Archive for the ‘jail’ Category

As those words came out of my mouth, I knew they were falling on deaf ears. They always do, every single time.

She was smiling and still shaking my hand. “Oh, you are so modest! You would be a great asset to us!”

I pulled my hand back. “That’s very kind of you, but I’m not being modest. It’s not in my nature. I’m being honest. Really, I am,” I said.

I heard James chuckle and looked over at him. He was gathering his papers and talking to his assistant. He was avoiding looking at me.

It was his fault I had been attending these sessions with him and other judges, along with police officers, probation and parole officers and a few others who I had no clue who they were. They were public discussions that us “civilians” were allowed to attend and listen in on. This group was assembled as a way for the County to work together on various programs, laws and God knows what else.

James had invited me weeks ago to attend. I was instructed about the proper format for it. It was open to the public and we could sit in our assigned seats, listen and take notes but not participate during the discussion. We could approach the panel afterwards, but not interrupt while the meeting was going on unless we were called on.

When James first told me about the rules, I nodded my head. “Are you trying to tell me something because you keep going over the point of sitting quietly and not saying anything.”

“Yes. Just listen for once in your life,” he said.

Well, I had been listening for the last few weeks and I had not approached anyone afterwards. I hadn’t said a word as no one had asked me anything.  I sat quietly each time. On that particular afternoon, James had looked at me and said he was curious what us visitors thought. They had been discussing gangs and the various options they had to help and stop the violence.

This was always a hot topic. When I heard what it was, I bit my tongue and concentrated on taking notes and not looking at anyone.

A few people raised their hands and each one was called on. I kept my hand down and listened to what everyone was saying. After everyone had been given a chance to address the panel, I was doodling on my notebook and looking at my watch. The session was almost done and soon I would be heading home for the day.

“Ms. Lewis, do you have any questions for us?” he asked.

I looked up. He had a slight smile on his face. He tilted his head a bit. He knew I hated being called Ms. Lewis, but I let it slide. This was a public forum and that’s just the way it was done.

“No Your Honor, I do not,” I said. Might as well play tit-for-tat.

“Are you sure?” he asked. He was baiting me. I took the bait.

“OK Your Honor, since you insist. I do have one,” I said and stood up.

“That’s great. What is it?” he asked.

I looked at the panel and they were all looking at me. They were wonderful people with good hearts and intention. They came from all over the County and were committed to helping the people of their area.

“When are all of you going to stop passing more and more laws and actually get something done?”

His smile got broader while the others looked at each other and then back at me.

“I mean no disrespect….”

“Of course you don’t, Ms. Lewis,” James said.

“And I know all of you are working very hard with all the problems we have with gangs, but the bottom line is, we all need to roll up our sleeves and get more people getting things done and not just talking about it. Maybe you guys could help me get more people to help me, you know? I realize I’m a small company and one of many, but there are so many good programs out there and what we need is help in getting things done and less talking about it,” I said and sat down.

Various things were said and I didn’t really listen to them because it was just more and more about what they WANTED to do and what their PLANS were, but I was struggling with my own problems. I didn’t have the time or the money to do what I was doing, but it was getting done. None of us had the time for going into Juvenile Hall, but we did it anyway. We wanted to expand but we needed help. We were way out of our league, but we were still at the plate swinging.

And now I was listening to a woman tell me after the meeting about how wonderful it would be to have me on the committee. I looked at her as I pulled my hand away.

“Who are you again?” I asked. She had introduced herself so quickly when she walked up to me. She looked to be in her mid-50’s. She was well-groomed and had a most beautiful smile. Her hands were soft and warm.

“I’m Charlotte and I work in the Mayor’s Office. I attend these meetings for him and I have to say, I’ve seen you here the last few weeks and didn’t know who you were, but I liked what you had to say. I think you would be a great asset to us.”

“Oh, that’s very kind of you, but I’m not the committee type, if you know what I mean,” I said as I picked-up my purse and briefcase.

“No, what do you mean?” she asked. “I think our committee needs more people like you. So, tell me, why not?”

This was not the first time someone had asked me to be in a committee or participate in an activity or join a club and help out.

People say they want to know what you think until you tell them.

Then it’s a different story.

I slung my purse over my shoulder and looked at her. She was sincere. She worked for the Mayor. She could be a good contact for my program, but she was missing “the look” that I needed. It was a difficult look to describe as it was a bit intangible but one that I knew when I saw it.

It is the way the person looks when you talk about convicted felons, children who had murdered, people who had been abused and people who had abused others. They don’t find you strange for being comfortable talking to a hooker or a pimp and they don’t shy away from you when you talk about reforming gun runners or drug addicts.

They don’t push you away; instead they come closer and listen.

It is a look of knowledge that we really weren’t in Kansas anymore. It is a look that tells you they understand that we are all living in a war zone. It is a look that tells you they haven’t bought into the pretty lawns and cars and the latest fashion trend or the most current TV show that is going to change the world. It is a look that is quietly exchanged between them and I and I see they understand one thing: they understand that the only important thing in life is just that – life – and everything else is bull shit.

“Charlotte, I appreciate you asking me, but I am turning you down because I don’t do very well with them. It’s not that I dislike you or what you are trying to do.  It’s just that I’m much better at getting things done rather than talking about it. I’m sure I would annoy everyone and be booted out or at best ignored,” I said.

She put her hand on my arm. “I just can’t imagine anyone not liking you,” she said.

I heard James laugh. He was standing 10 feet behind her with his back turned to us. I ignored him.

“Let me ask you this; have any of you ever worked or talked to the people you pass the laws against? Ever?”

She shook her head. “No, most of us haven’t, but we do have attorneys and judges on his committee. We are working hard to lower the crime rate,” she said.

“I know you are and there’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever. Don’t get me wrong. I’m telling you I would not be a good fit for your committee and not that I disagree with what you’re doing, but until you look in the eyes of a convict, you don’t know.”

“Don’t know what?”

“That you have about 30 seconds to connect them in order to try to salvage them. If you miss your mark, game over. Everyone loses. The time I spend sitting on a committee and playing nice with the other kids is time I could have used to work with someone and maybe have a shot at pulling them out of the gutter or seeing that some are crazy mother’s and should be locked up forever and the key thrown away.”

“Oh, I see what you mean…”

She was trying to understand and she probably never would.  It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault.

It’s just the way it is and would always be.

“Has the Mayor ever gone into the jail and talked to any of the inmates?”

“Good heavens, no!” she said. She looked a bit horrified at the suggestion.

“Then he doesn’t know and trust me on this; the last thing he wants is to hear me talk about it,” I said. I shook her hand. She gave me her card and told me to call in case I changed my mind.

I walked out of the building and out into the parking lot. It was late afternoon and I was going to hit the commuter traffic. I looked across the street at a coffee shop and thought about running in there for dinner and waiting out traffic. I decided against it because I hate eating at restaurants alone. It always made me feel a bit pathetic.

