I am Laura
It is Friday June 3, 2016 and the California Institute for Women is in full institutional lock-down. A homicide occurred in Harrison B, the unit next door to mine. Full lock-down is just that, no movement, no work or school, no recreation, no showers (the showers are located down the hall from our cells), no phone calls to family or friends.
My name is Bank Robber and I am close to the end of my near decade long sentence for a series of bank robberies. I committed the bank robberies after my home was illegally foreclosed on, during the financial crisis in 2009. I was dubbed “Bank Robber” in the very beginning of my incarceration by Correctional Staff. I was never called anything else by staff and inmates alike.
I am to be transferred this morning to a new program in the “free world” called Community to Custody Treatment and Re-entry Program (CCTRP) in Kearny Mesa. This program was implemented by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to ease overcrowding.
It’s been so hot this Summer in Corona. It’s the kind of dry desert heat that turns a small brick cell into a stifling hot oven during the daytime and a suffocating tomb at night. The hot air just hangs there and burns the inside of your nostrils when you inhale. Here, there is no AC or even ventilation. My “bunky” Jacque Puffer (who everyone calls Puffer and I sometimes call “Puff”) and I each have small clear plastic 9” fans tied with shoestrings to the metal at the end of our bunks. Puffer and I drench our state issued white sheets in the water from our tiny stainless steel-sink, turn our little fans on full blast and cover up for the night atop our 3” thick plastic mattresses.
Bank Robber, “Puffer you awake?”
Puffer, “of course I am, who can sleep in this heat?”
I hear Puffer flip over on her bunk, she has the much-coveted cookie sheet bunk as opposed to the dreaded squeaky and always saggy spring bunk. You must have connections in here to get the cookie sheet installed (a flat piece of metal across the top bunk) which luckily, I do.
Bank Robber, “Puff do you think they’ll take me tomorrow?”
Puffer, “Really hard to say, I heard they are not even taking medical appointments out, you know if they don’t take you, you’re gonna have to wait till next Friday. Your property will still be held in transfer?”
Bank Robber, “I know, you know what Puffer? I don’t really wanna go.”
At this remark Puffer sits straight up in her bunk above me, the cookie sheet creaks.
Puffer “Banks what the hell is wrong with you? I would do anything to get out of here and see my kid again. Lil Blue was just murdered night before last, they didn’t even find her body till they popped the doors for chow in the morning. We literally heard her girlfriend screaming for help all night long, fucking Tang (the unit Correctional Officer) was asleep with his headphones on in the cop shop! Oh, and don’t forget our scenic escort to chow when we were marched right passed her dead body lying there in the hallway cold. You remember that huh Bank Robber? You wanna fuckin stay in this hell, what’s wrong with you?”
I could hear Puffer take a deep breath, and exhale with a sigh of disgust.
Bank Robber “No I hate this place too Puffer, I’ve dreamed of getting out of here every day.”
Puffer, “Then why, why would you want to stay another day in this place?’
Bank Robber, “Well um, it’s just I don’t wanna leave you guys here is all.”
At 0930 hours I am processed out of CIW put in shackles headed for San Diego CCTRP. I look over my shoulder one last time with a heavy sadness, a sadness so profound that my spirit still bears a scar from that day. I leave, my friends, I leave them there behind the razor wire, brick walls, with constant cruelty and violence to fend for themselves.
When I arrive at CCTRP I am processed in by a CDCR parole agent, Agent Holmes. I am told he will be my in-house parole agent while I serve the remaining ten months of my sentence. The shackles on my hands, waist and ankles were removed an hour earlier but my wrists and ankles still bare the indentations and redness of a three-hour transport with them on. I walk down the long hallway, the tile shines in my face from constant cleaning and waxing, I must squint my eyes. I am wearing a blue polka-dot state issue muumuu (this is the standard women’s prison uniform for transport in CDCR custody).
