Synopsis:What’s a women’s prison really like? Motherhood, drama and romantic relationships are all quite common. We visited Rockville Correctional Facility and sat down with two inmates to discuss their prison experience, past regrets and what they’ve learned while serving their sentences.
Host: Marty Peterson. Guests: Kelly Patterson, Inmate; Toni Golightly, Inmate.
You can read letters from actual inmates at Rockville, and a behind-the-scenes account of Amirah & Lydia’s visit to the prison on our intern blog: internapalooza
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Women in Prison Part II
Marty Peterson: Orange is the New Black’s Piper Chapman – a college graduate coming from a comfortable lifestyle – surrendered herself to prison after a lavish pig roast with her fiancé and closest friends. While that sounds nice, it’s not a reality for the majority of women entering the prison system. Kelly Patterson arrived at Rockville Correctional Facility at age 25. She was convicted of murder and her expected release date is in 2042. Kelly, now 32 years old, talks about her time in prison and looks back on her mistakes. Her path to crime started at a young age where an unsteady home life drove her to misbehave and run away.
Kelly Patterson: I grew up in North Carolina. That’s where I was born. I moved to Florida when I was eleven. My household was horrible. My mom was a raging alcoholic. I was surrounded by drug addicts and violence, like, every single day and night, and when I finally got to Florida when I was 11, I was with my grandma who I didn’t even know but I’d only seen her like twice in my entire life, and I just kind of rebelled a little bit and ran. I’ve pretty much been on the streets ever since. Since I was eleven years old. We never had a mom or any kind of structure or guidance or, you know, we could run out the door at five years old at midnight and duck tape flashlights to go-karts and go riding around tobacco fields if we wanted to.
Peterson: Without authority and guidance in her life, Kelly rebelled, got mixed up with the wrong crowd, and immersed herself in a life of crime. After three years of living in New York, she moved to Indiana where, shortly after, she committed her crime. When she first arrived at Rockville – overwhelmed by the lack of freedom – Kelly defied authority and tried to undermine the institution.
Patterson: I wasn’t good. I wasn’t, I wasn’t good to the facility, definitely when I first got here. I just, I kinda used it as my own playground really. I was young, a little messed up behind my time, and I just, whatever I could do to make it more fun and more suitable for my benefit is pretty much how I adjusted to it, which was not the right way.
Peterson: Kelly was sent to segregation, Rockville’s much more lenient version of solitary confinement for five months, after acting as a middleman in a drug smuggling operation – a growing problem in prisons nationwide. Kelly and two other inmates extracted the narcotic, Suboxone by soaking postage stamps infused with the drug in water, which inmates could then drink to get a mild high. Suboxone is a drug typically used to treat opiate addiction, but like many narcotics, it’s commonly abused. After five lonely months to think about the person she wanted to be, Kelly started to change, and is now succeeding at Rockville.
Patterson: I stay busy. I’m on an hour-by-hour basis from 7:30 in the morning until we get back at 8:30 at night. If I’m not in classes, I’m doing class prep. I’ve got a promotional board from Buffy-Pratt that was signed off on for the rec building. I lead a midnight cleaning crew. I lead a Saturday night laundry crew. I do the Hope Center. I mean, I pretty much am everywhere, doing everything that…it’s just, it’s great now because I don’t have to be an idiot to actually fit in and succeed somehow, somewhere. You know what I mean?
Peterson: Kelly has been aiming high, and earned her associates degree before funding for college education was cut in 2011. She says that Rockville provides plenty of opportunities to learn and inmates have no excuse not to.
Patterson: People come here, and they’re offered opportunities that they could never get offered outside of here. You know, whether it comes from their background or just they’re not really smart enough to grasp on to the fact that you have this opportunity. They just don’t care about it. And so, I try to push them all the time for something because there’s no reason why you should sit here and you don’t have your GED when it’s right here. You know what I mean? I mean, because on the streets, yeah, you can go and get it, but you’re not going to have the people that would sit to teach to help you, or even the time to spend on to do it – because life is crazy out there. You know, and I mean, as much time as we have to do nothing, we really have a lot of time to do everything.
Peterson: One tool that has really pushed Kelly to reinvent herself is the PLUS program, which stands for Purposeful Living Unit Serves – a support system for inmates struggling with addiction. Roughly 1/3 of the inmates at Rockville are serving time for substance abuse.
Patterson: The classes that are offered, they just touch base on anything that you’ve ever been through, and it’s a step-by-step basis, and each class with the material to tear down whatever and build it back up in a positive aspect. There’s so many people – because it’s a 24-hour program – that if you don’t understand, you can go anywhere and everybody is so diverse. You’ve got somebody who has come from everything that can give you the best advice and insight on everything that you need. It’s great. There’s nothing that you can’t get or learn out of the PLUS program.
Peterson: The PLUS program, along with her other activities, has made Kelly a friend to many at Rockville. However, she says that isn’t easy to form new relationships.
Patterson: You have to kind of keep that guard up and kind like try to figure out like, “How devious is she? You know what I mean? What’s her motive? Is she lying?” After awhile – especially if you have a good judge of character – you can kind of figure out who’s who.
Peterson: Looking back on her life, she has many regrets about the terrible decisions she made.
Patterson: I really wasn’t dealt a fair hand. I didn’t have to take that,you know what I mean? I didn’t have to…broken relationships, I’ve ruined lives, I’ve taken a life, you know, it’s not like I’m a cold-blooded murderer. It was a heat of the moment-type situation. You know, it could have been me, for real. It was just a crossfire type thing, but definitely a lot of regrets.
Peterson: While she has regrets, Kelly says that prison is exactly what she needed. It’s given her the structure and discipline she never received growing up. She says that many inmates are just as lost as she once was, and need prisons like Rockville – with opportunities for rehabilitation – in order to be better citizens, and integrate back into society.