“Oh Ms. Lewis, are you leaving?” I heard. I knew that voice.

I turned around and James was a few cars over. He was leaning against his car and smiling.

“Yes, Your Honor, I am,” I said and waved.

He waved back. “You turned her down, didn’t you?”

I smiled and nodded my head. “Yep, I did.” I shrugged my shoulders.

“I knew you would. She didn’t look right, did she?”

“Nope,” I said and got in my car and drove away.

James had “the look” and that was the reason we always got along.

He understood.

“You know I can’t do that. You’re not qualified to deal with registered sex offenders. Plus you told me you didn’t want them, so why this one?” he asked.

“Your Honor, this one isn’t a pedophile and I told you THAT was who I didn’t want,” I said. “He’s just a kid…”

The judge raised his hand and leaned back in his chair. We were in his chambers at the end of a very long day for both of us.

“Ms. Lewis, I assure you I know the details of his case.”

“Stop doing that,” I said.

“Doing what?” he asked.

“Calling me Ms. Lewis. It makes me feel old. My name is Susan, so feel free to park all the PC crap with me and just talk to me,” I said.

He chuckled. “As you wish but only on one condition; you stop calling me ‘Your Honor,” he said and leaned forward. He was a nice man who had spent the last 15 years on the bench. He often saw the worst of people on a daily basis, but like many judges that I had met, he hadn’t given up hope. He kept trying to help people. He kept trying to find ways to uphold the law and maintain the humanity of it all.

He had a difficult job. I did not envy him.

“OK, fair enough. What should I call you then?”

“James,” he said.

“As in Bond?” I asked.

“Yes, just like him,” he said and laughed.

“OK, James, here’s the deal. I know you know the details of the case. So you know he’s just a kid and so was she. They had consensual sex but now he’s been convicted of rape, labeled as a sex offender and is now registered as one. This isn’t right….”

“It’s the law,” he said, sighed and rubbed his eyes. “The father cried rape and you know how it all turned out. He was over 18. She wasn’t. End of story,” he said.

This was bothering him but he wasn’t going to budge. He couldn’t. He had to uphold the law.

I did know how it all turned out, which was why I was in his chambers. I knew it was a hopeless battle, but I had promised the kid’s Dad that I would try. Maybe there was a way. The family was devastated. I knew them. They had run out of money fighting the case.

Justice should not depend on anyone’s pocket-book.

“The law is wrong,” I said more to myself than him.

“Then change it,” he snapped. “And until you do, you can’t have him. You can visit him, if you can get authorization, but he can’t be enrolled in your program and if you try, I guess I’ll see you back here, but for sentencing,” he said. A sly smile crossed his face.

“Would I have to wear the butt-ugly orange jumpsuits?” I asked.

“Yes and I’ll make sure you are cuffed,” he said and let out a belly laugh.

“That’s not funny,” I said.

“Yes it is. I swear it will just be a matter of time before you get brought up on charges for something. You just have to break the rules, don’t you?”

It wasn’t a matter of breaking rules or not. It was a matter of trying to do the right thing, regardless if it broke a rule or not.

I knew this meeting was a waste of his time and mine, but I couldn’t shake the idea that maybe if we just talked we could figure out something, anything, to fix what had happened. He was 18, she was 16 and it wasn’t rape. But the parents said it was and once they pressed charges, there was no stopping the machine. The trial had been a nightmare and he had been in jail for over a year awaiting trial. The girl protested the charges, but it didn’t matter. The DA took the case and ran with it.

I knew there wasn’t anything else to do. I felt a tear run down my face and it surprised me. I quickly wiped it away and hoped he hadn’t seen it.

He had. He leaned back and grabbed a tissue from the box of Kleenex on his credenza and handed it to me. I took it, wiped my eyes and stood up. I stuck out my hand to shake his. He came around his desk, shook my hand and gave me a gentle hug.

“Let me give you some advice, if I may,” he said.

I nodded my head. I was tired. I was fed-up.

“You’re in over your head on this, all of you. You and your friends are running in and out of Juvenile Hall. You’re getting people sent to you that you think you can help. I know your program works. None of the people I have sent to you have ever returned to my courtroom That’s why I keep sending them, but you can’t save everyone. Neither can I.”

“What’s your point, James?” I knew he was right but that didn’t mean I liked hearing it.

“Let this one go and work with who you can. You don’t get this one and even if you did, it won’t change a thing. He’s been sent away for a few years and nothing any of us say or do will ever change that. It’s done. Accept it.”

“I’m going to go home and have a drink. Or two, maybe,” I said as I picked-up my briefcase.

“Just don’t drive. Otherwise, I’ll be seeing you again, very soon. Keep your chin up kid.”

I thought about that for a moment as I walked towards the door. I turned around and looked at him.

“How do you keep your chin up?”

“I meet with hopelessly optimistic and somewhat wild women in my chambers from time to time,” he said and turned around and sat back down at his desk. He didn’t look up but I saw him smiling.

“Next time I’m here, wear the robe,” I said as I walked out and closed his door behind me.

I could hear his laughter as I walked down the hallway.

You want me to clean up your mess?

Posted: November 15, 2012 in jail
Tags: ,

It was early Sunday morning when the phone rang. I was sound asleep. When I heard it ring, I was immediately convinced that someone had died. I rolled over, grabbed the phone and said “Hello” before I even opened my eyes.

“Susan, is that you?” some woman said on the other end.

“Yes. Who is this?” I asked as I opened my eyes and looked at the clock. It was 6:30 in the morning. I rubbed my eyes and sat up. My dog Maverick was asleep on my legs and I couldn’t feel them. He felt me move, turned his head and laid it back down. He refused to move, so I tugged my legs out from under him as I pushed my pillows up and sat back. I vowed to get a small dog the next time and pushed him with my foot.

“This is Cindy, a friend of Kathy’s. We met a few months ago,” she said. I vaguely remembered her and still didn’t understand why she was calling me so early.

“Who died?” I asked.

“What are you talking about? No one died.”

“Then why are you calling me at 6:30 on a Sunday morning? It can only be bad news and since I’ve only met you once, I figured Kathy died. Did she?”

“No, she’s fine. I was calling because I need your help. She did give me your number.”

I was confused. “So there’s no emergency, right?”

She sighed and sounded exasperated with me. I didn’t care. “No, there’s no emergency unless you consider my son going to jail…”

“Hold on a minute. You’re calling me because your son is going to jail? When?”

“Tomorrow morning if you don’t do something about it,” she said.

I had no idea what she was talking about but I knew where this was going. I was wide awake now and getting pissed off.

“Tell you what; you woke me up on a Sunday morning to talk about something I know nothing about. I’m going to get up, use the bathroom and have some coffee. I’ll call you later today. What’s your number?”

“No! I need to talk to you right now. I don’t know what to do and I know you work judges and I don’t know where else to turn,” she said.

And then she did it.

She started crying.

