Interview with Pamela Thomas
by Pamela Thomas

 motherhood  reentry  substance-abuse

Carolyn Watson: I’d like for you to tell me a little about your life. Start out as a young girl, possibly when your drug abuse started and how it started. Tell me about it.

Pamela Thomas: Well, I was first introduced to drugs when I was 14 years old. I left home and I was living on the street. I would - I didn’t have anywhere to go, which I could’ve went to my dad’s you know but some things had happened and I just didn’t want to go there. But I was out there and one day I was walking. It was cold, it was real cold, and Waukegan is a small town so when you’re walking people notice after you walk so much.

So I was walking pass this apartment building and this guy asked me, he was like, “I know you cold, come on in.” So I went in ‘cuz I was cold. I had never seen drugs/cocaine. At that time they were free-basing, and I was sitting there and I—main thing was that I wanted to warm up. You know, to get out the cold. And I was hungry. I wanted something to eat, but I wouldn’t ask for anything. I was just sitting there on the couch. And there was these four other guys at the table, and they were pulling on this thing and blowing smoke out.

So he came over there and asked me if I wanted to try it, you know, if I wanted some. And I told him I didn’t know, and he was like, “Come on it’s not going to hurt you.” So they gave me some that night, and I was smoking with them that night. And each one started leaving. And when it got down to him, he had just a little bit left and he didn’t want to share it with me. So he put me back outside. You know, they didn’t bother me sexually. It was all about the drugs at that time, so he put me back out. I didn’t go back over there, but I had gotten a taste… so I didn’t start doing anything after that until I was eighteen, about seventeen or eighteen.

C.W.: You went back home?

P.T.: No, I didn’t go back home. I stayed out.

C.W.: Where were you?

P.T.: Here and there. I would meet people, stay over there with them. And a lot people—I would tell people that I was eighteen. And now that I’m grown, I know they knew that I had to be a kid. Sometimes I would have to have sex with different men just to have a place to stay or something to eat. A lot of different things went on. I just survived.

C.W.:You didn’t go back to school?

P.T.: No, I didn’t go back to school. I felt if I—I knew I was that age—I knew at that age the only way I could get back in school was through my parents. And my mother was a heavy drinker, you know, a chronic drinker. Her and I, our relationship wasn’t that good. That’s why I wasn’t at home. She put me out several times, but she would tell the police that I ran away. So the last time she put me out, I just didn’t go back. But my father, like I say, I would see him riding around looking for me, but I would never let him find me. So, I didn’t want to use them—I didn’t want to go back to school.

C.W.: But what were you doing out in the streets, between 14 to 18? What were you doing?

P.T.: I was just surviving. It was so long ago. A lot of times I would walk, I would go to the park and sit. I know for a couple of years there was this lady, she had a restaurant downtown. And she knew that I was on the street. And I remember that when I would walk pass, this is how I started going in there, I’d go in there, and I’d sit down. And she wouldn’t say anything to me, and I wouldn’t say anything to her. And she brought me something hot like some cocoa or milk or something and give a plate of food. And I would eat it and leave. Like I said, sometimes people would stop, buy me something to eat. Sometimes I would go to one of my aunts’ or cousins’ house and get—I couldn’t stay there, I could come in and eat. But I couldn’t stay there because they didn’t want problems with my mother.

C.W: At what age did you have your first child?

P.T.: I was eighteen when I had my first child.

C.W: So you got married?

P.T.: No, I didn’t get married. I met the guy when I was sixteen, and he was, like a controller. And he had two dogs, both of them was a Doberman pincher, one was black and one was red. And this guy, he drove trucks. So he would barely be at home. But when he would leave the house, the dogs would be—they had a pen in the back, but when he would leave to go to work he would bring the dogs in the house. And I was sixteen years old at that time, he would bring the dogs in the house. And if it looked like I’m gonna touch that knob, them dogs would get violent. They started, “grrrrr,” you know. But all the time he was there he kept the dogs out. But that was his way, I guess, to make sure that I wouldn’t leave and go anywhere. And then he knew I was real young, he knew my situation, ‘cause I told it to him.

But… I got away from him, but I found out. I was with him for two years. My daddy came and get me. My dad came to get me. He made me get in the car. I got in the car and went with my father. My father lived back in Gary, Indiana, and I went with him. But I didn’t stay. That night when my dad went to work I called the guy and told him to come and get me. Too many things had happened, and I was ashamed. And I went back there with him. The year that I was 18, I was 17 going on 18, I decided to leave him, ‘cause he was kind of like abusive, you know.

C.W: Tell me about it, a situation in particular.

P.T.: Well, all his friends, well he was an older guy and all his friends were old. And they each had their wives or girlfriends, but they all used to jump on their wives. So he one night he decided to try to follow suit with them. And he had gave me some beer. I took a swallow of the beer, and he said, “Women don’t swallow like that.” I mean, just started talking crazy. Anyway, I got smart, because I always had a flippant mouth. And I went on upstairs, and I went to bed, and he didn’t say anything. The next day he went to work, so when he went to work I left with one of my friends. And he didn’t like—I wasn’t suppose to leave that house if he wasn’t there. Because the way I had learned how to do it was, I would go down in the refrigerator and get some meat, and I opened the basement door and threw it down there. And the dogs would run downstairs, and I locked the door. So, I came back.

My friend, she didn’t come in ‘cause he didn’t like her. He didn’t want me to be around nobody. So when she left, I came on in the house. I didn’t know he was there. He had parked his truck around the corner, and he was sitting on the stair with a rifle. He was sitting on the stairs with a rifle, and that - I think that’s what pushed me to leave. Sometimes he would tell me he was at work, but he’d be parked around the corner somewhere, watching me, you know making things up. One particular time I knew he was at work, I left. And I didn’t go back. And I found out I was pregnant after I left.

C.W: You went home and had the children?

