In 2005, she was not yet a career criminal, PhD or otherwise. This prison baby’s contamination of Soul occurred slowly, gradually, insidiously, over a long period behind bars in three different state prisons, back and forth. When we first met her–as a prison pen pal, with contacts involving snail mail, email, and telephone, but no physical visits due to my wife’s inability to travel, Baby was a sweet young thing.
True, she was down for twenty years on a fairly gruesome murder charge, a crime she denies committing (along with two other people) but we suspect she did. The State of Georgia could certainly have made a mistake, but Pam’s vivid, graphic dreams are usually right on target. Never mind that, we figured. Sixteen years of age when she was busted (within 24 hours after the dark deed was done), she was twenty-five when we began corresponding, cheerful and more than ready to build a real life. No remorse showing, but when innocence is your story and you’re sticking to it, overt repentance is not in the cards.
When you finish your growing-up years in prison like that, you’re called a prison baby, so we’ll call her Baby in this post to protect her identity. Not that she’s earned that sort of protection, but that’s just the way we do things.
This post is undoubtedly going to get shaggy dog long before it’s finished, but the journey will be worth it. I promise.
Now, we need to set the scene a bit. When Pam and I met in Tonopah, Nevada, in 1996, I was in the process of getting my sixth divorce…and writing to more than a dozen inmates. In my opinion, a lot of the ladies out here in the world were way too greedy for “things and stuff”, a fact that had contributed strongly to at least half of my failed marriages. I figured there might be a gal in the pen who’d lost everything and had her eyes opened. Sure, I’d have to sort through a bunch of career criminals and otherwise damaged goods, but my track record, I figured, couldn’t get any worse, so….
Then this five foot, ninety-two pound redhead walked into the Laundromat one gray Saturday afternoon and the rest was, as they say, history. Pam and I are in our twentieth year together, still hooked at the hip.
But we decided I didn’t need to cut off all those girls–and a couple of guys, despite my want ad having been listed under Men Seeking Women. Instead, we’d just let ’em know they were dealing with a couple now. Couldn’t hurt to let a few of those folks have a little contact with the outside world.
Most of ’em (including both guys, thank you very much) fell by the wayside of their own accord, sooner or later. Just quit writing. Which was fine. Still, there were always one or two letters in the mailbox every week or so, and I’ve never yet failed to write back to a faithful correspondent.
Except when somebody has crossed a big no-no line and been summarily cut out of our lives, of course.
Two years into our relationship, Pammie’s big bag of disabilities, ranging from physical to mental health issues with dementia eventually thrown into the mix, started falling on her head. As time went on, it became clear to both of us that the day would come when she wouldn’t be able to fully take care of herself, I couldn’t take up all of the slack by myself, and we’d need help. So we added a new element to our prison pen pal communications: If the chemistry was right, an inmate who’d become a friend would have the option of coming to live with us when she got out, receiving free room and board plus a cash allowance if we had any cash to spare, all in return for helping me take care of my sweetheart. Obviously, it would have to be the right person or it wasn’t worth considering, but as the years passed, a few possibilities did emerge. The end results would have discouraged most folks, but Pammie and I don’t discourage all that easily. I can take things in stride. She can’t; her Golden Heart gets busted into a jillion smithereens every time a woman she’s come to trust fails the final test and shows her true colors in some unacceptable fashion. But she recovers eventually, picks her heart back up off the floor, and together we try one more time.
The failure roster? I’m probably forgetting somebody, but it added up something like this:
1999. Taz gets out of prison but, suddenly becoming evasive during her final weeks of incarceration, never provides me the exact date to come pick her up and take her back to our home (then in South Dakota). Within days, she has once again gotten thoroughly roasted and toasted on both booze and drugs, gotten herself caught providing illegal services to a fellow in a Las Vegas alley, and is returned to prison. That time, what happened in Vegas really did stay in Vegas…behind bars.
2003. Angel has seven months to go on her sentence when December rolls around. We’ve provided her with a bit of spending money for the prison store during the holiday season, but she wants more. Makes the fatal error of attempting to get between my redhead and me, to use one of us to influence the other. Cutoff time.
2008. Lara has seemed extremely committed to us but suddenly quits writing entirely after we move from Colorado to Arizona. The why remains a mystery; all we have are theories.
2009. Shika begins to diss my wife rather openly on the phone. Pammie covers for her for a long time (one of my girl’s less wise habits) but it finally comes to my attention. Bye-bye, Shika, six months before her sentence is up.
2011. Tawny, with whom we’ve enjoyed a close (albeit long distance) relationship since late 2006, finally admits she won’t be coming to the Border Fort in Arizona after all, despite promising faithfully that such was her heart’s desire. This one we understand, though once again it’s heartrending for Pammie. Tawny’s estranged adult children have gotten in touch with her and are urging her to return to Florida upon her release, to live near them. Her heart is torn between need for her children and guilt about abandoning us. Pam’s heart is completely shredded.
