Free since June 2019
While incarcerated, Lainey graduated from Truth Be Told’s Talk to Me Writing program, in which participants write and share the story of what they believe put them on a path to prison. She also participated in Living Deeper and Freer and Pay It Forward, two programs that Truth Be Told offers to Talk to Me graduates serving lengthier sentences.
You were incarcerated as a teenager and spent 30 years in prison. This week, you celebrate one year and three months of freedom. What are you most proud of over these past 15 months?
The first is glaringly obvious to me: My relationship with my husband has been pretty fantastic. I am ecstatic at how well he and I have meshed “in person.” Even though neither of us had reservations about each other, there was always a small degree of fear that what we felt and shared while I was in prison would not transfer over into the real world. For 15 years, we hoped, dreamed and waited for the chance to live our life together. Our love was built over years of multi-paged letters, two-hour impersonal visits in a room with a hundred families and guards scrutinizing our every movement and kiss, stripping us of any sense of intimacy or privacy, and later, hours of exorbitantly priced phone calls during which neither of us could stand to say goodbye and hang up until the next day. We began under the worst of circumstances; yet, we found a way to endure, survive and, later, thrive as a couple. I am very proud of what we have developed into together, and it is actually more beautiful than I ever imagined possible.
Second, I’d have to say that I am very proud of how well I have adapted to life beyond bars. I went to prison after a horrific childhood, the kind of existence that Child Protective Services workers talk about as their worst cases that they see. Within the first month and a half out of prison, I had a job with a performance meal prep business. After three months, I wanted to be doing more to contribute to our household income, so I looked for another job. I had an interview at a retail store the second week of November. The HR person and I immediately connected, and I knew I had found not only a new job, but a friend and a place I could grow. This was the second time I had ever interviewed for a job, and I landed it! I began my new job the day before Thanksgiving. In March, my store director asked if I was interested in developing and interviewing for a management position. I spent the next month under tutelage, and I interviewed for manager at the end of April. I was promoted to service and engagement manager three days later. I am currently developing with the intention of moving higher in the next year or two.
I am proud of this because I am prison-raised. I don’t have an education beyond a GED and a year of college. I have succeeded due to my tenacity, excellent work ethic and the belief I have in myself. I own my car. I got a driver’s license for the first time in my life in January, and it has given me an immense sense of liberty and independence. I love making my own decisions.
When I first got home, a trip to the Whole Foods bulk section made me cry, for I had too many choices. I was overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of selections spread before me. This has been one my biggest personal challenges, actually. I had severe difficulty deciding what to eat, what clothes were appropriate for different circumstances, even what to watch on TV. For 30 years, I had two different sets of white clothes, limited selections of food at the chow hall and prison store, and only sometimes got to vote for a specific television show in the dayroom. I lived a life of extraordinary sensory deprivation.
It is still a little heady to contemplate the cornucopia of options I feast my eyes upon daily. However, I feel I have adapted and adjusted smoothly. I have yet to encounter a single person who is not astounded and in disbelief when I reveal I spent three decades in prison. I came out bruised, not broken and bitter. I am proud of that.
You have said that you feel “trapped” by the things you don’t know and the things you missed. How do you “liberate” yourself?
The trapped feeling is more that I feel left behind. Time stood still for me, while it moved at light-speed for the rest of Western civilization. When I got arrested, Motorola car phones and Apple home computers were just coming out. When I got home, I had an iPhone 6. I loathed that phone, frankly. I can’t count the number of times I cried in frustration because I couldn’t figure out how to do something on it. Suddenly, I owned something that encompassed phone, television, video camera and computer in this tiny little rectangle. While the rest of the world learned to text through a gradual evolution, I had to learn to speak and understand a language and a complete culture.
I learn quickly, but it seems as though all I am truly figuring out is how much I still don’t know. That is very intimidating at times. In many ways, I feel I am always going to be behind everyone else, running to catch up, yet never able to do so.
As for “liberating” myself, I look for free, online courses, and I am hoping to get a grant or scholarship so I can learn how to code. I keep striving. I have to remind myself I wasn’t gone for a few weeks; I can’t expect to make up for 30 years in a matter of months.
As a person who spent two-thirds of her life in the custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), what do you want people to know about the practice of incarceration and its impact on individuals, families and the community?
Modern-day prison is not about rehabilitation. The system strips away every iota of what individualizes someone and cuts off any attempt to rise above one’s mistakes. During my years inside, I begged to take a vocational class in order to have a marketable skill once released, but I was told I had too much time. The few college hours I earned, I had to reimburse TDCJ for after I was paroled.
Prisons don’t want happy, healthy, educated prisoners; they want bloated, lazy sheep who are complacent and easy to control. The problem with that is it creates a vicious cycle of recidivism, and the only beneficiaries of that cycle are those who work in/for the system. It is job security.
This attitude and mindset can be seen in every area of prison life, though. From crappy, high-carb diets in the chow hall to no fresh produce and few healthy foods on commissary. There’s also poor medical care; constantly canceled recreation; few life skills programs outside of ones with faith-based agendas; no educational programs for people who have a long sentence or no monetary support; and minimal contact with family, friends, and loved ones. The contact allowed costs more than the average prisoner’s household can support.
Society wants to lock people up and throw away the key, because it takes too much effort to help the hurt and broken become healthy and whole. Khalil Gibran said in “The Prophet”: You cannot separate the just from the unjust and the good from the wicked; For they stand together before the face of the sun even as the black thread and the white are woven together.
What have you discovered about yourself since regaining your freedom that surprises you?
