If a person sins and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD’s commands, even though he does not know it, he is guilty and will be held responsible. He is to bring the priest as a guilt offering a ram from the flock, one without defect and of proper value. In this way the priest will make atonement for him and the wrong he has committed . . . and he will be forgiven.

Leviticus 5:17
I wish I had entered the courtroom of my own accord and not been dragged in like a petulant child by an aging, cigarette-leached officer. I wish I had prepared my statement with my much lauded lawyer and not the homeless alcoholic with whom I shared my cell. I wish my old boyfriend had passionately pled for mercy on my behalf and not written a stoic account chronicling my erratic behavior and humiliating decline.

Instead, the salient, tension-fraught day jerked to life like every day had for me in prison for the last eight months—dreadfully, alarmingly, like a living nightmare, the physical surroundings too stark to inhabit, only adequate to subsist, and the emotional reality too terrifying to accept, just bear.

At six a.m. all inmates are jolted awake by the loud speaker system announcing, “COUNT TIME!” We stand by our beds as if at attention while the presiding officer peers through each cell’s slit of a window and counts each one of us—two to a cell, sixty-eight to a unit, seven hundred and forty eight in the entire prison. After the officer passes, the women collapse onto their skeletal cots with the complete suddenness of marionettes whose strings have been released.

I stay awake after count on August 8th, 2007, a Wednesday, and reach for my embossed prayer book, a gift from the rabbi. I flip open to the 40th Psalm, a number one greater than my age, as the Rabbi instructed me. King David’s words are remarkably appropriate for my sentencing day. “Do not withhold your mercy from me, O Lord, may your love and truth always protect me. For troubles without number surround me, my sins have overtaken me and I cannot see…” I tear out the delicate page and fold it in eighths to tuck in the bottom of my underwear, the one place guards cannot check.

Sentencing day is a moment all inmates wait for and dread like an ill person awaits death. I tell myself, At least it will be over. In seven hours I will be sentenced. I have waded the expanse of time awaiting trial with just that logic—I focus on the next step: one week until arraignment, three days until I change my plea, one month to my next hearing date.

My cellmate, Barbara, is a motherly woman whose body reminds me of a fertility goddess; a fecund mound of breasts, stomach, and bottom. As a gesture of solidarity she stays awake to keep me company while I get ready. Barbara asks how I am doing as I brush my teeth at the stainless-steel sink-toilet in the corner of our cell.

“I’m okay,” I reply with forced bravery. “I’m ready. It’s time.”

She rises from bed and helps me place my state-issued items into clear, plastic bags—four uniforms, two sheets, one blanket, a pair of socks. . . . The bags fill and I tie each one with a knot.

At seven a.m. the doors buzz open, the noise of the electronic lock releasing its tension. Barbara gives me a hug and I visually grope her face looking at the last expression of empathy I will see today. I push the door open with my shoulder and carry my bags down the stairs to the officer’s desk, diminutive in an enormous room of cinderblock and steel. Officer Calcutti, a good looking and pleasant man hands me my ID and wishes me luck.

I travel down the hallway towards admissions, a glamorous name for an eety, sterile set of rooms where inmates shower, strip, and wait. I have taken the route at least 10 times for various court dates. Once I am identified by a surveillance camera, I am allowed through a steel door behind which there is a hallway where I deposit my bags in a large, plastic bin and collect a hanging bag, my “court clothes,” from the property officer.

I walk further down the hallway to a bathroom damaged from its constant use. I had a cellmate who wore wire hoops she made from the coils of the tampon machine she pilfered in this bathroom. Dressed in my black suit, I slip my green uniform in a paper bag and, exiting the bathroom, hand it to an inmate who stores the bag and offers me breakfast: a wax paper bag of cereal and a carton of milk. I decline.

I head to the holding cell. The officers, fat from their sedentary jobs behind desks and smug with their uniforms’ superiority, sit chatting in an office, deliberately separate from the inmates. I hold a manila folder of legal documents and in it is my apology, my expression of remorse to the judge and the victims. I remind myself the purpose of the day is for me to be punished, not for me to atone. Forgiveness, no matter how much I desire it, is not on the agenda. I walk into a large holding cell with steel benches lining the perimeter where there are about 20 women in various degrees of dress. The outfits the women wear are the clothes in which they were arrested. One young woman wears pajamas. Most wear hip hugger jeans and hoodies. I admire the women; the majority are in their twenties, white, and without fear. The room is filled with the sound of chatter like I am at a party. Most of the women are in jail for drugs, either possession or distribution. Their sentences will vary based on the quantity of drugs, their previous offenses, and the crime’s proximity to a school zone. But far more important to all of our cases is the judge’s disposition. A formerly alcoholic judge will give far less time than one whose child was killed by a coked-out driver and somehow the inmates know the personal stories of the judges.

