Broken Men On the Mend at DNA Exoneree Steven Phillips's Carrollton Haven

Call him Steven Phillips, collector of broken men. After all, he should know a thing or two about breaking. The man spent a quarter century in prison for a string of rapes in the early '80s. In 2007, he was released on mandatory parole to ease overcrowding in Texas prisons. The following year, through the efforts of the national Innocence Project, he was exonerated by DNA testing. Turns out, a man who'd died in prison a decade earlier was the culprit.

Phillips was due a hefty payout through the state's statutory compensation scheme for the wrongfully imprisoned. With the money, he bought and restored a house and made some significant investments. But he also bought a two-story fixer-upper in Carrollton, not far from Interstate 35. It's one of three he owns -- one in Frisco and one in Lewisville, which he's about to sell due to the economic downturn -- that serve as "transitional housing" for the addicted, the paroled, the struggling.

When he bought the house on Cottonwood Road, it needed a lot of work. So if a man couldn't pay rent, he worked it off by fixing up the house. It's still a work in progress, but it's come a long way -- fresh wood paneling on the ceiling and walls, new tile floors in the updated kitchen and gorgeous refinished wood floors in the living room. Phillips, a wiry guy with outsize forearms and shoulders, liked the metaphor it all represented: They restored the house and, in the process, restored themselves.

"Everybody here's got a program," he said, referring to the faith-based 12-step program the men all participate in.

I went with Phillips on a recent afternoon to Cottonwood to meet its inhabitants. There was Frank, a sort of house mentor and recovering heroin addict. He, of all people, knew the value of a second chance. This is his last chance. If he violates his probation, he'll go away for a long time. He's studying theology.

Steven thinks of Charles as a son. He sees a bit of himself in the young man. "When I went in, I was his age," he says. "I was 24." Charles spent 17 months in juvenile lock-up on an aggravated robbery charge.

"I got out and started heading down that path again," Charles said. "Then I met Steven."

He's a 9-to-5 guy now, supporting his girlfriend and his child.

Then there's J.D. He was brand-new to Cottonwood that day and hadn't met Phillips. Both the products of long prison terms, they already had something in common. J.D. was fresh out of prison, having finished up a bid for a gang-related stabbing. He'd done time in some of the worst lock-ups in Texas, including Coffield Unit, he said. Phillips asked, "Do you remember me?" He'd spent 12 years of his prison term there. The men laughed, but Phillips became serious. "We don't hold any of that against you here."

Funny things bind them together in their common search for redemption at Cottonwood. Take Frank and J.D. They used to be members of rival prison gangs. Are they beefing now, you ask? No.

J.D. is the second baseman on Frank's intramural softball team.

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