A Lovely Gal
Contributor
Written by
Ann Lineberger
January 2019
Contributor
Written by
Ann Lineberger
January 2019

My godmother began corresponding with a "lovely gal" some years ago. 

"We're pen pals," she says in-between bites of a cheeseburger at a country club. "A priest organizes pen pals for the inmates in a jail in Montgomery."

"That's very kind of you," I respond. 

My godmother volunteers for a lot of organizations in her town in Alabama: church, school, teen center, food bank, soup kitchen, garden club, library,  community outreach mobile … A pen pal is a new addition to the list.

"She's terribly lonely," my godmother says as she dips a fry into a dot of ketchup. "I'm her only friend. Can you believe it? She's fifty-two and has no other friends?" 

"Not a one?" I ask as I cut into the Chicken Piccata on my plate.

"No," my godmother responds as she reaches for her glass of merlot. She takes a tiny sip, and as she returns the glass to the table, she gives her head a little shake. 

"Poor thing," she mutters. 

I nod while chewing.

"And most of her family is gone," she says. 

"Gone?"

"Dead. And she was an only child.” 

I nod again.

My godmother is susceptible to misfits. Bring her to a party, and within minutes she'll sidle up to an injured person sequestered in a corner and befriend her for the night. My godmother's drive is two-part: sympathy and companionship. 

I imagine the prisoner version to be an ideal companion: needy and captive. 

"She's a sweet gal," she says. "She volunteers in the prison library, she's an active member in the prison Bible study, and she mentors new inmates."

"You two share charitable interests," I note, wondering if early release is the prisoner’s motivation. It would be one of mine. I think of a dining room scene in a Woody Allen film where the naivety of a hostess is revealed when she invites an ex-con to dinner. 

"Yes, we do share the same charitable interests," she says with assurance. "I volunteer at the library, and I‘ve been in a Bible study group for over twenty years." She takes another bite of her cheeseburger while I try to remember how many pages are in the Bible. Twenty years, I think. 

"We’re very different - she came from a modest background and didn’t go to college - but we get along very nicely," my godmother says after swallowing.  "We're very similar. She’s very bright.”

I nod. My godmother is always surprised when people who aren’t formally educated demonstrate intelligence. Always!

“Must be all that Bible study,” I note. 

“We exchange letters weekly, and I’ve grown to look forward to them. She said receiving letters from me is the highlight of her week!” 

My godmother has a strong desire to be needed. Her parents were present but neglectful. Substance abuse played a role. And she might as well be an only child given the circumstances.

"You'd love her,” she blurts. “Absolutely love her!" 

My eyes widen at the prospect of getting roped into this arrangement.

"So why is she in jail?" I ask. 

The question appears to surprise my godmother. Her eyes dart around the room as if she is looking for an answer. 

"An accident," she says eventually, drawing out the word accident with a hint of mystery in her voice. 

Her voice drops to a whisper: "There was some sort of accident." 

"Accident," I repeat as the possibilities for a manslaughter conviction fill my head: Distracted driving, drunk driving, unattended children, …

"Yes, it was some sort of accident," she says as she reaches for her glass again and focuses on the task of lifting it to her lips. 

"What kind of accident," I ask. 

She takes a long, slow sip. 

"I don't know exactly," she says as a tiny hint of anger creeps into her voice. She places the glass back down with more precision than is necessary. She folds and then refolds the napkin on her lap. 

This conversation is starting to feel like a Murder She Wrote episode with an unreliable narrator.

"But you seem to know a lot about her," I say. "You know a lot about her life in prison."

My godmother studies me but doesn't respond.

"She's been working hard to make amends," she says finally. 

"Amends for what?" I ask. 

"It was an accident," she says shifting in her seat. “She’s going for an appeal.”

I decide to let it go at that. My godmother is either fighting a truth or trying to hide one from others. I'm reminded of Hyacinth Bucket, the pretentious middle-aged social climber of the 1990's BBC sitcom Keeping Up Appearances

I hope the priest was prudent in his matchmaking.

