I wake from my sleep stiff and groggy. When I try to lift my head, it feels heavy, too heavy. My neck is sore. I lay flat on my back on the bed. I feel confused, unsure of where I am and how I got there. I try to swallow but my throat is burning. As my eyes adjust to the dim light in the room, I stare up at the graffiti-tagged ceiling. Closing my eyes, I shift my head to the right and open them again. I see a heavy door with no doorknob and a large filmy window. The paint on the door is peeling, revealing institutional gray metal. Random writing and doodling scar its surface. Outside of the window a man sits, watching me. His white face is unfamiliar. Noticing that I am looking at him, he shifts in his seat and lazily picks up a clipboard. He starts writing something. I turn my head slowly to the left and scan the room. The walls are a faded shade of lilac. There’s one small light covered in thick plexiglass at the base of the wall facing me. In the corner to the left, a metal toilet/sink combination and a window covered in a heavy screen and more plexiglass. It’s dark outside and I have no idea what time it is. I close my eyes and face the ceiling again.
I recognize this room. I have been here many times before. The paint has changed and the writing on the wall is different but it’s the same room—the same locked door sealing me into another cell in the mental health unit. As I lay here trying to recall the details of what brought me here again, images replay in my mind.
“Ledbetter, you ready for your shower?” a voice crackles over the intercom in my cell.
“Yes” I simply reply.
Click … the door pops open.
I gather my thing: a homemade wash rag torn from the end of my towel and the rest of the towel to wash and dry my body; indigent soap and shampoo; and a new pair of red scrubs, the issued uniform in restrictive housing. I also bring a torn, frayed piece of sheet that I ripped from my bedding.
When I get into the shower stall, I lay my things on the tub.
“You got fifteen minutes, Ledbetter,” Officer Deon says over the intercom. I feel a twinge of guilt because he is a good guy overall, and I don’t want to subject him to such a gory scene, but he’ll be alright. Things will be better this way. I sit for a few more minutes, reassuring myself that this is the only way for me and everyone else. “Things will be better this way,” I say aloud to myself. I just can’t do it any more. I don’t cry; I just sit until I am ready. I say a little prayer and then I tie the sheet around my neck and knot the other end. Standing on the edge of the bathtub, I shut the knotted end in the top of the door, take a deep breath, and jump. The sheet is digging into my neck and squeezing the breath from my lungs. I can feel my feet kicking at the door and my toes sliding back and forth across the tiled floor. My hands are clawing at the wall hoping for something to ease the weight that’s crushing my neck. My face feels like my features are bulging. I hear my name but it seems far. A low hum is rolling through my ears. I’m starting to see spots. I start to panic and fight for some leverage, I’m suddenly afraid to die …
The next thing I remember is being in the medical unit. There is a swirl of guards and medical staff coming in and out, talking and looking at me. I’m crying and jumbling my words. I’m angry that they saved me, yet relieved, but both emotions dissolve into sadness. I’m stripped and fitted into a safety gown made of some foreign, weighted material. I sleep …
Tears started running from my eyes thinking of that night. It’s not the first time I have tried to kill myself but again someone came in the nick of time. I am alive and I don’t really want to be. I have nothing to live for. I have a life sentence. Well, a 50-year sentence without the possibility of parole and that might as well be a life sentence. I will never leave this place and the thought of that forces any sliver of hope out of me. I have been in jail twelve years. I came here when I was 14 years old. I haven’t ever lived and now I am supposed to live in jail for 38 more years? I’ll be 64 years old when I get out, and what could I possibly do with my life then? All of my family will be dead. There won’t be anything left out there for me. What am I going to do? Get a job? Get an apartment? Finally have some kids? It makes me laugh to even think of it. I wouldn’t even know where to start. I was tossed away by the system when I was just a child and told I was not worth a second chance.
My thoughts turn to a conversation I had with my appellate lawyer,
“Robin, I was reading your PSI and what it said troubles me. I can’t believe that they viewed your case in that way. How did you feel when you read it?”
“I haven’t read it. That’s the pre-sentencing investigation right?” I ask. “Why? What does it say?”
“Well, it basically says that with your family history and all the trauma and things you have endured, he recommends a lengthy sentence because you’d be in prison at one point or another. Your family history shows that prison was eventually in your future so giving you a lengthy sentence will prevent further crimes.”
