“Our blunders become their burdens.”
- Amanda Gorman – The Hill We Climb
All I knew before our conversation was that Leesa’s crimes and incarcerations were a family affair. She signs our contract, leans across the table and grins for her picture. I read the phrase LIVE and LOVE tattooed in big swirly print across her cleavage. I can’t make out the tiny tattoo beside her left eye - maybe a gang symbol. Leesa’s curly brown hair is piled high on her head. I learn that two of her sisters have also been residents here. One is back in prison and the other in jail. Leesa has lived at Journey House for a month.
Let’s start with how you grew up, your backstory. Okay?
Sure! I am my mom’s first child. She was eighteen and, you know, back in the early 90’s, she and dad were so much in love. She didn’t use drugs yet, but later drugs became the life they lived and still live. Other than them, nobody in the extended family used drugs, except my grandfather who picked up a drinking problem in the army.
Drug addiction was not handed down from the older generations.
Right. The generational curse started with my parents who passed it down to their daughters. But not all nine of her nine children have drug problems.
Yep. I’m the oldest – twenty-seven. The first five of us with my father. Her last four have a different dad. Anyway, my mom and dad started experimenting with drugs and soon after went in and out of prison.
They caught drug charges. And lots of other charges...identity theft, robbery. You know, snatch a purse to steal an ID. They weren’t violent offenders. Back in the day security wasn’t very sophisticated and it was easy to rob stores and then sell the stuff. They never had real jobs. At one time the judge wrapped all my mom’s charges - forty-three felonies - into one big one.
So, a wad of charges wrapped together, not addressing each one as a separate, unique crime against a person or place.
Right. A blur of charges. But since I was never beat or molested or anything, I was totally clueless. Nobody explained anything to me. I didn’t put two and two together. Except I do remember the fences and bricks when I visited them in prison. My parents didn’t own their own lives - much less protect us kids. In fact, nobody taught me - what to do or what not to do. I was a free spirit. I didn’t consider my life at all and neither did anybody else. Eventually my parent’s rights were signed off. My grandmother took us into her house all by herself. Just one woman whose husband was drinking. When I was eleven, she was diagnosed with cancer. There was nothing they could do for her. She was fifty-two. It was just devastating. After that, my aunt and uncle took us. We moved and I went to a new school. I was placed two grade levels above my age in math. I was really smart in school, so I thought I knew everything. But I didn’t know anything. After a while my aunt and uncle forced on us that they knew what was best for us. They always wanted more out of me. They said my mom was bad and tried to cut me and two of my sisters off from her.
You felt pressure to fulfill something for your aunt and uncle, while they were cutting you off from your mom. Did you feel torn?
Exactly. After two years with them, right before I was fifteen, I got defiant. I thought “screw school.” I started smoking pot, but I never thought it would lead to what it did. I ran away a bunch of times and made contact with my mother. My aunt and uncle put out alerts for me. Missing child posters.
An amber alert?
Not quite a kidnapping but the cops watched my mom’s house night and day so I couldn’t be with her.
Where were you?
On the streets.
Literally sleeping there?
I started meeting new friends and that’s how I got into the life I got into.
Was there anybody else who was concerned about you? A school counselor or a friend’s mom or someone?
Nope! Not really. I started dating this guy, my first boyfriend, who is tattooed on my wrist. (Leesa shows me her tattoo—Trevor). My life took a very bad turn – my first really traumatic experience when I was sixteen. He was nineteen. One day he said, “I love you and I’ll be back,” and two hours later he was shot in the head and killed. A mistaken identity thing. I screamed, “No! I was just with him.” But then I saw it on the news. I had panic attacks. I totally freaked out, lost reality. I was immensely emotionally messed up. There were over two hundred people at his funeral. I got to kiss him. One of my friends gave me Xanax there and it blocked everything out.
Have there been other things in your life on that scale of trauma?
Well, I had been a free spirit, but pretty soon I started smoking and then shooting meth. It got me for over a decade. I was constantly high. I could stay awake, not eat, and hang out with people swept up in that criminal lifestyle. They were good people but they carried guns. People killing people. And then my friend’s mom got murdered when they shot her house up. Another friend got killed six months later. Killing kept happening even after I went to prison.
How many deaths over those 10 years?
More than twenty. Each as traumatic as the first. One minute it was friendship, or I love you, and the next moment they are gone forever. Meth caused it. I couldn’t cope. My sisters ran away from our aunt and uncle to live with me. I couldn’t keep a job. My criminal record actually started with breaking into houses when people weren’t home. I stole cars. It was a thrill. I thought the life style was what life had dealt me. It didn’t matter that much to me.
Did you feel a care-taking responsibility for your sisters?
