When we left school dreaming of Camelot, JFK was the President of the United States, some say he won due to the votes of dead Americans in Cook County, but it was a time of hope and belief we could change the worls.
That same year the first armed troops were sent to Vietnam; a war that affected many of our classmates.
We have all taken different paths in the last 50 years; we have all had our challenges.
Mine was different than most, I went to prison.
50 years ago “A boy’s best friend is his mother”; a line from Psycho, delivered by Anthony Perkins, as Norman Bates, was chilling. The possibility that a Norman Bates existed in real life was remote.
I never dreamt I would someday live with female reincarnations of Norman Bates.
50 years ago, Chuck Berry also got in legal trouble, when he took a 14-year-old girl from Arizona to Missouri to work at his Bandstand club. Her work didn’t require clothes, apparently, Many of my future cellmates would have felt 14 wasn’t young for a women “to work without clothes.”
What happened to me seems so foreign to life our lives 50 years earlier. Everything was more formal and predictable then, and that was rather nice in a cool vintage way. It was an era when young schoolgirls wore skirts or dresses with Capizio’s. Teachers sent girls home for wearing pants.
But as Lewis Carroll said in Alice in Wonderland “I can’t go back to yesterday – because I was a different person then. “
We all are.
Long after I thought I’d learned all that I needed to know about life, my reality changed.
As Alice, in Alice in Wonderland said, a character I identify with more and more “I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then” ? Lewis Carroll,
I’d been a suburban, self-employed, mother of three; I lived in a middle-class suburban neighborhood, on a block where ‘Leave it to Beaver’ could have been set. I was engaged to a person I thought I could trust, looking forward to life’s next chapter.
This doesn’t mean there weren’t struggles.
Just six weeks after I married my second husband, he was told he had an enlarged heart and had months to live. He died 3 years later, leaving us $250,000.00 in debt and five months behind on our mortgage. I survived, opened my own executive recruiting business and two years later I was out of debt.
Many years later, my parents moved from New Orleans back to the Chicago area to be closer to their two daughters and their grandchildren, my children. They did not want assisted living, so they moved to my home. My sister did not want them living with me, in fact she did not want them in Illinois, she threatened if I did not agree to put them in a nursing home she would see that I lost everything and my children would be on the streets.
I did not believe our justice system would allow that to happen.
It did. She gained custody and was allowed to separate them, they died apart, in two separate nursing homes without any family or even being allowed to see their only grandchildren again, or even talk on the phone to any of their sisters, grandchildren, nieces or nephews. I can only imagine the mental pain they suffered, feeling abandon by all they loved.
She had me arrested for financial abuse of elderly and thief of over $300,000.00.
My daughter, Lara, suffered from schizophrenia and attended a day program. Michael, my youngest, was in college full time, partied hardy, and always seemed to call just to ask for money, grades were not his primary goal.
Like Alice I would soon find myself in a strange world ruled not by logic, or moral right and wrong but by the mad, illogical world of what is justice.
The court found me not guilty of financial abuse of the elderly, but guilty of theft, who the victim of this theft is still a debate, since the courts said it was not my parents, from whom did I steal.
I was convicted of a crime I did not commit.
My case was later overturned on appeal. The decision, handed down the day I was released from custody. It was also published, so it did set a precedent. It would still take eight months for me to be released from parole.
My attorney, nicknamed Lawrence of the Law, had refused to handle my defense, not his area of expertise, and because he did not feel I would ever go to trial, let alone be convicted.
He represented me for my appeal and won, my conviction was overturned, I also received the only Certificate of Innocence ever awarded for a non-violent offense.
I served 9,120,000 min. or 26 Months and five days in Dwight Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison for women.
My friends were murderers and thieves, considered the worst of the worst, the dregs of society.
The inmates hated me on sight, the blacks because I was white, the whites because I reminded them of someone or something in their past. The Protestants did not believe I was a Christian, because my badge read Roman Catholic.
