In January of 2008 I met a prostitute inside the walls of the Seminole County Jail during my “Out Of The Life” Life Skills class who I will call Sandy. She was 46 years old and this was her 78th arrest during her adult life. She was only sentenced to a few months for a minor felony drug possession charge and had very seldom spent more than 6 months in jail at any one time. All of her charges between the two local counties ranged from Lewd and Lascivious to Open Container and a couple of Solicitation charges in addition to countless drug and drug paraphernalia charges.
She was disconnected from her family – elderly parents and 3 children who were grown and lived out of state. In fact, she was disconnected from her own self and was well known for being a belligerent and demanding inmate. She was not well liked by her fellow inmates and had all the hustle of getting coffee and snacks from them for performing various chores and trading the small comforts one is allowed in jail. An extra pillow can be traded for three instant cups of decaffeinated coffee and the willingness to take over other inmates daily chores could get her a few snacks and candy from another inmates bi-weekly canteen purchases. Sandy was always on the lookout for someone who was new to the system and would befriend them with full intention of getting them to assist her in making three way calls to the outside and helping her garner information about what was going on in her “hood”. Not that it mattered. When Sandy was sober she was one of the nicest most generous people I had ever met, but when she was using, she was hell on wheels. She knew all of the frequent flyers in this relatively small jail system and she didn’t like them any more than they didn’t like her. Her relationship with other inmates was usually strained because she was combative and confrontational. She didn’t fight enough – or in front of anyone important – who could send her to solitary – but she certainly didn’t try to keep any peace either. She slept with one eye open and always had her ear tuned for an opportunity to hustle.
Sandy was about as institutionalized as a girl could get even though she had never been to prison. She had spent enough time doing time she felt comfortable in jail even while swearing she hated it. She was on a first name basis with the women’s chaplain who had been there more than 28 years. She knew every correction officer in the building and kept a meticulous mental note of the ones she could manipulate and the ones she couldn’t.
Sandy was not anyone’s favorite person. She would feign illness to get to the medical unit just for a little peace and quiet. She didn’t have any friends, inside or outside the jail. She had failed at nearly every drug program in the Central Florida Area. She hadn’t done much better at transitional houses. She had been to several and they all not only kicked her out, but refused to even consider letting her back in.
At first she denied being a prostitute. She liked to think of it as hustling for drug money. To her, it wasn’t prostitution – it was commodities trading. Much like a Wall Street stock trader would negotiate the price of wheat, Sandy would negotiate a sex act for drugs or money to get drugs. She loved to drink, smoke crack or marijuana, snort cocaine or shoot heroin when she got the chance, and she never wanted to party with other people. After she had negotiated her transaction she would disappear into the woods or under a bridge and get as high as she could stand for as long as she could stand it until her body demanded more drugs or alcohol and she would reenter society almost as a lioness would hunt for food. The cycle was continuous with brief interruptions of sobriety forced upon her by the justice system.
Every time Sandy was arrested, she would get prescribed anti-depressants and sleeping medication by the jail facility because she would answer the classification questions as if she were likely to harm herself or someone else. She would discontinue them as soon as she was released. Sandy lived in hell and she felt perfectly comfortable there. She expected nothing better.
Sandy was only a little taller than 5 feet. She was slender but in horrible shape. She had a pasty complexion that was a result of poor nutrition and her color was exacerbated by the cold jail environment. She had natural blond hair that was a bit stringy and unkempt and green eyes that could be very dark when she was agitated and very bright when she laughed, which was seldom. Sandy had been pretty at one time before all the drugging and drinking had ravaged her body and her mind. She had lost all her teeth to the fist of a pimp she refused to work for and had been raped and beaten on so many occasions by street gangs she had lost count. She was constantly outrunning one drug dealer or another to whom she owed money. Just a few months before this latest arrest she had been dragged into an alley by a group of young men who were initiating a new member into their street gang and she was beaten and raped repeatedly, losing all of her identification as well as the cheap and broken dentures that were held together with super glue. The boys – all under the age of 14 – crushed what was left of them with the heel of his boot as they left. Sandy had managed to walk to her parents house over the next couple of nights, hiding in the woods and under bridges during the day out of fear of being arrested. She had several fractured ribs and was bruised from head to toe. She never reported the beating or the gang rape…after all she reasoned – with more than 50 arrests for prostitution, who would believe her?