2013. Sherri turns out to be a chameleon. Upon her release from prison to a halfway house to do her parole, I go to see her in Phoenix. She is not the same person I saw during a visit when she was incarcerated at Tucson. But for her voice, I would not have recognized her. Stoned to the gills, her eyes even bug out. I decide to hire a PI to do a full background check. We knew about a total of five charges in Arizona and Oregon. A weekend’s worth of digging by the PI turns up fifty-one infractions ranging over six different states, beginning at age twenty-one and going forward. Cutoff time with a few telephone screaming matches. A few months later, a cursory Internet check shows her back in prison again. Big surprise, eh?
Yet throughout all of this, with one gap which I’ll explain in a minute, Baby was always there for us and we were there for her. At age twenty-five, her own Golden Heart was still very much in evidence. It was Baby who introduced us to Tawny, simply because we were her friends and Tawny was her friend and she (Baby) felt we’d all very likely get along. Which we did, despite the less than satisfactory end of that relationship.
At that time, circa 2005, Baby was a true sweetheart. We didn’t have a lot of cash to throw around, but she was grateful for whatever we did send. She never pushed for more. She cared about Pammie’s day, enjoyed chatting with me, and was overall a ray of sunshine in our lives.
If I had to pick a turning point, a specific pivot toward the Dark Side, a time when Soul began to slowly welcome contamination…it would have to be the day she realized she’d been sentenced for twenty years without parole. Most inmates are allowed to petition for parole after they’ve reached the midpoint of their sentences, which for Baby would have been after ten years of incarceration.
Now, you’d think any inmate would know the details of his or her sentencing, right? After all, what could be more important? But remember, this was a young, relatively uneducated teenager who’d been represented by a court appointed public defender in a slam dunk trial. There were undoubtedly lots of things she didn’t remember from that time period. We talked about that. I checked the prison website and determined the facts. Told her, “Honey, you have no parole option. You’re going to have to do the full twenty. It’s stated very clearly on the DOC (Department of Corrections) website.”
Nope. She wasn’t buying it. Her in-prison counselor told her that yes, she did have parole. Her aunt asked somebody on the prison staff and was told the same thing. Baby didn’t want to hear the awful truth, she had two persons of authority in her life telling her she was fine, so who’s this long distance old cowboy who’s trying to tell her she’s screwed? She wasn’t buying it.
Until the day finally came, she inquired about parole, and the real authorities slapped her in the face with just the fact’s ma’am. Nope. No parole.
She went into a complete tailspin. Or nosedive. Maybe both. Began acting out, getting locked down for one infraction or another. Had illicit affairs (in prison, all affairs between inmates are against the regs) one after another. Quit writing to us entirely, hold the phone calls, and for all intents and purposes disappeared off the face of the map.
For two full years. It took her that long to get her poop in a group.
Miraculously, she resurfaced just in time, writing a letter that reached us in early 2010, the very last month the Post Office forwarded any of our mail from Colorado.
Pammie and I were thrilled. “It’s destiny! Our baby is back!”
And she was. Baby was clearly, and I believe sincerely, overjoyed. We were pretty short on moolah at the time; she didn’t mind a bit. If we could scrape out twenty-five bucks on a given month to help her, fine. If not, she’d make do. Yes, she very much wanted to become part of our family. No, she would never break Pammie’s heart like all those other heartless girls had done, what a horrible thing to do. All’s well that ends well.
Until…our finances began to improve over time. We upped her monthly support stipend…and then, a couple of years ago, the scam began. She’d had shoulder surgery while in prison. They’d botched it. Now they weren’t even admitting they’d done it in the first place. A stubborn little jailhouse lawyer in progress, she filed suit against the prison. Within days, the “missing” records were found in the prison and she was scheduled for surgical repair of the first botched job. All of that was true.
What was not true was her story that in order to get the surgery, she needed me to send in some money for a copay. Looking back, I should have realized the State would not charge a dime for medical care to inmates. After all, we currently shaft the hard working middle class in this country and give free medical care to illegal border crossing immigrants, eh? But Baby had, so far as we knew then or know now, never lied to us before. It had taken nine years (including that out-of-contact two year gap) of communication, but our trust in the girl was sky high. And she really sold it. I mean, she sold it well. Her FC (Fraud Coach…or decide for yourself what those initials really mean….) must have been at the top of her profession. Baby was so good that she actually got us to insist that she have the surgery. Couldn’t be duress or extortion or fraud if the donors insisted on providing the dough, eh?