The guards for whatever reason they could justify.
I prayed I would wake up and realize this was just a very bad dream, a character in a novel, not real, and certainly not this role.
Not a character based on Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”. That picture, so vivid, it was as if it was hanging on my cell wall. A person on a bridge holding their head, mouth open in a voiceless cry. I was inside that picture and no one could hear me.
The feeling of dread, of not knowing what to expect, as if I was suddenly dropped into “Jurassic Park” only instead of dinosaurs there are guards and instead of the tropical jungle a frigid cornfield.
The fear far different than the fear of walking the halls of Hinsdale High and worried if current crush would notice me or say hi.
Try as I might I knew I would not wake-up and find myself on my patio, or in my living room, sipping wine, enjoying friends’ conversations.
This new reality was not just about trading in Jimmy Choos for rubber shoes, made in China of recycled tires. Nor wearing blue pants, and white shirt made of cotton that you could see through after two washing; a far cry from the Pendleton skirts and twin sweaters sets of our high school years.
9.120,000 min, two years, five months and three days; I counted everyone.
What is prison like? What were the inmates like?
Imagine what happens after the villain is caught on Law and Order or NCIS? Imagine living in a place that needed a court decision to declare “mice, roaches in prison cells may be unconstitutional”.
Imagine you are living with the flotsam and jetsam of society, thrown into the sea, riding the waves without a rudder; not able to control your past or present. You float and pray the tides won’t pull you under nor take you far from shore.
It assails your senses.
You can hear the anger and hatred underlying the cacophony in the central dining hall, the dayroom, even in the walls. In the grinding sound of metal on metal as the cell doors open and close.
You can smell the fear, it wafting from the showers, in the smoke that fills the cells.
It is the resentment and hatred you can’t quite touch but you feel, in the turned backs and set of their shoulders, the nonexistent mattress, the scratchy sheets and hardness of the pillows.
You can taste it by the spices lacking in the food, ramen noodles a treat.
But most of all you can see it; in the eyes looking but never seeing. The eyes hard and untrusting, old but not hazy, the skin clear not wrinkled, but hard.
Some were sociopaths and no matter how many programs, nor how much support they are just bad; but others have lived lives I had never imagined, some were mentally ill and had done nothing worse than not answering a question, a question that they did not understand any more than the courts understood them.
But I saw something else, I saw hope and a belief that their tomorrows would be better; prisoners are the most optimistic group I have ever met.
They lived lives I had only thought existed in third world countries. Thrown out of homes, molested by family members they accepted because the family member contributed money for food. Beaten and put on the street their bodies used and spent by 16. But they still had hope and believed that things would change.
I have lost just about every material asset I owned, my home of 30 years, jewelry, family mementos, even pictures of my children. I left Dwight with $10.00 wearing clothes that were donated. But I was wealthy; I had the support of friends and family, who helped me build a new life. Many are here.
The people in this room knew us before we had children, or served in the military, before we had a profession or responsibilities.
The people in this room are irreplaceable in our lives.
Kenny Boston, who had even tried to testify at my trial, though his testimony was stricken from the record.
Lynne Klicka lePottier, who could not be with us, flew from France and took a detour to visit me at Dwight.
Denis Pierce, who even had a party to celebrate my release and has continued to help me in innumerable ways.
JB reached out for me to attend this event, even offering to pick me up in the city.
Hal Roach and others have been supportive, even offering to share his room.
Our past decisions that we have lived through shaped our lives and brought us all back here today.
I have now returned to school, to be better able to give voice for those that have no voice and to fight from within, the system. A system without transparency, reporters and the public are seldom allowed within prison walls.
I am president of CURE ILLINOIS, a state chapter of the International CURE a grassroots membership organization. Our mission is to empower families, friends and the community to help those involved with the criminal justice system, a system without transparency, reporters and the public are seldom allowed within prison walls
As Dostoevsky said “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
And ours are deplorable!
“I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.”