I rubbed my eyes and got up. “OK, go ahead and tell me what’s wrong,” I said as I walked into the kitchen and started the coffee. I leaned back against the kitchen counter and stared at the coffee pot. It was brewing too slow.

“It’s my son Eric. He was arrested a couple of months ago and he’s completely innocent! It’s a set-up and tomorrow he goes before the judge and I wanted you to be there and convince the judge he shouldn’t go to jail.”

I started laughing. I couldn’t help it. She was delusional, which gave me a little bit of a clue as to why Eric was in trouble.

The woman was an idiot.

“Oh, he was set-up? How so?” I asked as I poured a cup of coffee and added cream. I actually couldn’t wait to hear the details. I walked into the living room, sat down and put my feet up.

“The drugs weren’t his. They belonged to a friend of his and he didn’t know what was in the bag. He’s trusting like that. He’s very sweet and we raised him to trust people. Maybe he took it a bit too far, but he doesn’t do drugs and he’s not selling them like they say he is,” she said. She had stopped crying but was sniffling.

“What drugs was he ‘helping’ his friend with?” This was getting better and better.

“Umm..I think it’s called ‘method’ but I’m not sure.”

“Meth? You mean meth?” I asked. Maverick had finally gotten up and walked over to the back door and stared at me. His Highness wanted out. I got up, opened the door and followed him out. It was still early but already a beautiful spring day. I sat down at the patio table, lit a cigarette and stretched.

“Yes! Meth-something-or-other. But it’s not his and I really need you to help him. Can you be at the courthouse tomorrow morning and talk to the judge?”

I knew she was upset. Her son was looking at a long jail term and I was about to forgive her for the early morning call, but asking me to just drop everything and run downtown in the morning to talk to a judge to somehow convince him not to send Eric to jail was ludicrous. I had never met him, I barely knew her and apparently she thought I had some magical power over judges.

“So, you think he’s innocent then?” I asked.

“Yes, of course he is! He would never do anything like that. We are good people. He was raised to respect the law and not get involved with drugs. We live in a nice neighborhood. We’re not like them.”

“Them? Oh, who might ‘them’ be exactly?”

“Drug dealers.”

I chuckled. She just didn’t know and was refusing to face the fact that her son got caught with enough drugs to be sentenced to a long jail term. She believed him and I felt sorry for her. I had seen this too many times.

“Has Eric lost weight recently?” I asked. Might as well get her to wake-up and deal with her life which was about to be ruined tomorrow morning.

‘Yes, but that’s because he’s been working out a lot.”

“Has he been sleeping?” I asked.

“Not like he used to. I hear him in his room but he said he was studying.”

“How are his grades?”

“They were better last year and he’s missed a lot of school this year. He hasn’t been sleeping much….”

“Does he pick the skin on his face?” I asked.

“How did you know? Why are you asking me all of these questions? I need you to see the judge tomorrow..”

“You need to shut-up and listen to me, that’s what you need to do,” I said. Shit she was arrogant and pushy.

Dead silence. I waited a moment.

“First of all, how dare you call me up and demand that I do anything for you! Your son is your problem and not mine and maybe if you would remove your head out of your ass, you might see that he needs you to stop fixing his problems for him and instead be there for him.

“Second of all, not only has he been using drugs, but it sounds like he’s been dealing them. Now depending on the amount and if this is his first offense, he might get off with probation, but I don’t know and I don’t care.

You should be the one the go down there and talk to the judge…”

“I can’t. I have to work,” she said. “I have an important meeting that I can’t miss. That’s why I called you.”

And there it was.

“No, I have no intention of doing that, but I do have an idea,” I said.

“Oh? What is it?”

“You and your husband do our ‘Parenting Course’ and learn how to be a better parent.”

“How much is it?” she asked.

That did it for me. She didn’t ask about what they would learn. She didn’t ask how long it took or where it would be. She just wanted to know the cost.

“For you? I usually don’t charge anything for it, but for you, it will be $500.00. Each.”

“That’s just rude,” she said.

“So is waking me up early on a Sunday morning and telling me to clean up your mess,” I said and hung-up the phone.

The next morning, I called the courthouse and found out when Eric was going to be sentenced. I had met the judge a few months before. He had been sending me some people to work with in lieu of sending them to jail. We talked and I relayed my conversation to him about Eric.

“You want this one Susan? I can do it if he fits within the parameters of your program, but I’ll know more after I see him,” he said.

Shortly afterwards, I began working with Eric.

The judge ordered the Mom to pay $750.00 for my work.

He also ordered the parents onto my parenting course and to pay for that also.

She was not amused, but I was.

I never got used to seeing people caged like animals. Yes, I had heard the stories and I understood that many of them were in serious trouble but the fact that they were children only bothered me more. Some of them were only 13 years old and no matter how tough they tried to act, they were just kids.

Kathy walked-up to the desk. There were 3 staff standing behind it. One of them I had never seen before. He was about my height, overweight and had a buzz cut. My first thought was he was ex-military. His name badge said “Steve” and he was the only one that looked up and smiled at us. The other two ignored us and stared at the monitors.

There were a few kids that were out of their cells sitting around on the couches they had out in the main area. They were talking or reading. No TV was allowed in.

“Hello guys! How are you?” Steve asked. He looked at each of us and came around from the desk and shook each of our hands. “I was told you were coming in tonight. What help can I give you?”

I was a bit surprised by his helpfulness and demeanor. The other people we had spoken to were always a bit clipped and abrupt as if we were in their way. I was often told to keep my mouth shut and not say anything. That was difficult for me because I had no problem telling someone when they were being rude. Apparently the deal was because we were volunteers and therefore not considered employees; we didn’t have much say about anything. None of us had degrees like many of the employees did so we were often brushed aside. This bothered me at first but I soon became accustomed to it as did Kathy, Martha and Matthew. What was important was the work we were doing. Side-stepping someone’s ego was just part of the game.

“Hi Steve. I’m Matthew and this is Kathy, Susan and Martha. All we need is our kids. We know pretty much everything else. Are you going to be on-point with us tonight?”

Matthew was the person in-charge of our group. He was the one that got the program into Juvenile Hall. He was the one that got us to help him and he was the one where the buck stopped. Because of my friendship and respect for him, I kept my mouth shut at times when it was almost impossible to do. Working in this field had taught me some degree of patience and tolerance but I still had a long ways to go.

Steve nodded his head and walked with us to the room we used. It was a conference room that had tables and chairs in it. ‘Yes, I’ll be keeping an eye open. If you need anything, you’ll know where to find me,” he said. He helped us with our briefcases and opened the locker where we kept our supplies. Fortunately we didn’t have to carry them in and out every time we came. All we brought with us were our notes. Anything and everything the kids wrote belonged to the State and we not allowed to leave the premises. Inmates were considered property. We could not take anything out any more than we could walk out with one of the inmates.

Soon the room was filled with several teen-age boys all between the ages of 13-17. They were different shapes, sizes and race. Some were quiet and some were not. A few of them liked to flirt with Kathy, Martha and myself and others were terrified if we even looked at them. All in all there were 20 of them and only 4 of us. We all seemed to manage and they were well-behaved, if not loud, for the most part.