Yes. But we were always in a dangerous situation. Wild and scavenging. We dropped out of high school. We saw our mother a lot. She was in the same boat as us. Ten years just flew by. We were always high.
How did they end up in prison?
My sisters’ crimes were stolen cars and traffic tickets and receiving stolen property. One sister has been in for 4 years and she’s only 24. My other sister is in jail on the way to prison. But I was incarcerated for a violent home invasion robbery. Actually, my mom and another guy and I did it together. In court, my mom was my co-defendant!
What exactly happened with the armed robbery?
We knocked on the door and went in and duct taped thirteen people, and then we robbed them.
Everybody? All thirteen of them?
Two were asleep and one was in the basement so there were ten.
How did you know how to do it, how to duct tape someone who was fighting back?
They didn’t fight back. They were totally intimidated by the guy with us. So was I. I don’t like to think about that too much.
Were the people physically harmed in a way that’s permanent for them?
No. But emotionally they probably are. I don’t know because I can’t have any communication with them. But I think about it a lot. I have a tendency to put myself in other people’s shoes. Sad to say I hurt all those people, but ultimately me going to prison saved my life. I have always been compassionate or had the ability to be, but instead I got caught up in doing drugs. I turned into the monster that I feared my younger sisters would get caught by. My biggest fear for my sisters was that someone would break into the house and rob and hurt them and then I did that very thing to someone else. I did it one time.
How did you get arrested? How did they know it was you?
They put surveillance on our house. The people we robbed knew one of us. I went to county jail and I was told I was being charged with three counts of armed robbery (ACA -Armed Criminal Action) and two previous counts for meth. I was in jail for thirteen months.
What was your jail experience?
Well... (sighs and waves her hand) I mean, I don’t know what to say. There was black mold hanging everywhere and the food was gross, but I had been in there so many times for stealing cars and robbing houses when no one was home and drug possession that I was used to it. Jail wasn’t the cleanest place, but if you have thousands and thousands of people coming in and out of there what can you expect? I hated the rules. I was very defiant. I got in a lot of trouble. They finally moved me to another county jail.
What are examples of getting in trouble?
Not listening to the rules. My friend and I got drugs smuggled in right after I first got there. We got in big trouble. I didn’t do that again. That was my first hole time. I got locked in the hole for sixty days.
The hole at the jail? Were you in there by yourself?
Yes. It was traumatizing. I am not the type of person who can be locked up in a tiny place. With nothing. Sit there and think. When I got transferred to prison at Chillicothe, I made a casual remark that I was going to hit somebody and a guard overheard me. They thought it was a real threat. I went into Ad-Seg (Administrative Segregation - the hole) for forty days there, too.
Were you really a threat? Were you going to do it?
No! Because I didn’t want to go to the hole, but I ended up going in there anyway.
What did you do in solitary that time? Did you have books or…
I had daily panic attacks. Horrible. Every night I had a dream that I wasn’t in the hole and then I’d wake up and I was in there. Dripping sweat. Pacing for four hours in that little cage.
Time in the hole doesn’t heal a person, but it does seem to have made you think, “I will do everything I can to stay out of here.”
Right. But it messed with my mental state really bad. Trapped.
Did you get mental health help?
No. Because when you are in the hole and you ask for mental health help, you have to wait until you get out to get any help and by that time, I didn’t need it anymore because I was out. I really don’t have mental health issues. I have never hated life so much I wanted to kill myself.
Am I right to think that initially, between your times in jail and prison, you accumulated a hundred days in the hole?
Yes. My brain took a long time to sort out and dry out, after so much drug use. But now, I have the four years of sobriety in prison plus thirty more days out here. Now I live sober in the free world!
So, you are finished being in the methamphetamine prison.
Yes, I am!
After those long, terrifying times in solitary did you ever get any real help in prison?
A couple of things help me. One was an Impact class I took called ICVC - Impact of Crime on the Victim. I had two very good facilitators who had been through it themselves. I mean, I didn’t really realize that I was hurting people just stealing cars. It was just a car. I was joy riding but, in fact, I was endangering and terrifying the whole community driving around, getting away fast. I hurt a lot of people - put fear in them.
People felt scared in their community knowing someone was stealing their cars and breaking into their homes. Their personal lives threatened.
Yes. I know I caused people to have night terrors and flashbacks and hyper-vigilance and constant fear.
What about the impact on you of doing it? It’s known that causing trauma also traumatizes the perpetrator, lodges in the nervous system.
Like I said before, I was just a free spirit. I didn’t consider my life at all and neither did anybody else. (Leesa spreads her arms.) My list of victims could fill this whole room and yet, at the time, I didn’t think I was hurting anybody.
So, maybe you didn’t feel much for the people you hurt because nobody in your life seemed to take responsibility or accountability for their own selves. Your own hurt and grief weren’t acknowledged, so it’s like a cycle.
