Jesus in a Mullet
The first thing that catches your eye when you walk into Bajito Onda is the prison art. A four-panel screen near the front entrance is covered in it, as are most of the nearby walls. More boards and canvases lean against the baseboard, stacked three deep. The painstakingly crafted images run the gamut of inmate aspirations, from the Virgen de Guadalupe to a garish study of Al Pacino as Scarface. Rap stars and voluptuous women mingle with prison bars and tombstones.
The rest of Bajito Onda's new home is just as impressive. The main room, occupying the upper floor of an industrial complex just south of Interstate 30 on Grand Avenue, is spacious and clean. A group of comfortable couches near the door tempers the presence of the commercial printing equipment and worktables against the wall. Samples of Bajito Onda's work--T-shirts, banners and mugs emblazoned with the company's motto, "Peace not prison," are displayed in abundance.
But if Del Hendrixson is in the room you might not notice anything else. The 53-year-old Bajito Onda founder and gang expert certainly doesn't have to worry about getting sent back to prison in a case of mistaken identity. It's hard to say what stands out more: her thick, tattooed arms protruding from a sleeveless black T-shirt or her spectacular graying mullet, conscientiously shorn in the front and flowing halfway down her broad back. Hendrixson resembles nothing so much as a female Dog the Bounty Hunter as she surveys her domain.
Jesus in A Mullet
Hendrixson is on a mission from God, a mission she outlines in her trademark stream-of-consciousness style: "I'm about rescuing lost and violent persons from themselves, prison and from society and cleansing them and sending them out to live normal, healthy, productive, happy lives with love and hope in their hearts instead of anger and violence. The reason I know? I used to be one of them."
The last claim is both the key to Hendrixson's appeal and her biggest stumbling block. Instead of a degree in social work, Hendrixson's most obvious qualification is her year in federal prison for a forgery conviction, poor preparation for soliciting grants from wealthy foundations or filing the tax paperwork required of a 501(c)(3) charity. Her dedication has inspired followers to start Bajito Onda chapters in Mexico and Africa, but her unorthodox style has cost her the cooperation of the very government agencies that Bajito Onda needs to survive in Dallas.
Hendrixson's rhetoric is usually about as subtle as her haircut. "I'm the most high-tech person in the 'hood," she'll announce one day. On another, she declares, "I will never sell out and act white. My skin is white, but I'm all races." Hendrixson manages to deliver these dictums without a trace of irony. She learned long ago that if she doesn't blow her own horn, no one else is going to. Only through years of dogged effort to spread her message of nonviolence, universal acceptance and redemption for gang members has she transformed herself from a near-suicidal convicted forger to the driving force behind Bajito Onda Community Development Foundation, Inc.
"Bajito Onda is all about accepting people as they are," Hendrixson says. "It's been a social club for societal dropouts." The name, roughly translated from Spanish, suggests exactly that: "Underground Scene." It is also a fully equipped print shop that has served clients such as Baylor University and the Dallas Mavericks. Hendrixson and her small staff can teach program participants marketable skills like graphic design and silk-screen printing. At the same time, she instills the lessons of her own troubled past in a style even the coldest of stone-cold gangsters could love. "When I was ready to go out and kill people to go back to prison, God spoke to me and said, 'Go help young people,'" Hendrixson says. "I was like 'Wow, that's pretty heavy. I don't even like young people.'"
Hendrixson has spent most of the 20 years since then befriending gang members and ex-cons--Latino, black and white--and training them in graphics and printing. Bajito Onda's former Oak Cliff location sat in the territory of the East Side Locos, reportedly Dallas' largest gang. Hendrixson allowed gang artists to decorate her shop with graffiti and printed their designs on T-shirts that she handed out by the dozens. The shop gave the aspiring artists an alternative to the violence on the street outside, while they returned the favor by educating Hendrixson in the subtleties of gang culture.