They were happy to be out of their cells so it didn’t matter what the class was about. They were out and talking to others and we were well aware of that. We gave them some slack and knew that in-between them blowing off some steam, some of what we were teaching them was getting through.

As we were going along, I glanced behind me. Sitting on the couch that was tucked away in a corner was a young boy. He wasn’t part of our class. He looked to be only 9 years old; much too young to be in this ward. He had his arms wrapped around him and his legs crossed. He looked as if he was trying to melt into the couch. His eyes were large. His hair was short and brown. He was so white he almost looked blue. His eyes darted everywhere and when he saw that I had seen him, he shrank further down into the couch and began shaking.

I walked up to him and smiled. He reminded me of an injured animal who didn’t know where to go or what to do.

I sat down next to him. He shrank away but didn’t leave. He looked down at his lap and his shaking increased.

“Hi. I’m Susan. What’s your name?” I asked. I tried to keep my voice as quiet and pleasant as possible. I was worried that if I scared him further he would run.

He mumbled something.

“What? I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you,” I said.

“Bobby. My name is Bobby and is it OK if I sit here because I don’t know where else to sit and I promise I won’t say anything or do anything. I just want to sit here.”

He was trembling and about to cry.

“Sure you can sit here. You can stay as long as you want. How old are you?” I asked.

He bit his lower lip and quickly scratched his nose and then wrapped his arms back around him as tight as he could.

“I’m 13,” he said.

I knew he had to be at least that old. He looked like an orphaned child in the middle of a war zone.

“What are you doing here?”

I saw tears suddenly appear in his eyes. I knew crying is one of the worse things an inmate can do. If anyone saw it, the teasing would never stop. He quickly closed his eyes, looked away and tried to covertly wipe them away. I looked around the room and  gave him a few minutes.

“I got in trouble at school.”

“For what?” I asked.

“For smoking,” he said and looked at me briefly and then down at the floor. “My parents said they didn’t want me anymore because I am bad and I have to come in here and learn my lesson.”

This didn’t make any sense to me but I didn’t want to push the point. This child didn’t look like any of the other kids in there. Some were being held on attempted murder charges and some for manslaughter. Most of them looked as if they were raised on the streets but Bobby looked like he had come from a more affluent area. It was hard to tell because they all wore the same uniform, but there was a lack of harshness and cruelty about him. His face was soft and his hands were flawless. This child had never lived on the streets and yet here he was.

“OK Bobby. That’s fine and it’s not important why you are here. How long are you here for?” I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders. “I dunno, couple of days maybe. I just want to go home,” he said and suddenly the tears were running down his cheeks. I wanted to get him out of there before anyone noticed. I stood up and held out my hand for him to take it. He did and I pulled him out of the room as quickly and quietly as possible. I motioned to Matthew that I would be right back.

Once outside of the room, I found a couple of chairs and sat down. He was trying so hard not to cry but couldn’t stop it. This was the first person I could ever remember who wasn’t afraid. He was in terror.

Steve saw us sitting as far away from everyone as we could. He walked up and looked at us for a minute. A slight smile crossed his face. He walked away, grabbed another chair and sat down next to Bobby.

“What’s wrong buddy?” he asked. Bobby shook his head and buried his chin further down into his chest. I looked at Steve and shrugged my shoulders. I put my hand on Bobby’s back and gently rubbed it. I knew I was not allowed to touch the kids but I didn’t care. This one was terrified. Steve saw me do it and said nothing. He moved his chair closer and leaned over to look at Bobby closer.

“You’re going to be OK. You’ll get through this,” he said.

Suddenly Bobby let out a loud cry. “I want my Mom! I want my Mom!” he screamed and suddenly he was in my arms and burying his head into my shoulder. I held on and pulled him onto my lap. I put my hand on the back of his head and held him as tightly as I could. I glared at Steve, not because I was angry at him. I glared because I was overcome with emotion that any child would be in this condition. I looked at him as if to challenge me on “the rules” of no physical contact with an inmate. Steve nodded his head, put his hands up and sat back.

I let him cry. I rocked him and tried to soothe him. His words came out jumbled and incomplete. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t trying to understand him. I was trying to prevent a nervous breakdown. What had happened prior to this did not concern me. What concerned me was the shattering of a soul and a child’s lost youth. I wanted it all to stop. I wanted to be home in my small living room with my dogs and watching a stupid TV show. I didn’t want to know these things. I resented all of it.

Bobby finally stopped crying but would not let go of me. We sat there for a long time. Kathy peeked out of the room and saw us. She gave me a “thumbs up” and went back to the class.

Bobby pulled away and wiped his face. My sweater was wet where he had cried. I didn’t think I would ever be able to wash it again. I did not want to wash away the tears of a child and forget. As much as I resented all of it, I knew I would stay. I knew I would not turn my back and I knew that I would hope that I could say or do something that would put this broken kid back together again. I didn’t know what to say or do so I sat there and rubbed his back again.

Steve came back and put his hand out to Bobby. “Let’s get you to the restroom and you can wash your face, OK?”

Bobby nodded. He stood up and began to walk away. He stopped and looked back at me. I smiled. He smiled, walked back to me and hugged me. Now I wanted to cry. He turned and walked with Steve to the bathroom. I sighed and stood up. There was still a bit of time left for the evening.

I walked back into the class room. My friends looked up and smiled. They understood and I knew no words would be spoken. There was nothing to say. This was part of the job.

Turning abusers into victims?

Posted: November 13, 2012 in jail
Tags: ,

She was petite and quiet. Almost never said a word in class but listened intently. Her short brown hair was messy and her bangs were too long. They fell over her eyes most of the time and she rarely swept them back. I often wondered how it didn’t drive her crazy because I knew when I needed to cut my bangs. It was the moment I found myself pushing them off my face and having to bat my eyes from the annoyance.

Her name was Angelica and at times, she looked like an angel.

My classes were doing well and I knew this by the amount of noise, conversation, laughter and tears that occurred. The better the class, the louder they got.

Suzanne was talking about her kids and how much she missed them. A few of the students nodded in agreement. I knew what was about to happen. I took the box of Kleenex I always brought in my briefcase and slid it over to the table to her. She looked up when it nudged her arm. She smiled, took one and dabbed her eyes.

“You’re not getting soft on me, are you Suzanne?” I asked. “Because I think if you ever revealed that you are indeed human, we would die from the shock.”

She laughed at this and blew her nose. “Teach, you are always busting me on shit. I’m not crying; I have allergies.”

The room was suddenly filled with laughter. Chanteel wadded up a piece of paper and threw it at Suzanne. A few others followed suit and soon there was a small stack of papers in front of her. Suzanne smiled, wiped her eyes and sat up straighter.

“How can you all laugh? You’re in here and there’s nothing funny about it,” Angelica said.