Right. That’s it. A cycle. And with the drugs, it’s a cycle in a blur. Eventually, at Chillicothe, I got into a work-release program.
What’s the criteria for work-release?
Six months without any violations and only three petty violations. A petty violation is like… say my shirt was dirty and I borrowed somebody else’s shirt and I got caught with it. That’s a petty violation. My mental health score had to be one or two out of five. My security risk level had to be two or lower. When I first went in, I was a level five security risk but I worked it down to a two. Plus, I got my high school equivalency.
What was work release like?
Working in animal shelters - taking care of rescue dogs - was my favorite. I did parks crew, Mo-dot crew, highway clean-up and weed eating. Driving those riding mowers with zero turn radius was really fun and so was putting up Christmas lights for huge city park celebrations. Zillions of lights! They have beautiful parks in Chillicothe. They let us be around the regular visitors even though we had on prison uniforms. I watched all these families living real life. Fun and easy. Nothing at all like my life.
You saw other people are creating good lives.
Yes! I wasn’t sad to go back to prison and finish my sentence because afterward I could start a life like that. I want that. I want to make memories with people I love.
It seems that all of the things - ICVC and your experiencing of how people in families could live, and your brain being clean and maturing are major healthy factors in your life now.
For so long time nobody gave me consequences for my decisions. But, in prison classes I realized - I really did this and I am accountable for it. Back at the beginning, at my sentencing hearing, two people who were in the house we robbed testified against me. They told how I had terrorized their lives. The judge could have given me a fifteen-year sentence. In fact, it could have been forever. Each of my ACA charges could have been anywhere from 3 to 99 years. The armed robbery charges carry an option of ten years to life. But the judge wrapped my charges together. I think he knew I was suffering and childlike, that I hadn’t had any real time to grow up, that drugs deferred my brain. The judge told me, “Well, Ms (blank), I don’t think you are a bad person but you have been making really bad choices in your life. I don’t want to take your whole life away from you. Your sentence is 7 years, but you are not going to be in there that long. Hopefully, you can finish out some of your time on parole. That judge was very kind to me.
It sounds like he was really paying attention to you, that he cared about you and your future.
Right. I mean, he saw that I didn’t have anybody with me in the courtroom. I was alone. That affected him too.
Right. You said earlier that your mom was in prison with you.
(Leesa laughs.) She got a ten-year sentence for doing the ACA with me. She’s getting out in about three months. She served five years on it. She and my sister and me shared a cell. We were bunkmates.
How was that?
(Leesa shrugs) My mom kinda took care of me a little bit. She made us microwave food. It was a sort of friend type relationship. That’s about it. Now I am able to see forces both good and evil - angels and demons in my life. I have a sixth sense where I can tell when something bad has happened in a place. I see auras of people who have been hurt or murdered.
You believe there is a heaven and a hell?
Yes. I believe it. I’ve seen it. Lived it.
How does your spirituality affect your life today?
I believe in Jesus. Church is extremely emotional for me. I want to take my children to church when I have them, when I get on my feet.
Do you have children?
No! But when I do, I want to take them to church and sit down with them and take time with them and talk about stuff that nobody ever talked to me about.
It seems you’ve had a lot of action in your life but not very much contemplation, information, guidance…
That’s right. I had none! (Laughs) I plan to create a whole new future. I was a sweet little girl, but then I changed when they tore me away from my mom and grandma. I was grandma’s baby. Her first grandchild. She was always about me. She loved me and then I lost her.
I have definitely learned from you how a traumatized little girl can heal and thrive.
Thank you so much for talking with me. I think women find the most comfort confiding in other women. So many girls living here have been told all their lives - you are nothing and you will never amount to anything. But that’s the best part of us living together. We help each other to know that’s just not true. I like to brighten up the room everywhere I go!
The Drive Home:
Early in our conversation Leesa made references to external life forces arose that caused problems for her and others. “I caught a case.” “My grandfather picked up a drinking problem in the army.” “…people swept up in that criminal lifestyle.” Later in life she realized that her own poor choices were the culprit.
By becoming sober and involved in the ICVC classes, her internal needle moved more and more in the direction of accountability for herself. She articulated how she would teach accountability to her future children.
Long after my interview with Leesa, I met her mother who was a resident at Journey House. She was quite friendly and agreed to have an interview with me, but she did not keep our appointments. There was a string of unexpected complications, scheduling difficulties, forgetting, etc. AKA: accountability problems…
We never had a conversation but there was a tiny bright spot at the end, at least in my imagination. Right before our interview, she asked if I had talked with her daughter. I said I had. She looked down and said, “I am so very sorry, but honestly, I am just not ready to talk to you about all this yet.”
Perhaps her honest, no-excuses statement is a sign of hope.