"I have helped 10,000 people turn their lives around," she frequently boasts, an accurate reflection of the size of her commitment if not her operation. Hendrixson can produce reams of effusive thank-you letters from former Bajito Onda participants and has been cited as a gang expert in The New York Times and Newsweek. "She understands the culture and the subculture," says Gary Ivory, Southwest president of Youth Advocate Programs, a national youth mentoring organization.
But hang around Bajito Onda's new location northeast of Fair Park long enough and you begin to wonder if Hendrixson told anybody she was moving. There are no classes in computer design going on, no groups of ex-gang members lining up to take a turn at screen printing. In fact, Bajito Onda's full-time staff of four, including Hendrixson, often seems hard-pressed just to keep up with the modest flow of incoming orders.
The fact is, despite all that Hendrixson has to offer Dallas, the city doesn't seem to be taking her up on it. The North Texas Volunteer Center severed its relationship with Bajito Onda four years ago, as did Dallas County Community Supervision and Corrections, cutting off the program's principal source of participants, offenders sentenced to community service. Two years ago, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice discontinued Hendrixson's cherished outreach program at Hutchins State Jail. These days only the occasional recruit lured by word-of-mouth wanders through the door.
Bajito Onda, in other words, is languishing, a victim, some say, of a city that would prefer to ignore the problems posed by released prisoners and gang members. "We live in an apathetic city," says Vicki Hallman, regional director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Parole Division and an ardent Hendrixson supporter. Hallman, Ivory and others say that gang activity is clearly on the rise in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. But while the city of Fort Worth funds Comin' Up, the local Boys and Girls Club's gang prevention program, to the tune of $1 million a year, Dallas neglects even its tiny police gang unit. "We put on a gang seminar in the '90s, and we haven't done one since," says DPD Gang Unit Sergeant Mike Marshall. "We send people to seminars when we have the money, but usually we're out of money because we work for the city of Dallas."
Marshall disputes the claim that gang ranks are growing but agrees that they are evolving, recruiting younger and focusing more on illegal drug profits than prestige. "They are a lot more entrepreneurial now," he says. Melvin Carter, director of the Fort Worth program, says that gang members are found more often in Internet chat rooms than on street corners. "It's not drive-by shootings and flags hanging out of their pockets anymore," Carter says. Carter's Comin' Up program works hand-in-hand with the Fort Worth police, with weekly meetings to coordinate their efforts. In Dallas, where gang-related arrests increased by 83 percent last year, according to The Dallas Morning News, such cooperation is nonexistent. "As law enforcement, our job is to gather intelligence and to put them in jail," Marshall says--yet he freely admits that jail is hardly a deterrent. "If you're a gangster, you're a gangster," he says. "If they go do a stretch in the pen, that's not going to change when they get out. They're still a gangster--they just have more contacts."
A lack of government support for programs like Bajito Onda is only half of the problem, however. The other half is Hendrixson herself. "Del is real abrasive," Hallman says. "She's a very aggressive person. She'll overwhelm you with her message rather than give you a chance to receive it and mull it over." Hendrixson's fascination with gang and prison culture can occasionally approach boosterism, obscuring otherwise sound philosophy. "If more people used convict thinking in the free world," Hendrixson says, "there would be a whole lot more respect out here."
As a self-perceived social outcast, with little knowledge of--or patience for--the bureaucracy of fund-raising, Hendrixson has depended instead on sporadic handouts from benefactors such as Jim and Cheryl Fleming of Plano. The Flemings have donated tens of thousands of dollars over the last two years to help keep Bajito Onda afloat. "She's not your soft female that's accustomed to pedicures and spa treatments," Jim Fleming says of Hendrixson. "She can speak their language." Literally--Hendrixson is fluent in street-savvy Spanish, a result of a year spent living in rural Mexico and a sense of alienation from Anglo culture.
The feeling is apparently mutual. Hendrixson's cavalier attitude to paperwork set off alarm bells at TDCJ and the North Texas Volunteer Center, agencies that had supplied the probationers that were both the bulk of Bajito Onda's labor force and the group Hendrixson most wanted to reach. She was bewildered when her support dried up. "They say, 'You do things too radically,' and I say, 'So help me do something normally!'" She spreads her hands, a gesture encompassing the boots, the tattoos, the haircut. "I don't know how to do things normally."