I lay on my back staring at the ceiling, my quiet tears trailing down the corners of my eyes and into my hair. I need to change my thoughts. Na-Na loves john 4-eva is scrawled on the ceiling and I try to focus on the pencil markings and empty my mind of all other things but I can’t. I know that I am more than a career criminal. This was my first time in jail, except for going to juvie for joy riding a little while. I was young and I messed up. I agreed to steal some money. Rob a taxi cab driver. I needed the money. I was homeless and had no family support. I was too young to get a job so on the streets your options are limited. You basically have three choices: sell drugs, sell yourself, or rob people. Drugs destroyed my family; it ruined my parents so I could never push that poison. I would never sell myself; the fear of rape and HIV cancelled that out. So the only option was robbery.
No one ever got hurt during a robbery, or so I thought. My father had talked about pulling off robberies whenever I saw him as a kid. Never once did he speak of anything going wrong. He only romanticized it. I can remember, during in one of his visits, he drew me a map of a mall he had robbed. There was a smile on his face. I remember the laughter as he recalled falling in his attempts to escape. I remember the far off look in his eyes when he talked of the bloopers in his criminal acts. He never, not once, warned me or spoke of the risk. And there was risk. It never occurred to me that a robbery could go wrong, except for maybe in the comical ways that my father spoke of. It never occurred to me that someone could die, even after we armed ourselves with weapons. It was just to scare the cabbie into giving us the money; that’s what we told ourselves and we honestly believed it. That shows you the naiveté of two teenagers. I remember when I found out that our victim had died. I didn’t really understand the concept of death. I mean, I did know that when you die, you are buried and gone forever, but I didn’t understand really that all life stops. That your family stops, the pain of loss to children when parents have been snatched away, the devastation of a parent who loses a child—the ripple effect in a community and the value of a life cut short. I didn’t appreciate my own life. I had been abused my entire life and so I didn’t value that life. I cared nothing for myself. My self-esteem and self-worth were shattered, and so I could not fully understand the value of another human life if I couldn’t my own.
In the years I have been in York Correctional, I have learned to appreciate my life. I learned that I am worthy of love and care and being treated like a person. I learned that I didn’t deserve the things I endured growing up—the abuse and neglect—from years of childhood trauma. In that process, I’ve learned the true value of human life and with that knowledge, I came to understand the devastation of my crime. It hit me like a runaway freight train, crushing me and dismantling me. It pulled apart all the work that I had done when I thought of the pain I caused. I felt like I was drowning in the guilt and thought I could never forgive myself for what I did. The beginning of that realization led to my first attempt at killing myself during my incarceration. I didn’t want to live with what I did. I spent two weeks in the hospital and came right back to my cell to sit with my guilt, shame, and a need to make amends but knowing that I really couldn’t. That was in the first year of my bid before I was even sentenced.
Four months after my 18th birthday I was handed down the sentence of 50 years. I sat in a courtroom and saw the father of my victim look me square in the eye and let me know just how much he hated me. I sat perfectly still, afraid to even breathe as he told the court why I should rot in jail. I didn’t feel worthy of breath. I felt as though every molecule in my body was on fire. I felt that I deserved every harsh word he said and deserved to be in jail. I was numb when I heard the judge read the list of charges and the time attached to each. All my feelings and emotions went to my victim’s father and to keeping it together in the court. I didn’t feel I was allowed the luxury of shedding a tear for myself. It would be disrespectful to the real victims; it would make a mockery of their pain. I thought they’d point an accusatory finger at me and yell, “How dare you act sorry now! How dare you care now? You’re looking for sympathy? We’re the only ones in pain here, not you! How dare you! How dare you! How dare you …”
“Ledbetter, Med-line on the door!” the nurse outside that huge window says. Her voice jars me from my thoughts.
I stare at her for a few seconds, blinking back the memories. Is it worth me moving to get the meds that will quiet my thoughts?
