By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
Most inmates want out of the pen. Randall Lee Church burned a house down to get back inside.
Released in April after years of incarceration, he could not adjust. “Everything had gone fast forward without me,” he said in a recent interview at Bexar County Jail.
Church, 46, admits he did it. He already has pleaded guilty to arson and is going back to prison, where he spent 26 years for fatally stabbing a man.
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He can fix his blue eyes on a visitor through jail glass and admit to the killing, too. But it was in self-defense, he adds — a drunken dispute over $97 that turned into a scuffle and a misunderstanding, a miserable mistake.
He didn’t persuade a jury. At 18, he was locked up for murder. It was 1983. Ronald Reagan was president. Cordless phones were modern technology. McDonald’s had just introduced the Chicken McNugget.
Inside his small, gray cell within the Texas prison system, Church forgot the world and it forgot him.
Stepping out to freedom, “I didn’t know how to use computers or cell phones or the Internet,” Church said. “The weirdest thing was walking into a store, like Walmart, and have parents hide their children from me, like I was supposed to jump at them.”
Fed up on July 10, 96 days after his release, he poured gasoline through a window of the empty house on the Southeast Side, then threw in flaming rags and paper towels, setting the place on fire.
Days later, he told police he did it because he wanted to go back to his job at his former prison unit.
Most former inmates confront some measure of fear or anxiety upon release, experts say. They tend to have low levels of education, few job skills and high incidences of mental health and substance-abuse issues. Many have no money or family and struggle to find affordable housing and social services.
And while the barriers to re-enter society always have been high, they’re even greater in a tough economy.
More than four out of 10 adult offenders nationwide return to state prisons within three years of their release, studies show. Experts call it a revolving door—though Church’s actions make him something of an extreme case.
Former Bexar County Jail inmates sometimes deliberately court arrest for minor crimes to get three square meals and a roof over their heads when things get tough on the outside, said County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, who helped form the Bexar County Re-entry Roundtable, a dialogue among public, religious and nonprofit actors on how to help inmates return to society.
But there are no statistics on felons like Church, who reoffend deliberately because they can’t cope with their freedom.
“I don’t mean to diminish what this man did,” said Ann L. Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “But when you think about what people come out to, how much the world has changed, what a disadvantage they are at and what little support they generally have, it is kind of a miracle it goes as well as it does for as many people as it does.”
The man Church killed was named James Alfred Michael, but people called him “Willie” because he looked like Willie Nelson, with a stockier build. He was 56 and had peppered dark hair. The two had met just months earlier while in a Baytown jail for public intoxication.
Church said Michael gave him a place to stay when they got out and often loaned him cash. Church hustled drugs to support himself, he said. Raised in West Virginia, he had moved to Baytown as a teen and never had been much of a good kid, he said. He found school boring and had dropped out of 10th grade. Eventually, he earned his GED.
“Back then, I lived right for the day, getting high, drinking, not thinking of the consequences,” Church said.
Church remembers the last night Michael came home from work on Oct. 6, 1983. They had been drinking and got into it over $97 that Michael claimed Church took. Church vehemently denied it — lying — and they came to blows, he recalled.
They soon broke up the fight, but Michael always carried a knife on his belt and Church noticed it was missing. When his partner went upstairs, Church believed he had gone to retrieve it. So he grabbed a big knife from the kitchen and bore it through Michael’s chest when he came back.
“I was scared half to death,” Church said. When police led him out, “I kept picturing myself on television, like it was happening to somebody else.”
Church was sentenced to life in prison. He kept busy, working at different facilities. His latest job, as a janitor at the McConnell Unit in Beeville, had been the best, the one he yearned to return to when he was freed, he said. It gave him access to all the free soda and ice he wanted in the summers.
While Church was behind bars, the federal and state prison population more than quadrupled.
The numbers of inmates in the United States grew from 319,598 in 1980 to 1.5 million in 2009, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Corrections costs skyrocketed. States today collectively spend more than $50 billion a year by some estimates.
Studies indicate the United States has the highest proportion of its population locked up, its offenders tending to serve some of the lengthiest sentences in the world.
But more striking are the reports that show recidivism rates, the number of people who, like Church, return to correctional facilities after their release, lawmakers and prison reform activists said. A report published just this year by the Pew Center on the States found that on average more than 40 percent of those released from penitentiaries are reincarcerated within three years, for committing a new crime or for violating the terms of their release.
In the past decade, the debate among criminal justice circles has shifted to focus on programs and resources that can help prisoners re-enter society.
President George W. Bush included prisoner re-entry in his 2004 State of the Union address, marking an end to the country’s “period of punitiveness” and paving the way for the Second Chance Act and other legislation to help prisoners adjust to life after incarceration, Jacobs said.
“We are at a time in our culture when the prison budgets are depleting budgets for higher education in most states, when there are more African American men in prison then there are in college. We can’t allow that as a society. It will pull us all down,” Jacobs said.
Today, almost every state has re-entry programs and resources to assist the 700,000 people on average who are released from correctional facilities annually, but almost every state is under budget pressures.
Texas is known for its toughness on crime and is the country’s leader in rate of imprisonment but undertook wide-ranging prison reforms in 2007 that have significantly reduced the state’s recidivism rate.
Only 24.3 percent of Texas inmates released that year returned to prison within three years, according to the Texas Legislative Budget Board.
But looming budget cuts could hinder this progress in giving inmates “the tools to live responsibly,” said Ana Yáñez-Correa, director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
“While people are in prison, they need to be given vocational programs and counseling and cognitive thinking programming, so that when they get out, they can support their families,” she said.
For inmates like Church, such resources could make a difference in the transition back to the outside world.
Fellow inmates warned Church he was in for a shock. He didn’t believe them, thinking they were angry or envious he would soon walk free. Days after he was released, he realized they’d been right.
Prices were higher and scanned with bar codes. Video games were more realistic. People were always on their cell phones. Cars had childproof locks.
“I didn’t know this,” Church said. “It was so overwhelming. I was constantly embarrassed by simple things I just didn’t know.”
He made his way to San Antonio and was living on a small ranch with a relative of a friend he met in prison. On her property was a dilapidated, three-story house, abandoned for almost a decade. Things weren’t getting any better, and Church decided to burn it down.
He watched the flames from his bedroom window. They died out. He attempted to reignite the fire but went to sleep believing his plan had failed. A couple of hours later, Church and his landlord were awakened by emergency responders.
The blaze was ripping through the house. They took out lawn chairs and watched plumes of smoke billow skyward as firefighters worked to stop it, Church recalled.
“I didn’t tell anyone it was me,” he said. “It was my ticket to go back (to prison) if I wanted. I know it was wrong,
and I am sorry for it now.”
Three days later, he turned himself in by treating himself to a hamburger, French fries and two chocolate shakes at the Jim’s restaurant on Loop 410 and Perrin Beitel. He savored every taste, knowing he only had 31 cents in his pocket. Then he asked the waitress to call police, saying he did not want to cause a scene.
Her manager told Church he could leave if he never came back, so he told them he had committed a crime, Church recalled.
He should have sought more counseling or looked for a rehabilitation center, he said. But as flames engulfed the old house, he felt a sense of relief, a kind of excitement. When he was little, he used to play with matches.
“It was kind of like that,” Church said. “It was my Fourth of July.”
As published Sept. 25, 2011
Photo by Jerry Lara