Such is the mindset of the Career Criminal, and Baby was now enrolled in her facility’s PhD program.
Are you old enough to remember Johnny Carson? If so, picture this:
Johnny: “She was really, really good!”
Ed McMahon: “How good was she?”
Johnny: “She was so good that we insisted on providing funds to help with her shoulder surgery…and the cancer surgery after they found a spot that turned out to be malignant…and all the MRI’s…a second cancer surgery because dammit, they didn’t get it all the first time…physical rehab therapy for the shoulder…more shoulder rehab…and oh yeah, an extra bit tacked on the end, a special course to wrap things up…anti cancer meds to keep her from relapsing, which she would need to be on for years…and of course her monthly stipend for the pen store. She called several times every week, kept us updated at every step, the times she was scared because the surgery was tomorrow, the times she was wiped out and in intense pain after surgery, the discomfort following rehab therapy sessions, the meetings with Dr. Carter to discuss her prognosis and recovery, other meetings with a super-specialist, more, more, more, and more. They were getting that right arm of hers back from 20% function to 80% or close to it, yes they were; she would be able to help take care of Pammie after all, and wasn’t that a miracle? She was good, I say! A natural!”
Indeed she was. The two of us, sucked in hook, line, and sinker, were the subjects of her doctoral thesis in Career Criminality. Her future never looked brighter. The sky was the limit, or if not that, then at least a briefcase stuffed with illegally obtained funds was the limit. Either way, she was good!
Johnny: “Unfortunately, she was also very, very stupid.”
Ed: “How stupid was she?”
Johnny: “She was so stupid that despite being told many times that the Universe always found a way to show an inmate’s true colors to Fred and Pam when push came to shove, she didn’t believe it.”
Ed: (Laughing, as he apparently knew about Fred and Pam) “That’s pretty stupid!”
The miracle came in the form of a telephone call two mornings ago. “This is Angel Beyond (a pseudonym for just this page, duh), Warden at Hold Yer Horses Correctional Institute in Somewhere, Certain State. How are you doing today?”
“I’ll know better when I know why you’re calling,” I replied. No way this was a legitimate Warden. I mean, really. Her voice was bright, young, chipper, nothing like the growly old salt blocks they use to run prisons these days. Besides, prison wardens don’t go around calling folks outa the blue, ya know? Dude! I’ve called prisons before; you just don’t git to talk to no Warden, no way, no how!
I figured she was a boiler room telephone solicitor or something. One of the good ones, because her voice was really pleasant. I liked it. Might have wanted to try to date her, had I been single, ’cause she sounded fine. But a Warden? Gimme a break!
We hung in there with each other for a bit, though, despite my incorrect assumptions. Turned out she was concerned about the amount of money piling in on behalf of Baby. It was adding up something fierce, and she wanted to know why. I told her about the monthly stipend part, which was what she specifically asking about, including the fact that part of that was for her cancer meds.
“Cancer? She told you she has cancer? She doesn’t have cancer!”
Okay, so now she’s not a boiler room operator. Most likely, she’s one of Baby’s enemies, out to git her by lying on her and all like that. Nuh uh. Ain’t fallin’ fer that crap, doncha know. We got back to the money again.
Me: “I don’t see how that’s any of your business.”
Warden Beyond: “If you don’t have a problem with it, I don’t have a problem with it.”
On that less than satisfactory note for anybody, the weird caller (certainly not no Warden) and I hung up.
But…Houston, we have a problem. See, that there caller knew exactly how much money was rolling in via that stipend route. Uh-oh. Somebody’s got access.
I called the Hold Yer Horses facility. Got bucked to the real Warden Beyond’s secretary. That prank caller’s number turned out to be a line shared by the secretary and the Warden herself…and the Warden had been making a few calls this morning.
“Uh-oh! Please feel free to tell the Warden I wouldn’t have been nearly as testy, but I thought she sounded too young to be a Warden. I thought she was a telephone solicitor!”
The secretary started laughing. So did I. Humiliation and hilarity sometimes go good together.
Not a heck of a lot later, comes another call from Angel Beyond, really truly the really for real Warden at Hold Yer Horses Correctional Institute, believe it or not. We chuckle briefly over my earlier misunderstanding, then she says, “I have Baby here in my office. She needs to talk to you.”
And right there, right then, she puts ol’ Baby on the phone, has her ‘fess right up to the whole thing. Asking fer forgiveness, she is, but not owning it at all, and despite her saying she’s sorry, I don’t hear no sorry in it, and no concern whatsoever fer the pain she’s put on Pam.
