At Dallas' Once Stylish Cabana Motor Hotel, Ex-Prisoners Struggle to Re-Enter the World

In an East Dallas efficiency roughly the size of the prison cell where he once lived, John Whiteman has finally found a home. His neighbors in the rundown apartment building are former inmates like him.

The apartments are like dorm rooms at what would be a very seedy college. A shelf against one wall in Whiteman's room, bearing a microwave and coffee maker, serves as a kitchen. A bed, television and chairs take up most of the remaining space. An ankle monitor ensures that Whiteman never goes anywhere off-path.

He will register as a sex offender until he dies.

Unlikely to ever have a job — no one will hire a 70-year-old convicted child kidnapper who has spent the past three decades behind bars — Whiteman relies on Social Security to cover his rent and pay for his state-mandated sex offender therapy. People used to protest his parole, he says, but by the time he had his last hearing before his parole in 2014, the people who had cared about the case had died or moved away. Whiteman says that a local politician still in Dallas used to fight his parole, but now appears to have lost interest in the case. "I guess he just figured I was old enough that I'd be through with that behavior, and I am," Whiteman says. "I still have to be very careful. I don't want to try to contact anybody that's connected to my case ... but this has been 32 years ago, I have no idea who they are or where they are."

Before being convicted in 1982 in Dallas in the kidnappings of two boys, one 9 years old, the other 5, Whiteman says he lived in a three-bedroom studio in North Dallas, with a good income, two cars, a van and a boat. "And it didn't make me happy."

His life today is spartan, and though he's out of prison, he's not quite a free man. Texas considers him a high-risk offender and requires Whiteman to fill out a schedule of his activities a week in advance. Stray too far from his new apartment without a scheduled appointment, and he could be bounced back into prison.

"I'm comfortable, I'm making it, I'm getting help from two food pantries so that helps a whole lot," Whiteman says. In fact, Whiteman and the other ex-inmates in his building are lucky. They know life on the outside could be worse.

They could be homeless, or back in the old Cabana Motor Hotel.

At the fringe of Dallas' Design District, a block away from the furniture boutiques and art galleries, the Cabana sits like a ghost. Once it was a luxury hotel owned by Doris Day. Long ago, Raquel Welch was a cocktail waitress there, and Jimi Hendrix stopped there when he and his company came to Dallas. Most famously, the Cabana is where the Beatles stayed in September 1964 during their one and only Dallas show. But like many of Dallas' historical buildings, it was forgotten and left to deteriorate. At least until Dallas County purchased the property in the late 1980s. The county turned the once-grand hotel into a jail, the Bill Decker Detention Center.

In 2009, the county closed down the jail and leased the building to a nonprofit group called The Way Back House, which had operated a halfway house in Dallas for decades. Way Back moved its operations to the old Cabana building, but the move was short-lived. In 2011, as the private corrections industry continued to expand nationwide, an Oklahoma-based for-profit company called Avalon Corrections came on the scene and took over the struggling halfway house.

Called the Dallas Transitional Center, the old hotel is the county's only re-entry center subsidized by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. It's a place for broke, homeless parolees fresh out of prison who have no place else to go. The state has contracts with seven re-entry centers to provide what the state describes as subsidized housing, but what residents say is more like a minimum-security jail. They're kept there not by armed guards but the threat of getting a parole violation.

The 200-plus people there at any given time are ordered to stay until they develop something called a home plan — a place to live that they can afford and that meets their parole restrictions. For people convicted of violent crimes, home plans get much more complicated. Violent felons in prison for decades are already broke, their family members may be gone, and they're not welcomed by most landlords or employers. Local ordinances often keep sex offenders from living near parks or schools.

The rules that limit where parolees can live don't always make sense. "I can't go to my sister's because her husband is on parole," said Jeffrey Davis, a convicted robber and rapist who, after prison, lived for six months at the Dallas Transitional Center. Finally, the authorities approved his home plan — he was sent to live with his sister and her paroled husband, where he wanted to go all along.

Former Texas inmates with nothing left in the state where they committed their crimes can apply to leave the state under an interstate compact, but parolees say their papers aren't always approved, for reasons they don't understand. "I'm like, boom, they just dropped me in Dallas. Like why the fuck did you drop me off in Dallas?" says Anthony Reed, a Cabana resident. He's from Las Vegas but was pulled over in Tyler 14 months ago and arrested after drugs were found in his car. He wanted to be paroled back home to Vegas. "I put in my parole plan where I wanted to go and it was approved and everything, and they be like, 'Your paperwork, it's lost,' so, boom."

