Mrs. Clean

Teaching female ex-cons how to fly right.
Photo by Jason Sheeler

Fragrant rosemary bushes flanked the forties-era Oak Cliff home, and a handwritten note on the door said, “Knock loud!” I did, and a sixty-year-old woman with a squat frame and a spiky haircut opened the door and welcomed me in. “This is our little family,” Debra Starkey said, gesturing to two women at the dining room table drinking coffee. “This is Valerie and Regina.” Valerie was in pajama bottoms and a baggy top, and Regina wore a black sparkly sweater and square glasses. “They look like nice girls, don’t they? See, if you just met them on the street you’d never know they were hardened criminals.” 

Starkey runs a halfway house. With 1,500 square feet and four bedrooms, there are only four spots, which Starkey reserves for women who have been recently paroled or released from a rehabilitation facility. “They have to want to change!” Starkey barked, smiling at Valerie and Regina. She calls her house Grace Unlimited.

Starkey grabbed her coffee mug—which read, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”—and sat down at the table. “Now, all this was donated,” she said looking around the living and dining rooms, which were furnished with clashing sofas, new electronics, and well-worn recovery literature. “Even that big-ass TV. Not that the girls have much of a chance to watch it. They have to work.” Valerie just got a job at Braum’s ice cream store, and Regina has the overnight shift at UPS. Both use public transportation.

Twenty years ago, Starkey was where her girls are now. She had been a professional female football player in the seventies, but when her playing days were over, she became “a mean and nasty drug dealer.” She has two prison stints under her belt, for repeated DWIs and dealing drugs. A long time ago she grew up in Pleasant Grove.

After her release from Gatesville’s Crain Unit, in 1992, she found work as a mechanic and continued attending twelve-step meetings (she’s been clean since December 12, 1989). But she kept hearing from women who were struggling with addiction—both current inmates and recent parolees. “They had nowhere to go. They didn’t know how to live outside.” In 2006 she found a house in Oak Cliff, registered Grace Unlimited as a charity, and asked the recovery community for help. Within two years the house was paid for.

Starkey is strict. Up at 6 a.m. Beds made by 7:30. Mandatory twelve-step meetings five times a week. Smoking is not allowed inside (there’s a fine of $5 if caught). No boyfriends or girlfriends. Lying is fined too. And relapse means dismissal with no possibility of return (especially when the relapse involves selling all the meat out of the freezer for crystal meth—yes, that happened).

The spirit of recovery pervades the house, from the framed portrait in the entryway of Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, to Saint Anthony’s “miracle prayers” tacked to the bedroom walls. Regina and Valerie know that their sobriety is essential to having a bed. “It helps that we’re a little scared of Starkey,” Regina said. “She don’t take no crap,” Valerie added. 

“We’ve got an opening, by the way,” Starkey said. “I just kicked a girl out for smoking weed.” She took a sip of her coffee and cussed at herself for spilling a little.

“No one teaches you this shit when you get out of prison,” Starkey continued. “How to live. Not to lie. Not to steal. You don’t even have an ID when you get out. So how can you get a job?” 

“I’ve never even had a driver’s license,” said Valerie, who got hooked on speed when she was 9 years old. Now 32, she has lived at the house for two months, since she left Gatesville, where she served seven years for dealing drugs. 

“The longer they’ve been locked up, the more I like ’em,” Starkey said. “They’re more willing.”

“I can’t even believe I live in a house, with kind of a family,” said Valerie. Her eyes began to water as she pulled her legs onto her chair, her knees touching her chin. “I just want to stay sober.”

“Starkey’s house was the chance of a lifetime for me,” said Regina, who heard about Grace Unlimited while in prison. The mother of two had a successful career as a nurse before an addiction to crack drove her to strip cars and sell off the stolen parts. 

“I’m forty-six years old,” Regina stammered. She cleared her throat as her eyes, too, began to fill with tears. “I have four felony convictions. I’ve been to prison twice. I don’t think I have another run in me. This is my last rodeo.” Her final sentence sounded more like a question. Regina looked to Valerie and Starkey for an answer. 

“You got that right,” Starkey said.

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