A long hour stretches until we hear the syncopated jingles of handcuffs and clomps of footsteps signaling the arrival of county officers and the paddy wagon. A particularly outgoing woman rushes to the door and relays to the rest of us what she sees, “It’s Essex County.” A handful of women rise and move toward the door. A bulldog looking officer opens the locked door and barks out names from a computer print-out. Despite the officer’s palpable disdain for the lot of us, several women shout, “Good luck!” with a cheerfulness that defies her mood-dampening disapproval.

My county, Middlesex, arrives last: 10:30. I divide the trips to court into small sections just like my jail time: part 1: waiting in the prison holding cell is over and part 2: the trip to the courthouse begins. Cambridge Courthouse is the seat of Middlesex County and covers a large geographical area, so I always travel with a number of women to court. My strategy is to pair off with someone strong and confident and ride the wake of their confidence. Today, I am fortunate. Amongst the six women travelling to court are Wanda, a wholesome-looking woman who served ten years Fed time for drug trafficking; Christina, a funny, young drug addict; and Donna, a veteran of the prison system serving her seventeenth sentence. It’s a good group—lots of experience, some intelligence, and a bit of wit.

One by one we are cuffed and shackled, shuffled out the door, and into the back of the paddy wagon where we sit sideways. My physical discomfort is great at this point—cuffs pinch my wrists and ankles, a chain cinches my waist, and my body presses into the women next to me as the vehicle speeds up, turns, and stops. I breathe rare bursts of ventilated air and stare at the steel grate that separates the two seating compartments.

My tactic for surviving these journeys is to force my mind to leave my body. I close my eyes and I am in my younger brother’s backyard in the suburbs of St. Paul. My niece and nephew squeal in delighted fright as I chase them around the short, green grass. The rest of the women are unusually quiet and I know they too must be thinking whatever thoughts they need to survive.

I learned meditation in a class I took in prison, Houses of Healing. Tracey, the cute, perpetually sedate teacher came in once a week and spoke to us in hushed tones about pain, bodies, our inner child, and forgiveness. She gave me special handouts of specific meditations for court days and I tucked them among my legal papers. I try to remember them now: “I am a person of value. I am more than this moment.”

With a lurch and a slow descent, I sense we reached the back of the Cambridge Courthouse where the van pulls into an underground garage. A street runs parallel to the driveway and the press park there to shoot pictures for the news. As I step off the vehicle I glance up to look for news vehicles or cameras and thankfully see no press.

Inside, the Cambridge court officers take charge of us by removing the deputy department’s cuffs and clicking county shackles on our ankles. One sculpted, young court officer flirts with us even though we are on opposite sides of the law. During one of my court trips Collin caressed a young inmate’s hand and passed his number through the holding cell’s barred windows. I used to be scared to death of court officers cowering every time they came close, and ‘yes sir’-ing them. Now, I act sassy and bitch loudly about the officer’s awful driving of the van which draws smirks on the lips of the Cambridge court officers. Passive and scared makes the officers uncomfortable and curt. If you are feisty and make them laugh, the men pay attention to your comfort.

We take an ancient elevator to the 13th floor and the six of us stuff into a holding cell the size of a closet, half of which is taken up by a toilet hidden behind a partition. Once, when my lawyer was speaking to me, we had to wait for the flushing noise to end in order to hear. We alternate sitting and standing, jostling for comfort.

Christina’s lawyer visits the holding cell first. He’s an older man with Mediterranean features and a dress shirt open three buttons revealing gold chains. We respectfully stay quiet while he briefs Christina about the legal negotiations.

“The prosecution wants two and a half years with five years probation,” he states.

“Jesus.” Christina absorbs the blow. “What happened to 18 months?”

“That deal was with the last judge and he retired. You are never going to get a deal like that again,” the lawyer says. “Never.”

