“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.

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9 thoughts on ““Laying Roots”

  1. Dear Robin,
    Thank you for writing such a moving piece. It gave me a sense of the despair of imprisonment, but also the resilience of your spirit. It seems to me that the judge’s decision to imprison a troubled child to prevent future crimes is deterministic and utterly unjust.

    ~Erin

  2. A life sentence for a 14 year old is appalling – an absolute and complete failure of justice. Sentencing a child to the rest of their life in prison is inconceivable. How could a judge do such a thing?

  3. Pingback: Response to “Laying Roots” « Jennifer M. Hartsock

  4. My husband and I have created a warm and deep connection to Robin Ledbetter over a period of a year and a half. I volunteer at Greenhaven C.F. {a maximum security prison in Dutchess County, NY} and teach creative writing there. I am always looking for memoirs and stories to read to my 6 classes of men and discovered a book called: I’ll Fly Away which contains stories and poetry composed by the women at York Correctional Facility in Niantic, CT, the prison where Robin has been for the better part of 15 years. I read her story, “A Gift” to my guys and they loved it. One of my students encouraged me to write a letter to Robin telling her how much we all loved her story. I did that but did not hear from her for 4 months as she constantly struggles with depression. She finally wrote and as soon as I could, arranged to visit her. We have been visiting, writing and calling one another ever since. I am so proud of what she has accomplished~but what I really want is to see her be released from prison long before the year 2045. I am trying to find a way to accomplish that feat! I am so happy to see others reading her wonderful writing!!!!!Robin is a voracious reader and I think,by now, I’ve sent her 25 books! She reads every one. She has changed our lives so much. It is very painful to drive the 2 1/2 hours up to CT to see her and have to say goodbye. Maybe one day, we won’t have to do that…..I have hope………………………..

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  7. This is an incredible piece, thank you so much for writing and sharing your experience. Your words come alive on the page, you are a talented writer. I find myself seething with anger after I read this, anger directed towards the (what I think is) corrupt and ineffective justice system in the US. Youth are given almost no chance in the system, especially when they come from troubled backgrounds or low-income areas. There is no reason to sentence a 14 y/o to 50+ years…it is outrageous. I am so sorry that the system has failed you. Hopefully your words will reach out to those who can make a difference.

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