It was a sunny spring day outside in 1984, but Hendrixson sat alone in the pitch black of her Oak Cliff darkroom, clutching a borrowed Uzi in her hand. She was two years removed from a year-long stretch in the Fort Worth Federal Correctional Institution for forgery--two years removed according to the calendar, at least. In her mind, she had never re-entered free society, and her rage against it was about to boil over.
"When I reached for that doorknob I knew that I was going to be killed or kill people," she says. Her plan was to go to the nearest post office and gun down everyone inside. A post office would make the murders a federal crime, sending her back to the federal prison where she felt she belonged.
She had been an outcast even as a teenager growing up in Hot Springs, Arkansas, distant from her mother and sister and awed by her father, who she says was the youngest staff sergeant in the history of the Army at 19. He enforced military discipline at home with fist and belt. "He was 5-foot-5 and the biggest man I ever saw," Hendrixson says. She worked one summer after high school at the local newspaper, learning how to print a fake birth certificate to get into bars.
In 1967 she skipped town to Dallas with her best--and only--friend, Woody, who even then was pushing 400 pounds. "He was like my personal army," Hendrixson says. "I always used to think it was cool to cause people pain, and Woody agreed with that 100 percent." The two raised as much hell as they could, pushing the limits of drugs and alcohol and spending a year in Mexico. Hendrixson later found a job at the Greyhound Bus print shop and eventually bowed to an illegal immigrant friend's incessant requests for a birth certificate, which soon became a steady sideline.
"I didn't care," she says of her mindset at the time. "I didn't care what happened--but I didn't think that would happen." What happened was a year in prison that began two days after Christmas in 1982. Her family disowned her, her female housemate at the time sold her house out from under her, and she emerged with a convict's survival instinct and not much else. "My world outside had collapsed," Hendrixson says. A post-office rampage somehow became her most appealing option.
But as she reached for the doorknob that day, a voice began speaking out of the darkness, clearly audible and emanating from just over her left shoulder. "The voice sounded like my father," she remembers. "Not my real dad, but speaking to me as if it was my father."
"You listened to man, and you ended up in prison," the voice said gently. "Listen to me, and see where I lead you." It went on for nearly 30 minutes, Hendrixson recalls, telling her it needed her help with young people. It said she would have to make 1,000 pieces to a puzzle, "and once I've made enough pieces I'll begin to see the picture."
"This is weird, right?" Hendrixson asks, breaking off her account. "This is sounding really weird." Hendrixon is no Bible-thumper: Her speech is often laced with profanity, and she regards organized religion with disdain. Yet she has no doubt that the voice speaking to her that day was that of God and that the mission it gave her is a holy one.
Even so, Hendrixson's life didn't change overnight. She originally conceived of Bajito Onda simply as a way to keep herself sane. "My program was just a safe place in society to cling to, to keep from careening into the black hole that I was in mentally for so many years," Hendrixson says. "I know it works, because I'm the first person it worked on."
When she walked into Woody's house in 1993 and found him dead on the floor, his heart no longer able to sustain his by then 600-pound bulk, she determined to take Bajito Onda to the next level. To that point it had been little more than a struggling printing business where her Latino gang friends knew they could take their lowrider art and have her put it onto T-shirts for free. She incorporated as a 501(c)(3) charity in 1994.
One of her earliest supporters was a fellow printer, Raymundo Sanchez. Hendrixson took in a rebellious son he could no longer handle. "She had a way of controlling him," Sanchez says. "Her words were strong but not rude. They caught your attention." Sanchez was soon helping Hendrixson become an accomplished printer. "He must have come and rescued me a hundred times," Hendrixson says. In turn, she straightened out the junior Sanchez, who is now married with his own business in Dallas, says his father.