I turned around and looked at her. As far as I could recall it was the first time she had spoken.

“Sometimes laughing is the best thing to do. Sometimes it’s all we have,” I said.

She shrugged, turned away from me and stared at the wall. She folded her arms across her chest.

“Angelica, please continue,” I said.

She shook her head but wouldn’t look at me. The room had gotten very quiet. Everyone was staring at her. I didn’t want to push it.

Chanteel got up and sat down next to her. Angelica turned away from her. Chanteel turned her back.

“You don’t ever turn your back on Susan, you hear me? She is talking to you, so turn around and be nice,” she said.

“Yeah! Don’t you ever dis Teach!” said Suzanne. A few others grunted and nodded in agreement. They all turned and faced Angelica.

I stood back in amazement and awe. Suddenly my students were taking over. I wasn’t sure what to do. I stood there and let them. There was some unknown code they had that was going into effect that I was not a part of. Something was happening with them. I waited.

Angelica obeyed them. She turned around and faced me. “I don’t want to leave here because when I do, I have to go back to him,” she said and looked down at her lap. Chanteel seemed to immediately understand. She rubbed her back and nodded. The others relaxed and sat back.

“Him?” I asked.

“Yes, him,” she said.

I looked around the room. Many of the students were looking at each other. Some were looking down at their laps. There was an understanding passing between all of them that didn’t include me.

“Can you tell us more about him?” I asked. I had no idea what was going on, but it was eerily quiet.

“No,” she said. I looked at Chanteel.

“She’s talking about the guy she hurt. The one that hurt her for so many years. Her father,” Chanteel said and then hugged Angelica.

“He’s not my father! He’s the devil,” Angelica said and began crying. “Don’t you ever call him that!”

Suzanne got up and walked over to Angelic and stood in front of her. Suzanne had been arrested for crack possession and prostitution. She often asked me if she was my favorite crack hoe and I always told her she was. It was true. She was one of the funniest people I had ever met.

“Look Angelica, I know it’s been rough for you. You haven’t been here long, but you’ve sat in with us for a while. Everyone knows you shot the bastard that had been messing with you since you were a kid. It’s happened to a lot of us, so you’re not alone, but that whole crying shit has got to stop because you are really starting to piss me off. Besides, you’re just pissed that you missed and only hit him in the shoulder and he’s still alive. You really need better aim next time” she said and turned around and sat back down. She leaned back in her chair and looked bored.

I sighed and looked over at Angelica. “I have a question. You’re over 18, so why are you saying you have to go back to him? I don’t understand,” I said.

“He’s got my kid. No one believed me because I had never said anything about…”

I raised my hand. “That’s OK, you don’t have to explain,” I said.

“I have to go get her and I don’t have any other place to stay. He said he’s forgiven me and wants me back when I get out,” she said.

“Yeah, that’s what they all say,” said Rita.”They always miss us, don’t they?”

Several of the students chuckled.

“Isn’t there someone who could help you? I mean, I know I’m no expert but I would think there is something set-up somewhere to help,” I said. I felt useless and stupid.

“Do you know what it’s like?” she asked. I knew what she meant.

“No.”

“Have you ever been hurt like that? Ever?”

“No,” I said.

“Then why are you here?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” was all I could think to say. Her eyes were on fire. She was holding her chin up and looking directly at me.

“She’s here because she gives a fuck, you dumb ass,” said Suzanne. She said this without looking up from her nails.

“Yeah, I am sorry that I missed the shot.” said Angelica.

I was sorry that she missed the shot also but said nothing.

That was the last time she spoke in class for a long time.

The evening was going along nicely. I was working with a group of men who had all been convicted of domestic violence of one form or another. They were all first time offenders and desperate for help and changing their ways. This made them willing to listen and learn. They were all respectful, kind and talkative.

I couldn’t ask for anything better.

As I was standing in front of them and listening to Alfonso talk, the men were nodding and smiling at what he was saying. Some patted him on the back. What he was talking about was helping himself and the others. I stood silently and listened and encouraged him when he needed it.

When the door opened up and a correctional officer came in, I turned to look. It was unusual for anyone to interrupt our meetings. Fred walked in and following him was another inmate. We were about an hour into our class.

The inmate had his head down and followed Fred. Fred grabbed a chair and pulled it out, far away from the class. The man sat down and kept his head down. I turned back to the group to continue.

All eyes were on the inmate. I saw many of them glaring at him. Alfonso stopped talking and turned his back to him in the middle of his story.

A quiet hush went through the room. Everyone had stopped talking and smiling. All eyes were now on this inmate, who kept his head down. Fred stood behind him. He motioned for me to continue.

No matter what I did for the rest of the evening, no one would talk. I saw them all turn away from the inmate but none of them would talk any longer. I got tired of trying and wrapped the class up early. There wasn’t anything else to do.

As each of them left, they all made sure to come up to me and thank me. They each shook my hand. When Alfonso came up, I asked him what had happened. Had I said or done something wrong?

“No, you didn’t,” he said. He motioned for me to step away. I said good-bye to everyone. Fred was still standing there with the inmate. Neither one moved.

“No one likes that guy, that’s all,” he said. “We’re not comfortable talking around him, so if he’s going to be in here, we won’t be. You did nothing wrong, but some things just ain’t right,” he said as he shook my hand and smiled. I watched him leave. I saw Fred tell the inmate to get up. I asked him to wait a moment.

I walked over and looked down at the inmate. He hadn’t moved.

“Fred, you mind telling me what is going on and who this is?”

“Sorry Susan, I guess no one told you. This is Lou and he wants to attend your class. I just found out he was approved, so I brought him in,” he said. Even Fred glared at him when he looked at him.

Lou was in his mid-30’s and had a slight build. He looked like a broken man sitting there with his head down and his hands hanging down between his legs. When he finally looked up at me, his eyes were clear and bright. There was a very slight smile on his face. That sent a slight chill through me. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I didn’t like it.

“That’s fine, but why did the room get so quiet? It looks like my guys don’t want Lou in here, so why don’t you tell me Fred what is going on?” I asked. Lou looked back down at the floor.

“It’s because they don’t like pedophiles,” Fred said very matter-of-fact.

“Neither do I!” I said. I stepped back away from Lou. I had a very firm policy to never deal with sexual predators. I was adamant about it and couldn’t imagine how this had happened. Someone had screwed up and I wasn’t going to put up with it.

“It’s all a big misunderstanding,” Lou said. His voice was gentle and soft.

“Oh, is that so?” I asked. I was suddenly intrigued what he had to say.

“Yes it is.”

If he was here, then he had gone through a trial and was convicted. Whether he was guilty or innocent wasn’t relevant to me.

“Well, I’m sorry but I can’t have you in this class. You saw what happened when you walked in. The men stopped talking and I can’t have that happen.” I looked up at Fred. I felt a bit of a glare cross my face. It wasn’t Fred’s fault, but I didn’t care.