It takes us working overnight, me and my wife, working independently, but by sunup the next day we are one. It’s time to cut our parasitical prison pen not-so-much-a-pal off at the knees. Metaphorically speaking, of course…although if Baby were to come here now, she’d be at mortal risk from the raging redhead. Pammie’ll git over it before long, another twenty-thirty years, maybe. But fer now, Baby’s a whole lot safer right where she is. Physically. Maybe. Payback’s a bitch, and when them who’s been wrong stand aside and let the Law of Karma operate, the results can be astounding.
So I got on JPay, which lets Baby and me email back and forth, and sent her a sayonara email. Here’s the text:
Pam and I have thought of little else since Warden Beyond forced you to call from her office yesterday and admit that you had been defrauding us for some time. We both, independently, have come to the same conclusions, summarized as follows:
1. Your long incarcerated years have clearly provided you with your PhD in Career Criminality. That is not a good thing.
2. When we spoke on the phone the second time yesterday, your concern was all for you (would we forgive you) and not for Pam, whom you hurt badly after swearing up, down, and sideways that you would never do that.
3. Neither one of us could ever fully trust you again, no matter the circumstances nor how much time had passed.
4. Therefore, our relationship is finished. This will be my last email. There will be no more funds forthcoming. Any snail mail will be trashed without opening. Neither of us will answer the phone to you. (And if you continue to try to call, I will call Warden Beyond to let her know about it. She has extended to us the invitation to call her at any time.)
5. You need to be glad we’re not taking it any farther than that. Were we so inclined (we are not), and pressed charges, it looks to me like you could be facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and numerous additional years in prison on fraud charges. You literally committed multiple felonies when you did what you did, and you know I keep all receipts where I can find them with no more than a little digging.
That said, and since this is my last email to you, I feel impelled to offer you one last bit of advice, to wit: If you are to have any chance whatsoever to succeed in life on the outside after the completion of your current sentence, you need to get your act together in a whole new way. I have checked with the provider who makes Inmate Life Skills Courses available to inmates. You need every one, most likely starting with Offender Responsibility and also (most appropriately) with Theft/Shoplifting, which is the closest course title to the Extortion/Fraud you committed. If you don’t do something along those lines and change your thinking, even the nest egg you will have on release will be gone within weeks at best and things will go downhill from there.
Now, we figured ol’ Baby wouldn’t likely like that too much, losing her gravy train with a single whack of the cleaver and all. She’d be calling, or trying to. And she did, about eight to ten times, maybe a dozen, before I got tired enough of flapping my flip phone open and closed to git online and figure out how to block her incoming calls. Took a while, so I turned my phone off to shut ‘er up while I was working. She only tried Pammie’s phone one time, but I made sure that’n was blocked, too. She gits hold of my wife on the phone right now, and that redhead’ll tear her a new one.
Sent Warden Angel Beyond a Thank You card, too. Celebrated my newfound raise in income, or cut in expenses, which is just as good or better.
But that ain’t the punch line, folks. Nope. Here’s the punchline.
See, what Baby done was totally plumb stupid…and the word “stupid” had been floatin’ around our house for a while. Didn’t know it, but Pammie’d had this thing running around in her head for about six days. “Stupid is as stupid does! Stupid is as stupid does!” Couldn’t get it out of her head atall.
Meantime, while I was writing a chapter in my latest novel, I did something I ain’t never done before. Put Ghost in the story, that being me. Ol’ Ghost, he visits a friend up near Show Low, Arizona. Sees bad guys sneaking around, warns the main characters. They set up an ambush. Ghost asks his friend Jack, “Mind if I take care of the Stupid Factor?” Then he digs in, right between the two opposing forces. When the bad guys get close enough, he screams like a little girl, “EEK! The bad guys are here! Run for your lives!” Then he throws a winter parka up in the air, fluttering like a venomous bat vampire on steroids as is flop-hops back to the ground. Shines a big ol’ lantern light on it at the same time, so the attackers are literally blinded by the light, panicked, and shooting wild. Good guys mow ’em down. Lit ’em up and then lit ’em up.
That night, Pammie’s singing in her head, “Stupid is as stupid does!” Ghost is taking care of the Stupid Factor. The very next morning, the guardian angel calls and exposes the felonious fibber’s fraudulent facts to the blazing light of the noonday sun. Only mad dogs and Englishmen and criminals with their pants down are out in the noonday sun.
Does that mean we’re finally giving up on prison pen pals after a twenty year run? No. Not quite. We’re still in close contact with one mighty fine woman, a lady who decided it was time to get her act together some years ago and started pulling herself up by her bootstraps. That friend no more understands why or how so many people go for advanced degrees in Career Criminality than Pam does. She was crying on the phone when she heard; Pammie had to hold her together.
But we won’t be going out looking for any more new pen pals for a while. Like, the rest of this incarnation at least. The lady of the house has had enough, and as we know, if Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
Looking forward to the comments. They ought to be interesting.