At the end of the Willowhaven1 complex, a long driveway of buildings with 4-apartment units lining it, lies the apartment of Sarah Gillam. She’s been out of prison for almost a year. She had her fourth child, Charden~e, on Monday November 27th and she’s a drug dealer.
When I knocked on her door a few weeks ago for the last interview, I was surprised when a squat, Hispanic man answered. I looked at him confused, until I heard Sarah’s voice come through the open doorway and he pushed past me outside. I walked into the small, second floor apartment and saw Sarah, fully pregnant, sitting on her couch in front of her coffee table, which has a small drawer open on it. In the drawer is a large bag full of the same off-white rocks found on her tabletop. On her table is a small pile of baggies, a small digital scale, some off-white powdery rocks and a knife. She’s talking to another man, who doesn’t acknowledge me, nor do I know his name. Her phone keeps ringing from other clients.
“I thought it was 85 last time,” he says. “I got a 20 for 85.”
“Only ‘cause that’s what you had. I did you a favor. It’s 95 for a 20,” she replies.
She uses the butt of the knife to crush a small chunk of cocaine in a small bag into powder. She sets the bag on the table right in front of him. They exchange money for drugs.
After he leaves, she tells me that Mark, her boyfriend’s nine-year-old son, is in the other room watching TV. I sit down and watch it with him for a little while. During a commercial, he shows me some drawings he did of Sarah and his dad. Both of the drawings have huge caricature heads and Sarah’s has a big belly that juts out from the rest of the body. He knows what’s going on at the apartment. He’s an incredible kid; he just keeps rolling with the flow and he seems to be making conscious choices to not follow his parents’ path.
When I leave the back bedroom, I realize that there are more people at the apartment again. Charles is back with a friend. Charles is a dealer too, but he also hauls cattle and ropes at competitions for his money. Sarah doesn’t deal meth anymore. Her clientele was getting too bizarre, so now she exclusively deals in ‘powder’ or cocaine. Her client base is larger and she makes more money.
“I got people you wouldn’t imagine. They hold responsible jobs and all that.”
When Charles leaves, he has someone on the phone with him.
“Hang on,” he says. “I gotta kiss the queen.” Then he starts to walk out.
“When are you gonna be back?” Sarah asks.
“Do you want me to lie?”
“Then don’t ask me that.” He shuts the door.
Sarah spent 10 years inside a revolving-door prison system. The overcrowded prison system is allowing criminals in for violent crimes to be paroled while others are kept in for their full terms. Some states have instituted full term laws like ‘truth-in-sentencing’ laws in Wisconsin, where if you are sentenced to a term, then you will serve that full term, while federal bills have been introduced allowing time decreases for non-violent criminals. The Non-Violent Offender Relief Act of 2003 was introduced to decrease time for federal prisoners who had no violent history yet were 45 or older. This had no effect on state-level prisoners.
The state level of politics still deals with ‘hard-on-crime’ platforms so any legislation letting non-violent prisoners serve less time will be nearly impossible to pass. The only legislation likely to be passed on the state level would be for the construction of more prisons. The prison systems of the US, particularly Texas, have significant problems. Texas has the highest incarceration rate in the US. Texas alone has a higher incarceration rate than China or Russia. 1 in 20 adults in Texas are in prison and one in four US prisoners are in Texas. And it’s not because Texas has the highest rate of crime. Texas ranks between 13th and 17th in the nation for crime. In fact, crime has been dropping in Texas, yet the rate of incarceration is increasing. There’s a problem here.
Sarah Gillam was born in January 1976. Her mother was a 17-year-old runaway from Connecticut who had found her way to Georgia and her father was a 30-year-old Native American man named Patrick. Somehow, Sarah and her mother made it to Texas a few years later. Her mother briefly married a man named Jon and she had two more kids then married a man named Chuck and had one more. Sarah was a tough kid. She fought a lot with other kids and threatened to burn down her house once.
Because of all the trouble that Sarah made, she wasn’t around for most of her siblings’ lives. At 12, she was sent to Girls’ Town, a home for troubled youth. At 13, she lost her virginity and at 16, when she came home for a Christmas she got pregnant. Her first son was DeMarcus Jerome2, DJ; he is now 15 years old. DJ’s father was one of her hometown’s star football players. He left her soon after. She moved to Houston where she met a man named Sanoi, or ‘Choice’ as he called himself. She had a daughter with him named Ironesha Shawntai.