“It’s not my fault what happened. They all lied in court about what I did.” he said. I saw tears in his eyes. He rubbed his eyes and leaned forward and put his head in his hands. His body shook slightly.

I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to hear it. This was too much. People were asking too much of me. There’s just so much I can do. I was angry and yet here was a man, crying in front of me. I sighed, pulled up a chair and waited.

After a few minutes, he stopped crying and began to talk. He didn’t give me details as I wouldn’t let him, but he told me his story of a horrible childhood and how he had been abused and that he was now better and working on being rehabilitated and that’s why he wanted to be in my class. He heard it might help him. He said he would do anything to be a better person.

He then looked up at me and I saw that very subtle and slight smile cross his face again and disappear quickly.

When I saw that, I knew.

He was saying and doing everything he could think of to look good to “the system” to get out early. The jails were overcrowded and more and more inmates were being released early to make room for the new ones.

He was playing me. He was playing the system. He wanted out as soon as possible. He wasn’t done and he was never going to stop.

I knew that as well as I knew my own name when I looked into his eyes. He was insane.

He was good. Really good. He almost had me with his tears.

Almost.

I stood up and looked down at him. I felt bad but not for him. I felt bad for anyone who could turn into what this man had turned into. I motioned for Fred to take him away. They stood up and walked out. As Lou went through the door, he turned around and looked at me.

“It was nice meeting you. See you around,” he said and that same smile crossed his face.

The next day, I made sure all hell broke loose. I called the Program Director and told her what had happened. She was shocked and apologetic and vowed it would never happen again.

“Oh really? You gonna promise me that?” I said. “Who in the hell authorized a PEDOPHILE to come into my group? Who did THAT?” I shouted.

She wouldn’t tell me but promised over and over again that it wouldn’t happen again. I hung-up the phone, shaking.

I had never seen pure evil before until then. I didn’t want to see it again.

Everything settled down and the next class went along fine. The men were back to talking and learning and the memory of Lou faded away.

Nine months later when I was at Safeway and looking through the produce section, I heard someone call my name.

It was Lou. He was standing 50 feet from me.

“How are you?” he asked. I saw the same smile cross his face. “It’s good to see you again.”

I froze and watched him walk away, humming.

Our system is broken.

“Please don’t kill yourself.”

Posted: October 12, 2012 in jail, Uncategorized
Tags: ,

Looking down at Julie I wasn’t sure I heard what she had just said. She was sitting quietly with her head down. It was a subtle and quiet statement. I asked her to look up at me. She refused. I put my hand under her chin and lifted her head up to me.

“Look at me and repeat what you just said,” I said and gently pushed her chin up further.

She looked up at me and then quickly looked away. I pulled her face back up. “What did you just say?” I demanded.

“I don’t want to live anymore,” she said and started to cry.

Julie was young. She was in her late 20’s and had been incarcerated 6 months before for intent to sell meth. She lost her child to foster care and had been a runaway since the age of 14. Somehow she had survived on the streets and her stories were gut wrenching. She was sent to me because Steve felt there was hope for her. Steve was my firewall and no one got into my program unless he said they could.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because I’m a bad person and my daughter deserves better than me. If I’m gone then she’ll be better off.”

I was obligated and contracted by the County to report any and all statements of threatened suicide, violence and all sorts of other things. It was a snake pit to go that route. It was not something I wanted to do yet.

“So you’ve done some bad things. I pretty much figured you guys didn’t end up here because you are all such angels,” I said and sat down.

She smiled for a moment and then it was gone. I looked at the time and it was running out. I told her I would be right back. I ran over to Steve’s desk and pleaded with him if I could keep Julie a bit longer. I explained that we were talking and I didn’t want to stop her. I said nothing of what she had said.

He sighs and throws his pencil down. “Lewis, if she’s not back in her bed by 9:00, she gets written up and sent back. You want that?”

“No, but…”

“But what?”

“Who’s doing the head counts tonight? Maybe I could talk to them…”

He rubs his eyes. “No, I don’t want you talking to anyone. What is so damn important that it can’t wait until you come back here?”

I tell him. He sits down and swears. He looks at the clock and then back at me. “I’ll handle it. Just go talk to her and then come back here and tell me everything. We’ll figure something out.”

We ended up talking for an hour.

When it was time for her to go, I asked her a question. “Julie, did you know that anything your skin comes into contact with is absorbed into you?”

“Huh?”

“You know, if I touch anything, some amount of it goes into the body. You don’t have to be cut for that to happen. Did you know that?” I asked.

“Yes.”

I put out my hand and spat on it. “Go ahead and spit on your hand,” I say.

She looks at me funny.

“I said, spit on your hand and do it now!”

She does. I shake her hand with mine and hold hers for a few seconds. “Part of me is now in you. Part of you is now in me. That means if you hurt yourself, you hurt me too. Please don’t hurt me,” I said.

“I won’t, I promise,” she said and wouldn’t let go of my hand.

“Good. I am going to trust you to take care of me. I’ll see you next week,” I said.

She looked better when she left and hugged me. She was escorted back to her cell. I walked up to Steve and told him what she had said.

“Is she talking to anyone around here?” I asked.

“Yeah, you. You’re elected. I’ll keep an eye on her, but you’re going to be the one she will talk to,” he said and walked away. I swear I could hear him chuckle.

Every time after that, when Julie came to class she told me she was taking good care of me.

She turned out just fine.

I got the call that I didn’t want to get. It was from a woman who heard about the work we were doing in Juvenile Hall and she wanted us to come to her place and work with her kids. Her name was Mama Betty. I didn’t know who she was but that didn’t matter. She wanted our help and insisted we show up. She gave me the directions and told me what time to be there. She got my name from my friend Denise. After I wrote down what she said, she hung-up.

I called Denise to find out what was going on. Denise had run into her on something else she was doing and they got to talking.

Mama Betty was from the South Pacific. She found a place to rent and started grabbing South Pacific Islander kids out of jail and having them live with her. How she was able to do this was something she never explained to us.

The problem wasn’t what she was doing. The problem was where the location was. It was in East Palo Alto which, at the time, was one of the top 10 worse ghetto’s in the United States. No, not in the Bay Area; in the United States. Everyone stayed away from there. My cousin had been a fireman and they would not go to a fire there without a police escort. He had been shot at several times before retiring. It was a place that was scary to see as you were driving 75 MPH down the freeway.

I didn’t want to go and I told Denise that. It was a very dangerous place and based on what she said, we were going to be walking into a situation without any security. A bunch of white people going to that part of town was a very bad idea.

Denise convinced me to go meet her and at least see the place. She said she would go with me, so off we went one afternoon.

The place we ended up was an abandoned store that was rundown on the outside. It was located in a tiny strip mall with a few other empty stores. I was nervous getting out of my car. There were lots of teenagers standing around on the street, all staring at us. Some called out to us. We kept our heads down, walked up to the door and knocked. Some of the kids were starting to circle around my car. The door opened and that was the first time I met Mama Betty. She looked up at the teenagers and they quickly ran.