P.T.: No. My first child Fantaylor, when I had her, when I was pregnant with her, my mom let me stay with her for awhile-just for a little while. And after I had her, I don’t know, things happened between me and her again, financial situation, and she put me out with the baby. And I called my dad. I didn’t have a choice at that point because I had a little baby. And my dad, I went there with him. And he came home from work, he had bought a house. He had put a down payment, but this house is suppose to be for me and for this kid, and all I had to do was stay there. I didn’t have to pay any rent, none of that. And I think I was there for two weeks, and I left and came back to Waukegan. And it just—it wasn’t because I wanted to run the streets, for some reason at that time, I couldn’t stand for my father to see me, and I couldn’t with him.

C.W: So, You had your children in succession?

P.T.: I had, after I had my oldest daughter, which was in 1984, I had a son in 1986. And after I came back to Waukegan after having my daughter, I met this Jamaican guy. He said that me and my daughter could stay there with him, and we didn’t have to worry about anything. I really thought this man cared—I feel he cared about me, but he was an addict, too. And like I say, when I started back to doing that stuff it was in my late teens but I was tooting it, I was snorting it. The first time I free-based was when I was 13/14, that was the first time I free-based. But this Jamaican guy was smoking cocaine, him and his brother. And his sister, she smoked a lot. So, me and my daughter moved in with him ‘cause I didn’t have anywhere else to go. And he showed me how to smoke cocaine, cook the stuff, all that. And basically—I didn’t know if I felt that I wanted to fit in because that’s all they did, you know. And then I didn’t have to buy it-it was right there.

C.W.: Did you work?

P.T.: No, I didn’t work.

C.W.: You get public assistance?

P.T.: No, I didn’t. I signed up for welfare, but I had gotten so deep into my addiction at the time I had signed up for welfare, I never made the appointments. None of that.

C.W.: So you kept your kids with you through all your addiction?

P.T.: Well, I had my daughter, and then when I—in 1986 I got pregnant by the Jamaican guy, by Tony. I got pregnant by Tony, but by the time I got pregnant by him, I told you, he had taught me how to smoke. I mean, I didn’t know that I had gotten as far into the addiction as I was—I couldn’t stop. I’d wake up, because this is all they did: he wake up in the morning, and from the time he wake up till the time he went to sleep this is what he did. So I started following suite. And I found out I was—and at that time I was kind of neglecting my—I was neglecting my daughter. I wasn’t spending no time with her. I’d sit her in the living room and go in the room and shut the door.

His sister had a little girl, too. Same age as my daughter, so I figured they in there playing, so she don’t really need… But when I found out I was pregnant again, I couldn’t stop. You know, I couldn’t stop. I think I was nine months pregnant, and I didn’t even look like I was pregnant. ‘Cause I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t drinking any water or any juice, no milk, none of that. All I was doing was consuming cocaine, and it was his baby. He didn’t try to stop me. Every once and awhile he might say, “Aren’t you tired? Don’t you want something to eat? Are you gonna feed the baby?” You know, knowing I couldn’t eat. You done fed me the stuff since morning, now it’s night. Now you talking about you want me to eat. But I had gotten to the point—it had gotten to the point where he had started being selfish with the drugs. He wasn’t giving it to me as freely, and I don’t know if it’s because I was pregnant or because he was getting more into his addiction. And I started taking people to the stores to boost, they give me money to take because I had a car.

C.W.: What’s boosting?

P.T.: Stealing clothes. You know they would pay me, for me taking them. And I would use that to get extra drugs, which he didn’t know that. So one particular time I took someone, and that was when I caught my first case. ‘Cause I wasn’t just satisfied with what they was giving me, I wanted to steal something now. Which I knew I didn’t know how, but I was high. So I went in there trying to steal, and I got locked up. And when I got locked up, I started hollering and screaming, you know, “I’m pregnant, blah, blah, I got a daughter at home.” And I know I must have looked terrible, because I’m already small, me and a full addiction. That was my first time being arrested, and they told me I was gonna get probation. They told me to come back to court. So I didn’t make the court date and I didn’t go see—they had signed me to go talk to someone, I don’t know if it was a probation officer. I wasn’t sure.

But I never did go, I just blew it off because I had never been involved with them on that level. My mother used to try to get me in a youth home, but they wouldn’t put me in there because I hadn’t committed a crime. And then I had never really been involved with the police. But I went back home and ignored what the judge told me to do and stared getting high again. And for like two months, nothing happened. No one came to the house. Then I go into labor, which I didn’t know, because my first baby, they had broke my water bag. So I didn’t know my water bag had broke. I had been getting high like probably two weeks straight at this point, and my water bag broke. And I’m wiping stuff off me, and I feel it, it’s wet stuff in between. But I don’t know it was water bag stuff. When I finally did get to the hospital, they induced my labor. I was there by myself. Nobody came. My mama didn’t come, nobody came, and I didn’t call nobody to come. And so he didn’t come either, ‘cause he was at home getting high.

C.W.: Where was your daughter?

P.T.: She was at the house with him—with his sister. So I had the baby there by myself. After I had my baby, at that time they weren’t taking the baby because of the cocaine was in… they told me they wanted me to talk to a social worker. So they let me take my baby home, but I was suppose to talk to a social worker. I say about two weeks I was at home with my son. I had caught myself trying to slow down, I had a little boy. I was trying to slow down from getting high. This baby was making me trying to come back to reality. Next thing I know, the police is outside my door, you know, knocking on the door.

They come and take me to jail, because I missed all the court dates for the—when I stole that stuff. So they take me, take me to jail, they said they had a warrant for me take me to the jail. And I go in jail, and I told them I just had a baby, baby two weeks old, blah, blah… They said they wasn’t going to give me prison, because I thought I was going to prison. They said, “We’re not sending you to prison. You gonna spend a little time in jail and then you can go home to your kids.” That’s what they told me. They gave me six months in the county jail. And I was supposed to do six months in jail and six months probation and I was in there, I had my son in July, and about… July… August… September… I think it was October, the end of September but my out day wasn’t until about January.

My out date was January, and this point in my life ...I think I blacked out. ‘Cause I really don’t remember details. But I think I was in there two months, and then they call me. And they said, “Pack your bags.” While I was in there, I had got a GED within them two months. And one of the guards, I had made real good friends with her, so she was the one that came to tell me. And I was, like, all excited, you know. And while I was in there, my mom had got my daughter and son. So I called my mama up, and I said, “Let me speak to my mama.” At that time my step-father was living, he said, “Well, she not here.” I said, “Well, you know, tell her I’m coming home, get Fan and the baby ready.