A year or two go by, and I hear nothing more about the prisoner pen pal until my godmother tells me one morning over coffee how frustrating she finds it to have everything, even the photographs she brings to the prison, searched. 

The word "photographs" rings like a siren in my head. In Truman Capotes’ In Cold Blood, a family is targeted by two ex-cons because of stories traded in prison of the imagined contents in a basement safe. In the first series of Nick Pizzolatto’s True Detective, a woman is targeted because of the stories her ex-boyfriend shared about her with his cellmate. My godmother takes lots of pictures of my kids.  

"They look for tabs of acid on the photographs," she explains. "People sneak them in that way.”

“I bet,” I say not knowing much about smuggling acid but having seen online how tiny and thin the tabs are. 

“Do I look like the kind of person who would do that?” she asks.  “It’s utterly ridiculous!” 

"I thought it was a pen pal relationship," I respond.

"It was,” she says. “But now I visit with Mary once or twice a month depending on my schedule. Each time I go, I'm thoroughly searched and so are the things I carry with me. I even have to pass through a metal detector."

"Those rules apply to everyone who visits a prison,” I say. “It’s not personal.”

My godmother lets out a loud harrumph and shifts in her seat.

"Why is Mary in jail?" I ask. 

"An accident," she says quickly and definitively. My godmother places her coffee cup down on a side table and scoots back on the sofa pressing her hands into it for support. She sits up tall.

"Yes, you mentioned that before," I say, holding my gaze on her. “What kind of accident?”

My godmother shifts her entire body away from me and to the right. Her line of vision moves with it. The act reads like a child who covers her eyes and believes she’s invisible. It’s clear I’m not the first person to reject “accident” as the full explanation.

I imagine my godmother bringing up the prisoner pen pal while doing activities such as potting plants for the Garden Club's annual Mother's Day sale or attending Bible study meetings. I imagine the immediate response of her friends followed by the more pointed, potentially revealing inquires.

"What kind of accident?" I press. 

"A push," she finally blurts. The force behind the words surprises me but only momentarily.  It reminds me. 

"A push," I repeat. 

"Yes," she says. My godmother's hand rises quickly, and in a spastic, fluttering gesture, she brushes away an imaginary object. "Something to do with some sort of push.” 

She returns her hand to her side. She looks back at me, challenging me. 

“I don’t see why it matters," she says. "Why does everyone ask me the same question? Mary is my pen pal." 

“It doesn’t matter to me,” I say, “unless you're bringing photos of my kids to the prison.” 

My godmother shifts in her seat again. She looks at me in the same way I suspect she eyeballs the corrections officer as he takes the photos of my children from her hand. 

“Are you?” I ask, my eyes narrowing.

My godmother sits silently. 

"So who exactly did Mary push?" I ask.

"Her mother," she spits.

"Her mother!" I repeat.

"They’d gotten into a fight over groceries. Her mother was always nagging her. Correcting her. Holding her to task." 

“Did she kill her mother?” I ask.

“Mary pushed her mother, and she fell.  She put her in bed to rest. Her mother died the next day.” 

I allow the new information to sink in. 

"So a fight over food leads to the death of her mother?" I paraphrase.

My godmother sits silently. 

"It sounds as if there was a lot of anger between them," I say. “A lot of resentment.”

“Mary said her mother was a drinker. Abusive.”

I don’t doubt it.  According to psychiatrists, matricide rarely happens where there isn't a strained relationship between the mother and daughter. Financial stress, substance abuse, and PTSD can fuel it. 

“That’s the problem with these cases,” Chandra Bozelko, a prison reform expert says. “They are cocktails of social problems. It's rarely clear-cut.” 

“Mary got mad and reacted. It can happen. It doesn’t mean she’s a bad person.” 

In 1994 when Susan Smith drowned her two young children because she was dating a man who didn’t want kids and the world demonized her, my godmother sympathized with her. 

“I’m a single mother, and I can understand why a single mother would kill her kids,” I overheard her say more than once in the presence of her children. It became a conversation starter for her. My godmother had no idea how insane she sounded nor did she note the alarm on the faces of those she was trying to convince. She thought her stance would elicit sympathy. 