“Shouldn’t I wait for my co-defendant to plead guilty? Take some heat?” Christina asks, confused.

“By the time that happens, you’ll be out of jail,” he says with finality.

Donna chimes in, “Armed Robbery on an Older Person—you ain’t gonna do much better than that, dear.”

Christina agrees to the deal. I feel like she just decided what type of rope to use for her noose.

Next, the court officers call my name and unlock the cell’s door; they move me into an elevator we take to the floor where Superior Court cases are heard. I am put in another holding cell, alone.

I have not communicated with my lawyer since my last court date, a month and a half ago, and then only briefly. I adjusted to the dearth of legal counsel and my decision about sentencing by myself. If the judge lets me make an Alferd Plea—it was not my intent to harm anyone but I can understand how a reasonable person would think I did—I will accept the sentence. The crucial part to me is that the truth be told. How pathetic will it sound when I say, “But I didn’t mean to.” I’ll stay firm, I decide, the truth is the truth.

I look up from my pacing and internal argument and see my lawyer grinning at me like a proud parent. Mr. Bergoff is short in stature with curly, sand-colored hair; he dresses well, but with the disarray of a preoccupied person, an absent-minded professor.

“You ready?” he asks, still grinning.

“Well, what’s the deal?” I blurt out. “What’s going to happen?”
“He’s going to let you make an Alferd Plea and he will consider giving you time served,” Mr. Bergoff tells me with glee.

I almost forgive the bastard for being unreachable for months.

“The prosecution wants five to eight,” he adds in a somber tone.

“Oh, my God,” I panic. “What do you think will happen?”

“Sheila, you have the best chance of getting time served with this judge. He is a real gentleman,” he replies perfunctorily.

A court officer interrupts us and motions for Mr. Bergoff to enter the courtroom. “See you in there.” He turns to leave.

I compose myself; I pull my suit jacket down and relax my face. Then, the court afficer approaches to handcuff me and lead me into the courtroom. I read the name on his bronze badge: “Willy.”

“Hi, Willy,” I say to test my composure.

He grunts and opens the barred door. I exit the gloomy, paint-peeled holding cell area and step into the well-lit grandeur of the courtroom. I stare straight ahead and I manage to perceive—but not individually identify—a grouped row of my family and friends. Two to three other people sit in the audience. After a few steps, the officer instructs me with a wave of his hand to sit in the second seat in the second row of seats one step up from the floor. I move my feet carefully not wanting to trip up the stairs in my shackles. I look down and notice the seat I am to take is more worn than the others in the row; the cobalt blue pleather is crackled.

I sit, hyper-aware of my family to my left and the judge’s profile in front of me. Nervousness makes my vision unfocused; it takes concentration to see details and I detect only blurry shapes. The judge, a slim man with greying hair speaks: “The purpose of today’s hearing is to sentence Sheila Brookfield for the crimes brought against her by the State. Clerk, will you please read the charges?”

A stiff looking man seated a tier below the judge stands and reads the charges. The judge then requests to hear from the prosecution. Ms. Elaine, a slender woman in her 30s, stands and speaks in a voice that conveys she wants to be taken seriously: “Judge Peel, this case began when the defendant, Ms. Brookfield…”

I block out Ms. Elaine’s well-rehearsed speech, having read her words several times, heard them on five different occasions, and judged them to be appallingly exaggerated and one-sided. I return my attention to her when I hear her concluding remarks. “Mr. Graves called the incident ‘unnerving’.”

The prosecutor calls Shelly Blair, the owner of Steve’s apartment and upstairs neighbor, to the stand. Shelly, a middle-aged and bookish looking woman, comes to the front of the courtroom. I am fascinated Shelly came and chose to speak. I had spent so much time worried about Steve showing up, I hadn’t considered her but it makes sense. She’s a lawyer. Her words spill out, thoughtful and unrehearsed. “I always liked Sheila. She is polite and always said ‘hello’ to me and the kids. I just know something must be mentally wrong with her to want someone that wasn’t interested in her. There must be something more going on.”

I am struck by her kindness. She collects herself for a moment and even looks at me. I feel sheer embarrassment. “I’m so moved by all the family she has here today. She must have a lot of people who care about her. I’m here because I wanted to put a face to the victims. I thought it was important I was here. I want to make sure I am safe and Sheila gets the help she needs. Every day, I think to myself, oh, my God, Sheila is still in jail and it has been so long. Um, that’s really all.”