And tell Fan, you know, I love her.” And he said, “I guess you didn’t hear.” And he didn’t say nothing else, he just hung up. So now I’m like, “What is he talking about?” You know, I just blew that off. I’m all excited, pack my stuff. I get down to the front desk. So I’m waiting for them to release me, and the lady say, “Well we can’t release you from here.” I said, “I am not going home.” She said, “Yeah, you’re going home.” She said, “You’re released. We just got to take you to the hospital. We have to see you at the hospital.” So they take me to the hospital. So I am thinking about my mama or my grandmama. And I get in there, and my son is on the stretcher.

The guards drop me off at the hospital, and they just walk away. Nobody told me. So I walked into it blind, and he was dead. He had died of crib death. And I think he died from me using. ‘Cause he was like, I think he was 4 pounds. And for long time, and sometimes I still feel like that, like I killed him. But I had never heard of crib death, SIDS, whatever. I had never heard of that. And I just shut down. So from the time of his death for really most of my life I just said forget it. Because the first time that I—That’s not the first time. Something like that happened the first time when I was eight. I raised, practically took care of my brothers. And I had another, a little sister. And I was molested by a minister when I was six to the time I was eight years old. And the people found out about it.

So my mom—my dad had been trying to get me since their divorce when I was four, but she wouldn’t let me go. So I knew this particularly year, when she had him come get me, something, you know… But when they came to get me, when dad came to get me, and that was just so… And now I know who was those people were, they were DCFS, that was so they couldn’t question me, I believe. But when he came to get me, I never said anything. To this day, I don’t know if he knows what happened, if mama told him or what… but my baby sister, at that time was 2. And I think, I was the oldest, and I have a brother older then me. We took care of the—the kids is like steps.

There was nine of us, so we took care of all of them, and I don’t know what happened, but I think I was in Gary for two weeks. And they called and told me my baby sister is dead. And, at that time, I was like eight, nine years old. And since the girl had been born I was taking care, she’d wake up in the middle of the night, and I felt that if I had of been there, she would of still been living. You know, ‘cause mama, I don’t know what happened in her life, but her life was drinking from morning to night. Partying. So that was the second time that something like that had happened, and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

C.W.: So you went into full fledged addiction?

P.T.: Mm Hmm. And I started getting in trouble with the law and going to jail. In and out of jail.

C.W.: How many times?

P.T.: I don’t even know. I know I’ve been to prison three times. I don’t even know how many times I’ve been in jail. But I know each time I went they would give me something to do and I would never complete it. One night I went to jail, and they came, and I was glad to be in. It’s sad, but I was glad to be locked up. I was probably 24, 25 by then. And I’m like, well, you know, now to trying to think, about 9 o’clock at night the jail only had, the Waukegan jail only had maybe 25 to 27 women. The people with the least bond, because I never had a major crime. It was always a possession or theft, you know. But the people with the least bonds was the ones they would put out when the jail got full. Nobody slept on the floor. So they came to get me, nine o’clock at night, to take me to bond court. And I told myself, “I don’t want to go back out there.” I said, “I don’t wanna go, I don’t have anywhere to go to.” Every time they asked me for a phone number or something, I wouldn’t give them. ‘Cause I didn’t have one, and I didn’t want to get out. You know, if I got out I knew what I was going to do, and I was tired. I was really tired. So they let me out, and I started on the rampage again. And then the first time I went to prison was 1993, 1993 for retail theft.

C.W.: And the last time was?

P.T.: The last time I went was in 2000, August of 2000. That was for a violation. I went back for violation, it was disorderly conduct. I was the only person in prison with a disorderly conduct charge, and I remember when I came through the doors for intake, the lady at the intake screamed, you know, I forget her name, she said, “Ahh!” I said, “What what’s wrong.” She said, “I’ve been here for 25 years, and I have never seen this charge.” ‘Cause it was a misdemeanor. They sent me back for a misdemeanor, and they gave me another eighteen months to do. And when I went back this last time, I was sober. You know I had cleaned my—the time before this, I had gotten into AA meetings.

I was getting my degree. I had really decided that I had enough. I started forgiving myself and started realizing that a lot of things that happened with me wasn’t my fault. That i was a kid, and I had cleaned my life up. I came out and I got a job. And that was a job, that was a job where you had to work 12 hours a day. Making good money. I had lied on my application, but you know, I was working there and was also working at a nursing home full time. And by the time I got home, I was tired. And that time, I didn’t have a big apartment, but I had got me a studio. I didn’t have a brand new car, but it was a used car. And I was finally trying to do something. And I thought everything was gonna be fine. I thought as long as I didn’t use drugs, I wouldn’t go to jail. ‘Cause every time I used drugs I would end up in jail.

C.W.: But what was this case that you had? Do you think the judge trying… what was it?

P.T.: Well, someone came to my house that I didn’t want to be bothered with, because I wasn’t using. I had changed. Everything had stopped. I hadn’t given anyone my address, so how this person found me, I don’t know. So. But this person didn’t want to hear me, you know, rejecting him. And I could tell he was still—he didn’t use drugs, but he drank, and that’s just as bad. So I go in, and I call police ‘cause he just started getting—he always used to try to intimidate me. Right. But see, I ain’t the old Pam.

See, now I got a little bit of self-esteem, so you not fittin’ to intimidate me. So I go call the police. Well they get there, and they feel that—he’s out there before I can get out there, and he’s telling them about my history. He’s telling them about my history. The history—you know, I’ve been to jail, prison. You know, I used to use drugs and all that. And by the time I get out there, he done told this police all this. So I’m telling the police—I said, “I pay rent here, and I don’t want him here.” And he just started looking at me funny. And then the guy that had came over, he’s like, “Well, I am not leaving. This is a public—” He in the street. “This is public, and you don’t own this.” Right there. And he said, “I haven’t told them how you is as stuff.” Like I don’t really mean what I’m saying.