Other women begin to whisper and point at the other end of the hallway. More women gather wearing the same black ankle monitor that had just been strapped to me by a parole agent. I notice they are wearing what we on the inside refer to as “free-world clothes” not a state inmate uniform. Then I heard 2 or 3 girls shout, “Bank Robbers here!” “Bank Robber it’s me!” They wave frantically from down the hall, a split second after that, the women are approached and are told by a well-groomed African American man who appears to be in his early fifties with fine chiseled features, wearing a sport jacket and tie to “be quiet and return to their groups.” They comply immediately and without question.
This same man now approaches me. The conversation follows, “Welcome to CCTRP, my name is Roland Bryant. I am the director here at CCTRP, what is your name?’
I responded, “Nice to meet you Sir. My name is Bank Robber.”
It sounds almost silly now, but this is what I had been called for close to a decade. I was called this by Staff, Correctional officers, volunteers, my peers, other inmates alike. I referred to myself as the same eventually.
Mr. Bryant, “No, that is not your name. What is your real name?”
Bank Robber “That is my name sir.” I was serious.
Mr. Bryant, “You have a name, a government name, a name on your birth certificate, what is it?”
Bank Robber, “I do not go by that name, you can call me Murray if you like.”
Mr. Bryant, “I would like your first name Please.”
Me, “My Name is Laura.”
Mr. Bryant, “There, now that wasn’t so bad was it?
I did not respond. I thought to myself, “Does this guy not know who I am, is this some kind of joke?”
Mr. Bryant, “Here’s the deal Laura. From now on you will use your name Laura. You are not to use the name Bank Robber anymore, and neither is any other resident in this facility. If you or anyone else is found to be using the name Bank Robber there will be severe sanctions. Do you understand, do I make myself clear Laura?”
I had one thought, “I wanna go back to prison, I wanna go back right now.”
I shake my head up and down in compliance without saying a word, the tile dances and gleams under my feet.
Mr. Bryant then said “Great, nice to meet you Laura, I’ll be keeping an eye on you.”
Mr. Bryant then straightens his tie, brushes a piece of lent off the bottom corner of his jacket, cocks his shoulders back. With long strides and the confidence of a man that has just laid down the law in his own house, he turns on his heel and strode down the hallway. He disappears across the red-tape line that we are never to cross without a staff escort and turns down another hallway out of sight. I hear the clunk of a push-bar on a heavy metal door and the soft hush of a spring as it closes. I am still standing here in the hallway as if the slick tile has turned into a solid block of ice. To which I am now rendered immobile, frozen to it. I am desperately trying to wrap my head around what has just happened.
I plead with Agent Holmes (who bears a striking resemblance to George Clooney) daily to send me back to prison. The agent listens sympathetically, with his head cocked to the side of his computer screen, and smiles. His response is always the same “Murray just give yourself a chance, just try it please, try something different.” I finally settle in a little. My visits to the agent’s office are becoming rare.
One of my roommates (Sarah Delgado) approaches me “I can’t stand social studies I just don’t understand it; do you think you could help me figure it out?”. She knew I had been a teacher’s aide on the inside, I agree to help her. Another person (Megan) who was taking a basic college writing correspondence course ask if I can help her with a report on Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, one of my favorite books.
Tutoring begins, yet the problem is finding a time and place. CCTRP is a behavioral modification model of treatment and great emphasis is put on re-programing. Going from group to group all day long. Things like anger management, co-dependency, domestic violence groups, etc. It’s really mind- numbing for me, no critical thinking involved. The groups are mandatory, they go from 7am to 7pm with breaks in between for lunch, dinner and medication for some. Tutoring must be done before lights out at 9pm, or 11pm on weekends. Then the noise, constant yelling and screaming echoing through the hallway and off the walls, it’s very hard to focus. The only place to go is the chow hall which is always freezing and out of bounds (sanctions are given for being out of bounds) for us at night.
