“Laying Roots” Feedback

For our readers who did not receive last week’s email, we’ve reposted it here. Also, for those who have been asking when the next portion of Robin’s essay will be posted, the answer is: Wednesday, March 2nd. We are happy to have received this kind of response from our readers, and hope that it continues. Thank you.

Hello CLTL Supporter,

We at “Changing Lives, Changing Minds,” which is the Changing Lives Through Literature Blog, recently received a very moving piece of writing from a woman serving a fifty-year sentence at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, CT. The author, Robin Ledbetter, was convicted of felony murder at fourteen years of age and subsequently sentenced to fifty years in prison just months before her eighteenth birthday.

The judge who handed down the lengthy sentence did so citing that her upbringing suggested future jail time; he was preventing further crimes.Robin is now twenty-nine and is seeking relief from her sentence.

After hearing about CLTL from her attorney, Robin wrote to co-founder Bob Waxler and included a memoir piece she has worked on for some years. Robin’s voice is touching, her thoughts and writing compelling, and we are honored to be sharing her piece, “Laying Roots,” on the CLTL blog in a two-part series.

We encourage that you read and reply to Robin’s piece with a comment; we replied to her letter, and look forward to sharing your words with her as she fights for justice from behind bars.

Thank you,

Changing Lives, Changing Minds

https://cltlblog.wordpress.com/

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“Laying Roots”

Robin Ledbetter is a twenty-nine year old woman who is in the process of serving – and is attempting to seek relief from – a fifty-year sentence at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, CT. In hopes of sharing her story with our audience, Robin wrote to CLTL co-founder Bob Waxler and included a memoir piece she has worked on for some years. Robin’s voice is touching, her thoughts and writing compelling, and we are honored to be sharing her piece, “Laying Roots,” here on the Changing Lives, Changing Minds blog.

Because of the length of this piece, “Laying Roots” will be published here in two installments. This is the first of two.

I wake from my sleep stiff and groggy. When I try to lift my head, it feels heavy, too heavy. My neck is sore. I lay flat on my back on the bed. I feel confused – unsure of where I am and how I got here. I try to swallow, but my throat is burning. As my eyes adjust to the dim light in the room, I stare up at the graffiti tagged ceiling. I close my eyes, shift my head to the right and open them again. I see a heavy door with no doorknob and a large, filmy window. The paint on the dory is peeling, revealing institutional gray metal. Random writing and doodles scar its surface. Outside of the window, a man sits, watching me. His white face is unfamiliar. When he notices that I am looking at him, he shifts in his seat and lazily picks up a clipboard. He starts writing something. I turn my head slowly to the left and scan the room. The walls are a faded shade of lilac. There’s one small light covered in thick Plexiglas at the base of the wall facing me. In the corner to the left, a metal toilet-sink combination and a window covered in a heavy screen and more Plexiglas. Its dark outside and I have no idea what time it is. I close my eyes and face the ceiling.

I recognize this room. I have been here many times before. The paint has changed and the writing on the wall is difference, but it’s the same room – the same locked door sealing me into another cell in the mental health unit. As I lay here, trying to recall the details of what brought me here yet again, images replay in my mind.

“Ledbetter, you ready for your shower?” a voice crackles over the intercom in my cell.

“Yes,” I reply simply.

Click… the door pops open.

I gather my things: a homemade wash rag torn from the end of my towel, the remainder of the towel to wash and dry my body, indigent soap and shampoo, and a new pair of red scrubs – the official issued uniform in restrictive housing. I also bring a torn, frayed piece of sheet that I had ripped from my bedding.

When I get into the shower stall, I lay my things on the tub.

“You got fifteen minutes, Ledbetter,” Officer Deon says over the intercom. I feel a twinge of guilt because he’s a good guy overall, and I don’t want to subject him to such a gory scene, but he’ll be all right. Things will be better this way. I sit for a few more minutes, reassuring myself that this is the only way for me and everyone else.

“Things will be better this way,” I saw aloud to myself.

I just can’t do it anymore. I don’t cry; I just sit until I am ready.

I say a little prayer, and then I tie the sheet around my neck and knot the other end. I stand on the edge of the bathtub, shut the knotted end in the top of the door, take a deep breath, and jump. The sheet is digging into my neck and squeezing the breath from my lungs. I can feel my feet kicking at the door and my toes sliding back and forth across the tiled floor. My hands are clawing at the wall, hoping for something to ease the weight crushing my neck. My face feels as if my features are bulging. I hear my name, but it seems far away. A low hum is rolling through my ears. I’m starting to see spots. I start to panic and fight for some leverage.