Patterson: It’s changed my life. I couldn’t even tell you how I would be or how anyone else in my life would be if I hadn’t landed here eight years ago. For real, I have no idea. I’m grateful. Every day. They’re not all bad. Just because you’re an offender, and you have a number does not mean that you constantly have to watch out for whoever. You know, people get caught up in all kinds of crazy stuff all the time so you really never know. I mean it could be anybody. It’s not a bad place. You know what I mean? You’re not like treated horrible. You know how they portray stuff. I mean, I don’t really agree with the food all that well, but I mean, it could also be much worse food. So there’s really not too much that you can complain about.
Peterson: After getting released, many prisoners have trouble finding work because they’re labeled as felons. Kelly says that if inmates gain skills while in prison, and are persistent in their job search, they should eventually be able to find work.
Patterson: You’re a felon. You committed a felony. It’s on you, but at the same time, you can still prove yourself. I mean, there’s jobs out there that say they won’t hire felons but if you keep on it, yes they will. There’s a way to bring an ethic with yourself. I mean, it doesn’t matter what you have to do to prove yourself. If you want it badly enough you can do it.
Peterson: Aside from earning her bachelor’s degree and gaining some solitude after her release in 2042, Kelly says freedom is so far away that she can’t make any serious plans now.
Another prisoner at Rockville is Toni Golightly: a 24-year-old woman who is the mother of a 6-year-old boy back home.
Toni Golightly: Well, um, conspiracy to robbery. I was driving a car, as two other co-defendants of mine were robbing people.
Peterson: Toni was arrested and charged with conspiracy to robbery back in 2011. Her expected release date is in one year. She says that making it past each day in prison, for her, means staying out of the drama.
Golightly: If you put yourself in situations as far as, like, making comments, or chiming in on a conversation that’s not your conversation, or like, constantly feeding in to the drama, you’re going to constantly be in a lot of bull crap, and yeah, no. So I read and listen to radio.
Peterson: When Toni first arrived at Rockville, like Kelly and many new inmates, she resented authority, and didn’t feel like she had to follow the rules. Eventually, however, she learned that things are much tougher if you choose to act out.
Golightly: I had a very bad attitude, like, it’s my way or the highway. I do what I want, when I want, and how I want. You cannot tell me any different. Yep, nope, yes they can, and they will, or it’s consequences, and if you want to deal with the consequences, then go for it, but if you want to actually change your attitude to make better decisions then you would do what you have to, not what you want to.
Peterson: Now that she’s learned from her past mistakes, Toni has goals and a focus in mind for when she’s released.
Golightly: Out of all the things that I have done in my life from pre-teen up until the age of 20, which is how old I was when I caught this case, I deserved. It’s like I needed to sit down and review myself. My life. ‘Cause I was on the path of self-destruction, in my opinion, and now I have my head on straight at the age of 24, which I’ll be 25 when I leave here. I feel like I’m ready for the world. You know like I’m ready to get my life together cause I wasn’t ready before.
Peterson: Having spent the majority of her son’s life in prison, Toni is more than ready to get back to her role as a mother. According to the women’s prison association, 65 percent of the female inmates in this country are mothers, and five to ten percent of incoming inmates are pregnant. Toni says the mothers in prison typically get together and share stories about their kids.
Golightly: More so, it’s easier when you sit with each other, and just share stories with each other about like, what our kids have done. I have a lot of friends that, um, they do see their kids and talk to them a lot, or whatever, so I take those stories and I just hold on to them cause I know my time will come. I will have stories as well. You hear that a lot, it’s like amazing how many women are actually, are away from their kids.
Peterson: Rockville is equipped with special visitation areas that have books, toys and games for children to play with when they visit. The prison also organizes special events around holidays. Toni cherishes every second she gets to spend with her son, and says it always passes by in a flash.
Golightly: So when they come for a visit, you can have a two-hour visit. It’s like an unexplainable joy to be able to just touch and hold, just for those two hours. Those two hours is like a lifetime cause you hold on to those moments. It’s like the last visit that I had with my son, we were playing with the UNO cards, and I was shuffling them and he’s like, “Oh, how’d you do that?” He’s just so amazed with how you shuffle a deck of cards. So, you just hold on to those types of memories.
Peterson: She says that it’s extremely difficult knowing her son is closer to other people in the family. Even tougher, her visits have stopped due to recent family conflicts.
Golightly: My dad is the only one that really comes up here, and he brings my son up with him. And he’s been working so much and he hasn’t even seen my son. So, there’s a little conflict with my son’s father right now. He was the one who brang my son up here for the visits, and with him not being able to make it up here because he works so much now, its stopped.
Peterson: For now, all Toni can do is wait and hope her visits start up again. If there’s one lesson she wants to give her son, it’s that you might be popular out in the real world, but when you come to prison, you’re completely alone.
Golightly: Always know that you’re going to be the one doing the time. Not you and your friend, because friends disappear. The ones that was right there with you when you was on top, will not be right there when you get on bottom. Will not.
Peterson: That’s a lesson Toni had to learn the hard way. After her release, she wants to pursue a career in modeling, and go back to college to become a physical therapist. Both Kelly and Toni are primary examples of Rockville’s success when it comes to rehabilitation. Without the opportunities offered at the prison, these two ladies may have still held on to the same anger and problems they arrived with, and possibly gotten stuck in the system’s revolving door. To find out more about Rockville, you can google Rockville Correctional Facility in Indiana. You can find Cleary Wolters’ book, Out of Orange: A Memoir, in stores and online.
For more information about all of our guests log onto our site at viewpointsonline.net. You can also find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show this week is written and produced by Amirah Zaveri, with assistance by Lydia DeCoud. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Nick Hofstra and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.