Here we are, with our sweats on, teeth chattering, heating hot water up in the micro-wave to keep warm every night. We go over high school social studies, history, and writing a critical review on Kafka. A month and a half passes, we study almost every night. Meagan finally got her review of Kafka’s book back, and comes running down the hallway to me, waving her paper wildly “I gotta an “A”, I can’t believe I gotta an “A”, can you help me with Shakespeare pleaseeee?” Sarah Delgado came back from her HiSET (High School Equivalency Test) pre-test in social studies with a 7-point higher score than before, she sees her hard work paying off. Her enthusiasm is priceless; I want to cry for her, and yell, “Yes you’ve found the key, the key that can open so many doors for you now!” But Bank Robbers don’t yell or cry. I settle for a smile and a pat on the back for Sarah.
Studies continue, now I am helping four students. One night it is late, we both hear keys, we snap our heads toward the chow hall window into the hallway. We often turn out all the lights inside the chow hall and study by the light from the hallway, as to remain undetected at night. It is Suzy the education coordinator at CCTRP. Suzy has returned after hours, she forgot something in her office. She now glares at us through the giant hallway window. Suzy was young but strict, she thrust open the door to the chow hall.
Suzy: “What are you two doing in here, you’re out of bounds and its past lights out?”
Sarah quickly speaks up sensing we are in trouble, “She’s helping me with school”
Suzy “Both of you get your things, get back to your quarters immediately.”
Sarah, “Suzy, are we gonna get a write up, we aren’t really doing anything wrong?”
Suzy, “I’ll let you know tomorrow.”
We both scurry back to our rooms. We do not dare look over our shoulders or say a word to each other as we beat a hasty retreat down the hallway. Suzy’s glowering gaze follows us.
The next morning a staff monitor tells me to wait at the red line (this always means trouble). Suzy wants to talk to me. Without question I go to the red-line down the long glossy hallway and wait anxiously. Finally, Suzy comes out and leads me to her office and ask me to sit down.
Suzy, “How long have you been helping Delgado with her studies? Are you helping other girls?”
I have the attitude of someone incarcerated for a long period of time, I stare blankly back at her not answering. “Holding your mud” is what we say on the inside call it.
Suzy continues “Listen, you’re not in trouble Laura, I was just wondering because certain people’s test scores have improved. I’m thinking you have some effect on this.”
I chime in, “Well yeah Its been about two months, Delgado, Jackman, Sanchez, and Foster, I just spend time with them and explain, It’s not about being smart or dumb, but about the effort you put in. I make studying fun, and relatable. They put in the effort, the work is theirs”.
Suzy responds, “Huh, well what’s your deal anyway Laura?”
Being older and having the past I have, nobody ever really asks me this. They and myself included just figure I have no bright future, that my dreams have somehow expired. Rehabilitation, time, and resources is best spent on a younger population.
I tell Suzy I wanted to finish the undergraduate degree that I had started in 1980 at Palomar Community College. That more than anything I want to finish it at San Diego State University. I told her “I want to be an Aztec”. That I have fought and advocated for myself to be transferred to San Diego CCTRP, when I had my committee hearing for placement with the Warden. I was denied twice, and the Warden sent me back each time with a stern warning “Maybe a couple of more weeks in here will make you more open to where we suggest, like Fresno or Bakersfield.” Little did she know that after the time I had already done I could do two weeks standing on my head. Plus, I have a heartfelt longing to return to San Diego.
Though I have not lived in San Diego for almost 15 years I dream of it over and over. I grew up in San Diego in North County between the back country and the ocean. My dreams while incarcerated were of fond childhood memories. Surfing at Beacons Beach feeling the sun and salty spray of the ocean on my face; I could taste the saltwater. Riding my metallic purple Schwinn Stingray bicycle through the back country, with my little fox terrier racing beside me barking like crazy; I could smell the dry sagebrush and eucalyptus trees that enveloped me. The memory of this dream would stay with me throughout my day. I thought it strange that out of all the places I lived, the only place I was ever free, was in my dreams of San Diego. I hear there is going to be a new CCTRP, and it will be opened in San Diego. I am not even eligible to apply yet, but I know that this is my fate, my moment of serendipity, I am going to return to the only place that makes me content and untroubled, San Diego.