So I started getting ignorant ‘cause I was mad. Because I felt like, because I was on parole, he told them I was on parole, and the police mentioned it. And when he mentioned it, I told him, I said, “Because I’m on parole, you telling me that I can’t call the police? You’re telling me that I don’t have the right to ask this man to leave my house where I pay rent at?” And I start getting loud and belligerent. And the police told me I was going to jail. So he arrested me. And by me being on parole, it violated the condition.

C.W.: So, women, when they call for help, they’re punished.

P.T.: Yeah, I feel that. But when I got back to Dwight, I had to sit and wait. Because had me see the parole board, and when they first came in I missed them. And when they came back that second time, I missed them again because there was too many people. So they put me on another list. So I am sitting there another month. So when I did finally get up there, they tell me because they found me guilty. Wait a minute. Before I got to Dwight, I sat in the County Jail from August to October. Fighting the disorderly conduct case. And the state’s attorney offered me four years.

He said—because each time they go to court I’m just knowing they’re gonna throw it out. This is not—they’re gonna throw this out. From September to August to October, I sat there fighting this disorderly conduct case. So I got tired. So the last time I went to court, the public defender say, “Well, the state has made an offer.” I said, “What do you mean, an offer?” He said they ask me to take eighteen months. I said, “Eighteen months for disorderly conduct?” He said, “Well, they enhanced it. it was, the original charge was disturbing the peace. The original charge was disturbing the peace. But see, I didn’t have the disturbing the peace charge in my background. After I went to court the third time, I had to have disorderly conduct in my background. When I was eighteen, When me and my oldest daughter’s father when we got into it.

So, you know, when you have one charge and when you catch it again, they can enhance it to a felony. So I found that disorderly conduct when I was 18. So when I went back to court, I’m not going there for disturbing the peace. They done changed it to disorderly conduct and they enhanced it to a felony. And which I found all that out later, because I’m trying to figuring out how they could change the name of the case, you know the charge. But if they’d of left it at disturbing the peace it’d have stayed a misdemeanor, because they couldn’t have enhanced it. ‘Cause I didn’t have nothing in my record. But anyway he said—so now I am just sitting here. I’m crying. The judge looking at me.

Everybody in the court room looking at me. And I just said, “Every time I try to do something, you know something happen, blah blah…” And I just broke down. And the man was like, “If I were you, I would accept it.” At first I was like, I said, “Now, I’m not accepting that. I didn’t do anything. I accepting no eighteen months. I can’t do no more time.” He said, “Well, if I was you I would go on and accept it, because their first offer was four years. They want to give you four years.” I said, “Four years!” So I went on and took the eighteen months. And when I got to Dwight, when I did get in front of the parole board, the guy said, “I can’t believe that they brought you back in front of me for this.” The guy on the parole board said it. And he was looking through the papers—he said, “There has got to be something else here.”

Because all my drops were clean. Everything was straight. I had been working on—he said, “It has to be something…” I said, “That’s it.” I said, “That’s it.” But because they had found me guilty, he couldn’t let me go. He didn’t give me no time. He said, “The only way I can help you, I won’t take any time and I won’t give you none.” So I did nine months on the eighteen months. And by me doing nine months in jail, in prison there should have been just nine months of parole. I had to do a year of parole. I was supposed to get off parole in January of this year, I didn’t get off ‘til May. Because they don’t give you less than a year parole, no matter how much time you do in prison. So I did four extra months than what the judge sentenced me to do.

C.W.: So, While you were there you found out about Grace House.

P.T.: Yeah, I figured that God found me. Because I did everything that I could to change my environment, and that was one thing that I didn’t want to do ‘cause I don’t like change. So I said, “Well, this time I am going to do everything. I just gonna go somewhere where I don’t know anybody. I don’t know my way around, none of that.” ‘Cause now I’m scared, ‘cause this is freaking me out. When I’m doing something wrong, I expect to go to jail. Or drugs stuff. But I know when I haven’t done anything. I’m clean. And I still go to prison. That’s some scary stuff. You know, ‘cause now I’m nervous. ‘cause I am thinking, “Is this how my life’s supposed to be?” So I decided to go somewhere other than Waukegan.

But they told me that to change my address, you know my parole state-to-state address, I had to have a certain amount of months. And by the time I had decided to do that, I was too late. So this lady was telling me about a place in Chicago called Grace House. So when I first tried to get in there, they were full. But I had a—there was a lady… a counselor… I forget that lady’s name - but the lady didn’t like me. She knew how bad I wanted to go to Grace House. I had never—but I had heard a lot about it. So the day I was supposed to have my appointment, Grace House called her and she never did give me the appointment. So I told her, I said, “Well, my beauty shop appointment,” And it take months to get in the beauty shop there. I said, “Well, my beauty shop appointment is this morning and my hair”—I was looking like little boy. Black women need perm like we need deodorant. And I said, “Just please, just call…”

The counselor never gave me the information, and when I get back she tell me, “Oh, guess who called while you were gone.” I said, “Who?” She say, “Grace House called, but I told them that you chose to get your hair done, go get your hair done. So they said, since you feel like your hair is more important than coming there, they took you off your list.” I went in my room, and I cried. I got so mad, and I just cried. This is supposed to be my counselor, you know, I couldn’t get rid of her. And then I was in Gateway too, you know, so I went to the lady, she was like head of Gateway and her name is Denise Pierre, and I went and talked to her. And I told her what her counselor did, ‘cause she was over now.

And I told her what happened. And I told her, I said, “Denise,” ‘Cause I was like the older… there. So I said, “Denise, you know how hard I am trying to get in that place.” And I said, “I cannot go back to Waukegan.” I told her, I said, “I don’t know if you understand what I saying, but I can’t go back there.” And she said, “You are going to Grace House.” And she got Grace House back on the phone, and I talked to them. You know, went behind the counselor’s back. And they got me in there, you know, ‘cause she was trying to send me to a Co-Ed place called Kedzie House. And Denise was like, “You’re not going there.” And one of my problems, I couldn’t be around men just coming out of prison. I just couldn’t do it, you know.

