GIDDINGS — Karwin Archie's Houston childhood consisted of stealing, drugs and “acting like we were grown.”
That lifestyle one day led 14-year-old Archie – along with two best friends and an uncle – to the front door of a drug house. Idle, the group hatched a plan to knock on the door. When someone answered, they would bum-rush their way inside, on the hunt for drugs and cash. The four intruders all had guns.
“We premeditated the whole crime,” recalled Archie, now 36. “We were looking for easy prey.”
Everything went according to plan, until it turned out there were more men inside the house than expected, and they intended to fight back. Archie’s group couldn’t just leave. “It was us or them,” he said.
What was supposed to be easy became a fight ending with two of the three men in the house killed. Archie – convicted of capital murder before reaching age 15 – received a 20-year sentence, and was sent to Giddings State School, a juvenile correctional facility for boys in Lee County where he would stay from 1993 through 1997 before finishing out his time in adult prison.
That four-year stay in Giddings changed his life, he said.
"They saw something better in us"
The Giddings State School resembles a high school more than a correctional facility, with a gym, pool, residence halls and athletic field, although surrounded by high fencing and tight security.
Seated on the gymnasium stage, 20-plus years after his first arrival, Archie's face breaks into an unexpected smile when he realizes who is standing behind him. “Man,” he says, rising to embrace Tony Francis, a former school staffer and Archie's onetime mentor.
“You can still run?,” Francis asks Archie, who ran on the school’s track team.
“What?” Archie replies, feigning offense.
“We got the track out there,” laughs Francis.
Part of a group of youth offenders considered the worst of the worst by some for major crimes including murder, capital murder, aggravated sexual assault and aggravated robbery, Archie was one of 40 former Giddings youth who returned recently not as inmates but thankful adults.
At an assembly for staff and residents in the gymnasium — a reunion in some ways — they talked about how Giddings helped give their lives a 180-degree turn. Many had the same problems growing up: no respect for authority, an inability to communicate civilly and an indifference to what could happen to them along the way.
“I was young. I was rude. I had an attitude problem,” said King Satterwhite, 37, who at 13 was sentenced to 20 years for attempted capital murder in an attack on a pizza delivery man. The two didn’t know each other.
“I still had some things to work on,” he said. “I had some unresolved feelings. A lot of people don’t talk about their problems. They just hold it in."
At Giddings, they were expected to participate in sessions promoting building interpersonal skills and developing empathy for their victims. Juveniles who commit capital murder, attempted capital murder and other offenses involving a weapon or deadly force are included in the Capital and Serious Violent Offender Treatment Program.
They talk about their life stories, and then focus on their crimes. They re-enact twice the crime that landed them in Giddings. The first time, they portray themselves. The second, they play their victims.
“When we talked about it, we cried,” said Satterwhite, who cited issues with his mother as a lingering force behind his aggression. “We never talked about it. It helped me out. A lot to this day.”
Staff members, such as Francis, served as role models, paving the road to treatment, said Archie.
“That’s like my father,” he said, reminiscing about getting into trouble only to learn that Francis was not far behind. “I did something wrong, he’s coming. They were really like parents to us. Parents away from home. They gave us that instruction that was missing at home. They took it personal, into their hearts to take care of us.”
And the youth didn’t make it easy, many former Giddings youth said, recalling fights, moments of bonding and giving staff a hard time.
“We gave them some hell of a headaches,” Archie said. “But they saw something better in us.”
"It's not too late for you"
The stories of reform offered at the recent reunion aren’t isolated ones, Giddings and Texas Juvenile Justice Department officials said. Several thousand youth have passed through Giddings since it opened in 1972. The school offers treatment programs for chemically-dependent offenders and those with mental health impairments.
Some of the youths go on to excel academically and at work, becoming advocates for at-risk youth and leading crime-free lives. Others go on to prison or commit other crimes.
“No one is exempt from God’s love,” Charleston White, founder of Hyped about HYPE Youth Outreach (HYPE stands for Helping Young People Excel) told staff and students at the assembly.
White served almost seven years of a 12-year sentence at Giddings for involvement in a murder when he was 12. His organization brought the former inmates together for the group’s common goal – teaching youth about the dangers of leading a life of crime.
He looked at the current youths who call Giddings State School home.“It’s not too late for you,” he said.
At the reunion, staff past and present lauded White and the others. Giddings educator Gloria Williams gleamed like a proud mother, applauding or laughing as former students detailed any triumph they have experienced since passing the gate.
“Sometimes you have to go through things,” she said.
After studying the facility for almost a year, author John Hubner – who wrote “Last Chance in Texas,” a book about the school and its offender program – said the youths have to confront the source of their anger to successfully move on from the facility and forward in life.
“If you don’t stop that cycle,” he said, “that anger will put you behind bars forever.”
“I really hope they learn to understand empathy and the crimes they committed and that this isn’t the end of the road,” said school Superintendent Jorge Gonzalez. “They can still go on and become productive members of society.
Arthur, an 18-year-old from Houston now at Giddings for aggravated robbery and aggravated assault, said the program is making a difference.
“It’s life-changing,” he said. “Before coming here, all I knew was selling drugs and stealing.”
He entered Giddings at 15, and is looking forward to being released and pursuing an environmental inspector position in his hometown. “Thank God I go home in February,” he said.
Though the juvenile correctional facility focuses on rehabilitation, White is pushing for more programs that prepare the young men for life outside of incarceration and how to be regular members of society.
He said his experiences testifying during the 84th legislative session on juvenile justice issues influenced ideas he’d like to push throughout the system.
“For three days, all I heard people talk about was numbers,” he said. “Nobody spoke about the humanity side of incarceration. You have the letter of the law: 'Thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not kill.' But you also have the spirit of the law: compassion, forgiveness, restorative justice. I heard no one talk about the spirit of the law. And we were talking about children.”
These youth, he said, need to know how to ask someone on a date, be in a relationship, be part of a stable family, find and keep a job and gather skills that parents should have taught them. Without that kind of focus, he said, places such as Giddings State School become nothing more than “a pipeline to prison.”
With other reformed youth, White, a college student, father and husband, is using his plight and success as an example. He bowed before Giddings past and current staff.
“This is what redemption looks like 20-something years later.”
The hardest adjustment, Archie said, is overcoming the image he emblazoned for himself as a 14-year-old. It hits hardest when looking for work, he said.
In that way, he said he’s “marked.” Many employers first check on a job application is if someone has been convicted of a felony, he said, and that means he’s out of luck in those situations.
“Once you get shot down so many times,” he said, “you lose confidence.”
He finds work through a temp agency. He’s done construction, electrical work and bricklaying jobs.
"I'm a quick learner. I learn hands on. I learn by sight," Archie said, arguing that employers should give some felons a chance. "I put my best effort in anything whether I like it or not." Archie took time off work for the reunion to tell current youth that their stories can end differently, as long as they begin to make a change.
"I felt like that was more important than my job," he said. "They don't have to wait until they turn 36, 37."