She was short, very large with piercing brown eyes and dark skin. She looked us up and down, held the door open further and told us to come in. As soon as I stepped through the doorway, I was transported to the South Pacific.

Everything was spotless with lots of plants and furniture. The floor was bare. We walked into what looked to be a huge dance floor with couches and table all around. There were at least 10 teenagers sitting on the furniture, reading and talking. She took us into the kitchen and made us eat. The place smelled like heaven and I was suddenly starving. Before we could say anything, we each had a plate of food piled high. She looked down at me with a very stern look and said “You need to eat and get some meat on those bones. Eat and then we’ll talk.” I nodded and dug in. I was overweight at the time, but not to her. You just knew to do exactly what she said.

After eating, we sat and talked. She worked in the criminal justice system and was able to work with judges and probation officers to get the kids released to her custody. No warden was ever as tough or as kind as her.

She wanted us to run our program and was very clear that she couldn’t pay us.

“What makes you think we want your money?” I asked. “Don’t worry about it.”

“No, I pay my debts, but I want to make it clear that I will pay you. I will feed you when you come.”

I smiled. “That’s very nice of you. I have to be very honest with you. I am going to have a very tough time getting anyone to help. The neighborhood…”

“Then you must meet the children and after you do, then you come back to me and see what you think.”

With that said, she brought them in and had each one sit down and talk. They had all been in jail, they all had their stories and they were the politest kids I had ever met. I asked one a question and when he gave me a smart ass answer, she actually did smack him on the back of the head, made him sit up straight and apologize to me.

All was good until she brought in the last young man. His name was Timothy. He was very tall and large. He sat down and never once took his eyes off the floor. He would not respond to me. I waited for her to nudge him, but she did not. She stood back and when I looked up, I saw a tear run down her face.

Then I knew. This was the one she wanted help with. Whatever had happened to him was bad. He would not speak or look at anyone. I thanked him and he stood up and walked away with his head down.

I told Mama Betty I would see what I could do. I was not hopeful I could get anyone to help me, but she was right; after meeting all of them, I wanted to help.

It took a lot of work and quite a bit of pleading, but two weeks later I had a group of five additional people. Four women and one man. Driving up there that evening, we were nervous. We pulled up and they didn’t want to get out of the car even though the building was ten feet away. Just as I was opening up the car door, five of the young men from Mama Betty’s came out and escorted us in. Mama Betty had arranged the furniture so everyone had a place to sit at the tables. Food was brought in and so we began.

Timothy was there but sitting off to the side by himself. No one would go near him and he scared my group. I asked Mama Betty what to do with him.

“If any of you can get through to him, that would be enough.”

Over the next few weeks, we developed a routine. We would arrive, be escorted in and someone would stand by the car. We would be escorted out after hours of eating and teaching. It was difficult not to fall asleep on the way home from the work and the food.

Everyone had tried to get Timothy to talk and I started to see that the more they tried, the further withdrawn he would become. He also made them nervous and I was certain this made him more reluctant to talk. It was his size that was scaring them.

One night, I turned to class over to someone else and went and sat next to Timothy. I said nothing, I didn’t look at him or try to get him to talk. I just sat there. I did this every week and on the fifth week, I put my hand on his hand, very gently. He reached over, squeezed it and held on. We sat like that for over an hour. I still said nothing and didn’t look at him. When the class was over, I got up and left.

The next week, I did the same thing. This went on for three more weeks until one night, right after I sat down, he reached over and held my hand. I looked over and he looked up. He smiled. I smiled back. He then mumbled something.

I nudged him and indicated I hadn’t heard what he said. I was not going to speak to him until he spoke to me first. Until then, I would sit and we would hold hands.

“Do you think you could like me?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“That would be good,” he said and smiled. Mama Betty saw the exchange and was smart enough to leave us alone.

That’s what we did throughout the program. We sat and held hands. He would say something once in a while and I eventually started to see how bright and intelligent he was.

One day, I decided to ask him something.

“How come you don’t talk much?”

He squeezed my hand harder. “Because I don’t have anything to say to people who don’t listen.”

I chuckled. “That makes sense to me.”

“Yeah..”

I now smile every time I drive through East Palo Alto. I miss Timothy.

I did not want to go in for class that night. I did not feel like teaching anymore that day. Anymore that week. Actually, I was feeling done with it. I was tired. No, I was fatigued because it was in my bones and I didn’t feel that I had the mental or emotional capacity to get up off the couch, let alone get dressed and drive for 1/2 hour to the facility. I didn’t even have the energy to eat, but I knew I would go.

I had received some very bad news a few days before and hadn’t slept much since then. Work had been grinding the entire week and the idea of teaching another class that night was just too much.

But I got up, changed my clothes and grabbed an apple for dinner. So much for nutrition. I didn’t care. I ate it as I drove and sipped a Diet Coke, hoping it would wake me up a bit.

It was a quiet night when I got there. I checked in with the front desk and was told by the Program Manager who would be attending class that night. Working with convicted women felons was always a surprise. You never knew who was going to be in class, who was new and who had been released.

He told me about a new student. “She’s in there now with the others. Her name is Gracie and I think you’ll like her.”

“No problem. What is she here for?”

He sighed and rubbed his eye. “Welfare fraud. She just got here and is settling in. She heard about your class and requested it, which is the first time in all these years I’ve ever had an inmate want to go to a class.”

I sighed. That meant I had more than I could handle that night. All the way over here, I talked myself into being in a good mood. I may be tired, but I am a professional. I leave all my troubles at the front door.

I walked in and saw who Gracie was. She was much older than most of the inmates. She was sitting quietly and smiling at the women, who were chattering and laughing. I stood at the head of the room and everyone took their seats and looked up. I said hello to Gracie and welcomed her to the class. She stood up, walked over to me. She took my hand in hers and gave me a very firm handshake. “Thank you so much for letting me attend. I am looking forward to learning.” She turned around and sat back down.

A stillness had come over the room. Usually my ladies are loud, rambunctious  and take a few minutes to quiet down. Not tonight. They all watched Gracie sit down and not one of them said a word. The entire evening was like that and I was beginning to think that they had all taken sedatives before class.

They had not. I eventually came to learn that Gracie had this effect on people. You just naturally treated her with respect.

She wasn’t very tall and was quite thin. She was black and her short hair was pure white. She didn’t have one wrinkle or line on her face and she carried herself upright and proud. She was 78 years old, a great-grandmother and had recently been arrested for welfare fraud.

And she was innocent.

There was no doubt about her innocence from anyone at the facility. I eventually talked to them at length about it and could not understand how this could happen. It started with her raising her great-grandchildren when both parents had been sent to jail on drug charges. Gracie had applied to welfare and was eventually given it. The daughter-in-law, out of spite and a long-held grudge against losing her children, had reported Gracie for a crime she did not commit.

Due to an error, Gracie was arrested and incarcerated. I met her while she was waiting trial. She had been in the facility for 3 months and could not afford an attorney. She had an overworked and unpaid Public Defender who was doing what he could, but she could not afford bail.