Her decent into hell had begun when she was young. She had been sexually molested by her father from the age of eleven until a few days before her arrival at jail for this current charge. Her mother was terminally ill and she routinely stole her mothers’ pain medication in addition to having her father regularly supply her with drugs so she would continue to have sex with him. Sometimes she would beg him not to make her do it – and sometimes her wish would come true because he would be too drunk to perform – but in the end, she was complicit in her relationship with him as she was both his daughter and his lover. After all – cheating with Sandy didn’t really count to him as a violation of his marital vows. The sexual misconduct had gone on so long, neither of them was able to consciously delineate between the rightness or wrongness of the action. Sandy knew it wasn’t necessarily right to have sex with her father in exchange for drugs, but the alternatives to supply her gargantuan need for the abuse of substances were far more horrific than what went on in that little guest room less than 20 feet from her mothers’ death bed. And it was far better than turning tricks behind a gas station or risking running into a gang in the park. Sandy considered the home of her abusive father the safest place she knew.
Everything had come to a head for Sandy and her father one cold night in January because Sandy was too high to be a compliant sex partner and he raped her anyway. The police were called, discovered – or were shown by her father – the drugs and the paraphernalia that he had secretly purchased and Sandy was locked up. Her father told her had placed a restraining order against her and she would never be allowed to come back to the house again. Her mother was within months of dying a horrible death from cancer and her children and her sisters had – quite literally – thrown up their hands in frustration and cut off what few lines of communication that were still open to Sandy. She had three children she hadn’t spoken to in years. She had never been a part of their lives.
So there she sat – less than 30 days into a 6 month jail sentence. She hadn’t written any letters or made any phone calls home. In fact, she told our small support group that she would never contact her parents again because she was so embarrassed at the shame she had brought to the family. She had stated that no one else in her family was the way she was. They were all smart and had good jobs. I would later find that substance abuse was the norm in her family dynamic and Sandy was just carrying on a family tradition. She was always generally uncooperative but she was more belligerent than ever and when she signed up to attend my class, stating that she only did so to escape the daily drudgery of the pod she spend 24 hours a day in, hustling for coffee and treats from the more affluent inmates.
Naturally, as was expected of anyone who wanted to catch the sympathetic ear of the women’s chaplain, she buried herself in the bible and was able to quote more scripture than I was. I later discovered in her property an impressive collection of bibles that were issued by the chaplains office, reflecting living proof that Sandy took these bibles with her when she left. Apparently, they could also be traded for drugs and were handy for rolling joints of marijuana laced with PCP. The missing pages pretty much confirmed this little trick I had heard of but never actually witnessed.
In spite of her difficult nature and her characteristic spitefulness, there was something about Sandy that resonated with me. I wanted to help her. I wanted her to help me. I was new to this “ministry business” and I was enthusiastically naïve. I longed to teach Sandy that she could live a life free from substance abuse and self neglect but it would turn out that Sandy would be the teacher and I would be the student and I would learn many things from Sandy.
This book is a compilation of what I learned about myself and the girls I work with as we try to find our place in a society that is grudgingly sympathetic to our plight but unsure as to what station they are comfortable allowing us to serve. We have all been involved in the sex industry in one form or another and we have all managed to overcome but we are plagued with memories, guilt, shame and a social stigma that very few understand.
Out Of The Life was born out of desire to reach out to girls like me as my husband and I sat outside on our patio on a balmy October evening in 2008. We were talking about our lives and how we felt about what it had taken to get to where we were. We had a small business of our own that was treating us pretty well although we didn’t own a house and certainly didn’t have any money in the bank. We worked really hard, seldom taking time off – much less taking a vacation – but we enjoyed having all our bills paid on time and a little left over at the end of every month to go out to eat or catch a movie guilt free. And best of all – we really enjoyed getting up every day – working hard and going to bed totally at peace with having a life we loved living. It had not always been so.
I had been thinking for a couple of years of writing a letter to my probation officer in Texas and apologizing to her for being such a rotten probationer. I had called a few numbers and googled her name and discovered that she had died from Breast Cancer. I was devastated. I had written the letter so many times in my head that it almost felt as if I would be unforgiven forever if I failed to do something that would reconcile – even if only in my own head – the damage I had done. I felt defeated and I hadn’t even begun to fight.
This was not a new feeling for me. My struggle to regain my footing in a life that had begun with so much opportunity and so much promise has spiraled out of control in the early 80’s and I had paid for much of it in the 90’s.
Much like Sandy, I was completely undone by my circumstance and – even as lately as a few years ago – I feared that I would never be “OK”.
As I looked into Sandy’s eyes week after week, I saw myself from years ago, bound in hopelessness. I knew how she felt in that moment. And I knew – I just knew – I could help her find her way back.
It turned out that Sandy was bound to the street with invisible ties that I never even came close to being able to see at the time. She returned to the street 2 weeks to the day that I picked her up from the jail and we haven’t spoken since. But the lessons I lived will stay with me for a lifetime and have come to impact the manner in which I continue to try and reach them.
There have been others – many others – that I was unable to “save” but I continue to have an open door in hopes that they will one day walk through it and find a life they never imagined.
A Life they Love Living.