The next day Suzy again summons me to her office. She says she thought about me last night. She is an alumnus of SDSU and she has reached out to a Professor over there. The Professor is the director of a program called Project Rebound. He teaches criminal Justice, and he has an interest in me. She explains that Project Rebound helps the formally incarcerated to gain admission into the CSU system, SDSU in my case. I feel a slight shift or tremor of hope stir inside me at this moment, it was barely discernable. I kind of like the feeling one gets when waking up after a troubling dream, with the relief its only a dream. I quickly dismiss it.
Suzy ask where I am in the CCTRP program, there are phases from 1 to 4. I was a phase 2 (under custody staff supervision when off premises) and am content with this (The outside world is terrifying to me there is too much going on out here. Every time I go out, I want to come right back and lock in). Suzy explains that I need seven more classes, 2 to complete my golden four and the rest for my impaction criteria by Spring of 2017. Mesa College is a mile away from the program and it is possible for me to attend, but I need to phase up; it’s now the end of September.
Suzy looks at me intensely,
“it’s not going to be easy Laura, that’s 19 units of all the classes you never wanted to take”
“You will have to toe the line in here, take initiative, start participating and leading groups.”
“I will be very difficult for you, you have to want this, is this what you really want?”
I am thinking of all the years, all the time I have wasted, and of my dear friends I left behind, “Yes, it is”, again with resolve, “Yes, it is.”
Suzy says she will advocate for me in the phase-up promotion panels once a week. Then she says something else to me, something that no one has said to me in many years, so many years that I have given up on ever hearing it again. I am walking out of her cluttered office past a chatty line of girls impatiently waiting to speak to Suzy, switching from one foot to another,r popping their gum loudly, and I hear Suzy say,
Suzy, “I believe in you, I believe you can do this.”
All I can manage is a nod of agreement at this moment. I cannot understand or comprehend someone saying this to me. She might as well have said “Laura you are going to be a Rockstar”. I am torn between my thoughts now,
“Doesn’t she know my past? Where I come from, that theres no hope for me? That my future is bleak at best?”
Or, “Maybe, just maybe I can resurrect and bring back to life a goal that had long been discarded. Taking with it my hope as well. Can I dare allow myself to dream again, is this possible? Naw, still too soon I think.” Still the words put an unfamiliar lump in my throat. Like the kind you get after hearing how somebody comes back against a million to one odds and triumphs in a heartbreaking story.
Suzy allows me to call Professor Mobley, the Professor at SDSU. I awkwardly introduce myself after the Professor request my transcripts from Suzy,
Professor Mobley, “Hi Laura, I understand you are still in custody, but are allowed to attend school?”
I respond, “Yes Professor, I am registered at Mesa College now.”
To which he responds, “I am not trying to discourage you but the average entrance GPA at SDSU is 3.7 as you know you are far below that. I’m going to need you to do exactly as I ask if I’m to advocate for you. However, it’s not fool proof, just in case you must also apply to other schools.”
My heart sank like an anchor being launched off the stern of a large vessel, spiraling down to its depths. SDSU is the only school I want to go to, I want to protest, “but San Diego State is where I belong, it’s my destiny!” Instead I listen quietly and write down his instructions word for word.
Professor Mobley, “You are going to have to work fast; this is a Hail Mary Laura. You need to make the best grades you can possibly make in 19 units, you need letters from Professors at Mesa. The application for next Fall opens on October 1st, apply on that day. You need to keep your eye on the prize, I’ll be in touch.”
I quickly follow all the professor’s instructions to the letter. I email my professors at Mesa and explain my plight; I get the letters. What little free time I have I spend studying. I attend the program’s basic groups and continue to tutor. When the lights go out at 9pm I read by the light of a small flashlight under my blanket, so I don’t wake-up my 2 roommates. I am not allowed any currency or electronic devices including cell phones (this is considered contraband and a violation of this, is grounds for program termination, meaning you get returned to prison that day) while out of the house except for a basic MP3 player with music. I listen to Macklemore “Can’t Hold Us” while I quickly walk the mile and a half to school and back every day.
