And, Bridget is designed to flourish; just as we are all designed to flourish. My truth in this is that I can be a part of helping others flourish. Before Bridget, I didn't truly know what that meant. Now, my drug is pursuing the good in others.
On cross examination, the Prosecution argued that Bridget did have the knife in her hand. They showed, in court, the surveillance video from Walmart of the confrontation between Bridget and the Walmart employee. The video is grainy enough that one can't exactly determine what is or isn't in her hand...
On the back of court documents, Bridget penned letter after letter to Dylan, the boyfriend with whom she was arrested in Wabasha County for 5th-degree possession in August 2013. These letters were never mailed, but they chronicle Bridget's thoughts and feelings during that time. Below are excerpts...
In a matter of weeks, Bridget went from a drug user to a link in the intricate chain of drug supply. It was all about numbers: this much for that amount. A tenth, a gram, a pound. For a small link in the chain like Bridget, the numbers would never add up. She would always lose in this zero sum game.
New people came into Bridget's life with some regularity. And, relationships among drug users are fluid. One day you may be best friends, sisters, or brothers, and the next day one of them could turn criminal informant...Such was the case when police caught a woman selling drugs in Eau Claire, WI. She said she'd bought the drugs from Bridget, but that she hadn't actually paid Bridget for them, yet.
"You know," she hesitated, "maybe I'm not the woman I think I am." "No. You're not. You're worse," he said coldly. Like a knife in her chest, his words cut deep. She put her hand over her mouth to keep from sobbing. Once she gained her composure she spoke again.
"Where's your lawyer's office?" She spoke softly holding back tears. "I'll sign the papers. I'll give you the children."
By then, the sirens were ringing in her ear. She broke out into a run straight into the marsh. She thrashed through the thick grass that pulled at her feet willing her to fall. Pulling her way through she finally found a spot far enough away and crouched as low as she could. She took off her jacket and buried herself underneath. Hidden. Thank goodness there was no snow.
It never occurred to me that so much could happen inside the walls of a jail library. But, it's there that our lives changed.
The only difference was I was free to leave. It would be a year and a half before she would do the same.
She was there awaiting trial on a charge of 1st-degree aggravated robbery. I knew because I'd looked it up on the county's in-custody website. Her mug shot showed a smiling face. "Why would she smile?" I wondered.
But then again, what did I know about would-be criminals? It was only two months earlier that I'd had this wild idea to volunteer at the detention center. The goal was to encourage detainees through the writing process and somewhere along the way, write a song about their life in a program I called, "Your Story / Your Song." Easy enough, right?
But then again, what did I know of songwriting? Despite a degree in piano performance, I was inadequate, to say the least, since I had no formal training in songwriting, no real success I could speak of, and only one measly studio recording under my belt. This was gonna be great.
Thankfully, what I did have was the confidence and moxie to walk into that jail as if I owned it.
My heart was pounding in my ears as the women entered the jail library. Five women had expressed interest in the program and the goal was to narrow it down to two. Before they had arrived, I had assessed the room. The library felt like a concrete shoe box painted a neutral buttery shade of cream. There were metal shelves lining the walls filled with books. The ceiling consisted of exposed I-beams accompanied by water pipes and electrical fixtures. The odd caricatures painted on the walls above the bookshelves made the room strangely inviting as if to remind a person that the detainees who painted them were, in fact, human. There were a few small tables, plastic chairs, and a large wood desk at the front of the room. Near the desk was an old 1970's Wurlitzer electric piano that provided the right sort of badassery for the setting. Man, I love to sit and play that thing.
It took me a while to pick just the right spot on the front edge of the wood desk where I sat as the ladies walked in. Could they sense how nervous I was?
They talked amongst themselves and offered pleasant greetings as they took their seats. I immediately took control of the room, introduced myself, handed out the information sheet and began explaining why I was there and why I felt this process would benefit them. But, I wanted to hear from them, too, so I also asked some questions. (see footnote 1)
“Tell me, in one or two words, how you feel right now at this very moment?"
“Hopeful," a woman whose name I would later learn to be Bridget responded.
“Determined," came another response.
“Distracted," said another. (see footnote 2)
“Overwhelmed," added another.
“Empowered," came the last reply.
As I wrote their responses, I posed another question, “When you think of your current circumstance, how do you feel?”
The answers had similar themes - shameful, heartbroken, confused - until one woman lightened the conversation. "Shit happens," she said.
Then, Bridget chimed in again, “I feel like God brought me here. This is my chance to change because if my behavior doesn’t change in here, it won’t change on the street...”
Everyone began nodding their heads in agreement and began talking about a woman, a friend of theirs, named Dawn Pfister who had been in custody with them until recently. While in custody, Dawn had decided to change her life; to make good choices and better her life once she was on the outside. After her release, word got back to the jail that Dawn wasn't doing well, so the ladies sent her a letter in the hopes of lifting her spirit. Days later, however, they found out Dawn and her boyfriend had been fatally shot by police on an interstate in the Twin Cities. My stomach dropped as I made the connection between the woman they were speaking of and the woman at the center of a heart-breaking news story I'd seen days prior. (see footnote 3) To them, Dawn wasn't just another drug addict or person who didn't comply with police orders, she was their friend and someone who desperately wanted a different life.
It could have been any one of them on that interstate.
What led Dawn to live the way she did, to die the way she did? Lord, have mercy. That. That was the reason I was in that jail library talking to those women about writing their stories. I told them it would be painful to dig up the past, but it was one of the keys that would unlock their future. Of that, I was sure.
When I was finished describing the program and inviting them to participate, Bridget was the most vocal in expressing her discomfort in sharing her feelings & emotions. No way did she need this program. Two of the other women were enthusiastic about it and the remaining two were on the fence. The choice on who I would work with was ultimately in the hands of jail programming staff. They would determine who was picked based on interest, release date, or potential trial date and behavior.
Two weeks later, Bridget was one of two women chosen. And, it's her story I'm telling.
1 In consideration of their unique circumstances, and in agreement with Olmsted County, I am unable to share the identity or personal details of incarcerated individuals other than Bridget.
2 There were 21 women on the unit – 10 more than average, so things were crowded and uncomfortable.
3 Pfister’s death: http://www.startribune.com/local/west/245281551.html
Officers cleared: http://www.startribune.com/local/west/286391201.html
Family sues: http://www.startribune.com/local/west/290590741.html
Being a correctional officer isn't being some sort of big brute tossing people around. It's having sympathy and empathy. It's former detainees coming up to you in the street and saying, "Thank you for the respect you gave me...I've turned my life around." It's people that go back into the community to be productive citizens - that's what being a correctional officer is all about.
Brian didn't live past 25, and I'm going to be 35. I have already lived the sort of life he never got to live. He never got married, he never had kids and he never left Illinois. I'm married, have a daughter and I've lived lots of different places. Because he didn't get to do these things I'm going to do them and I have done them.