I’m suddenly afraid to die…

The next thing I remember is being in the medical unit. There is a swirl of guards and medical staff coming in and out, talking and looking at me. I’m crying and jumbling my words. I’m angry that they saved me, yet relieved. Then both emotions dissolve into overwhelming sadness. I’m stripped and fitted into a safety gown made of some foreign weighted material. I sleep…

Tears run from my eyes when I think of that night. It’s not the first time I have tried to kill myself, or the first time someone came just in the knick of time. I am alive and I don’t really want to be. I have nothing to live for. I have a life sentence. Well, a fifty-year sentence without the possibility for parole – and that might as well be a life sentence.

I will never leave this place and the thought of that forces any sliver of hope out of me.

***

I have been in jail for twelve years: I came here when I was fourteen years old. I haven’t ever lived, and now I’m supposed to live in jail for thirty-eight more years? I’ll be sixty-four years old when I get out, what can I possibly do with my life then? All of my family will be dead. There won’t be anything left out there for me. What am I going to do? Get a job? Get an apartment? Finally have some kids? It makes me laugh to even think of it. I wouldn’t even know where to start.

I was tossed away by the system when I was just a child and told I wasn’t work a second chance.

I recall a conversation I had with my appellate lawyer:

“Robin, I was reading your PSI and what is says troubles me. I can’t believe that they viewed your case that way. How did you feel when you read it?”

“I haven’t read it. That’s the ‘pre-sentencing investigation’ right?” I ask, “Why, what does it say?”

“Well, it basically says that with your family history and all the trauma and things you have endured, he recommends a lengthy sentence because you’d be in prison at one point or another. Your family history shows that prison was eventually in your future, so giving you a lengthy sentence will prevent further crimes.”

***

I lay on my back, staring at the ceiling, my quiet tears trailing down the corners of my eyes and into my hair – I need to change my thoughts. Na-na Loves John 4-eva is scrawled on the ceiling and I try to focus on the pencil markings and empty my mind of all other things, but I can’t. I know that I am more than a career criminal. This was my first time in hail – except for some time in juvie for joy riding.

I was young and I messed up.

I agreed to steal some money – to rob a taxi cab driver. I needed money. I was homeless and had no family support. I was too young to get a job, and on the streets your options are limited. Basically, there are three choices: sell drugs, sell yourself, or rob people. Drugs destroyed my gamily, it ruined my parents; I could never push that poison. I would never sell myself; the fear of rape and HIV eliminated that option. So, the alternative was robbery.

No one ever got hurt during a robbery – or so I thought. My father had talked about pulling off robberies whenever I saw him as a kid. Never once did he speak of anything going wrong. He romanticized it. I can remember, during one of his visits, he drew me a map of a mall he had robbed. There was a smile on his face. I remember his laugh as he recalled falling in his attempts at escape. I remember the far off look in his eyes when he talked of bloopers in his criminal acts

He never, not once, warned me or spoke of the risk. And there was risk. It never occurred to me that a robbery could go wrong, except for maybe in the comical ways that my father spoke of. It never occurred to me that someone could die, even after we armed ourselves with weapons.

It was just to scare the cabbie into giving us the money – that’s what we told ourselves, and we honestly believed it. That shows you the naiveté of two teenagers.

I remember when I found out our victim had died. I didn’t really understand the concept of death. I mean, I did know that when you die, you were buried and gone forever – but I didn’t understand that all life stops. That your family stops, that there is a pain of loss in children when parents have been snatched away, that there is devastation when a parent loses a child – that there is ripple effect in a community and there the value of a life cut short.

I didn’t appreciate my own life. I had been abused my entire life, so I didn’t value that life. I cared nothing for myself. My self-esteem and self-worth were shattered.

I could not fully understand the value of another human life if I couldn’t my own.

Annual Training: Where Are We Going and Where Have We Been

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

The past two weeks, as many of us followed the struggle of the Egyptian people, we have seen replayed on our television and computer screens the power of a good idea.  Twenty years ago, Changing Lives was born from a good idea, and since then that idea has continued to inspire hundreds of practitioners and thousands of graduates.  We’ve developed new programs and expanded our concepts, extending our reach to men and women across the U.S. and spawning the vibrant Stories Connect program in England.  As we gather together this March, we hope to reflect on where we began and where we are going, to celebrate our successes and share good books with good friends.  As we usher in the next twenty years, we salute all of you who are continuing the important work of a good idea.