“Do you want them or not?” she says, annoyed. I can see the guard peering at me over her shoulder. He has his clipboard in his hand and when I sit up, he writes on it, marking my progress. I say nothing and take my time peeling the heavy blanket from my body, readjusting the heavy gown. My neck is still really sore and I shuffle to the door as the trap slams open. I insert my hand through the slot. The nurse places some pills in my hands and I am stuck with the thought as I put them in my mouth of how I haven’t needed any medication for a long time. I had been off my anti-depressants for a while now and I never agreed to get back on them, but they were a part of the routine when you enter the mental health unit and receive the universal cocktail. I swallow the pills with a shot of water, give a mouth check, and turn my back to the door. The trap scares me as it bangs shut. I take the few steps back to my bed and reclaim my place under that blanket. I stare up: Na-Na Loves John 4-eva. I try to focus on just that but my thoughts wander again. I ruined lives and I deserve to be in jail, but as I lay on this plastic mattress in mental health, I know that I don’t deserve to spend the rest of my life here. I am more then I ever thought I could be. I am a loving person, giving and understanding. I have learned to love myself and others. I have worked hard on my rehabilitation and I have grown. I have gotten my GED and learned some skills. I have done many groups and become a role model to a lot of the younger girls. I pass on my wisdom and knowledge. I have learned to communicate, to express myself, to be an individual, a leader. I have learned so much. I have bled this place of all the resources available to a woman with my time; now I am just stagnating.
Because of the length of my sentence, I am not permitted to take college classes. I am blocked from partaking in other programming because of my sentence. I am only good now for scrubbing down the institution and maintaining its polished floors. I am only good now to shovel out slop in the chow hall and empty the trash. They want me to sweep, mop, and window wash this jail for the next 38 years, and I am supposed to choose life over death? I often ask the guards, “Do you remember what you were doing when you were fourteen years old? How has your perception of reality changed? Can you draw a graph of who you were at fourteen, at eighteen, at twenty-one, twenty-five, thirty, and then project yourself to sixty-four? Who will you be then? Will you even remember those ages when you are sixty-four? Can you chart your growth, the lessons you have learned? Can you still laugh at what you once thought was so funny, so important at those ages but you now know is nonsense? Would you like to wear a scarlet letter on your chest for the rest of your life for the things you did at the age of fourteen? How about a life sentence?”
They stutter; even the hardest of guards admit that it’s a mind-blowing concept. I deal with this everyday, and that is why I am wearing this safety gown right now. This is why, occasionally, I cannot fathom living this life another day.
I used to feel like a flower that was found dried out and wilting ready to die. I was repotted, watered, and cared for until I shed my old petals and bloomed into my beautiful potential. Now that I have flourished and sprouted healthy roots, I need a garden where I can continue to grow. My roots have outgrown the pot and I am slowing strangling myself. What else am I to do except to double back on myself? My growth betrays me as my beauty is wrung from me, a little more each day. I am wasting away in here. This place, this pot can only take me so far. Don’t I deserve a chance to act upon my changes, chase my dreams, reach my goals and live? I exist in York Correctional, but now that I am correct, where do I go from here? Now that I have been saved from another attempt on my life, what do I do with that life? This is the last thought on my mind as I look out at the guard perched outside my window. Where do I go from here? This is my last thought as the meds kick in and I drift off to sleep. Where do I go from here?
It is now 2010, a little over two years since my last attempt at suicide. Since then I have grown even more. I made a promise to myself that I would never again try to end my life and take for granted the blessing God has given me. I am here for a reason. He has saved me from so many things, including myself, and now I realize that. I have earned my way into two mentoring programs. I am a facilitator in an Alternative to Violence group. I speak to at-risk youth. I have a true spiritual connection with God and I live in a housing unit that is spiritually based. Some of my writing has been published and it has given me a voice outside of here and blessed me with new and amazing friends who never let me feel sorry for myself and push me to do better things.
Just recently, the federal government has passed a law stating that children under the age of 18 cannot be sentenced to a life sentence if their crime did not result in the death of their victim. That doesn’t directly affect me but it gives me hope. It lets me know that there are people willing to listen and give young offenders a chance at a new and rehabilitated life. It shines a light where darkness once was. I know that there is a chance at an expansion of the law and that it might apply to prisoners like me. I know that I will walk out of here one day and be a shining example that people can change. An example that no matter what trauma someone has endured, no matter their family history or their past actions, there is no such thing as a throwaway child. I am now 28 years old. I have spent the same amount of time in prison as I have out and I have come so far. I will never stop growing. All I want is a chance to break free from the pot and lay roots in the ground.