Excerpt from Banished Pride
by Gina Autrey

 peer-support  personal-narrative  prison-life  prison-industrial-complex  reentry  relationships

I have a hard time trusting others. My friendship is not something that is given freely. I can count on one hand the people who I truly consider to be my friend. These people have earned my trust and my respect. And they have my loyalty. I would go to the wire for each one of them. I am not judgmental and that is a good quality I believe that I have. I don’t judge a person based on the color of their skin or on their past or their financial status. I look at how they conduct themselves and how they treat others. I look to see if they are kind and caring. Everyone makes mistakes and we all have our crosses to bear. Thank goodness I finally took mine off my back and shrunk it down to fit in my pocket. I still know it is there, but it doesn’t drag me down.

I think of the people I left behind. The ones who were truly my friend. I have kept in touch with several of them and it is like they are amazed that I kept my word. So many people leave with promises to keep in touch and yet they are never heard from again. It is like they want that part of their life to disappear. Not me. I don’t want to forget. If I forget then I didn’t learn a damn thing. I pray for my friends that are still in that hell. That is no way to live. It is an existence, but not a life. The girl who called me mom, Staci. She does not max out until 2022. And as long as I am physically able she will get at least two letters or cards from me per month until that day. The same goes for Kassie who has a life sentence. The same goes for Belinda who gets out in 2008. I won’t forget.

I remember the people who never made it out. The women who died while there. I think of Tina. She died due to the neglect of a lieutenant. The LT wouldn’t let her go to medical until count cleared even though she was having a severe asthma attack. She died waiting on count to clear. She was in there for a petty crime. She had a child. But she never made it out. We mourned for her. The night after she died we pulled the fire alarms on every building and went outside and raised hell. We wanted them to know that Tina did still have a voice. We were pepper sprayed and locked down, but it was worth it. At least they knew that we knew the wrong that had been done. We yelled for Tina. We yelled for God to please listen to our prayers and to change the way things were for us.

I think of the elderly lady who died. She took care of the cats on the compound. She loved those cats. They loved her. She was in her late 60’s. She had a heart attack and died. Did you know that when you die in prison that your body is sent out in shackles? It is true. They shackle you in the box and ship you to your family. If you don’t have a family there is a cemetery on the SCDC property that you are buried in - still in chains. Why does a dead person need chains? One final indignity that person must bear, with no respect given to them even in their death.

I am fully aware that there are people who deserve to be in prison. There are evil people in the world. There are people who deserve to be there for the rest of their lives for the crimes that they have committed. I met those types of people, too. I lived with them. I suffered at their hands. There are people there with no conscience, no soul. But there are people there who are good people. People who made one mistake, married the wrong man, hung out with the wrong crowd, got addicted to drugs, people who defended themselves against an abusive husband or father or lover, people who wrote bad checks to the grocery store to feed their kids, people who needed psychological help, there are all kinds of people there. Not all of them are bad or evil. A lot of them are just like you. They just made a mistake.

There are mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, daughters, wives - they are all there. Black, white, Latino, every color of skin. Some of their families have forgotten about them or turned their backs on them. Some of them have no one. That is so sad. You can’t understand unless you have been through it. To hear mail call each day and your name is never called. To not have anyone to call because your calls are not accepted. To not have visits. To be cut off from the outside world completely. It is a horrible, lonely existence.

I wanted to share my journey in the hopes that I can help someone know that even if you screw up in the worst way – even if you make more mistakes than you can count – even if you lose it all and have to start over from nothing – you CAN MAKE IT. Everyone deserves another chance. Everyone can change their lives for the better. We all fall down, it is how you get back up that counts.

I used to be so “normal”. I was married, two beautiful kids, a husband, a nice home, nice car, a great job. But I screwed it up and ended up losing everything. I did 2-1/2 years in the SC Dept of Corrections for a white collar crime. I had embezzled money from my employer. I wish that I could go back in time and make the right choices and do it over, but I can’t. All I can do is move ahead and get on with my life. My husband and I were both involved in the crime, but when it all came down, I took the blame. I loved him and I thought I was making the right decision. We had two children and I didn’t want them to have both parents in jail. He filed for divorce after only 10 months. He had gotten with my former best friend and moved her into our home. He was keeping my kids from me, I went over six months with no contact of any kind – no phone calls, no visits, no mail, nothing. That was the hardest time for me. If it had not been for my mother and my sister I honestly don’t know what I would have done. I cried so much during this time that I don’t know how I had any more tears to shed. I was very depressed. Being in prison was bad enough, but to deal with this on top of it, well it was almost unbearable.

I went from being a model inmate to gambling on card games, selling cigarettes, participating in homosexual relationships, anything I could do to keep my mind off my situation. Finally, after getting in trouble and spending some time in lock-up I decided it was time to pull myself together and be strong so I could get out and fight for my kids. I realized I was so much stronger than I ever imagined I could be. My husband had been very controlling and mentally abusive. I vowed to myself that never again would I allow myself to live my life for a man. You can’t give and give of yourself without ever getting anything in return – you just end up empty.

I was released on March 1, 2005. I maxed out, I had been denied parole both times I went up. I was free and clear. I was also on my own for the first time in my life. I had nothing. My ex-husband and my former friend had sold all my belongings, they had lost our home to foreclosure, sold my car. All I had was the clothes on my back, but I also had determination and the will to press on. It would have been so easy to feel sorry for myself and just give up. I could have easily ended up doing drugs or drinking my sorrows away or getting involved in some kind of criminal activity. But I didn’t want to ever go back to prison. The very thought terrified me. I had been beaten, raped, mistreated by guards, forced to work jobs that were just horrible and nasty and I did not want to go back to that. I couldn’t.

My parents bought me a few outfits. Their church donated money and bought me new glasses, some shoes, clothes and personal items I needed. I looked for a job for over a month with no luck. Not many companies wanted to give an ex-con a chance, much less one who had embezzled money from her last employer. It was discouraging. I kept going though. I got an attorney and began the fight to get my kids. In the end, I gained full custody of my daughter. My son chose to stay with his dad. I got a good job, they were willing to look past my mistakes and that helped me so very much. I got me a place to live (I had to live with my sister up until that point), I bought a cheap car. It was hard. I had to be on a very tight budget just to get by. But I was doing it on my own. All the struggles were worth it.

I am happy to say I am a success story. I have a good job, in fact I just got promoted to Marketing Coordinator for my company. I have a nice home and a better car. My kids are happy. And I am the happiest I have been in a very long time. I like my life now.

I still have to deal with the stigma of being a convicted felon. That label will be on me forever. I wrote a book about my experiences – I don’t want to be ashamed. Because all the things I have gone through have brought me to where I am today. And today, I am good.