On a March afternoon, in the courtyard outside the Dallas Transitional Center, middle-aged men stand around and smoke cigarettes. Some sit shaded under cabanas and stare off into space, looking at nothing. On the sidewalk bordering Stemmons Freeway, two convicts who spent over half their lives in prison for robbery, rape and murder argue over how to sneak in an ancient portable television. There's no way they can get it past security, they decide.

Some of the parolees are free to leave for day trips once their schedules are approved. They complain that the rigid time constraints can make it difficult to find a job or get new housing quickly. Inmates aren't supposed to have cameras inside, but photographs taken with forbidden smart phones show the bathroom walls covered in black mold. Several current and former residents are convinced that the mold affected their breathing and made them feel sick. The residents are responsible for cleaning the bathrooms, but the mold never goes away, no matter what they use. "The mold here, it's so bad," one man says. Like most parolees the Observer spoke to, he didn't want to be identified. (Avalon's corporate Vice President Patrick Sullivan denied our requests to tour the facility and didn't respond to follow-up interview requests.)

The state orders offenders released to a halfway house to pay the facility 25 percent of any income they receive, including Social Security payments. The offenders bristle at the notion that the halfway house would get a cut of their government checks after already receiving money from the government to house them. "It seem like everybody wants to make money off the ex-offender, no matter what their offense was," says a resident, who despite complaining about the halfway house, says he has been there three years.

Some of the men leave the halfway-house system only to end up at The Bridge homeless shelter in Dallas, residents say, a situation that parole allows if an offender requests to stay there. "Clients may request to reside at the Bridge; however, they are not placed there upon release to supervision," says TDCJ's spokesman Jason Clark in an email.

The halfway house, on the other hand, is considered a step above a homeless shelter, though the homeless residents don't see it that way. Kerry Leggett, who served prison time for nonviolent drug and alcohol offenses, watched his home plan fall apart after his mother died. Now staying at the Dallas Transitional Center, he earns a $660-a-month disability check from the government, $164 of which is collected by the facility and sent to the state. He's tried seeking housing through programs for chronically homeless people with the help of a case manager, who comes to the halfway house once a week. "Some of them don't qualify this place as a homeless shelter, but it is really," he says.

The ex-felons are mostly men, living eight men to rooms that were once hotel rooms and then jail cells, multiple residents say. Photographs of bedrooms show walls crowded with metal bunk beds, stacked on top of each other. On-site, men and women aren't allowed to talk to each other, though the rules are easily broken at bus stops off-site.

The parolees can walk or take public transportation to an approved list of places, such as Parkland Hospital, a job interview or a potential apartment. They can't leave for the sole purpose of visiting a family member, they say, but visits to church are OK. On holidays, the facility goes in full lockdown mode, with no residents allowed out and no visitors welcome in. "If you've done your time you expect to be free," complains another resident, who like several others, declined to have his name printed because he worried about getting in trouble with staff for giving an interview.

Twice a day, the residents get counted, just like in prison. Unlike prison, the offenders can easily sneak off the facility when and if they choose to, and the staff can't legally do anything to stop them, other than call the police and file charges. What makes the offenders stay put and follow the rules is the threat of getting in trouble with parole. "I just don't want to be on the run," says the resident who was convicted of robbery and murder.

Those motivated to move on with their lives get out early in the day and wait at the nearby bus stop to get to work. One woman waiting said she didn't mind staying at the center. She was taking the city bus, running late that day, to a class that would teach her how to dress and act for job interviews. Before, she had served four years in prison for robbery — she used to have "sticky fingers," she says.

When a man who's been imprisoned for hurting someone complains about bologna sandwiches, it's unlikely to make anyone's heart bleed, but food is something the residents harp on. The halfway house's food is really, really bad, nearly two dozen current and former inmates agree, worse than it was in prison. Every day they get bologna sandwiches for lunch, except on weekends, when they get no lunch. Jeffrey Davis, who has been in prison for 32 years for a series of armed robberies, including one in which he forced a woman to perform oral sex, points to a spot underneath a nearby bridge off Stemmons. There is a homeless man who sometimes sleeps in the corner under that bridge, Davis says. When Davis doesn't feel like eating his bologna sandwiches, he tosses them to the bum instead, he says, portraying his sandwich-tossing as an act of generosity.

For dinner most nights, the offenders get a substance covered in meat sauce that some are convinced is not real meat. "Bullshit soy meat," claims a resident who has been at the Dallas Transitional Center for three years.

On-site, few activities are available. Residents who aren't on drugs pass time by volunteering to take out the dumpster. Some play basketball to stay fit. There used to be a room full of weights, but a few months ago the weights disappeared without explanation, residents say. Residents have televisions in their bedrooms and can borrow books from a library. Some write letters.