The need to stay connected as a community is as pressing as ever in a year when resources fall short.  Because of monies donated by the Gloria Coolidge Fund at the Boston Foundation, we are able to host our annual training for POs, judges and facilitators at Henderson House on Friday, March 25h, 2011, and we hope you will join us.  For those of you out of state as well, we welcome you as we continue to support each other’s work.

This year our theme is “Where Are We Going and Where Have We Been:  Reflecting on 20 years of Changing Lives Through Literature.” We include a general schedule for the day which is subject to change but serves to show you the exciting activities we plan.  We will have judges, probation officers, facilitators and outside participants engaged in helping us think about our journey and create new ideas.

We look forward to seeing you in March.  Keep the Vision!

Best,

Jean Trounstine and Bob Waxler

Schedule for March. 25th, 2011 CLTL gathering

8:45 – 9:15                 Coffee

9:15 – 9:45                 Welcome

9:45 – 11:15              A short story discussion –facilitated by CLTL co-director, Jean Trounstine

11:15 – 12:45            A roundtable discussion led by a panel reflecting on what we can and have learned from the use of story about language, reflection, and deliberation in the context of probationers –facilitated by CLTL co-founder, Bob Waxler

12:45-1:45                Lunch (with Recognition and Thanks to CLTL Practitioners)

1:45- 3:30                A panel discussion of the relationship of jury deliberation to CLTL’s program of reading and discussing (our own kind of deliberating) – facilitated by CLTL co-founder,

Judge Robert Kane

3:30- 3:45                Wrap Up

Directions to Henderson House – 99 Westcliff Rd./Weston, MA/

Phone 781-235-4350

At the intersection of Routes 30, Rt. 128 and the Mass Pike, follow the Rt. 30 West sign; proceed up Route 30 for approx. 1 mile. As you drive up route 30 you will ascend up a steep incline. At the top of the incline, you will take a left turn on to Oak Street. The street sign at the intersection reads Oak Street; just below this sign is a sign reading Northeastern University Henderson House with an arrow.  Proceed down Oak Street 1/4 mile to a 4-way intersection. Go straight through the intersection (on what is now Cliff Road). Proceeding up Cliff Road, take the second right onto Scotch Pine Road, which winds around to the first right – Westcliff Road.  Henderson House is the first house on the left hand side, # 99.

Below, please print the coupon and mail or email (or phone) your information by March 9th to:         

Tam Neville

CLTL Administrative Assistant

24 Quincy St.

Somerville, MA 02143

Phone: 617 – 629 – 2541

Email: tamlin@rcn.com

Name ________________________________________________________

Address ______________________________________________________

Court/Organization____________________________________________

Email address_________________________________________________

Reclaiming Futures: Stories

The following interview excerpt was originally published in two parts on the Reclaiming Futures blog in June 2009, and was recently republished in its entirety on their “Stories” site.

The Reclaiming Futures program “helps young people in trouble with drugs, alcohol, and crime. Its six-step model unites juvenile courts, probation, treatment, and the community to reclaim youth.” Read more about the Reclaiming Futures program here.

The following is an excerpt of the RF interview with Estella Rebeiro, who is a senior juvenile probation officer at the Reclaiming Futures site in Bristol County, MA. The interview discusses local implementation of the Changing Lives Through Literature program. Ms. Rebeiro is also a certified schoolteacher and has served as co-facilitator of the Changing Lives through Literature Program for the local juvenile court since 2001.

What are your overall impressions of Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL)?

It’s the most exciting and rewarding thing I do as part of my job at the court. I’m elated to even talk about it.

Our juvenile court has several alternative sanctions to detention. CLTL is the most well-received, and the kids really enjoy it — which is amazing, because these are kids who have done horribly in school, they’re often court-involved because of school-related problems, etc. Yet they do really well in the program.

The kids come up with phenomenal writing. They don’t realize they have the potential, don’t think what they have to say is important. And you see small things that show you how important it is, like when we had a group of 17-year-olds from very tough areas who wanted to come to class. I said, “You don’t have to come during vacation,” yet they wanted to come. And we had a college professor take on a gang kid as a mentee, and the kid’s now on the Governor’s Council and is planning to go to college.

The program’s contagious. I mentioned it to someone, and then suddenly the director of a local theatre called, wanting to get involved. She gave us complimentary tickets to take all the kids to a stage performance of To Kill a Mockingbird, which we’d read in our group. These were kids with no resources, who had never been to a theatre – and here they could see a play and relate to it because they’d read the book. To see a performance for the first time through their eyes, that was amazing. These are kids who have never read a book before, telling me now they enjoyed reading, and wanted to do more of it.

To read more of this interview, please visit the Reclaiming Futures site: http://www.reclaimingfutures.org/stories_rebeiro