said that since the legislation passed, jurisdictions as far away as New York, Philadelphia and Seattle have inquired about the diversion program. Dallas and Corpus Christi already run similar diversion programs.
On Aug. 1, the program will expand to help 57 male inmates Griffin has identified as human trafficking survivors. Many of them became prostitutes; some became pimps.
For now, Griffin is focused on helping participants start new lives and mentor others to do the same.
“I know that I was not created to be a prostitute or a drug addict,” Griffin said, “but because this entered into my life, I learned how to turn this misery into a ministry that covers all levels."