Here’s the rub, and where Sarah’s story goes from bad to worse. Choice was abusing DJ. Sarah knew about it and told him that if he kept beating DJ she would leave. He agreed to stop. The story becomes more complicated. Sarah called her mother and told her what had happened. From there, her mother called the police and told them that she had rescued DJ, which was not the case. Choice and Sarah were arrested, Choice for abuse, and Sarah for obstruction of justice and neglect. According to Sarah, she was arrested for not calling the police first and when her story and her mother’s story conflicted as to who had initially taken action to stop Choice, the law rested on her mother’s side. Sarah didn’t talk to investigators because Choice’s family had her daughter. She went down for not talking. She was set as an example. At 19, Sarah entered the State of Texas’ judicial system and she had her 3rd child, a son named Sanoi ‘Fat Daddy,’ alone, in a jail cell. She spent over 10 years in Texas Department of Corrections facilities and served her full term. Choice was sentenced to 30 years in prison and he was released in less than 7. He is now an assistant reverend. In December 2005, she reentered life on the outside. She was 29 and over half her life had been spent in an institution.
While she was in prison, Sarah was practicing as a lesbian, as most female inmates do. Before prison she had experimented as an early teen with other girls. When she left, she had a girlfriend named Shun’tai. She broke it off with Shun’tai when things became more serious with Charles. The humor of her whole predicament isn’t lost on her.
“I should have stuck with women. I wouldn’t be here,” she jokes.
She looks the part of a former inmate. She’s covered in tattoos from her neck down. She has a tough-as-nails attitude and has been known for violence in the past. She doesn’t regret not talking.
“It just sucks that it had to go down like that, but they had my baby, you know. So, no, I don’t regret it.”
When she first went in, people told her she wouldn’t do more than 2 years of her 10-year sentence. She did those two years without a problem. She even got her GED. After that, they told her just another two more years. She got into a few fights, including one with a woman named ‘Hollywood’ who was her lover. At that point they changed her from general population to close cutody, where she couldn’t have contact visits or go outside for ‘rec,’ recreation. The only person who kept in contact with her during the first part of her conviction was her grandmother, but when her grandmother died, the prison board wouldn’t let her attend the ceremony, which is general practice. So she decided that she had followed their rules long enough. If she was going to serve out her term, she was going to do it her way. She started fighting more and more frequently. She stayed on lock-down for the rest of her conviction.
Sarah spent a few months trying to find a job, but she couldn’t find any jobs due to the fact that she was an ex-con. The jobs she did find were short-lived because she couldn’t handle them.
“I got a job washing sheets at a nursing home. I had to take all the sheets covered with shit and wash them all day. That’s it. Without gloves. I couldn’t do that, not for $5.15. And it was part-time, I can’t live off that.”
She eventually got a job at a factory. She liked that job but it didn’t last long either. She had met a man named Charles. The factory asked her to quit because she had gotten pregnant again. So she quit and moved in with Charles. Things were going good with Charles for a while until she found out on the 4th of July that he was cheating on her. She kicked him out of their apartment and she started dealing drugs. She got in contact with his supplier and had weed, meth, and cocaine.
“When Charles left, I had rent, I had all the bills and I didn’t have a job. I did what I could.”
Sarah got pulled over after less than a week of being a dealer and they found over 5 grams of both meth and coke in her Jeep. She went to county jail until she was bailed out. While she was locked up, her neighbor broke into her apartment and stole the rest of her stash. She spent a few days in jail before Charles changed his mind and scrounged up her bail. Charles and Sarah have made up since and are still living together. She had to make a deal with the county’s narcotic officer. She would have to work out a situation to get one of the county’s biggest suppliers behind bars. She still hasn’t ratted out her supplier and her court date keeps getting pushed back. Sarah may lose the chance to raise her 4th child like she did with all of her other kids.
She knows that what she’s doing isn’t the smartest choice, but to her it’s worth the risk. She needs the money more than anything. To her, raising Chardenae in an environment with drugs is worth it because she will at least have the money to clothe and feed her.
“At the factory, I had to bust my ass for $300 a week and now I make more than that in a day. I was originally gonna to go back to the factory after the baby was born but now I think I’m gonna breastfeed and stuff like that.”