So I went on into Grace House, and when I got there, first I was scared. But before I got out of prison my father had an accident, a car accident, a week before I got out. And he coded twice, and they thought he was going to die. Snd I likely would go crazy. All his life, most of my life, all he wanted to do was be a father to me. And I wouldn’t let him because of the certain things that went on. And I just—to this day, I still haven’t told him. But he never understood why me and my mom… I think he half-way understood why we had problems, but he never knew the whole story because I didn’t want him to hurt her. So I just stayed away. But they told me that he had just—

C.W.: Have you dealt with that?

P.T.: Yeah, I have addressed that, but they told me that he broke 75% of the bones in his body. And they had just air lifted—he lived in Gary—they had just air lifted him to Christ Hospital here in Chicago. So that was another reason for me to come here, ‘cause I was having doubts. It was like doubts, as in like, “Don’t go there—you don’t know.” That really pushed me to come. When I got to Grace house, I had my Bible. And I had on them blue pants and white tops. And my little law legal papers. I didn’t have nothing. Nothing. They said, come straight there. I wouldn’t even stop—I didn’t even have a cigarette, ‘cause I wasn’t stopping for nothing. ‘Cause I was going straight there, cause this time I was gonna do it right. ‘Cause I was tired of them locking me up, you know. And when I got there, I just stood outside in front of the building.

And first, on the way there, I felt kind of funny and then I got mad because when I left prison, you know anybody that been to prison know that I had come from prison with that outfit on and my hair ain’t did and, you know, I look real tacky. Then I got these papers with these inmate numbers on them. I don’t have any ID, and when I pay the man for the taxi, ‘cause those pants don’t have the pockets on ‘em. So everything is in my hands, and when I pay the man for the taxi, he is seeing my… just parole, you know… So I was, first of all, I was embarrassed. But when I got there, I stood out in front of the house. It was like a little mansion to me, and I was looking. And something, this feeling came over me like, you know, even though, why you going up in there ‘cause these people don’t want you here. You know, you don’t know your way around, you don’t know nobody.

Girl, go back to Waukegan. You know, all this stuff. And I just pushed them out. So I walked up the stairs, and when I went there, in there and told them who I was and they seemed real friendly. And the first thing that lady did, was, they took me down to the basement and gave me a sandwich and something to drink. And I ate the sandwich and drunk the pop. And then she took me to the clothing closet, and nobody had ever gave me anything—any thing I ever had, I had to lie for, steal for, work for it. You know, nobody ever gave me anything. So now I am really tripping. So I started getting paranoid, ‘cause they being too friendly, you know. And this some strange to me.

So they take me to the clothing room and they give me some underwear—brand new underwear, towels, gown, pajamas. So I am looking at it. So I tell her, I say, “Well, uh… I ain’t got no money.” You know, and she looking at me, and she started laughing. And I already ate the sandwich and the pop, and I might as well tell you before you give me this stuff, “I don’t have any money.” And she said, “Naw, baby, all that’s free.” Now, I’m really tripping. I take my stuff, and she showed me where my room is.

Take all that to the room, and it was clean. It was totally opposite of what I expected, ‘cause from the time that I was there, from the time I had my son when I was 19 almost 20, and they put me in the county jail. And when he passed away, from that time up until that point, I had been locked up. Incarcerated in some type of institutional setting. I can’t really remember and I, that’s sad, I can’t remember a time from 18 to I’m 35. Now when I left the prison last time I was 34. 2000 - 34. I can’t remember being free. So when I got there, I was, like, I expected another institutional setting. But the thing about it was, if I wasn’t locked up, if I wasn’t incarcerated, I wasn’t getting high, you know.

Well, the last two times. But the first time I got just as high in there as I did on the street. But I don’t remember ever being out that long. But it wasn’t an institutional setting, it was like home. They didn’t force you to do nothing. It wasn’t like I had a time limit to get a job, get myself together. I didn’t have to give them no money. Because at first I was wondering, these people, they fittin’ to ask for something. I am waiting for the first two-three months. I am sitting back, ‘cause I’m very observant. And I am waiting on a—you know, it’s some punch line somewhere down the line, ‘cause that’s what I’m used to. Everything that look good ain’t good, so I’m waiting on the punch line coming in.

So I’m like, on… I was worried, but I couldn’t say anything ‘cause all I was worried about was getting a job. Getting a job, ‘cause I know somebody lady and people fittin’ to ask for some money. And then at that time, it was the first 2 month, it was hard for me to stay there because my dad had just had an accident. And I wanted to be at the nursing home with him for 24 hours a day. The first week I got there I couldn’t go anywhere, you know, and then I couldn’t go at first.

Nowhere, no way until the agent gave me some movement. And the meetings. Because the meetings they have, and the groups and stuff, I had to be in all of that ‘cause I was a new resident. That meant that I was limited to the time of seeing Dad. And which I was nervous about, that, ‘cause I didn’t know my way around Chicago. He was at a hospital on the south side, and I’m on the west side. I don’t even know where I at, and I don’t know how I’m gonna get to him.

So, like, the first 2 months my mind was on that, you know. The lady took me to the hospital, and she was like, “Well, don’t worry about it.” And then these other people that was coming in from outside, people that would run groups. They told me, they said, “If you ever need a ride blah.. blah I’ll take you.” And these people don’t even know me, you know, but everybody offered to help. So I stayed at Grace House until March of this year, I was there. Yeah, ‘til March of this year.

C.W.: So what are you doing now?

P.T.: Well, now I am. Now I’m a client services coordinator at North Lyndale and Clybourn. Everything I thought I couldn’t do, or people told me I couldn’t do—I’m doing it. I guess by me having a background of me being an addict, being an ex-offender, I feel I get stereotyped a lot. ‘Cause I go to a lot of meetings. A lot of people into policy and advocacy, you know, lot of bigwigs and stuff, and these people have no idea that I am an ex-offender. You know, unless I choose to tell them. But now I am seeing the other side. I was so used to seeing things from inside of a prison wall or jail cell. Now I’m seeing what makes those things. A lot of people think that it is the people, that they want to do this.