Yes, I think, it could and does happen. 

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is a true crime account of the 1959 murders of a family by two ex-cons in Holcomb, Kansas. While researching the novel, Truman fell in love with Perry Smith, one of the two murderers. He said that he came to regard Perry as a version of himself. “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house,” Capote said to his best friend writer Harper Lee, “then one day, he walked out the back door, and I walked out the front.” Truman’s biographer Gerald Clarke said that Capote recognized in Perry "his shadow, his dark side, the embodiment of his own accumulated angers and hurts".

"She didn't mean for her to die,” my godmother says settling back on the sofa.  “It was an accident. Mary's a lovely gal.”

******

I recently had the good fortune to meet Chandra Bozelko. She's a Princeton graduate who became a journalist and prison reform activist after being convicted of a series of white collar crimes. Chandra maintains her innocence and continues to pursue appeals even though she served her sentence and most of her probation.

When Chandra was in prison, she started a diary and some of the entries appeared as a newspaper column. Since she was released in 2014, Chandra has been publishing the rest of the entries in a blog called Prison Diaries and has contributed over one hundred and forty articles to publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. She has her own nationally syndicated column. 

I met Chandra at the Connecticut Press Club Awards ceremony earlier this year. I introduced myself when I sensed she didn't know anyone in the room. Chandra has arresting blue eyes that register curiosity and caution in equal measure. They also register intelligence and kindness. 

The subjects Chandra covers range from dating with a rap sheet to the indignities inmates face in jail to an extensive reformation of the prison system. The night I met her at the awards ceremony, she was the recipient of eight awards, which was the most of anyone honored. Most of the subject matter Chandra covers is serious and difficult; there are no easy fixes. 

One of the headings on Chandra's website asks the visitor: Why should I care? Most people don't care about prison reform since it doesn't directly impact them, but we should. There are many flaws in the system, and it's extremely expensive. The estimated total annual cost of incarceration on the American taxpayers is one trillion dollars according to a Washington University study. It's those costs that were the primary catalyst to the December 21, 2018 passage of the criminal justice reform bill titled The First Step Act.

The Act builds on a prison overhaul bill that unwinds some of the tough-on-crime policies put in place in 1980 that have played a key role in the rise of mass incarceration in recent decades. According to the Brennan Center for Social Justice, the federal prison population has risen by more than seven hundred percent since the policies were established, and federal prison spending has increased by nearly six hundred percent.

Additionally, the federal mandatory minimum sentences were a catalyst for the recent surge of harsh prison sentences for non-violent crimes. Research continues to show that the stricter sentencing has done little to reduce crime and can increase the likelihood of people returning to criminal activity. These sentences disproportionately impact people of color especially African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos and those living in low-income communities. 

"I have many problems with the First Step Act," Chandra says from her home in Connecticut, "namely the carve-outs that tie a person's risk of reoffending to the severity of their crime. The two facts are not positively related like that. Still, to the extent that it is the first bill to bring some dignity and hope to the federal prison population, it’s passage is good for the country. Indeed, the law’s been effective within two weeks. Matthew Charles, a man who was released from prison in error and then sent back after living an exemplary life for two years, is back out, home and contributing to society again because of the law. That’s fast and that’s good."

******

To learn more about Chandra and her work, a Q&A follows or visit her website Prison Diaries

Q: Why do you write?

A: My writing is my 911 call. After seeing the effects of mass incarceration on individuals and society as a whole, I know we need to be rescued from it. I write to inform people about this threat to our principles and our pockets.

Q: When did you start writing? 

A: My alma mater, Princeton University, emphasized the importance of writing skill so I would say that anyone who attends Princeton started writing when he or she was a student there, regardless of their chosen profession. I didn't start writing for others until around 2010 when I was in prison and felt a need to explain what was happening to me to the world. I didn't start writing for money until I left prison in 2014. 

Q: How has writing helped you? 