I hate being known as “the former inmate.” Yet, I often find that so many of my stories, among friends in random social situations, often circle back to my throwing in, “When I was inside…” as a prelude to the coming story. No matter how much separation I put between me and my life as an inmate, there is an almost innate part of me that cannot shake that I spent so much time inside, and that truly is a big part of who I am.
I’d also like to add that for all of my successes and “I’m doing so well – so soon,” I also feel like I am failing because I am not at the same level of understanding regarding the world that I live in when compared to everyone who has been existing in it all this time. My husband has compared my situation to moving to a different country. That is an understatement because for the first months after prison (and this has lessened, but it is still very much present), I felt like I had immigrated to a different planet altogether. I just happened to speak the same language, for the most part, as the natives of my new home.
Why is Truth Be Told worth supporting?
Truth Be Told is more than a way to pass time in the air-conditioned education building (Editor’s note: TDCJ state-run prisons do not have air-conditioning in residential dorms) and add a certificate to one’s parole packet. It is hands-down the best program I participated in during my 30 years inside.
The volunteers are different. They are transparent, compassionate and genuinely caring. The material isn’t designed to give someone a formula to heal, but rather to help them discover the best path for themselves. Truth Be Told gave me a safe place to explore the darkness of my past and understand for the first time the reasons behind my choices, the impact of my actions. It helped me unlock my voice and share my story. It showed me how to take responsibility for my decisions and my life. During the years I spent in Truth Be Told classrooms, I grew and blossomed. I felt accepted, not judged; powerful, not helpless; part of a community, not alone. Sharing my truth not only helped me heal, it helped others as well, and that was worth the pain of the journey. It was worth opening up and being vulnerable before others. It was worth cutting open old wounds and letting true healing begin.
In my opinion, anyone interested in truly helping incarcerated women heal, grow and thrive will support Truth Be Told. It changes hearts and lives. It certainly helped change mine.
Looking ahead, what are you most excited about? Do you have dreams or goals you want to pursue?
I am excited about possibly moving up in my current job. This is certainly driven by monetary reasons, but it also is a matter of succeeding and proving to myself and the universe that no matter what my life has been, I am still here, still breathing and prevailing.
As for my goals and dreams that I want to pursue, I do not necessarily want to be a retail executive manager. Ultimately, I’d like to learn to write code/program and be able to provide an income source for my husband and I that is lucrative and fluid in computer technology. I took to computer programming back when DOS and Basic A were taught in junior high and high school. I realize I am dating myself with that, but it made sense to me. Languages make sense to me, and I pick them up rapidly. I taught myself Arabic, Braille, American Sign Language and some German while I was in prison. I know that I can do it and could pick up HTML, Java, etc. I just don’t know where to begin.
I’ve been looking at some online, fast-track, boot camp classes through The University of Texas. However, those are not financially feasible in that they do not qualify for traditional financial aid. Since it is not a degree program, there aren’t FASFA/Pell grants nor student loans to help cover the costs up front. I feel I need some remedial training to bring me up to speed because of all of the other things I’ve mentioned regarding my lack of having evolved with technological advances throughout the years.
Another thing is that my husband and I are trying to purchase our own home. I want something that can’t be taken away. I spent my childhood being moved around family to family, pillar to post, then spent 30 years in hell. I want a safe, loving home for us to grow old in together. This is turning out to be seemingly impossible due to my husband’s medical bill debt and my lack of credit and work history. I feel that if I had a skill set that was fluid and could transfer anywhere geographically that I would be able to give more to my own existence, which would then benefit us both.
One of the greatest dreams that I can think of is to get a time reduction and/or pardon. As things stand now, I will be on parole for the rest of my life. I would like to remove the limitations on me, as well as my husband, if possible, as to not still feel like my freedom is overshadowed by the state still having me under their thumb.
I don’t want to struggle for the rest of our lives. I want to thrive. I am giving all that I possess to do so, no matter how limited I feel that effort may be in the moment. I won’t lose. This I know. As I told my store director when he hired me: “Failure is not an option.”
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Lainey wrote this poem in the final months of her 30-year incarceration.
As the End Comes (a tribute to Alice Walker)
I remember beginnings –
The first time I was molested
Sold, abandoned, raped
The first drink, snort, shot of
Whatever would numb some
of the pain. The first time I
ran, and the first time I
just stayed and closed my eyes.
The first time I tried to hang.
I recall pissing on myself
In fear when I entered jail
at sixteen. The smell of
vomit, stale bodies, and
broken lives seeping into my
skin and hair as
I huddled in a corner
trying to be invisible again.
I can still feel the smooth
slice and burn of steel parting
flesh. The pulse of my lifeblood
racing forth when I tried to
Give the state back my seventy-five years –
The easy way…….
A cascading red necklace
made of anguish and despair.
As days became months,
then decades, which melded into
monotonous monologues with different
faces but familiar themes,
hope became dust motes in a sunbeam –
briefly glimpsed, but intangible,
With the changing of the
calendars, the changes in
the mirror, came the
changes in my soul –
Emerging from the shattered
mess of degradation and shame
arose a survivor, a warrior
an unconquerable heart
who dared to look up,
lift my head,
and piece together a life amid the dross and dregs
of the irredeemable.
As the end comes,
everything I’ve heard
Betrayal no longer matters
Hatreds are forgotten,
Partings for weird reasons
are resolved, and love
comes crashing against
my heart’s door.
There is no longer fear
of the unknown
but a gripping, relentless
as months become days,
And I walk out the gates
to a new beginning
toward my own
until now unimaginable
without fences and bars