Many residents describe a rampant problem with K2, also called spice, the synthetic marijuana that is known nationwide for being easy to purchase at head shops and convenience stores. One resident doesn't blame Avalon's management or the building for his discomfort at the facility — he blames all of the people hooked on K2. "I think the biggest thing that disturbs me the most is I'm trying to get my life together and move on, trying to do positive things, that's where I'm at," he says.

Any problems with the old hotel don't matter much anyway at this point. Soon, Avalon will move its operations to a large building farther away from Dallas' center and the support and services that it offers.

It's a conundrum. Most prison sentences eventually end, and civilized societies tend to agree that we can't lock up all criminals forever. But people don't want to support violent convicts when they're out of prison and they certainly don't want convicts living next door. That leaves the thousands of parolees who come out of the prison system living in a gray area, expected to re-join a society where they're not really welcome. None of the offenders have it worse than the civilly committed, violent sex-offenders freed from prison but sentenced by a civil process to stay at halfway houses. Twelve of them live at the old Cabana Motor Hotel, according to the Office of Violent Sex Offender management. Under civil commitment laws, the men could be required to live at the halfway house until death. Or at least in theory they could, if Avalon decided it didn't want to house the men when it leaves the Cabana.

Many criminal defense attorneys have complained that civil commitment is unconstitutional. Offenders who are considered to be abnormal, sexually violent predators must remain in state custody even after completing their criminal sentences. Sixteen months before a convict's release from prison, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice picks out all offenders convicted of multiple violent, sexual offenses and decides from there who will qualify for a civil commitment trial. All cases are held in the Montgomery County 435th District Court, overseen by a controversial judge named Michael Seiler. In his court, jurors decide whether the offender should be committed to a secure facility at the end of his sentence. A total of 360 men are in the program in Texas. In theory, the process should protect the public from convicts who are likely to re-offend and harm someone. In practice, the program appears to provide little rehabilitation and has created a housing crisis within the Office of Violent Sex Offender Management, the state agency that oversees them. The offenders are sent not to mental health hospitals, but to halfway houses like the Cabana.

"It's supposed to be a mental health program," says a spokesman from the office of Senator John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who has proposed legislation to redo the civil commitment system. "The whole program has been terribly mismanaged."

In the civil commitment program's 16-year history, not one of the 360 offenders has successfully completed it, a Houston Chronicle investigation last year found. Defense attorneys complain that people who are civilly committed live under onerous rules, that, if broken, could send them back to prison. "Texas is one of the few states that sends people back to prison for technical violations of civil commitment rules," says Nancy Bunin, an outspoken Houston criminal defense attorney who used to work for the state public defender's office. "Civil commitment violations are very unfair, because the men are asked to follow over 100 rules, and psychologists have testified that there's no way for any reasonable adult to simultaneously follow all the rules."

After an audit from the state found similar problems with the program, the agency last year appointed the Office of Violent Sex Offenders a new executive director named Marsha McLane, who Bunin and other defense attorneys say has made some improvements. Still, the move has done little to appease Avalon Corrections, which is contracted to run the Dallas Transitional Center and other halfway houses across the state. "We have made it clear that our company does not wish to continue housing OVSOM [Office of Violent Sex Offender Management] offenders at our facilities," the company's CEO Brian Costello wrote to the state last year. "We feel very strongly that this places our halfway house operations at risk."

Because Avalon no longer wants to accept the civil committees, its contract with the Office of Violent Sex Offender Management ends in August. In public meetings, McLane has warned that the men deemed sexually violent predators could end up on the streets. She has still not found any beds for the offenders. "I do not know where the civil commitment clients will go," McLane says in an email.

At the Dallas Transitional Center, residents say, the civil committees never leave on their own. A few residents say that the civil committees seem closer to staff, and that one works in the mailroom. The offenders leave the premises only in vans, in a group. Sometimes they're driven to receive sex offender therapy, or, as one resident crudely describes it, a "dick detector test." Sex offenders can be ordered by parole to take not just polygraph exams, but a test called the "penile plethysmograph." A censor is attached to a man's penis while he is shown images on a screen to gauge arousal.