Her crime was being poor and raising her family the best way she knew how. It was a very long and involved story. But the bottom line was, she was innocent and stuck in jail.

Someone had goofed and no one would fix it.

This scares the shit out of me.

After class that night, I was putting my materials away when Gracie came up and thanked me for the class.

“Oh, you’re more than welcomed. I’m glad you liked it,” I said and smiled.

She tilted her head as she looked at me. She took her hand and grabbed both of mine and asked me to sit down for a moment. I did.

“What is troubling you, child?” she asked.

I started to tell her I was fine, but something stopped me. There was something about the way she held my hands and the way she asked. I looked at her and it was as if she was looking into my soul and could see me, warts and all.

I felt my eyes tear up and I worried that I was being unprofessional. She leaned over and rubbed my shoulder. “We all have our burdens, don’t we? Now tell me what is bothering you.”

I did. Suddenly all of it came pouring out of me and I couldn’t stop it. She sat and listened and never said a word.

When I was done, she looked at me. I felt foolish and relieved. I apologized to her for saying so much and she told me to be quiet.

“Who listens to you Susan?”

“I guess you do now,” I said and smiled. I had not realized until that moment how much I had been carrying around on my shoulders and how much I had needed to talk to someone.

She stood up, leaned over and gave me a kiss on the top of my head. “Even angels need to cry once in a while” and walked back to her cell.

Gracie was eventually released – after 3 months of incarceration – and her named cleared. She was at every one of my classes and always stayed behind to talk with me. I didn’t have another outburst again. I would look forward to our talks every week and was happy when she was gone and also sad.

Last I heard, she had gotten her great-grandchildren out of foster care and back with her.

Even angels cry? Even angels end up in jail.

“Hi, I’m Chanteel. It’s nice to meet you Susan,” she said as she shook my hand and sat down.

Immediately a few of the other women chuckled and shook their heads. One of them took a piece of paper, rolled it up into a ball and threw it at her. “Oh, really now? Now your name is Chanteel? Where the hell do you get these names? You got a book or something?”

More of the women started laughing. Chanteel just smiled, took the ball of paper and smoothed it out.

I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I ignored the interruption of the class. “It’s nice to meet you too, Chanteel.” I handed her some materials. “We are just getting started, so you haven’t missed anything. We are on page three, so just open up your book there and jump in.”

She smiled and nodded. She was, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful women I had seen. She was blonde with deep blue eyes and cheek bones that went on forever. Her hair was pulled back, but it was thick. She wasn’t wearing make-up because when you are in jail, it’s not something you are very concerned with. Your basic concern was surviving each hour, each day and each week until you got out. Some never knew when that would be as all of the women I was working with were in custody waiting for trial.

Some had been waiting for two years. All of them were overweight and lethargic from the food and being in their cells 23 hours out of 24. None of them slept because of the constant noise and stress and many spent most of their time lying in bed and crying. If they weren’t crying, they just laid there, staring up at the ceiling or the bunk above them.

This was a new group of incarcerated and battered women I had been given to help. I was there to teach them about self-respect and learning how to get along better with people. Yes, it was a lot to do, but I found most of them receptive, needy and quite pleasant to work with.

Let’s face it. Life doesn’t get much worse when you are in jail and have lost your children to foster care. Any and all help is appreciated and it was a very rare occasion when anyone of them gave me any trouble. Those that did were usually just too stressed to do anything else but sit and cry.

Chanteel looked to be in her mid-30’s but I found out later she was only 23. This was her third time in jail and her probation officer had pushed hard for her to get into my program. There was just something about her that made you want to help her even though you knew when she got out, she would most likely revert. He wanted her in the program so it would look good for the judge when she went before him. I don’t even remember the charges that were pending against her but she was not violent. Just stupid.

She was as pleasant as could be until I started talking to her after class. She hung around to talk with me. I grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down to listen.

Within three minutes I could see she was way out of touch with reality. Her conversation with me jumped from one topic to another with no rhyme or reason. She would be mid-sentence and then start another conversation about something completely different.

But I sat and listened and became quite fascinated by her. She was a dichotomy of complete brilliance in her thoughts and observations and insane from the life she had led.

She was only 23, but she had been through more tragedy and heartbreak in those few years than anyone else I had known.

I worked with her as best as I could during the next few weeks. She was always pleasant and kind. Each week, she would tell me she had changed her name. I always made sure to call her by her new name. The other women would just snicker. This never seemed to bother her.

I asked her one day why she changed her name so often. She bit her lip, looked down and gave my question quite a bit of thought before answering.

“No one has ever asked me that question before. They usually just laugh at me.”

“Well, I’m curious, so tell me why.”

She smiled. It was a beautiful smile. “Because I am trying to figure out who I want to be. I hate who I am and what I’ve done, so I want to be someone else. I try on different names to see if I like them. So far, I haven’t liked any of them.”

This made sense to me. “Yes, I wish I could do that sometimes myself.”

I eventually got in contact with her Probation Officer because, quite frankly, she fascinated me. I never ask about a persons past when they start my program. It is not relevant. What is relevant is today and maybe tomorrow.

There wasn’t much he could tell me but I was able to gather from him and my contact at the facility that this young woman entered the foster care program at the age of 6 months and it has been all she has ever known.

She tested highly on her IQ and she was literate and able to read and understood what she read.

That is all I will say about her, but trust me – you don’t want to know. It broke my heart.

After one particular night with her, I left the facility sad. When I got home, I called my Mom, hoping she was still up.

As soon as she answered the phone, she asked if I was OK.

“I’m fine. Just wanted to say hello.”

‘You’ve been in jail again, haven’t you?” she asked.

Ah, my Mom knows me so well. “Yes, I was there tonight.”

“Yes, I love you. Yes, you’re welcome for having a wonderful childhood. No, you aren’t my favorite child. You all are.”

This made me laugh. “There was something else I wanted to say.”

“Go ahead,” she said.

“I’m proud of you. I’m proud of what you had to overcome and I’m proud of you for not raising us like you were raised.”

“You’re welcome. Now get some sleep and don’t start crying. I’m proud of you too.”

I never saw Chanteel after that. She had been released but had asked for my cell number. We don’t give these out but the Program Director told me about it. He had told her he couldn’t give that out and said she started to cry as she walked out the door with her suitcase and nowhere to go.

“If she calls again, give it to her,” I said.

He raised an eyebrow. “You sure Susan?”

“Absolutely.”

Every few months, I get a phone call from her. She told me the last time I talked to her that she settled on a name (which I am not going to say) and I liked it. It fit. She always lets me know how she is doing but never tells me where she is. That’s OK. I don’t want to know.

‘Do you know why I call you Susan?” she asked the last time we talked.

“I have no idea.”

“Because you helped me and I’ve stayed out of jail since then. You like me just the way I am.”

Yes I do.

“There but for the grace of God go I.”