They are happy being locked up. But it’s a lot of stuff that comes before that part, and I don’t think people realize, what comes before that part. I think a person’s environment, they situation at home. ‘Cause I was crazy when I was a child , because of the certain things that happened to me. I needed therapy, and I didn’t even know it. I thought this was just how the world was. But this is not how the world is, people make the world like this. You know, but everything that I thought I couldn’t do, I’m gonna do it. I am not gonna let nobody lock me up no more. I am not gonna give nobody tools to lock me up. When I go into prison now, I’m going there from another side. Now I work with females ex-offenders and male ex-offenders. My main job now is, I work with the youth, out-of-school youth also of 18 to 24. They not youths, they adults, 18 to 24 years of age.

You know, I am a case manager for them. I read in a book, it’s a gender-based book for females, you know, a re-entry curriculum. And I did that because people kept asking me how was I staying clean. ‘Cause I guess it was a shock to them ‘cause an addict could stay clean. When someone doesn’t want to go back to jail, ‘cause, you know, I think a lot of people thought that it will only be a matter—even though they didn’t know me. And a lot of people that get out, it’s only a matter of time before they go back. And I wasn’t going back. So after a few months passed, and another few months passed, and I still ain’t went back, now they getting curious. A lot of people kept asking me, “What do you do? What keeps you where you are at?” And I told them, I said, “My higher power. I have a spiritual guidance, counseling through the nuns.”

And they said, “The Nuns?” And I said, “Yeah, even though I am not at the Grace House, I still go back there. I can go back there whenever I get ready. I have support. That’s what keep me where I’m at.” And me. And just knowing that it wasn’t all me. That’s even more strength to keep me where I am at. You know, ‘cause at first I thought it was my fault that I kept me going back to jail. But if I felt like this, is if prison’s suppose to be rehabilitation… ‘Cause I was in a couple of co-ed prisons where the men had drug treatment, but women didn’t have no drug treatment. So how does he get drug treatment and I am just as big an addict as he is but because I am female I can’t have treatment.

So I feel like this, if you don’t treat the case - treat the problem, the problem is still they’re? So when I went in and came out, I still had the drug problem. I still had issues that the rehabilitation institution didn’t address. So, now, I don’t accept all that. I accept my part, but I don’t accept it all. And that’s how I feel. And I feel like a lot of the programs and things out here aren’t working because they don’t know how to help us. They don’t know how the females… They think they do, but they don’t. Like, I was telling somebody earlier, the statistics prove that. If they knew what was going on with us, how to get to us, what we need, there wouldn’t be so much re—I wouldn’t have gone three times.

You know, three times. And if you looking at my records, and this last time you see I am working. I have a job. I have an apartment. I have a car. I am paying taxes like everybody else. You see I am trying my best to do this, why would you send me back? Did you get mad because I was working? And that’s how I feel. You know, that’s how I feel. But it took people to not judge me. To take that risk of coming into my life, and no matter how I acted or what I did, them people wasn’t going nowhere. And they said, “We care about you.” And that’s a shame when somebody care more about your life then you care about your own. Because at that time that was strange to me when somebody said they care about me, or they want to help me. I’m wondering what they want, you know. I never—you know, as a kid I had never felt that. As an adult it wasn’t until the last year or so I felt that. Yes, somebody really did care. And I really didn’t know how to help myself.

C.W.: When you were in prison, did you have a relationship with your children?

P.T.: No, my son… While I—when all this started happening, my mom, I have a younger daughter too, my youngest, she will be 11 next year. My two girls went to my mom, and my son went to his father in Memphis. But my mother, you know, I don’t know if she was trying to make up for the times that things happened with me, but she was like, well, “When you get your life together, blah… blah…” You know, “You come out, you get the girls.” You know, get the kids. But that wasn’t the case. When I came out, all of a sudden, “You don’t have no kids here blah…blah…blah..” Just different things. But had… I would write them, but i never got letters back.

And the longest bit I did was three years, three and a half. And I was in contact with my son, during that time, his father kept in contact with me. He’d write… But my daughters, no. So my youngest daughter, my oldest daughter was old enough to remember me. She was at that age, she still… My youngest daughter I don’t even think she knew that I was her mother, when I first saw her. And then my mom had problems with that. Don’t tell her. I could see her, but I couldn’t stipulate that I was her mother. You know, if I act like I was trying to step in to the mother role it was a big problem. So I didn’t wanna cause no problems, so I always saw my oldest daughter.

And my oldest daughter, she is not here now. She’ll be 18, October 4. She had a baby this year, and she dropped out of school. She didn’t go back after maternity leave. So I was thinking that my life affected her. That if I’d have been there, she would have made a better choice. But I finally talked her back into school, thank God. But this book, I think the book helped because I had her—I told her I was writing a book, and told her we were gonna be helping women just like me. And they have children just like you. And their moms done been in prison, been on drugs, and I need you to help me to get to them. So she was looking. And I said, if you don’t feel like doing it, I’ll just go get another teenager to do it. She said, “What you want the other teenager to do?” I said, well I’d like that teenager to write down how they felt when their mama was on drugs. How they felt when she was in prison.

How they felt about her not being there. You know, just be honest. So she thought about it and said, “I’ll write it.” Because we building our relationship, and she don’t want to share me with nobody. She don’t say it, but… So she wrote the letter, and I found out a lot of things through that letter. I didn’t put her name on it. I just put a letter from a 17 year old, and I put it in the book. And since she wrote that letter, that was her way of telling me secrets, and how she felt.

C.W.: What was the most profound thing she said in that letter?

P.T.: Ah, she said her grandmother, my mother, used to tell her she didn’t want her. I don’t think she got my letters, because she never mentioned it. She said she used to want to come see me, but she wouldn’t let her. She said that I didn’t love her and didn’t—she said she wanted to know why, if I loved her, would I keep doing drugs. And a lot of times she cried and prayed that I would stop doing drugs and take her away from there, because she didn’t like being there. And she didn’t like being away from me. She said, you know, just different things. But one thing she said that kinda—last part of the letter—that she loved me.