Hendrixson alternated living with various benefactors and crashing at her shop. Her circle of supporters expanded, but as fast as money came in, she would give it away. Then in 2001, she got an e-mail from Beth Gilbert, a midlevel employee for the Maine highway department. Gilbert, a serious, heavyset woman with short, dark hair, was looking for a life change after a divorce. The two quickly struck up a friendship, and Gilbert, who had worked for 16 years in a world of flow charts and feasibility studies, became painfully aware of how badly Hendrixson needed organizational help. Gilbert packed up her truck and drove the 1,900 miles to Texas. "I really had faith in Del," Gilbert says. "I really believed she had a plan and would make things work."
She found a daunting task ahead of her. "The very first day I came in to work they were pulling a five-foot black snake out of the warehouse," Gilbert says. Hendrixson had no place to stay and no money to pay Gilbert a salary. They lived in a wooden shed that sat on the print-shop floor. Gilbert donated her truck to Bajito Onda, and her $35,000 retirement fund from the Maine highway department soon followed.
Things grew tougher when the agencies that had been supplying Bajito Onda's workers decided to pull out. "We had heard of [financial] improprieties," says Dwayne Fisher, the Community Supervision and Corrections official that handled the case. "We checked them out, and they appeared to be legitimate." Hendrixson says the agency hinted that she had been taking money in exchange for signing off on community service hours. "Let me tell you something--every probationer that walked through that door offered money," she says. "Did I take it? No." But she couldn't prove it, and the agency adopted a better-safe-than-sorry policy. As Jim Mills, the interim Dallas director of the agency, puts it, "We've got plenty of places out there that aren't having allegations made against them, so let's send our people to them."
Similarly mystifying for Hendrixson was Bajito Onda's ejection from Hutchins State Jail. She had carefully built up a rapport with a group of 15 hard-core gang members in prison, visiting as often as three times a week. Hendrixson believes that her approach wasn't religious enough to suit the prison chaplain, Greg McAlister. "I have nothing against her personally," McAlister insists. "It was a decision that we felt the program was better for the outside than in. We felt the nature of the program was a preventative program." Coming on the heels of losing the community service workers, the blow was hard to take. "The day they kicked me out of Hutchins, I just stood there and cried," Hendrixson says. "I mean, how bad is that that they don't even want you in prison?"
Vicki Hallman of the TDCJ Parole Division first met Hendrixson at a 2003 meeting of the Community Partnership Council, a network of social service organizations. "The first time I met her I was scared to death of her," says Hallman, a stylish African-American with a habitual air of cheerful confidence. "Anybody who can out-talk me, that's a problem." She recalls her first visit to Bajito Onda: "I went on a day that it was raining," Hallman says. The rain poured through countless leaks in the roof. "She considered me a VIP, and she had one little room where she could put me where I wouldn't get wet, so it was me in there and a dog and her puppies." Nevertheless, Hallman was impressed and began using Bajito Onda as her last resort. "I send her my toughest cases," Hallman says. In one instance, a parolee became a target when he tried to leave his gang. "He had been beaten to a pulp," Hallman says. "He was just concerned about moving from pillar to post so they wouldn't find him. [Del] nursed him back to health."
Even as Bajito Onda struggled in Dallas, Hendrixson found a way to expand abroad. In 2001, Mexican activist Antonio Melin contacted Hendrixson, impressed with the Bajito Onda Web site (www.bajitoonda.org). He soon founded a chapter in Mexico, a connection that led to an invitation for Hendrixson to address a U.N. conference on youth violence in Monterrey last year. Another Web convert, Amidu Mansaray, founded a chapter in the tiny West African nation of The Gambia in 2003. Mansaray has since traveled to human rights conferences across Africa, gaining recognition for Bajito Onda from the African Union. When he came to Dallas for three weeks in 2003 to meet Hendrixson in person at last, he was astonished. "You live worse here than we do in Africa," he told her.