To her it’s worth the risk. She would rather be doing something less risky but it was too easy to get into.
“I couldn’t find any other work. I was pregnant and an ex-con. I was fucked and this was my easiest way out.”
The way society looks at prison is a problem, if only for the fact that people can’t decide what its role is. Many look at it as an opportunity for the condemned to be rehabilitated and reintroduced to society while still many others see it exclusively as punishment. The point is, that once a person makes that mistake that lands them in prison, they are introduced into a system and soon they can’t get out.
If prison is the punishment, then the punishment should end at prison. However, ex-convicts aren’t trusted; and while I can’t hold this apprehension against anyone, I believe that second chances should be given, otherwise, they will be sucked back into this vicious cycle. 2 out of 3 inmates are arrested again and over half go back to prison. 2 out of 3 incoming prisoners in the Texas in 1999 were going back fro parole or probation violations, which means they didn’t even necessarily commit a new crime. If prison is supposed to be about rehabilitation to help them get out of prison and be productive members of society, then the system is failing, miserably. One way that prisoners could be helped adjust back to society as well as alleviate the problem of overcrowding would be to have more inmates released on parole and have a parole officer. When an inmate serves his full term, he is thrown into the world without preparation, alone. When an inmate is paroled, her parole officer is there to help her and coach her. Parole officers usually have connection with apartment complexes and jobs that are willing to work with ex-convicts. This lets the inmate have a connection to somewhat friendly places as well as a guide in the outside world. Another plus of this is that it is more cost-effective for the government and it helps to alleviate crowding problems. It’s hard without help for them to find work or a place to stay on their own. Crime is easier.
It’s a failing system. It’s overcrowded. These are statistics you’ve probably already heard.
At my last interview with her, I helped Sarah set up her first Christmas tree, it may be her last in a long time depending on how her trial goes. For having a previous record, she probably will go back.
I think deeper at the root of this issue is society as a whole. If we expect people to not get caught in this cycle they have to be given a chance. They have to be able to get jobs and apartments and live their lives without being harassed. We need to be cautious, as we do with everyone, but we shouldn’t persecute or belittle them based on a mistake in the past.
Surprisingly, Sarah doesn’t seem to be afraid of going back to prison.
“The only thing they take is your freedom and other simplicities, but it’s something you adjust to, so it’s not really punishment anymore, it’s just where you’re at and how you live.”
Charles is going up against the same fate but he does seem to have fear of it. He was released from prison 3 years ago on drug charges. He was recently caught with a few ounces of marijuana in his truck. His version of the story is a little bit different. He said he isn’t dumb enough to keep that much in his truck. It belonged to his friend who didn’t tell him that he had it on him. They offered him 8 years. He’s going to fight it. If he loses, he’s thinking about running.
For someone to say that something as fundamental, at least to Americans, as her freedom isn’t that valuable is unimaginable. Sarah’s only real goal right now is to be there to raise Chardenae. When she talks about the baby, she lights up and you can tell she wants it to be different this time. She wants to stay out not for her own sake but for her baby’s. She wants to play an active role in Charden~e’s life. Charden~e is her reason to keep trying and unfortunately, she’s her reason to keep selling too.
“Babies are expensive, you know? I’m tired of ‘em, after this one, I’m getting my tubes tied. When I was working before, when I finished paying the bills, I didn’t have anything left, I just paid all my bills and I still have a grand in my pocket. But the baby ain’t here yet so I need all I got.”
But until the day that she knows her fate, she’s going to live her life as normal as she can and she’s going to keep dealing. She doesn’t have a choice. Sarah went down fighting for one of her babies once before and she’ll do it again if she has to. That’s just a part of the life she leads. Just a part of the cycle.
There were a lot of sensitive subjects in this piece. The openness of my subjects greatly enhanced the visual quality of my narrative. The overall subject matter is extremely sensitive and controversial. Most people feel very strongly about the role of prison or criminals. I tried to just tell her story and make her predicament real without parodying her or the situation. I had hard decisions to make when changing the names of the characters while still staying true to the character of the original names. I feel like I struck a good balance between telling her and simply showing it. The paper still feels slightly split between the two sections of the paper, her story and my point. I integrated it more fully this time, however not completely.