When it rains I must cover school projects and my backpack with a trash bag since, raincoats and umbrellas are not provided by the State program. The only car I am permitted to ride in; is the parole agents, and any deviation of this will also cause me to return to prison. I am searched when I leave and again upon my return from school. The parole agent also comes to school at random times to “check on me” his badge and bullet-proof vest is concealed. He wears a baseball hat, sunglasses and a back-pack to blend in. I see him passing through the throngs of students. Like a shadow only visible to me. I have 15 minutes to walk to school and back. If I am late my pass to school is revoked permanently. Going to a Professors “office hours” are unthinkable.
I apply reluctantly for Cal State Fullerton, Cal State San Bernardino, Chico State (I am quadruple legacy from there) and of course my beloved SDSU. The first two send rejection emails early in 2017, I’m okay with that. Then Chico State needs more paperwork, but it’s looking hopeful. I am still checking my web portals constantly, and still working hard at Mesa. In March I receive the rejection from San Diego State. I email Professor Mobley and thank him for all his help and the opportunity. The following ensues,
“I understand it's just the best school ever and I’m not the only one that thinks this.” The last sentence of my email reads,
Professor Mobley, although never reflected through his emails, is a very empathetic man. Driven by his passion for restorative justice and the formally incarcerated; he responds,
“Their reason for denial is not academic, you can and will appeal.”
I respond, “On what grounds do I even base it on?”
Professor: “You are formally incarcerated, an underserved population. I will expect your appeal faxed to me this afternoon.”
No time for a pity party I think, I will write the appeal with little hope and I do that day.
I parole to a Parolee program on April 14, 2016, Good Friday. My ankle monitor is cut off by the parole agent. My friends’ blast Pharrell’s “Happy” on the boom box upon my exit. I make my way down the hallway that appears dull and worn to me now. I must go straight to school. I have an Astronomy final today. I’ve been up all night; my eyes are blurry and sting. I have two plastic bins full of all my belongings on a hand cart which I must put in the trunk of my classmate’s car. She paroled the week earlier; she is picking me up and dropping me off at school. I am handed two hundred dollars and my FAFSA money which CCTRP takes from me when issued, and a large white envelope which I quickly put in my back pack without thinking. l have no cell phone, and no idea how to use one. I take my final in Astronomy and head for the bus feeling very untethered and out of sync. I pick up a cell phone from the Metro PCS store and tell the clerk I lost my glasses. He does me favor and calls my parents number for me. For days all I can do is answer the phone, I don’t know how to dial out.
I sit at the bus stop in front of the Metro PCS store and pull the large white envelope out of my overflowing backpack. A Professor from Mesa gave it to me. The envelope contains my offer of admissions from Chico State. It has instructions on how to accept admissions, along with a banner that reads “Go Wildcats!” and an orientation schedule.
I now live in a parolee program on what is known as the four corners of death. It is the divide between two rival gang’s territories. I must be careful not to “fly” red (Bloods) or blue (Crypts) colors when picking out my clothes for the mile walk to the trolley station on Euclid. I take a trolley, then transfer to another trolley, and a bus from Old Town to a stop near Mesa College. I leave at 6:30 a.m. it takes me two and a half hours to get to Mesa College and the same to return on the last trolley at 11: 34 p.m. I now have a job on the weekends. The semester ends, and the tally is 2 A’s, 4 B’s, and a C in Statistics. The stats class is a big win, prior to that I only had two weeks of Jr. High Algebra. I have talked a counselor Mesa into getting on the computer and waving all the pre-requisites with a sworn oath of secrecy, and a promise to pass. I’ve kept my word.
Professor Mobley calls my parents up in Northern California, they give him my cell phone number. I am elated to hear from him. I tell him I passed every class even statistics. He asks if I’ve heard anything “No, but I was accepted at Chico State.” I am going up for my orientation on July 22nd and am planning to transfer parole up there”. He asks if I am still interested in SDSU? “Of course, I am, and if I have a snowballs chance in hell that’s where I still wanna go!” I heard a faint chuckle from the man who seldom expresses emotion. Then he parted with his signature “I’ll be in touch.” I still have never met professor Mobley. He shows so much commitment and resolve advocating for me, but does so with so little sentiment. I find him to be very aloof yet enigmatic.