And now she know that I loved her even when I was on drugs, because now I teach her about drugs. I tell her, it’s a lot of things that I feel she needs to know of how it controls a person’s life and thinking. But she says, now she knows that I did love her when I was on drugs, and she knows that if she needs a place to go… And she’ll always have me, and that now she is raising her own family. She feel good now. She’s not healed, but the last sentence was, “I’m glad my mom is back in my life, I’m not gonna let her go, but there’s still a few questions I need to ask her.” So when I read that part, I got nervous. Right? I’m like, what questions, what questions? But guess what she wanted to ask me? I didn’t find out about it ‘til later, but I’m, like, real nervous about these questions ‘cause I knew this day was coming. But I didn’t know when.

The question she wanted to ask me was real simple. She wanted to know—it was questions that couldn’t nobody answer but her mother. She wanted to know how much she weighed at birth. She wanted to know, was her hair curly or straight. Was she spoiled? Did I pick her up a lot? Well, you know, questions like that. That’s what she wanted. She wanted to know where her birth mark was, you know, stuff like that. And here I was, worried myself to death. But those were the questions that she want to ask me.

C.W.: Do you think there’s a benefit in this project?

P.T.: Yeah, by my story… Yeah, because I feel that a lot of people—I don’t believe people have given up on life. I just believe they don’t know how to get out of this cycle. They don’t know how. They haven’t given up, but they just don’t know a way out. I know from experience that the only way out is for somebody to come and help guide you out. Sometimes that’s what it takes. I don’t believe in that—“They don’t care about theyselves, just leave ‘em where they are at.” You know, “If they want a job, they go get a job.” It’s not that easy for some people. Everybody, they go through things, don’t come out the same. Some people are more traumatized than others, even though they don’t show.

And I just don’t believe in that, because I know from my life that people hide things and you’ll never know about it. Sometimes people have things that they’ll never ever in their life talk it to anyone, but it affects them. Just like incarceration, that stuff traumatized me. My first time in prison, I got this guard telling me to meet him in the basement, you know, that scared me. This the police, to me. I ain’t looking. Everyone in uniforms is the police. And I didn’t know what would happen if I didn’t go in the basement. I did know what would have happened if I did. So it’s a lot of things that go on in peoples lives that affects them.

Salome Chasnoff.: I want to know what life was like in prison.

P.T.: It’s like pretzels. This way and that way. You don’t know what one day gonna bring you to the next, and all you try and do is stay sane.

P.T.: I’ll start with my first prison experience. I done been to every joint they have for females. My incarcerations, the first one was in 1993 into ‘94, and I went to Dwight. And the first time, when I was in intake, that scared me. Because it looked like a haunted house. I thought it was a stock yard, a house where they keep horses at. That’s what it looked like to me. But I found out different, that it has always looked like that. It was this guard there, he liked to watch me, follow me around. And he knew it was my first time in there, so one day he tell me to meet him in the basement. I was on cottage 6. And they had male guards and females. He was the only one there. But I didn’t know whether to go in the basement or not go in the basement, because this is my first time locked up, and all I wanted to do was go home. I wanted to get up outta here.

And it wasn’t so much that I wanted to use drugs, or none of that. I was just scared, and I seen all these young women in there. And people tell me—‘cause I thought everybody went to jail got out. But some of these women tell me that they never going home, and they were serious. And I just didn’t understand. I got upset when he told me to go there, but I didn’t go. But like a couple of weeks after he asked me to go down there, I saw—‘cause they don’t have curtains up to windows in Dwight, and the windows is real huge, and you standing there just getting out of the shower. And ain’t no telling who looking in on you. And I looked up, and this same guard is standing outside the window watching me dry off, getting in my clothes. I couldn’t say nothing to him. I didn’t want to say nothing to him ‘cause like I said, he the police to me.

And I didn’t know if that man would mess up me going home, or what, so I didn’t say anything to him. ‘Cause I didn’t want to mess up. I kept it to myself. About two o’clock in the morning, with out any warning, a month later, they shipped me to a place called Logan. I had no idea I was going there. And that was a co-ed place. It was sick there, to me it’s like they had all these men in there, and you couldn’t say anything to the men. And the men couldn’t say anything to you. If you wrote ‘em or said something you’d get in trouble for it. Because they’d say you’re starting a relationship. But they had women in there going with each other, and they knew these women were going together and would move them in the same rooms. But it was okay for you to be in a relationship with a woman, but you couldn’t be in relationship with a man.

And I didn’t understand that. I parole from Logan and I was out for a little while, and I got in trouble again and went back to prison. But this time, when I went back, they gave me boot camp. Which I didn’t know what boot camp was, but boot camp you supposed to do four months and you go home. I was locked up for five months before boot camp even came to get me. I was in Dwight, and then they send me to Kanakee to wait on boot camp. When I got there, that that was more degrading ‘cause they cut off all my hair. When you first get off the bus, they take these second grade scissors and cut all your hair off. And they tell you to hold your hands up like this, and you can’t let a hair touch the floor. How are you gonna stop your hair from falling on the floor? They get you up at 4:30 in the morning, and they work you ‘til 9:30 at night. If they know you wear size eight boot, they gave you a size 6 or 6 and half. A shoe size too small. And I had been in a wheelchair and my feet was killing me, but I wouldn’t let them know that they was hurt. ‘Cause I didn’t want to get sent back.

To me it was a lot of low-down stuff. People working ‘til they hands bleeding and stuff. And you can’t sit down unless you get permission to sit down. If you asked to go to the bathroom without getting permission to speak first, you in trouble again. So a lot of people used the bathroom on themselves because when they asked for permission to use the bathroom, they wouldn’t give them permission to go. So you were bad enough to do things without permission. But I didn’t finish boot camp. They sent me to Dwight, my tickets come, but I need to be mentally evaluated ‘cause I don’t want to put up with that cause I cannot do that. Then I got back to Dwight. I finished there, they let me out. I got in trouble again, and I went into Dixon. And I stayed in Dixon for three and a half years. And in Dixon, that was more me and the women. And the men would keep inside the little itty-bitty fence.