It was Gilbert who found a way to change all that. She scouted out the warehouse facility on Grand Avenue, and a local businessman agreed to loan Bajito Onda enough to move in, a loan to be paid off in future free printing. The wooden hut was replaced by rooms at the Quality Inn, another in-kind trade. But Gilbert is far from satisfied. "When I came here in 2001, Del said we'd have a house in a year. It's been four years, and I'm living in a hotel."
Hendrixson, however, is ecstatic. Her 1,000 pieces are finally coming together. "Everybody thinks I'm getting nowhere, but I'm really getting everywhere," she says.
The wheels would come off the Bajito Onda lowrider in short order if it weren't for the dedication of Hendrixson's staff. Gilbert has done much to bring order from chaos. Armando Gonzalez, who for four years has done the bulk of Bajito Onda's screen printing, is another stalwart. The compact, cheerful Mexico City native looks younger than his 42 years. He says he tried to keep his own struggling printing business afloat before heading north. "She's actually a sweet woman," Gonzalez says of Hendrixson. "A tough attitude, a strong character, definitely, but a great lady." Though Gonzalez could make more elsewhere, his respect for Hendrixson and the enjoyment of instructing others in his craft have kept him where he is.
The other full-time staffer is Rob Avalos, 23, a wiry Latino with a wispy goatee who studied computer graphics at a local technical college. Last year, he was working construction at D/FW airport, unable to find a job in his preferred field. "I would get the interviews but I would never get the job," he says. When he dropped off his résumé at Bajito Onda's former location, just down the street from his grandparents' house, he expected more of the same. Instead, Hendrixson called and hired him sight unseen. Avalos maintains Bajito Onda's Web site and does much of the design, though he is less comfortable with training others. "Sometimes you really have to explain things word by word," he says. "I try to just keep working."
Vital as their support is, much of the load still falls on Hendrixson's shoulders. What she hopes for most is to find someone to succeed her as a manager so she can concentrate on outreach programs and Bajito Onda's presence abroad. Yet there is a real question whether she could bring herself to relinquish the reins.
"Del has what is known as 'founder's syndrome,'" Gary Ivory says. "She feels she has to be involved in every aspect of the business. Founder's syndrome is a common ailment at start-up nonprofits, which often are created by one person with a compelling vision. Most of Bajito Onda exists only inside Hendrixson's head. "I wish she would put more structure in her program," Hallman says. "I think you use Del to sell it, but you need somebody else to draw it up."
Recently, Hendrixson thought she had at last found the right person, a quiet African-American volunteer named Theo. Hendrixson met Theo on August 14, a Sunday, and by August 16 she is convinced she has found her successor. "It's almost like we have the same brain," Hendrixson gushes. "His brain talks to my brain. It's like my brain has a friend. I'm serious--my brain is lonely having all this stuff in it, and it can't really relate with other people."
Hendrixson doesn't press Theo too hard on his background once she has established the vital fact that he, too, has had trouble with the law. "He successfully completed his probation," Hendrixson says. "So he kind of qualifies. He kind of fits in with what we're doing." For the remainder of the week, Theo's obvious competence has Hendrixson delighted--but on the following Monday, he is nowhere to be found. She doesn't hear from him again for a week.
Hendrixson sends Theo packing when he eventually reappears. "I'm very demanding," she says. "I invest in you, I expect you to invest in you. I can't invest in an empty hole in the ground." Yet her capacity for investment seems limitless. "I think Del's idea is, 'I save your life, you stay here and work with me and we'll keep this place going,'" Hallman says. "But these aren't people that can help Del. These are people like Del."
Jessie "Chuco" Chavez is one of those people. On one steamy evening last month, the 32-year-old Chavez sits in his front yard, visiting with Hendrixson. He is in obvious pain, but his instincts won't let him relax. At any sign of movement beyond the chain-link fence surrounding the yard of his family's small Oak Cliff house, Chavez tenses in his wheelchair, his eyes probing the darkness. "Sorry, man--paranoid," he says after one such interruption.
