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Doin' Time by Natalie Baker

Doin’ Time
by Natalie Baker

“There is no perfect solution here, but Ms. Baker, by the Court’s decision, is getting the benefit of three years below the minimum provided under the guidelines. That will be four years prison incarceration, one year below what the State requests under the plea agreement.”

The edges of my periphery darkened, almost as if I were inside a tunnel, and I planted my hands, now ice-cold, on the table to keep myself from falling over. The judge’s mouth continued to move, but I couldn’t hear a word. It felt like someone had just plunged a knife through my chest, and it took a few seconds for my brain to process what I had just heard. Wait … did I just hear him correctly? Surely he didn’t say four years, right? Me? Go to prison? For FOUR YEARS?! As the realization started to sink in, I started to hyperventilate. This can’t be happening. I’m a good person. Good people don’t go to prison – for four years!

Words like “shank” and “prison rape” flooded my thoughts, and my eyes wandered to the hazy afternoon glow coming from the fourth-story courtroom’s lone window. Business professionals were walking along the street below with not a care in the world. Some laughing, some punching away on their cell phones. Their world hadn’t ended like mine just had. I looked up and noticed there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. How long would it be until I saw the sun again? I wondered, as I was surrounded by men in uniform and hoisted to my feet. I lowered my head in disgrace as I felt cool metal close around my wrists, the click-click-snap of the handcuffs slicing through the shocked silence of the courtroom. I imagined this was how someone felt after getting sentenced to life. Because, to me, four years in state prison sure felt like a life sentence.

“I’m going to be all right,” I told the dozens of friends and family there to support me; my voice sounding hollow and robotic. With guards holding each elbow, I was guided towards a side door leading to what I now realized was the county jail. My dad reached out for me in desperation as I passed, trying to do anything he could to protect me, his oldest daughter, from the nightmare that was just beginning. “You. Are. My. Champion!” he cried, before breaking down into a sob and collapsing onto my youngest sister.

I shuffled forward numbly and once through the door, a voice called my name. My attorney. The same attorney who had told me to expect a one-year sentence in county jail. Maximum. I dully swiveled my head around to see what he wanted. “BE STRONG!” he called out, as if this was the most profound advice in the world. I looked at him blankly, panging with regret over hiring such a moron in the first place. I was going to need a lot more help than that to survive four years behind bars.

A few seconds later, the heavy door sealed shut behind me, its sound echoing throughout the fluorescent-lit hallway. I was on my own, and there was no turning back – to my family on the other side or to the normal life I’d been accustomed to living the last 27 years.

My journey inside the prison system had just begun.

***

The night that would change my life forever had started like any other. It had been a beautiful September day in southwest Florida, one I had spent slaving away at my thankless job as a construction defect attorney. My bully of a boss was going to town on something that I had submitted to her, as usual, and I had spent the afternoon wallowing in despair about my chosen career path. Having detested law school, what had I thought practicing law would have been any different?

My toxic work environment normally didn’t bother me too much, but I had felt especially vulnerable those last few weeks. In addition to my parents’ recent divorce and subsequent dissolution of my close-knit family, my serious boyfriend had had a sudden change-of-heart, walking out the door and out of my life. His statement, “I just want to be single” was my only form of closure, and with my family members and close friends four states away in Texas, I felt utterly alone as I tried (unsuccessfully) to bounce back from heartache.

It wouldn’t have taken much to send me over the edge at that point, so when I was informed a few weeks later that my ex had already scooped up someone new, something inside me snapped. I was sick of always trying to live up to others’ expectations and being the boring, responsible over-achiever. Because, in the end, where had it gotten me? Heartbroken, miserable and alone, that’s what. It was time to throw all caution to the wind, I decided, and nothing sounded better than numbing my feelings of inadequacy with several glasses of pinot grigio. I met up with a girlfriend at a local sushi bar, and as the evening wore on, so did the wine. This was mainly due to the group of attractive single guys from Rhode Island we met shortly after we arrived, who made sure our glasses were never empty. One, in particular, had taken a liking to me, and before I knew it, it was one in the morning and he was trying to sweet-talk me into accompanying him back to his hotel room. Shocked at how late it had gotten, I refused his advances and instead hopped into my car to drive myself home. With three miles left to go, my BlackBerry dinged with an incoming text message. My ex. It had to be him saying he wanted me back, I told myself as I drunkenly rooted my phone out of my purse sitting in the front seat. Of course it wasn’t him, but I looked at it anyway. God only knows how long my eyes were off the road, but I never saw the black Jeep waiting at the red light. Its four passengers were heading home when I crashed into them and propelled their vehicle over 200 feet through the intersection.

In a small town like Fort Myers, news travels fast. But news travels especially fast when a pregnant teenager and a five-week-old baby (related to a local Sheriff’s deputy, no less) are seriously injured by a drunk blonde driving a sports car. Seemingly in seconds, my name had gone from anonymous to infamous; my past forgotten and replaced with a simple two-word term: “drunk driver.” A criminal investigation soon commenced, and it wasn’t long until stacks of medical records, witness statements and police reports sat untouched in a corner of my apartment. The thought of flipping through them and reliving the horror of that night was simply too unbearable.