And we had nothing to do, so what ever we did, our life made. So we made—they didn’t even have started a newspaper newsletter for the women—they got that started, but there was no movement. And if you were in college, and I had to fight to go to college, ‘cause I was a blue batch. And they didn’t want me to cross the fence and the gate. I had a good instructor there, I went into a coach and her name is… She trained me for her job, and I became a college clerk, there in class. But other than that, it was really nothing. A prison, it is a place to sit. And if you hadn’t had enough, you don’t really know what was going on, you will come back when you get out. You know, that’s all it is. You get the same things, same food, same clothes every day. You get humiliated every day. Many things you do there is to survive. You just survive and hope you don’t go crazy, you don’t go far away. I never understood Why they didn’t have prisons close to the home. And my family, we were poor. Very few people had cars, and my mom didn’t really know how to drive.

Why would they put us so far out? Why didn’t they have prisons closer to homes? At least their families could punish them. I feel family is a good support. Here I am waiting out in the boondocks, you know, but I am doing many things to do something to not to go back. And the school is—I got lucky to get in the college, ‘cause there is a long waiting list. They say people in prison don’t want to go to school. They would be locked up for ten years and don’t have a G.E.D. That’s ‘cause they take ten years to get your name off the waiting list. You might have 500 people, and you have got 6 spots open. It’s not that people don’t want to get educated. It is hard to get into the school. You get lucky, ‘cause you have to know somebody or somebody pulled your name out or something like that. I don’t see how it benefits anybody. Most of the guards in there, they have addiction problems worse than mine. The inmates—and half of them needed therapy. Prison is just a place where whole people use and make money off what they are working.

You don’t work there, it’s like being with a man, like a pimp. You go out there, get my money. ‘Cause that’s what prison was, ‘cause you don’t sit there if you didn’t want to. You had to be bleeding somewhere to go to college, to do something, ‘cause they needed these supplies made. And I believe they paid us, ‘cause they ain’t slavery, they put in the United States constitution. ‘Cause they so many cents a day, and you can’t call it slavery. And I believe that before I got that knowledge, cause I was getting 15$ a month just to help out. And that cannot be called slavery. You look at the 15 dollars a month, united states constitution, and that’s the equal amount not to be called slavery. And it’s deep. I say, people coming in: half, they go crazy. As you know, hey, they can’t take it. Two people that—I haven’t seen dead bodies unless they were on drugs—but I noticed that two people dead. One, overdosed with heroine in Dickson. Another, there when I was in there the last time, found when I was in for disorderly conduct. Four people hung themselves.

Four young women hung themselves ‘cause they cannot take it in the intake. They don’t… they had nobody to send the money, can’t shop in the intake. Those people, some girls would be pregnant. What are you gonna do when you are pregnant? They don’t feed, they are trying to see if they got extra apple. Four women hung within a year’s time, and they don’t talk about this. They don’t show how dirty those rooms. And for 30 years, you don’t have a room to yourself. Off of 100 women, you are forcing all the women in one room. They don’t have life or never get it. They don’t show the… they get 12 people to a room. 6 people to a room. I have never been to a room where there are less than six people in the room. And all your space is, when you get up there, bed and stand. That’s your space. You don’t have no room. You walk around, that’s your space right there. Unless you fall on top of somebody and it’s the same lot again. People in there, they talk about the drug problem… they really didn’t have to get any cocaine or heroine.

All they have to do is say they can’t sleep, and they would pack them up with drugs…. I have never seen so many years women. Just… and I thinking, that started waking me up. ‘Cause, you know, when you do this drug thing in this prison, my daughter is older and all I am thinking about is this could happen to my daughter. ‘Cause now it’s going to be a point where I am seeing the mothers and daughters being locked up. It really got me to see. This lady, she had a lot of time to do, her daughter would get locked up on purpose, ‘cause she could see her mother. And that’s deep, ‘cause you want them coming home. So her daughter would go out and commit a crime so she could be with her mother.

This could be my daughter, and now I guide her. And this helping me. I kept myself busy, trying to talking with people younger to me. And that’s what made me feel good, that I was helping somebody. ‘Cause if I can help somebody… And that’s what made me feel good, ‘cause it is sad in the night, these people crying. You can hear people out in the yard anytime being tough, but at night all you could here is crying. ‘Cause people want to go home. They miss their family. They are never going home, ‘cause they don’t have a family. And all you can do is cry with them.

C.W.: What is this SRC Camp?

P.T.: The sardine Camp, I don’t feel that’s working. The rooms are so small that when you stretch your arms, you touching each side of the room. They have got everyone packed in there, half of it is intake. The women in intake, when I first went to prison, it might have been 60 to 80 women in intake. And now you have 200 people at one given time, and it is sad. The Exile is nothing but a bigger building. And they have piled everyone on top of each other, ‘cause they don’t have enough room. And all this is a bunch of argument, bunch of fighting. The showers are near the guard’s desk. They should have at least put showers in the back. But it is right near the CO’s desk, he is looking in the shower while you are having a shower. The toilets are right there near his desk, and there are drapes but the drape don’t reach all the way across. So he is going to see you one way or the other. And that’s what ticks me off.

They wait right there ‘til you come out, ‘cause they know you are gonna come out dressed. Like, they go on rounds while people are taking their showers, so that they can see women naked. There are more men, and they are standing there while you are naked, looking at you. You know when you go to the toilets, it is embarrassing. The monthly thing, and here this guy is standing in the door. And that’s humiliating. They want to do, if you say something about it, some grievance, they say you are stupid. And in prison, I have been incarcerated a lot of my life, and the men have sexual problems. They have a lot of issues, but I am not sure if the state knows or board knows. But these men have issues, and that’s why they are working in those places. The inmates know it, and they let him know it. But I feel that it shouldn’t be like that.

S.C.: What happened when the guard wanted to meet you in the basement?

P.T.: I didn’t go in the basement. Like I said, I caught him looking through the window while I was getting dressed. So he will see me in the yard, he would smile at me all the time. Get close enough and say some obscene comment to me. But after that one particular time, they had no chance to be with me again cause they moved him around. To make sure, I removed myself from that, ‘cause we had a free yard. No, it is not like that now, but, you know, when I seen him again it was another bid. That’s when they put me, they sent me, hold me for boot camp in Kankakee.