A: Writing has helped me in many ways. For one, it was a legal escape from prison life. While other women were fretting or fighting in prison, I stayed to myself and wrote. I think it preserved whatever sanity I had left. Second, it gave me a certain freedom because I could be creative in my wording and the ways I told the story of what was happening. Lastly, writing has helped me because it's been the vehicle for my impact and the change I want to make in the world. 

Q: Do you have a goal with your writing? 

A: To change people's minds about people who are incarcerated. How we see people who are in prison informs all of our criminal policies. Changing how people perceive this population will translate into better laws for everyone.

Q: Who are a few of your favorite journalists?

A: I am a fan of bloggers and opinion columnists. I like Lisa Smith Molinari's "The Meat and Potatoes of Life" and Suzette Standring Martinez's spiritual columns. Dave Astor writes a blog on books and literature for Barista.net that I read. And I'm a big fan of Dave Lieber, the Watchdog, the consumer protection columnist at the Dallas Morning News. 

Q: What book(s) are you reading now? Or what is the last book you read? Who are a few of your favorite authors? 

A: I read mostly non-fiction. I wish I had time for fiction. The last book I read was Snitching by Alexandra Natapoff, which is about how prosecutors abuse due process in the ways they rely on informants. 

Q: Favorite book from childhood? And why? 

A: I was a big Herman Hesse fan in high school. I wrote term papers about his novels and read them for fun. Siddartha was probably my favorite. 

Q: What project are you working on that you are currently most passionate about? 

A: I just started as a columnist with Creators Syndicate. I will be writing a weekly column called "The Outlaw" about criminal justice. It's a chance for me to express opinions that probably wouldn't be featured in the publications I usually write for. 

Q: What article or book do you want to write? 

A: This is a hard question because I have so many. I want to write my memoir, which I know would take up several volumes at this point. I would like to write a novel and I'm working on a screenplay about women who come home from prison.

Q: Where do you write? Do you have an office? If so, what does it look like? How does it help you work?

A: I write in a home office. I'm lucky to have such a nice space within my house to do my work. I have a built-in desk that's quite large (it has to be because I'm a pen freak and I have about 15 jars of pens and pencils). I face a window so there's tons of light. 

Q: What advise would you give aspiring journalists? 

A: Write all day, every day. Writing is like a sport in that the more you practice the better you become. Waiting for a perfect story or topic or even the perfect time to write will leave you waiting forever. Get better now.

Q: Favorite movies and TV series?

A: Since my experience with the criminal justice system has affected my taste, I am a big fan of Orange Is the New Black and the HBO series The Wire. I watch The Wire repeatedly. The People Vs. OJ Simpson was also one of my favorites because that was the first event I can remember that alerted me to the criminal justice system. True crime series like Making a Murderer and The Staircase draw me in as well since I know so much about the insides of the systems that are being portrayed. 

Q: Do you have any pets? 

A: I don't have pets right now. Our family's dog, a pug named Arabella, lived exclusively with my sister when I was in prison. I always expected to see Arabella again but she passed before I could travel to see her. I guess I am still in mourning for her.

Q: What is a favorite memory from childhood? 

A: I enjoyed attending Hamden Hall Country Day School. As I get older I see what a great education I received there and how special it was to be part of a small, supportive community. 

Q: What's the best thing that happened to you last few years? 

A: The best thing that happened to me in 2017 was being accepted into the "Leading with Conviction" Fellowship at JustLeadership USA. I met 36 other fellows who had been through the criminal legal system and had rebounded and excelled. It was a long-awaited feeling of belonging that had eluded me for years. The best things that have happened to me in 2018 were winning the People's Voice Webby Award for Prison Diaries and getting my own nationally-syndicated column.

*****

If you liked reading this personal essay, please let me know. I'm working on a series of them (memoir and fiction) to be published in a book.  The ones I get positive feedback on will be included.

*****

Additionally, if you liked this essay, 

please check out my websiteShe Writes page, novels, and social media. 

Thank you for your time! 

Sunday Best  (2018) and The Adjustments (2016)

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