***

I languished in the Lee County Jail for three days, replaying the events leading up to the car crash in my head and questioning how I was going to survive the future that lay in store for me. As a first-time-ever offender, I had no idea what to expect, and no one, not even my attorneys, could tell me what would happen to me once behind the fence. I was transported to Fort Lauderdale in the middle of the night with two other inmates, and we huddled together in the back of a prison van, handcuffed and shackled. It was our first prison experience, and the terror of what awaited us grew stronger as we entered the facility and slowly rolled through a series of barbed wire fences. I had never seen a real prison before, but it looked and felt just like how it was portrayed in the movies: bleak, austere, hopeless. We passed by dormitories that looked to me like concentration camp barracks, and women in blue uniforms stopped their manual labor long enough to watch us enter the facility. Fresh meat.

The following two weeks I spent at Broward Correctional were nothing short of terrifying, as I was thrown into a world where violence, racism and degrading treatment defined everyday life. At night, I slept between a woman who had murdered her son and a woman who sketched piles of dead babies on her canteen notepad. Days were spent sitting on our bunks staring straight ahead in silence, and we were often punished for imaginary infractions by correctional offices intoxicated with power. Dozens of trivial prison rules were drilled into our heads, and as hours passed like years, I was introduced to what would become my biggest enemy: time. It was this earliest period of my sentence where my inner strength and mental discipline were at their lowest, my body barely functioning due to depression and fear. My weight plummeted, my hair fell out in clumps, and blood vessels in my eyes burst from all the stress of simply trying to survive. My formerly privileged life felt like a world away now, and despite being housed in a room containing nearly one hundred other women, I had never felt more alone.

I was soon shipped to Homestead Correctional, a medium-security prison outside Miami, where I spent the next 22 months. Any relief I had felt by leaving Broward was soon swamped by the far of the new unknown, as I was placed in General Population and forced to co-exist with some of the most renowned murderers and pedophiles in the state of Florida. The transition was incredibly tough, and I was mentally unprepared for the shock of prison culture and the uncivilized manner in which many of the inmates conducted themselves. But little by little, I settled into routine and vowed to make this period of “forced leisure” as productive as possibly, keeping busy through reading, attaining my MBA degree through correspondence courses, and exercising with others from my dorm. There was an unexpected camaraderie amongst the women – a product of the situation we were experiencing together – and despite thinking I had little in common with anyone, I made a surprising amount of friends. Whether it was swapping stories of cheating ex-boyfriends, relaying the latest in celebrity gossip or fantasizing about fruits and vegetables, I always had someone to vent to, run the track with or sit next to at the Chow Hall.

As I worked down my custody level to become eligible for the Work Release program, I held a variety of jobs, such as scrubbing pots, mowing the compound perimeter, and even tackling the unruly growth of the Everglades while wielding a machete. And in the midst of these tasks that required little mental exertion, somewhere I found what I had lost so long ago: myself. With the encumbrances of society removed, I embraced the daily simplicity and learned to treasure life in a way I had forgotten during my quest for professional success. Though not at all happy with my situation, I was, for the first time in my life, perfectly content in my own skin.

Shortly before Thanksgiving of 2011, I was selected to be shipped to a work release facility, and via a three-week stint at Lowell Correctional in the “Lifer” dorm, I finally landed in Bradenton and into “Pre-Work Release,” a nine-month substance abuse program designed for those with alcohol and drug-related crimes. Seven days a week, we were required to take elementary-level classes, all while being frequently punished with multiple-day lockdowns, where all privileges, such as talking, phone calls and sleep, were taken away. Eventually, I completed the program and transitioned into Work Release, where I waitressed full-time at a country club in Sarasota, which brought its own share of challenges. As had been the case throughout my sentence, I was frequently targeted by female officers, especially those who knew I had a law degree. Here was no different, but none were crueler or more manipulative than the employment supervisor at this facility. In an attempt to avoid her at all costs, I picked up as many shifts as I could as the days remaining on my sentence wound down.

Over the years, my biggest motivator had been envisioning the wonderful life that awaited me upon release. As far as I was concerned, life was going to be problem-free once I was out, and I couldn’t wait to leave everything and everyone associated with prison behind me. On July 9, 2013, after 41 months of incarceration, I was released into my family’s arms a little after midnight. But, life, I soon realized, wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies like I’d anticipated. Faced with staggering debt, an inactive law license and a debilitating case of PTSD, I discovered the true test wasn’t surviving prison – it was re-entering society as a convicted felon. I also now had six years of felony probation to complete, and with a plethora of special conditions tacked on, actual freedom felt light-years away. For several months, I desperately longed to be back in prison again, where I could be around those who could relate to me and what I’d experienced, and escape from all of life’s unpredictability and financial stresses that I’d become ill-equipped at handling while away from society for so long.

Starting life over at age 31 was overwhelming, to say the least, but once my probation was transferred home to Texas about a year and a half later, my life started to fall into place. I spent my days surrounded by family and friends, and worked in a managerial position at a non-profit aimed at rehabilitating prisoners – all moves that helped me heal, as well as come to terms with my past. I met my husband several months later, and now, after three years of being together, we’ll welcome our first child together this February.

***

It’s been a long, tough road, but the wisdom and life experience I’ve gained on this journey have been invaluable. I’ve been taught humility, gratitude and selflessness along the way, but most importantly, I’ve learned, with whatever life throws at me, I can’t be broken.