The reality of surviving as a felon
I walked out of prison for the last time in 2013. I had just served over 2 years for possession and delivery of methamphetamine, a drug I was very addicted to. I was also charged with possession of a firearm.
Unlike my previous arrests, this took place in the state of Arkansas. I am a New York native and my experience in Arkansas was eye opening to say the least. These two states seemed worlds apart in every way.
In New York if you are arrested, the laws are clear. They have specific sentencing guidelines for everyone. They are easy to understand and once sentenced you know exactly how much time you will serve in prison. In Arkansas, not only is it confusing but it is very inconsistent.
Someone sentenced to 20 years in New York will serve 80% of that time. Those sentence to 20 years in Arkansas will serve 1/3 of that time. Or perhaps they will serve 50% of that time. Or they may be released early on something called an EPA. In Arkansas you might get 20 years with 10 suspended, meaning you can not commit another crime for 10 years after your release date or you could go back for 10 years. That is called revoking a suspended sentence. Confused yet?
As a New York native, I sat in an Arkansas county jail cell confused, alone and desperate for anything that would help me understand the law. I asked for legal material almost immediately. Law books from a law library was a simple request in any New York county jail or state prison. The correctional officers in Arkansas laughed in my face. Literally.
The drugs that were seized during my arrest, were in the driver side of a car that was not registered to me. As was the gun. They found nothing on my person or anywhere near where I was in the car. The gun was found after the police officers drove the car to impound. I was also not read my rights It is very uncommon for police officers to drive a car themselves to impound. They are suppose to have it towed. Everything about my arrest was unusual. That was the only hope I had to not serve a decade in prison.
After turning down two plea agreements my public defender negotiated on my behalf, a third and final offer was made. 5 years, 15 suspended and 40 years exposure. I would serve half of five years.
My prison sentence would be the first of many blessings. This may not have looked like a blessing at the time, but in hindsight, it most certainly was. I had never fought so hard for a lighter sentence. I would have signed my second plea agreement for 10 years (under the 50% time served law) in a heartbeat. Whats 5 years in prison? Nothing.
This arrest and prison sentence was drastically different than my previous ones. This time, I was pregnant. The night I was arrested, I was about three weeks pregnant and I had no idea. The shock of that was difficult to wrap my head around.
To me, I wasn't fighting for my freedom, I was fighting to be a mother.
After serving half of my five year sentence, I was released. I walked out of a maximum security prison with sweat pants that said 711548 down the side of my left pant leg, a very worn out bible, some mail, prison shower shoes and the journal I kept with me during my stay.
Like many inmates who are released, I didn't have any family to parole to. I had no choice but to live in a halfway house. There were not many options for women at this time in Arkansas. I was fortunate enough to find a place called Oxford House. As grateful as I was to have a roof over my head, they started charging me rent immediately. I was given a grace period to find employment but my bill was growing each week. The fee to live at Oxford House was $100 per person per week.
The hunt for a job started my second day at Oxford House. I asked the other women living there if they knew of any place that would hire a felon. Much to my surprise one woman screamed YES!! Come with me.
She drove me to this little office in Fayetteville Arkansas, took me inside and told the manager I needed an application. At the time I was wearing flip flops, otherwise known as shower shoes, jeans a girl had given me and a sweatshirt another girl let me borrow. Not exactly what a person should wear to a job interview, but it was the best I could do. I was asked to read a short script and I was hired as a telemarketer that same day. I would receive $7.50 an hour.
As happy as I was to have a job, this job was not going to get me on my feet. By the time I received my first paycheck it was only for a single day of work, which was 12 hours. The check was for $60 and it took me 3 weeks after my release to receive that $60.
My rent was past due by $500 by the time I got my full paycheck. That paycheck was roughly $300 and I needed clothes, sneakers (i was borrowing someone else shoes to go to work everyday), I had to pay my parole fee of $35 and I needed a phone.
To make matters more dire, I had a toddler in DHS custody as she was born while I was in prison. The judge had a very long list of things I needed to obtain before my child could come home. They were, an apartment with room for my daughter, a car, a bed for her, clothes for her and a reliable income. Which is absolutely fair, just difficult to obtain as I was making below minimum wage. I worked as many hours as humanly possible at the telemarketing job.
I put applications in to other places. Gas stations, fast food and grocery stores. I never heard back from those places and time was running out. I needed a second job. If I did not have a second job, there would be no way I could get an apartment. I was already hiding money from Oxford House just to save money for this apartment. I was eating Ramen noodles and frozen burritos to cut down on extra expenses.
Finally, someone I knew had a relative that ran a little vapor store in Springdale Arkansas. He offered me $8 an hour. I wasn't in a position to negotiate but I also knew that I needed more. I nervously negotiated him up from $8 an hour to $10.