She walks back to her seat after the judge thanks her for her words, and as she passes me, she gives me a warm smile. I’m relieved she sees my crime with such understanding, but I know Steve and his girlfriend did not display such compassion in their written statements.

Mr. Bergoff rises from his seat near my supporters and steps forward. He pushes his glasses back and looks at his feet before he speaks. I am anxious to hear his defense of me, how I did not mean to hurt anyone, how Steve kept in touch with me, luring me in and out of his life, how I attempted to seek psychiatric treatment but was turned away, and how I have now been officially diagnosed with depression.

“Your Honor,” Mr. Bergoff begins, “I am glad I am not a judge. This is a terribly hard decision. You have an accomplished young woman with no criminal background and a unique set of charges. She would be highly unlikely to reoffend if you gave her time served with a sword hanging over her head.” The sword refers to a suspended sentence and he moves his hands over his head, clutched together like a samurai warrior, to emphasize his point. “You’ve read the letters that have been written on Sheila’s behalf and I couldn’t ask for a more compassionate testimony from the victim who spoke.” He nods in the direction of Shelly and sits.

I am rattled. Where is the impassioned plea for mercy, the hardy defense? I am more startled when the judge asks me directly if I have anything to add. I glance at Mr. Bergoff who scurries over and whispers, “How long will it take?”

“Five minutes,” I answer. I had, in fact, timed my words.

“Fine,” he allows and walks away. But I am much more concerned about what I will say, not how long it will take. I deliberate whether my words could hurt my case, and decide to speak. I stand and fumble to open the folder with my handcuffed hands. Seeing my discomfort, the judge directs the court officer to uncuff me and for me to sit in the witness box.

I start again, once seated, after reminding myself to look up when I speak. “I want to apologize to the victims and the court for my behavior. My apology is heartfelt and my remorse is deep. I know I acted rashly and endangered many by doing so. I am truly sorry. What I have to say next is not an explanation to justify my behavior, but a reason I acted in such a way. I hope by my telling this I will allow the victims to have clarity and possibly find peace.” I pause and take in some air.

“When my relationship with Steve ended, I became despondent and because Steve and I had created a home together, our ending reminded me of another home dissolved, the one after my parents’ divorce. I do not blame any member of my family for my actions. I was unaware I had suffered so much in the divorce’s wake until recently. So I created a reality in which I could not suffer: that Steve and I were still together, and his phone calls and e-mails were enough to fuel this delusion. I was insane with jealousy and often drove by his house and looked into his windows. I had a weird, unquenchable thirst for information. I was so confused. I devised a plan that I would use propane as sort of an anesthesia so I could sneak into Steve’s house and look around. I did not plan anything more.” I swallow and regulate my voice so it will not crack.

“I am now on medication and in therapy to deal with my issues including depression. Whatever my reasons, I am sorry I acted in a way that resulted in any harm to anyone. I am very sorry.” I look at the judge who nods and indicates I should return to my seat.

The judge clears his throat and proclaims his decision. “After having read the pre-sentencing reports, the police report, the psychological evaluation, and reviewed the severity, intent, and motive for the crime, I am sentencing Sheila to a period of incarceration and probation.”

I am rigid with fear.

“I am sentencing Sheila to two years in the House of Corrections for all charges except the Attempted Murders and two years and a day State time for the Attempted Murders—to be served concurrently. I also sentence her to ten years of probation, two of which will be spent on the bracelet.”

As the judge speaks, I sob. The moment the judge concludes, the court officers whisk me away. I glance backwards as the door to the courtroom closes and see my family and friends talking animatedly to my lawyer.

“Can I speak to my lawyer?” I ask Willy.

“He’s gone,” he lies as he continues moving me to the holding cell.

I stop walking. “He’s not. I just saw him. He’s right behind the door.”

“No,” Willy insists, “he’s gone.”

“No, he’s not. I just saw him,” I say hysterically.

Willy ignores me. Court officers have a strange tendency to impose their own sense of justice.

Locked in the holding cell, I steady my breathing and wipe away my fast-flowing tears. I wonder what just happened. Then, it occurs to me. I pled guilty. I sacrificed something valuable. But I was not forgiven.