Texas prison choir keys in on redemption
As he strokes the keys, Maurice Castillo remembers.
E flat. The fire.
B flat. The gang, the drugs.
A G-chord. The murder charge.
The 28-year-old prisoner pecks out his redemption in a major key, with the confidence of a man who’s been reborn.
“This is what it took for God to get my attention,” he tells the congregation, his prison whites pristine under the bright light of the St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church. “But I give God all the honor and the glory because my pain is gone.”
The Father’s Day crowd is small in this Sunnyside house of worship, where 10 Texas prisoners are sharing their testimonials and songs during a rare venture into the outside world. The men - all from the Jester III and Vance units in Richmond - are giving up the chance to see their own children for the day at visitation in exchange for a shot at sharing their tales of missteps and second chances.
They set off a cappella, hesitant at first. Then starts the toe-tapping and cautious clapping. They turn toward each other at the microphones. The keyboard chimes in. A man closes his eyes and looks to the heavens, savoring this fleeting moment of freedom outside the walls of a Texas prison.
They go from gospel to rap, spitting original rhymes between soulful classics. The crowd sings sways to the music - but it’s Castillo’s story that steals the show.
“There was gangs all around where I grew up at,” Castillo began.
By 17, the Spring Branch native had already been locked up twice.
“I was selling drugs. I was selling crack. I was selling cocaine,” he said. “I was in the streets.”
And then things got worse. His first child, a 16-month-old boy, died in a daycare fire in 2011.
It was a highly publicized case, where four children were killed and three others injured after home daycare operator Jessica Tata left the kids unsupervised to go shopping. A pot of hot oil left on the stove caught fire and set the building ablaze. Tata was ultimately sentenced to 80 years in prison - but Castillo struggled to pick up his life again.
“I cursed God,” he remembered. “I said, ‘Why you let my little boy die?’”
He ran wild, finding trouble wherever it hid.
“I was talking about being Houstone Tango Blast,” he said. “That was what I wanted, that was my life.”
By 22, he faced a murder charge. Even behind bars, he stayed in trouble. He kept getting high. He caught a new charge.
But as his case moved closer and closer to trial, the possibility of decades in prison started to sink in. And he looked for something else.
“My spirit was searching,” he said. He asked his cellmate, “Do you believe in God?”
Castillo wanted to learn more. So, together, they read the Bible every night, starting with Genesis. Then they added morning readings, and prayer circles. Even with an uncertain future, life was looking up - if only he could beat his case.
Outside trips to sing at churches were once a tradition for the prison choir. But that fell by the wayside a few years ago.
This year, though, Rev. James Nash called Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston with a request.
“He said he’d heard the choir and would love for them to be part of his Father’s Day program here,” Whitmire said.
When it landed on his desk, John Werner - a regional director with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice - was intrigued.
“It’s an opportunity for the public to see the positive in offenders who are about to get a second chance,” he said. So Werner sent the request up to Huntsville and got the go-ahead.
All the men who came out Sunday are “trusty” inmates, those given added responsibilities and privileges as they near the end of their sentences. All of the choir is parole eligible.
“Most of them will be looking at going home in the next year,” Werner said.
The night before Castillo’s trial was set to begin in 2013, his newfound faith left him.
For the 12 months since his indictment, he’d resisted taking a plea deal. This was a crime he didn’t do, he said. It was something he wouldn’t admit to.
But now, he wondered: Was it wise to risk 50 or 60 years in prison? Or should he just sign for a 20-year plea deal at the last minute?
He went to sleep racked with worry and dreaming of the worst possible outcomes.
“Abraham had faith,” a voice said in his sleep.
“And I ain’t even know who Abraham was,” he joked.
When he woke up that morning in the Harris County Jail, he started praying as he got dressed. By the time he got to the courthouse, he’d decided not to take the deal.
“Let’s go do this,” he told his lawyer. But his attorney had a surprise for him: The court had tossed the case.
The assault charge he’d gotten behind bars was dropped to a misdemeanor, and a judge gave him six years for violating his probation.
It felt like a real-life miracle - one that hasn’t faded, even from the dull world of a prison cell.
Now, instead of looking at decades behind bars, Castillo is set for release next year.
On the outside, he wants to go to school for music engineering and start a ministry.
“In our lives we need to hear success stories,” Whitmire said. “Today I’m getting with you to witness a miracle, God’s work, something that’s working.”
The men cheer, and some of the crowd stands up to applaud. A drum in the background emphasizes the senator’s point.
“This is what we need in today’s world. There’s a lot of hate, a lot of problems,” Whitmire continued. “I have to get involved every day of my week fixing things. Well, today nothing needs fixing, gentlemen. Nothing needs fixing.”