I was now working two jobs. I would start my day at the vapor store at 8 am. My shift would end at 3 pm and I would head right to the telemarketing job, where I would stay until 10 or 11 pm. By the time I got back to the half way house I was so tired I could barley shower.
During this time I had to hustle daily to find a ride to and from work, to and from my visits with my daughter (4 hours away) to and from drug testing, parole visits, the grocery store and NA meetings.
There were obstacles at every turn. My case worker for DHS made sure to tell me that I was not making enough progress and that I would probably lose my parental rights to my daughter if I did not come to my next court hearing with the lease to an apartment.
I was putting in applications for apartments all over North West Arkansas and every single realtor told me they would not rent to a felon. Each application cost me $25 and they were all denied. At this point, I was desperate.
Finally, I met a man who managed a few properties in Springdale Arkansas. I told him my situation. I will never forget standing in the kitchen of what would become my apartment, fighting back tears in front of a stranger. If he did not rent to me, I would lose my daughter to the system. That man handed me a pen, told me to sign the lease and told me I could move in the very next day.
I remember thinking he was kidding at first. No way could this be happening. After all of the “no we do not rent to felons” after all of the looks of disgust I had received in the office of countless property managers, this man was handing me a lease and telling me to sign. I couldn't believe it.
The very next day I moved in. I had a mattress on the floor, a few clothes and some things a friend had given me for the apartment. There was just one thing missing, a refrigerator. I was so excited to sign the lease that I didn't even notice there was no refrigerator. How could there not be one? How did I not notice? I stood in that kitchen and I couldn't help but to laugh. We can fix this, in time. My daughter isn't here just yet so there was time to buy a fridge. For now, Poptarts for breakfast Ramen noodles for dinner would have to do.
As a drug addict \ former drug dealer, I knew how quickly I could have gotten an apartment, car and everything my little girl needed. As a mother, I knew I couldn't take the risk. This was a very scary and difficult time for me. The thought of losing my daughter forever kept me in a constant state of fear. I have never wanted to be anything as badly as I wanted to be my daughters mother.
After about a year of fighting my case my daughter was living with me full time. This was a trial period to see how her and I would adjust to being together full time.
I walked into court for the last time with my 2 year old holding my hand. I stood in front of a judge who was looking over everything from my bank statements to my lease agreement. She read my physiological evaluation, my child abuse testing scores, my NA sign in sheet and my car title. I found a little Scion XB for $2500. I stood there as she went over everything. She asked the case workers what they thought about my progress. I honestly do not even remember what they said. I kept looking over to my little girl, who was eating some gold fish crackers. She was so innocent and sweet.
Finally, the judge said “Ms. Kent” I took a deep breath and closed my eyes for a second. This was it. I thought for sure the judge could see me shaking. She went on to say “ I am very impressed. It is rare to see someone make this much progress or work this hard to obtain custody of their child. You should be very proud of everything you have done thus far. Unless anyone objects, I find no reason but to grant you sole legal custody of Micah. Good luck to you”
I rushed over to my daughter, picked her up and whispered “we did it baby”
I walked out of that court house crying. I was so happy, grateful and honestly a little shocked. I had done what so many told me I couldn't. Inmates told me I would lose, case workers told me I would lose even co workers told me to prepare for losing. I drove home with my daughter that day happier than I had ever been.
The day I dreamed about in prison night after night, was finally here. I get to be a mother to the sweetest little girl I have ever met.
To some, positive encouragement motivates them. I am the opposite. I love when people tell me that I cant do something. I love being the underdog. Tell me what I want is impossible to obtain and you have just lit the fire I need to prove you wrong. Sadly, I am not like most people. Most people who have these kinds of obstacles placed in their way find it impossible to overcome. If that person is a drug addict than it is even more difficult because they are fighting a battle many do not understand.
This story has a happy ending. However, the judge was correct in saying it is rare. Not because parents do not want their babies back but because DHS makes it so difficult for a person to regain custody. We need to provide more support to parents who found themselves in a bad situation but are otherwise good parents. Setting impossible standards for parents isn't uncommon outside of foster care, I mean who hasn't been mom shamed?
The goal of foster care is and needs to always be reunification whenever possible. We also desperately need more foster parents who will love those babies as if they are their own until reunification (hopefully) occurs.
I fail to see many speaking on the importance of foster care. Foster care should be a talked about subject. There are many options for foster parents. Often people tell me they could never foster because losing the child would be to painful. If your heart is that big, you are the kind of person foster care is looking for. Reunification is bittersweet. You will miss that child. However, if you are willing to open your heart and your home to a child in need, every tear is worth it because those children are worth it.