by Scott Spreier
It was his first day in prison and 18-year-old Steve Menefee was just starting to figure out the routines – when was chow call, where the toilet and showers were, basic procedures.
But before the convicted purse snatcher had served his first 10 hours in the Ferguson Unit, several guys shoved makeshift knives into his cellmate and killed him “right in front of my eyes.” It was the aftermath of a race riot the day before.
“I didn’t even have all my stuff put up and someone already killed my cellmate. I thought they had made a mistake and sent me to the wrong place. This is where they killed people. I was frightened out of my wits.”
Soon enough, a new cellmate helped him get acclimated to how life inside works – or doesn’t – and the world behind bars started to become familiar.
Somehow, it helped his transition behind bars to run into people he knew from home, Houston’s Fifth Ward.
“I saw there was a well-worn path from my neighborhood straight into the Ferguson Unit. There were a lot of people I already knew and they helped me learn how to survive,” Menefee said.
Pretty quickly, his mind began to dwell on how and why he ended up in prison, and what he would do differently next time.
Not that he was thinking about how to live a better life.
“Guys will tell you that when you get there, you spend a lot of time thinking about how you got caught, what it was you could have done not to get caught,” he conceded. “In my mind there was a part of me who wanted to live a better life, to be a good person, but frankly I really didn’t know how to do that yet.”
After 18 months, he went back to the neighborhood he’d grown up in and continued with the lifestyle he’d lived before, despite the best intentions of his parents, who he knew were supportive and right-thinking.
Menefee said he was the only sibling among his three brothers and two sisters who went bad.
“My parents raised me right, took me to church, taught me well and always encouraged me to do the right thing,” he said. “But you know that thing about it taking a village to raise a child? I was getting the right structure at home but at school and out in the community, I wasn’t getting that. I was learning about running the streets, getting high, drinking and chilling with my friends. I insisted on doing it my way.”
Even so, juvenile authorities only arrested him once: at age 13 for purse snatching, the same offense he committed at 18 when he got sentenced to prison. Along with a buddy, he was caught and taken to the juvenile detention center, where he was booked and released to his parents later at night.
A whipping followed, but young Steve went back to the Fifth Ward style of living that he enjoyed.
He was enrolled in school, but not going to class, unless it was to sell joints to his friends. He had no ambition to be a drug dealer – selling small quantities to others was how he supported his own habits and made spending money.
And, making money for himself was how he earned self-esteem. He actually enjoyed learning – he knew in his mind that he was smart enough to succeed– but among his peers, school was not cool, so he didn’t embrace it.
“By making my own money, even with small deals, it made me feel good that I was accomplishing something.”
One day when he was 18, he and three friends noticed a well-dressed woman leaving a store carrying what looked like a nice purse.
“My friend said he bet she had some something valuable in that purse, so he grabbed it, I took it from him and we all took off running,” Menefee said.
A bystander would not stand for it, and took off after them.
About two blocks away, for some he reason he still doesn’t understand, Menefee stopped running.
“Something in me told me that there was not a need to keep running, so I stopped and he caught me,” the parolee said. “I have asked myself for a long, long time why on earth I stopped running. Maybe some part of me wanted to change.”
But he was convicted, served 18 months of a six year sentence, and then released to where he thought he knew how to thrive, the Fifth Ward.
By default, he went back to what he knew – hanging with friends, small time drug deals, living the same kind of directionless life he’d known as a teen-ager.
At one point, Menefee got a job at a paint store but quit after two days.
“I didn’t have a work ethic, and I didn’t understand that you have to show up every day and keep a job to make honest money,” he said. “I didn’t understand that a person has to take responsibility for his behavior. It was stinkin’ thinkin’.”
Six months free, he was busted with a $20 bag of weed and 10-15 grams of cocaine so he went back to prison with a two-year sentence. He served 10 months hard time and then went home to the life he knew in the Ward.
And he found a girlfriend, Pebbles, who got pregnant with his daughter. They got engaged.
He was living in what he called a “drug infested” apartment complex, literally on a dead-end road. “If you were there, it was pretty much obvious you were involved in drugs.”
He was small time, but full time, at dealing drugs himself. He had regular customers to supply, but there was this one guy who “kept asking me to sell him amounts that I didn’t have.”
“I was selling him $200 to $300 a day and then he started pushing me for quantities that cost maybe $15,000. I wasn’t in it at that level.”
One day that guy didn’t show up and suddenly, eight squad cars descended on the complex and made multiple arrests. Many were busted on possession-only charges or outstanding warrant. But they brought with them a specific warrant with Menefee’s name on it – delivery of a controlled substance. He had $200 in marked money in his pocket.
At age 21, it was his third felony, meaning he was eligible for sentencing under Texas’ three-strikes statute. The prosecutor wanted a life sentence but a judge sent him up for 30 years. His daughter was yet to be born when they delivered him to the Beto Unit Aug. 16, 1993.
A few years later, he learned that Pebbles was murdered by two guys who broke into her place near Victoria and killed her with a hammer and steak knife. His daughter, Stephanie, was placed in foster care in Beeville.
It was around this time that Menefee began questioning whether he was living the life his God wanted him to live. The sorrow and regret he had caused his parents – and the fact he couldn’t be there for his young daughter – took their toll on his conscience.
“I became aware that I had reached a point in my life that the way I was living was not the reason I was created,” he said. “There had to be something bigger for me than being a criminal. I wasn’t supposed to be someone whose primary role was to take away from society rather add to it.”
In addition to taking his faith seriously, Menefee took up self-improvement as a lifelong goal. He got his GED and began attending community college classes. As a volunteer, he helped out at the chaplaincy and the education department. He mentored younger inmates.
These positive behaviors helped round out his “resume” to get him accepted in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program in 2015, eleven years after he first applied. “In my heart, I think their decision to reject me the first time was the right decision, because I still had some growing to do, in my life and values.
Over the next two years, a 7-day-a-week focus on PEP taught him a different way of living and goal setting that led to his release in 2016.
“A lot of us come into the program with a desire to live our lives right, but we’re still broken; we don’t know how to do it yet,” Menefee said.
“I became mindful of prioritizing the things I need to do, instead of just going with the flow. If I had an exam coming up, instead of three or four hours watching the Cowboys game, I could be studying. PEP helped me understand that the important things are only going to happen if you personally make the decision to make them happen.”
When he was released in 2016, he chose Dallas as a destination instead of returning to the neighborhood he came from. “Houston had never done anything for me but get me in trouble.” If he had grown up in Dallas, he may have preferred to go to Houston. He needed new friends.
Within a few days, his PEP associates helped him find a job, and after a year driving concrete trucks he went into business for himself driving hotshot truck deliveries all over the country. Key to starting his own business was a $10,000 investment by PEP volunteer Nate Foreman.
And he credits the hands-on assistance from several of his PEP peers and private sector mentors as reasons for his success and stability: Steven Houseman, Roger Manny, Oz Matta, Tim Hamilton, Bryan Kelly, his friend and pro bono attorney Vincent Morgan, and especially John Shaw, whose experience in the trucking industry helped him address solid business practices.
It’s the PEP support system that may be most helpful, he said.
Christmas is the season of generosity, a time of year where you can help PEP prepare for the next year. Our goal is to change 400 more lives in 2020 and the cost of total transformation is $8600 per graduate. That is $3.5 million to provide character development, entrepreneurship training, family support, and reentry services, which reduces recidivism by 98%.
This Christmas your gift will be doubled! Through December 31st, 2019 our board will match your gift up to $200,000. Whether it is a $200,000 gift or a $250 gift it all makes a difference in the lives of our men.