A life-changing story from a prisoner.
Phillip J. Seiler, Inmate E16869| September 2007 issue
I was shuffling across the parking garage of the Sacramento [California] County Jail in cuffed hands, shackled feet and an orange jumpsuit, heading toward the van that would take me back to San Quentin prison. On either side of me was a sheriff’s deputy. Another prisoner was already in the van. The meshed-steel dividers between the seats made it difficult to see him. Besides, he was wearing a big jacket with the hood pulled over his head, so I couldn’t see his face at all.
“Well, it looks like we’re going on a ride together.” No answer. After a few minutes, I said, “Wow, what a beautiful day for a ride.” Still no reply. Another couple of minutes later, I said, “Aren’t you hot in that jacket with the hood up like that?” What happened next was the beginning of a beautiful experience.
“I’m all right,” said a soft, high and innocent-sounding voice. It was a girl! My heart dropped into sadness. Here was a young woman, sitting in the back of a police van, cuffed and shackled, riding with a convicted murderer. Me.
What arose in me from this moment of sadness was an immediate decision to try to help her talk about her situation. I have been counselling and mentoring at-risk boys for almost 15 years through volunteer youth programs in San Quentin, so I felt I might be able to help her.
I told the young woman my name and situation. She told me her name was Bobbie. I made sure to be gentle, caring and careful with what I said, and after a while she started talking. She had just turned 16 and had run away from home and spent 20 days on the streets as a prostitute after a pimp got hold of her. Then she got arrested and spent eight days in the Sacramento County Jail.
She told me about her mom who got divorced years ago and about her skateboard friend Sam whom she really likes and how she wanted to be a kindergarten or preschool teacher. It wasn’t until Bobbie started sharing all this with me that she finally turned her head to look at me. She was a beautiful African-American girl who I could easily picture in a loving family portrait.
When she told me she had a boyfriend, the expression on her face instantly changed from happy and proud—talking about her mom, family and aspirations—to sad and fearful. “He’s 20 years old and hits me. He doesn’t allow me to hang out with my friends.”
“So,” I said. “You ain’t running away from your mom, but from your boyfriend.” Tears welled up in her eyes. “Listen, Bobbie,” I continued, “you are not stupid or wrong for how you are handling this situation. You are only doing what you have learned to do. There are different ways to deal with this situation.” I suggested we could talk them over if she wanted to. She did.
Bobbie said she had watched her mom getting beat by her dad for years. She also told me her boyfriend was a dope dealer and had been in prison a few times. He sits in his car in front of her house to make sure she doesn’t go anywhere without him. He had also threatened her friend Sam, telling him to stay away from her.
“What was the first thing your mom said to you when you called her from Sacramento?” I asked Bobbie.
“She asked if I was OK and she was crying.”
“So she didn’t yell at you. She didn’t tell you that you were stupid or wrong for running away. She didn’t hang up on you, or tell you that she was done with you. Nothing else mattered to her except that her little daughter, that she loves with all her heart, was OK. What does that tell you about your mom, Bobbie?”
“That she loves me no matter what.”
I described to her how much her expression had changed when she started talking about her boyfriend. Then I told her, “You’ve got to dump your boyfriend! Have your mom do what she needs to do—get a restraining order—to keep him away from you.”
Bobbie’s tears came again. She was in love with him, but knew I was right. “I know how much this must hurt,” I told her. “You love him and your heart is breaking. It’s all right; it’s important to feel the pain. You’ll get over it. You are a beautiful, smart, interesting, funny, caring, loving young woman! You deserve so much better than him… maybe Sam.”
From time to time, I glanced at the deputies, hoping they would not stop us from talking. But they left us alone. “You don’t have to have sex with Sam, or any other guy just because he’s nice to you on the first date, the first week or even the first month. Spend a long time dating the guy—to make sure he is always going to treat you with respect and kindness. Be a girl for a while. OK?”
“OK,” she said. “That sounds like a plan.”
We were getting close to the prison now. It was time to wrap up. “You watched your mom being beaten and abused by your dad. Now you are getting beaten and abused. You are going to have a baby with this guy if you don’t leave him. He’s gonna beat your child, maybe worse. Your little child is going to watch you get beaten. Then, guess what, she’s gonna pick a guy who beats and abuses her.”
I could see she was making the connection. “You have the power, right now, to stop that cycle,” I said. “You can eliminate that sadness and pain from yourself and from all the girls in your family who follow you. You will be known as the woman in your family who saved your children, and your children’s children. But first, right now, save yourself.”
Bobbie cried some more, but the expression on her face had changed from sadness to determination. The van was pulling up to the San Quentin gates. I asked her one quick question, “What are you going to do?” She had already told me that the deputies were taking her to Juvenile Hall, where her mom was going to pick her up. Bobbie said, “I’m going to give my mom a big hug, tell her that I love her and that I’m sorry for running away. And I’m going to ask her to please help me start making good decisions. I’m going to dump that guy and have my mom make sure he stays away from me. I’m gonna keep getting good grades in school, go to college and become a teacher.”
I had to get out now. I wish I could have kept talking to Bobbie, but I couldn’t. Before I had a chance to say anything more, she said, “I wish I could give you a big hug. Thank you for talking with me. I’m going to be all right now.”