"I think it's degrading and one shouldn't have to go through that unless it provides some kind of useful information," says Phil Taylor, a retired Dallas therapist who specializes in the treatment of sex offenders. Taylor doubts that the tests do that. "I have never referred anybody for a PPG [penile plethysmograph] without having a P.O. [parole officer] directly order it," he says. "I think I had one or two clients take a PPG." Taylor used to work at the Dallas halfway house back when it was operated by the Way Back nonprofit. Each week he received $15 per offender from the state, he says, and was expected to collect more money from the offenders, depending on what they could afford. But as time went on, he became concerned that his profession wasn't providing anything useful for the money it collected. Numerous studies have shown that the effectiveness of sex offender treatment is questionable, partly because sex offenders tend to have low recidivism rates. A review of available studies published in 2013 found "major weaknesses in the scientific evidence" evaluating whether sex offender therapy works. Sex offender treatment therapy is "not the same thing as psychotherapy, it's not the same thing as counseling," Taylor says. "Recidivism rates for sex offenders of that population are so low already, there's not much you can do to drive it lower, but everyone is subject to the same regimen."

Byron Redmond checked into the main office at the Dallas Transitional Center one afternoon to pick up his cellphone, which had been temporarily confiscated by staff until they could confirm it was an approved phone, he says. Residents are allowed phones but they can't have Internet access or take photographs. While in the main office, a staffer told Redmond he'd need to take a urinalysis test for K2. Redmond, whose criminal record shows a list of burglaries, thefts and drug deals, says he never used the drug. But his test came back positive. He says staff told him he would be placed on "lockdown," a form of punishment at the halfway house in which the resident is not allowed to leave the facility. "I was very displeased that the test came out the way it did, and they have people smoke there every day. That's all they do is hang around," he says. The next morning, he went to the main office again and complained to staff. "I NEVER in my life smoked K2, it was impossible I was positive for K2," he wrote in a grievance he filed. Staff agreed to retest him; this time, it came back negative. He was taken off lockdown. Redmond filed a complaint with Avalon and the TDCJ, angry about what he feels was sloppy testing. "I felt violated, being falsely accused of doing something God knows I don't do. Ms. Cooper [a staff member] she knows who and who don't smoke K2," Redmond wrote in his complaint.

Ten days later, Redmond received a response from the facility's administrator confirming his account and responding that false positives can happen. "Unfortunately urine analysis tests can at times produce a false positive reading, they are not always 100 percent accurate, it is at the facility administration's discretion on who is retested," the administrator wrote.

Now, Redmond is out of the halfway house anyway, living with his daughter. But the experience left him with the impression felt by nearly two dozen other current and former residents the Observer interviewed: Forget about being prepared for re-entry to the outside world; the halfway house and the parole program is another convenient way to make money off of ex-cons. Avalon Corrections currently receives $38 per resident, per day from the TDCJ, state figures show. The corporation has requested more money per resident, but the TDCJ denied the request last year.

"The one thing the state regrets is that it has to spend that much money on released offenders," says Al Richard, the executive director of the Way Back nonprofit that was contracted by the TDCJ to run the Dallas Transitional Center, until Avalon took over.

Richard, who now runs a voluntary job-search program for ex-offenders called InterComm services, says he still fields calls from motel owners looking for advice on getting into the publicly subsidized halfway-house business. He tells them good luck. Strict zoning requirements and public outrage from people who don't want to live next to a halfway house full of violent felons make it a difficult business. "Unless you operate on a significant scale, you can't meet all those requirements and make any money," he says.

Before John Whiteman finally found an apartment, he worried his parole would be undone by living at the halfway house with messy roommates. "I have been known for my violent temper in the past," he says. "I just didn't want to keep myself in a stressful situation where I lost what I worked so hard to gain."

Still, the halfway house was where he met some of the friends who stop by his apartment now. One comes by on a bike, another walks by unannounced and yells at Whiteman through the window, asking if he needs any cigarettes. At night, a man in his 20s who Whiteman met at the halfway house sometimes sleeps on the floor, he says. The younger man was paroled to the halfway house but then released with nowhere to go. The man couch surfs at night because he's "not Bridge material," Whiteman says, referring to the downtown homeless shelter.

Whiteman thinks the state-funded halfway house did little to prepare him, the young man crashing on his floor and the other residents for life outside prison. Drug addiction was common, Whiteman and other residents say, and all offenders, even the nonviolent ones, were required to fill out schedules two weeks in advance, making job searches difficult. The case managers appeared to Whiteman to spend most of their time approving the mountain of schedules. "Each one of them had maybe 50, 60 guys on his case load. That's a lot of men to deal with. How can you help that many men? You really can't," Whiteman says. He took four months to find his apartment and get out of the halfway house. Maybe his stay at the halfway house didn't help him adjust to society, but until the state devises and funds a better idea, the Dallas halfway house is, for many offenders, all the help there is.

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Amy Martyn
Contact: Amy Martyn