I attend my Chico State orientation with my 86-year old Mother. I drive back humming the Chico State fight song in the car. I return to the four corners of death. I am organizing my affairs for the move to Chico. My parents say they don’t mind me going to Chico State. They are truly happy for me but “You can’t live here with us dear.” Mother says. Wreckage of the past, I understand. I go to work in Del Mar, and to the gym every day. I stop checking my web-portal.
I am at my gym on 54th street, it’s called Planet Fitness. It’s down the road from the four corners of death. It’s in the same parking lot as a methadone clinic, Mr. Bubbles laundry mat, and DD’s Discount store, it is a 24-hour gym. It is now July 25th and it feels very muggy outside there is no breeze in the air. Its late by the time the bus drops me off, but I have a productive hour-long cardio session. By now I have learned how to navigate my cell phone, at least for the basics. I check my phone as I walk into the deserted locker room. Its an email from SDSU I think, “Jeeze, why are these people bugging me, I get it I didn’t get in, it’s okay.” It keeps asking me to update my emergency contact information. Now I’m annoyed, “Why does this even matter?” I think. Then it says, “you have unread messages on your web-portal.” I will check it just to clear it I think to myself, so I log in.
Under my admission status it says “Admitted” where before it said “Denied”. I feel as if I had just been launched into outer-space. Another message “Your appeal has been granted, welcome to San Diego State University.” A letter from the SDSU President welcoming me. I am sitting in this empty locker room at 10:30 at night, next to my open locker, on a fake cold black marble slab reading these emails over and over. I am thinking of all the wasted days sitting in a prison cell, all the hard work and effort, where I’ve come from, and again the friends I left behind. I begin to quietly cry for the first time in 10 years. All at once it hit me, I think to myself “I am home, I am finally home, I am an Aztec, an Aztec for life.”
I am a Senior, a double major in Criminal Justice and Sociology. I am a Teachers Aide, in both my fields of discipline. I am the president of the Project Rebound Student Alliance. I am a member of the Criminal Justice Student Association. Both the Criminal Justice and the Sociology Honor Societies. I am also a member of the National Society for Leadership and Success. I participated in this years Student Research Symposium, my sponsor is of course the stoic and loyal Professor Mobley. SDSU is sending me to Atlanta in November to present this same research at the American Society of Criminologist Conference at a roundtable. Professor Mobley will also be there with his unwavering support as my advisor and a Criminal Justice Professor for SDSU. I make the Dean’s list every semester and hold a 4.0 in both fields.
I sit in the front of the class, I participate, I volunteer. I am no longer relegated to the margins of Society, no longer an outcast, and I appreciate that. I still encourage and tutor my sisters who follow behind me, for I am my sister’s keeper. I have a voice, I speak whenever I can, at the Peace and Justice Summits, lower division Sociology classes, community colleges. I speak about mass incarceration, social injustice and reform, education instead of incarceration, the future of children with incarcerated parents, and about our broken justice system. I speak for those who lost their voices long ago. For those who will never receive the opportunity that I have been given. I speak for someone who took the time to believe in me.
I am walking from class and see my department advisor walking in the same direction as me. I hustle to catch up to her and thank her for signing off on my upcoming trip to Atlanta for the conference in November.
I begin, “Professor Ryan thank you so much for signing off on my trip.”
Professor, “Oh you are welcome Laura, it’s a win/win trip for the school too.”
Professor Ryan then introduces me to a new adjunct professor, “Laura I’d like you to meet Professor Kim.”
Professor Ryan: “Professor Kim, Laura here is our Rock Star in the CJ department.”
At that moment I felt such a shift in my salient identity so great that it feels like the locks of the Panama Canal opening and closing into place inside of me, “Did she just call me a Rockstar?” I thought to myself.
I shook the new professor’s hand, “Nice to meet you Professor Kim, my name is Laura”. I smiled to myself and walk to class.