Chavez has good reason to be paranoid. His legs have been paralyzed since a bullet lodged in his spine when he was 17, just one of nine different times he says he's been shot. Chavez never let his disability hinder him in his duties as a gang leader, however, either in prison or on the outside. "He'll go after them right out of his chair," Hendrixson says in a respectful tone. Now though, Chavez's body is betraying him. During a recent hospital visit for a nagging infection in his thigh, Chavez fell from his chair and broke bones in both his weakened legs. Occasional tremors, either from fever or pain, course through his body.
Chavez and Hendrixson have a friendship that at times seems more of a mutual admiration society. Chavez is impressed that Hendrixson seeks out company that would give most middle-aged white ladies nightmares. Hendrixson, in turn, is awed by Chavez's grim determination to earn respect from the world at any price.
Chavez heads to his trailer behind the house to get a piece of his artwork for Hendrix to copy. It is a breathtaking, brooding ink drawing of the Stations of the Cross that he did in prison. Before rolling back to the door, Chavez points to a small cross propped in a dish. "See that?" Closer inspection shows that the cross is actually a thorned, gray metal "T" with an overlaid "S," a blood-red stone in a claw-like setting at the center. "Texas Syndicate," Chavez says--a much-feared prison gang. "That means I'm a general. Guys that know, they're shitting their pants when they see that."
Out front again, Chavez talks about his brother Johnny, one of 19 siblings in the family. Hendrixson has mentioned Johnny before: He was known as the "Thrill Killer" and was executed by lethal injection on April 22, 2003, as his family members watched. After apologizing for his crimes, Johnny smiled and winked at his brother and then lay back, closing his eyes. "OK, Warden, take me to heaven," he said. But as the automatic plungers fell, he lifted his head again and asked, "Is this thing working?"
"We thought he was going to beat death," Chavez says. They were wrong--but Chavez swears that all those present saw his brother's spirit rising to heaven shortly afterward, arms crossed in death and wearing a beatific grin. "The guard grabbed me on the shoulder," he says, "and said, 'We just killed somebody from God.'"
It was Chavez's love of art that led him into Hendrixson's shop in 2000, but it was years before he would trust her, and even longer before he would return her hug. Chavez remembers her first attempt: "I was like, 'Don't hug me, lady. I don't hug nobody.'" Since then he has appeared with Hendrixson on TV and at gang conferences. "Somebody should have told me a long time ago," Chavez says. "They should have said, 'You've got some talent there, you could do something different.' If someone had told me that when I was a kid, I wouldn't be in this chair now." Does that mean he is no longer a gang member? "No," he says, amused at the question. "We're a family."
Nevertheless, Hendrixson counts Chavez as a success story, as she does any gang member who will open up and talk honestly to her. It is this unquestioning acceptance that makes Hendrixson and Bajito Onda utterly unique. "Del isn't as judgmental" of her clients as other service providers, Ivory says. "When they've bombed out of everything else, a lot of people don't want to touch them."
Hendrixson, however, refuses to discriminate. "I had a skinhead live with me for 14 months," she says. "That guy hasn't changed. He's still a monster. He'll call me up and he'll say, 'Fuck you, you old whore,' and I'm like, 'Hey, what's up?'" Hendrixson's willingness to accept all comers has earned her a loyal adherent in Vicki Hallman. "I don't stutter when I say this: I'm around a lot of people, even in the churches, that talk a good talk but don't really do much," Hallman says. "I have yet to ask Del to help somebody with something--where she received no benefit whatsoever--where she has not risen to the occasion. For that I will always admire and respect her."
Hendrixson's goodwill is genuine, but so is her fascination with the criminal mind. "I work with a guy who committed a despicable crime--probably one of the worst crimes I've ever heard of," Hendrixson says, and pulls out an August 4 letter from Ramon Salcido. Salcido is on death row in California's San Quentin for the murder of six family members, including two of his three daughters. Hendrixson has made dozens of copies of the letter, in which Salcido offers his "sincere love, respect and prayers to all supporters of Bajito Onda..."
