Free … at last?
By Susan Gottshall
What I remember most after my visit to Topeka Correctional Facility (TCF) is Deborah.* Her face. Her story.
That scar on her chin, is it a memento from her childhood scrapbook of abuse? What about the earlobe scars? Are they reminders of her seven-year relationship with an abusive drug dealer?
Deborah’s face, I came to learn, was a photo album of pain.
I visited TCF—Kansas’ state prison for women—prior to June’s American Baptist Churches USA Mission Summit as part of a group of 40 American Baptist chaplains and pastoral counselors. When the bus departed from Kansas City for Topeka that morning, we prayed for God’s presence on our “journey of compassion and learning.”
Behind the barbed wire, we got acquainted by forming two circles, a group of TCF women on the inside, our chaplains and counselors on the outside. Each circle moved in opposite directions to music, and we walked with attitude, dancing, strutting, enjoying the feel of movement. When the music stopped, we paired with the women across from us, sharing answers to questions such as “What was your favorite pet?” and “What’s your favorite soda?”
As I moved in my circle, watching the faces of the laughing and smiling women moving past me, I wondered what could have landed them in state prison. Some looked young—so young—and others looked like grandmothers in my neighborhood. Some had meticulously applied make-up that morning; some had styled each hair on their heads to perfection.
Later, one-on-one, my partner, Deborah, was matter-of-fact when she told me about her second-degree murder conviction and her 19-year prison sentence. She bludgeoned a woman to death, but she never meant to kill her, she told me. The victim had “belittled” her repeatedly, and she sought retribution. When Deborah started beating her, however, something “let loose” inside her, and she couldn’t stop. Her anger at this woman, she said, had turned to rage.
I submit that, in that moment, Deborah tapped into not only anger at her tormentor, but also a longtime river of rage running furiously within her.
Deborah never denied her deed, she said. She is clear that it was wrong, and she articulately describes the consequences as children who lost a mother, siblings who lost a sister, a mother who lost a daughter. Deborah, of course, lost her freedom and contact with her own three children.
Thirteen years into her sentence, Deborah spoke of prior convictions as well. She had been a violent, “prideful” person. “Finding the Lord” at a prison worship service, however, changed her life. This time when she is released, she’s never coming back, she told me with resolution and determination. She wants to reconnect with her youngest son, who was raised by his grandmother, and she thinks about working at a prison to help inmates.
When we worked on a craft project together, Deborah was quick to find a chair for me. She called me ma’am. She waited, while I served lunch to the group, so we could eat together. And when my nametag fell off, she kept it for her bulletin board to remember our day together.
Before I went to TCF, “book learning” taught me that socio-economic and family contexts are related to crime. But, face-to-face with Deborah, I learned that, in the swirl of these complex realities, human beings—just like me—easily lose their way. Yes, we make our own choices, and we are undoubtedly responsible for those choices, but those choices can be heavily weighted by the forces of our life situations. There but for the grace of God go I?
When Deborah and I parted, I gave her the tightest hug I could. I see her face every day now, and I pray for her every night. Her release date—July 5, 2019—is on my calendar. My most fervent prayer is that it’s a true Independence Day for her.
* The inmate’s name has been changed to maintain confidentiality.
The TCF visit was organized and sponsored by American Baptist Home Mission Societies (ABHMS) as part of a three-day Chaplain and Pastoral Counseling Ministries mission outreach, training and networking event. For more information about ABHMS’ Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling Ministries, email email@example.com.
Susan Gottshall is associate executive director, Communications, ABHMS.
This story was originally published in August 2013.