How could I – a mother of two with a 10-year drug problem – be facing a life sentence for something stupid I did at the local Rite Aid store?
I tried to steal deodorant and toothpaste and got caught. I’d been in that same store over a year earlier, and they let me go when I tried to take something. I was wearing a different jacket, not like the mans’ jacket I had from my boyfriend this time. This jacket had a needle in the pocket. I used the needle earlier that day and had hoped to get high with him later that night. How was I supposed to know I’d poke myself with it when getting arrested?
Yeah, stupid me. I had my hand in my pocket where I kept the syringe when the store clerk – some overweight geek wearing glasses and smelling too much of Old Spice after shave – grabbed me from behind and yanked me by my hair. He lied at the preliminary hearing, saying he grabbed me by the arm. No, he pulled me by my hair and I almost left my feet as my whole head got yanked toward his fat and oily face.
I barely had time to stay on my feet and try to find my balance when I pulled my hand from my pocket. The exposed needle had punctured the web of my hand. You know, that spot between the base of the thumb and the index finger. I don’t know how I did it, but I got it out of my skin with just the one hand and was able to hold it in the palm of my hand as I turned and swung my arm to protect myself while also trying to steady myself.
Once again, the clerk lied about what happened. He said I was trying to stab him with the needle. How could I? He was like two feet away from me and I couldn’t get close enough to him once I got out of his grasp and swung around. The manager was right there, standing in front of me, holding me as I bumped into him. He had circled around the aisle I had last walked, pinning me between himself and the clerk. He saw how far away I was from the geek. Yet he kept his mouth shut when the judge held me on the charge of attempted murder.
Little ole me. One hundred pounds soaking wet in my 4-foot, 10-inch frame. Held for trying to kill the geek, a 200-pound gorilla who nearly decapitated me when he pulled me from behind.
They said I had hepatitis B and that I was trying to spread it to him with the point of the needle. I once had Hepatitis B, but not anymore. The test they did at the Philadelphia Prison was a false positive. I could prove it if I could find the name of the doctor or nurse or whomever it was that told me of the results. All the DA (district attorney) had in her file was the first report which she read to the judge with no challenge by my court-appointed lawyer, not that he knew anything about it. I never told him until now.
But even if we could get the charge thrown out, my lawyer said I’d still be facing what they call a mandatory minimum sentence of 25-years-to-life. Twenty-five years-to-life! Can you imagine what that means? You have a better chance of becoming canonized than you do of getting out of prison alive when you’re sentenced at my age, 39. I’d be 64 by the time I’m freed from jail. Sixty-four. Remember the song, “When I’m 64?” “Will you still be sending me a valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine?” You wouldn’t have to send me a thing. I’d be long dead by then.
My mother died at 54; my father, of whom I met only once, never made it to age 40. Both were alcoholics. I got their genes and going to jail for 25 years would be like imposing a death sentence on me.
(For anyone wanting more information or a way to help Thérèse, please contact decarceratepa.info. Otherwise, leave a comment whether you like or dislike the mandatory-minimum laws of Pennsylvania.)
You see, I’m what you call a “repeat offender.” someone who has repeated the same crimes over and over. The crimes started out as misdemeanors, but soon got to be felonies, the more serious offenses that carried much stiffer sentences.
I got arrested for drugs and shoplifting. That’s it. One time I got caught selling reefer. I had some crack on me and got initially charged with sale of both marijuana and crack, even though I never sold a lick of crack ever. I’d take a lie detector test to prove it, too, but my lawyer was able to get the crack charge thrown out!
It’s the shoplifting that did me in, said my lawyer. Here in Pennsylvania, they have a law which makes shoplifting a serious offense. The first time, they only charge you with a summary offense. That’s like spitting on the sidewalk, they say, but I never heard of anyone being charged for it. I guess it’s on the books, though.
A second offense will get you a misdemeanor charge. Now, that’s more serious than a summary offense. Both are called by the legal name of “retail thefts.” (“Retail theft” — I thought that applied to the type of store a shoplifter would frequent, like a department store where they sold things at a retail price.)
Remember Woolworths? That’s where I first took something. I was about 7 or 8 and the woman who caught me grilled me, wanting to know where I went to school and who my second-grade teacher was. I told her everything. “Sister Josephine Francis wouldn’t like to hear one of her students was stealing, would she?” the clerk asked me, my head pointed to the old wooden polished floors, afraid to look up and make any type of eye contact.
Guilty. I’m guilty as sin, I thought. Worse yet, I got caught being guilty as sin and that sin is about to be made public. They’re going to tell my teacher and I will go to hell. Not right away, but I’d be on the path to hell, just as sure as I was on the path to receiving my first Holy communion, if I could ever turn back the clock and never, never again take something that didn’t belong to me.
Please God. Please Jesus. Help me! I’m scared. I’m afraid!
The lady, a tall, thin woman with dark brown hair pulled back with a small beret at the top, stood in front of me for what seemed like hours, but was only a few seconds. I thought I would die in her presence. If there was hole in the floor of Woolworth’s I’d jump right in and dig my way all the way to China.
“Promise me you won’t do this again,” I heard the woman say. Her voice sounded so very far away, as if she was in another room and was speaking to me through some sort of chamber. I didn’t comprehend what she was saying at first. But, then I said, “I promise.” I said it with all the heart-filled sincerity I could muster from the very bottom of wherever truth and goodness resided in side of me at the time.
I don’t know if I cried. I might have. I don’t remember tears in my eyes, as the woman told me to turn around and leave the store. She said she wouldn’t report me this time, but if she heard from anyone that I took something again, she’d let the nuns know right away.
I left and did not break the Seventh commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Steal,” until my second daughter was born and by then the father of my children got me hooked on drugs. I’d forgotten what happened to me in Woolworth’s until just now. It never came up those times I was shoplifting the past 15 years.
* * * * * * * *
I done wrong by my kids, but they’re better off without a mother like me for now. If I can ever get into one of those long-term treatment programs with long-term follow-up in a woman’s halfway house, I might be able to control my problem, and get back to being a real mother for them. I know I can do it. I feel that I got God’s help now, and, somehow, that will make all the difference.
But under the Three Strikes and You’re Out Law, I’m facing the maximum sentence. Yeah, you read that right. The mandatory minimum of 25-year-to-life is both a minimum and a maximum for me. Twenty-five years is a maximum to anyone who must give up all those years to pay for his or her crime. Look at it this way. Twenty-five years is eight years short of the life-span of Jesus Christ. Twenty-five years is more than half the life-span of St. Francis of Assisi who died at age 45.
And, it’s more than the entire life-span of the one they call the “Little Flower,” the Catholic saint I was named for, Thérèse of Lisieux, who was acclaimed as “the greatest saint of modern times.” She did the little things in life that made her what she became, a saint who died when she was only 24-years old. All I did was “little things” in my life; never did anything really bad, like commit murder or some other mortal sin or anything like that, you know.
Twenty-five years for a tube of toothpaste and an Arrid roll-on antiperspirant.
Jeez. What’s the world coming to?