Days later, Salcido is allowed a rare phone call--and uses it to contact Hendrixson. "I asked him if he'd seen Scott Peterson," Hendrixson says. "I mean, what do you ask a guy on death row?" Yet she is thrilled that Salcido called. "It may cost me $25 for a phone call," Hendrixson says. "I don't care if it costs $150--I know what it means to him."
Perhaps the most important new ally Hendrixson has acquired is Ivory, a tall, polished graduate of Austin College and Princeton divinity school. He gained national fame for his work with Fort Worth youth gangs in the '90s, pioneering the practice of having mentors actually move in with at-risk youth. He is also a veteran nonprofit administrator and a virtuoso at grant writing. Ivory has lent his expertise to various other causes in his spare time, but he sees a rare opportunity in Bajito Onda.
"Every program wants to do referrals, but Del does it all right here under one roof," Ivory says. "[Other programs] don't really serve the poorest of the poor, the hardest to reach. She does that."
Ivory has taken on the daunting task of getting Bajito Onda out of Hendrixson's head and onto paper. Before meeting Ivory, Hendrixson says, "I was like a mainframe without a keyboard." Ivory and Hendrixson have spent many late nights working to put her informal mentoring and training methods into presentable form. The next step will be to submit grant proposals to prospective donors.
During one late-night session, Hendrixson all but boasts about the funding opportunities she has missed out on. "I know a lot of people at the Meadows Foundation and they say, 'Del, apply for funding,'" Hendrixson says. "'We want to give you money.'" Ivory shakes his head as he listens. Hendrixson continues: "Just two months ago I had State Farm ask me to apply for money. 'Apply, and we will give you money,' they said." Ivory looks slightly ill.
"I try to share with Del that she has a great philosophy, but having a philosophy and having a methodology are two totally different things," Ivory says. "On a case-by-case basis, she's done a good job. What I'm trying to do is help her scale that up."
On another front, things look even more promising. The TDCJ Director of Rehabilitation and Reentry Programs, Madeline Ortiz, contacted Hendrixson out of the blue late last month, apparently prompted by a reporter's inquiries. The department was willing to reconsider Hendrixson's ouster from Hutchins, Ortiz informed her. Hendrixson met with Ortiz and other prison officials on September 13.
"I apologized and said I just don't understand the policies," Hendrixson says. "I want to do things by the book, but I don't know the book, so if you'll teach me I'll work with you." She gave the visitors a tour of her facility, and they left Hendrixson with a promise of wholehearted cooperation. "They were ecstatic. They loved it. I gave them all a T-shirt," Hendrixson enthuses. "I was, like, in prison program utopia."
More than 8,400 state prisoners were released to Dallas County in fiscal year 2004. "There's a reality that needs to be recognized: If they're convicted in Dallas, they come back to Dallas," Hallman says. "They're not going somewhere else. They're not going to an island somewhere."
In fact, nearly one-third of prisoners released in Texas are back behind bars within three years. It is that prospect that haunts Hendrixson as she considers the fate of her best friend during her own prison days, Elizabeth Chagra. Chagra was famously convicted of paying Charles Harrelson, father of actor Woody Harrelson, to assassinate a federal judge in 1979. The judge was to have presided over Chagra's husband's drug trial.
"We promised each other that if we got out we would devote ourselves to helping others," Hendrixson says. Chagra, serving a 19-year sentence, was diagnosed with cancer in prison. "She never got out. She died in there." As Hendrixson tells the story, the tone of her voice conveys the implicit message that drives her: Bajito Onda is the only thing that has kept her from sharing Chagra's fate.
"Del will swallow you up," Hallman says. "She wants you to live and breathe Bajito Onda because she does--and that will scare some people off." That same intensity is what makes Hendrixson effective and what allows Bajito Onda to survive, because of and in spite of her. As Hendrixson puts it, describing the way she works with convicts, "I'm pretty awesome if I do say so myself." And she does, without hesitation.
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