we had sandwiches
The pleasant woman to my left - the one who hooked me up with a cup of coffee before she, herself, sat down - is a murderer. I don’t mean that in a figurative or symbolic way - she’s the real deal: tried, convicted, guilty in the first degree. Among the 20 or 24 people gathered around our table, various pastors and felons, at least three more are killers too: one killed a man after an affair went sour, one fatally injured a child she was caring for, another killed one of her own children, and the pleasant woman with whom I am sharing coffee and conversation stabbed an elderly lady to death.
I want to be clear that I’m not researching the histories of my fellow committee members - we’re not supposed to do that. It’s just that I’m old enough to have read a few newspapers, and some stories and names have stayed with me.
This is the first time I have met the woman sitting next to me, but I’ve known about her for a long time. Her crime was big news more than two decades ago, and I’ve never forgotten her name or the name of her victim. There were aspects of the murder that horrified and angered me. The victim could hardly have been more innocent, unsuspecting, or undeserving. She was targeted and killed in a very hands-on way. I imagine there was a bit of a mess, and the pleasant woman sitting next to me would have had to wash up afterward.
As I’ve already said, I’ve never forgotten the pleasant woman’s name and in fact, at any time in the last twenty years, if you had asked me to identify a contemporary monster, I probably would have submitted her as my first or second choice. Though she only has the one conviction, the very cold-bloodedness of her crime elevates the pleasant woman to share a status with more prolific killers. Even after twenty-five years, she looms large in my awareness, and I never expected to meet her in person.
I arrived at the prison for this committee meeting, worked my way through security, walked to the correct building and circled the conference table for a place to sit. I found an empty chair, placed my name card in front of my seat, and as I realized who would be sitting next to me … it would be impolite to record the words that came to mind. I hope I didn’t say them out loud.
In this crowd of Christians meeting inside the walls of the prison, it is rude and inappropriate to label people by their crimes. There's more to each one of us than the worst thing we've ever done, right? Earlier, I used the word “killer” to describe some of the people here at the meeting. I acknowledge that language is rather harsh and some members of the committee will be uncomfortable with it. But, there are truths about each one of us, and the truth remains the truth whether we’re comfortable with it or not. Those I have called killers have, in fact, killed.
The pleasant woman and I introduce ourselves and shake hands. I am friendly, but can’t quite say, “Nice to meet you.” “Fascinated to meet you,” would be more accurate, but I don’t say that either because the situation is already weird enough. When I tell her where I am from she says, “then you probably know why I’m here: I was convicted of first-degree murder.” It’s an acknowledgment of her situation without actually being a confession. She’s remarkably forward with that piece of information - I had no right and no reason to expect it from her. This committee generally follows “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but she comes right out with it. I admit that I know of her case, and change the subject because we're not supposed to talk about it, and since we have shared a moment of honesty, it seems some ice is broken between us.
Meeting the pleasant woman challenges my expectations of what a felon looks like and makes me question my ability to evaluate others accurately. It’s easy to go into these meetings with the assumption that the women on the inside are somehow more “wild” than we are - that there will be teeth and claws and menace inside the cage. In our volunteer training, they tell us over and over again to not forget where we are and with whom we are working. This place might look like a college campus, but it isn’t. These ladies are in prison for a reason. You have to have hurt someone to be in here, if not physically, then financially or deeply emotionally. Our training officer warned us to be on guard, as this is a population of manipulators and victimizers.
I keep waiting to feel threatened. I expect it at any moment. I kind of want it. I joined this ministry committee because I believe in the work they are doing, but I could say the same thing about a lot of committees I’m on. I joined this committee because of the low-grade adventure of going inside a prison a few times a year. I’m a journalist and suspect I’ll find a story. I’m a voyeur, and I’m guessing there’s something to see.
But the most dangerous element of this meeting is the scalding nature of the coffee offered by the pleasant woman, and the weirdest thing about the meeting is that it isn’t weird at all. The situation is not strange because of the presence of menace, rather for the lack of it. This is like any other working lunch. We have a purpose and an agenda and informal rules of order. There are restroom breaks and a time to eat. We have sandwiches as we make small talk about where we’re from, the weather, the food.
I find the pleasant woman, and all of the “insiders” on our committee, to be bright, creative and sincere. For some of them, prison life is the most stability they’ve ever had: health issues are treated, medication is under control, addictions are managed, the abusive father isn’t here. They’re engaged and clean and enthusiastic, and they have their acts together enough that it’s easy to lose track of the fact that they earned their admission to this place.
As I meet these locked-up women, my overwhelming reaction is that every one of their situations is a tragedy. In most cases, there’s the initial tragedy where they were the victim: mental illness, addiction, abuse. Then there’s the tragedy that they, in turn, brought to their victims - the tragedy of why they’re here. And there’s the final tragedy of spending their precious earthly years locked behind the razor wire.
But, when I talk about this tragedy, please understand that I’m not saying I feel sorry for the imprisoned women in a sentimental, hand-wringing, eye-wiping sort of way. I’m a believer in consequences and accountability and sequestering those who can’t be trusted to not victimize the rest of us. I just recognize a waste when I see one.
The pleasant woman on my left was convicted of First Degree Murder. When you’re convicted of Murder One in my state, it is a mandatory lifetime sentence without the possibility of parole. The judge has no leeway. You’re going into the system, and you’re not coming out. You’ll never plan another vacation, attend another birthday party for your kids, visit Gramma, or sit on the patio with a glass of wine while the charcoal warms. It’s Life. Period. End of story. I’m OK with that, in fact, I favor it. The idea of the pleasant woman sitting next to me spending the rest of her days in prison does not bother me because I know what she did. In fact, it brings me a bit of peace to know that known murderers are not allowed to walk the same streets that I do.
The Supreme Court ruled a few years ago that it was cruel and unusual to sentence juveniles under adult guidelines to life without parole. The pleasant woman on my left was a teenager when she was sentenced, and now the parole board is trying to decide what to do with her. After twenty-five years served, she is beginning to see the possibility of a pathway to get out. It will be a long process that involves incremental steps and lots of oversight. It will be an amazingly difficult process for her because the world is different now than it was the last time she was free, and if she thought life was tough before, now she’ll have to live it with murder on her resume.
Sharing lunch with the pleasant woman and having it seem normal will give me a lot to think about on my drive home. At what point does the pleasant woman sitting next to me get to say, in the past-tense, “I was a murderer,” instead of the present-tense, “I am a murderer”? She’ll have to learn to see herself as capable of, and motivated by, good. Maybe twenty-five years is enough time for her to have done that.
The collective “we” on the outside will have to consider her debt to society to be paid, but that’s a tough sell to those who knew and loved the victim. An element of forgiveness comes into play. Are we capable of that? Am I capable of that?
Can we trust her enough to let her walk freely with us? Trust is something that is hard to rebuild, and trust is what the collective “we” need before we can take the pleasant woman back into our communities. At what point do we let her reclaim that her place in society is legitimate and at what point do I stop calling her “killer”? I claim to be a believer in accountability and consequences, but forgiveness and grace are fundamental principles of my faith and I’m finding myself challenged, here.
The scariest part of this visit to the prison is the realization that you can’t look at another human being and know what is in their head. The pleasant woman sitting next to me might have all the appearances of rehabilitation, but how do we know? What does a monster look like? The ones I’ve seen look just like us. Has she changed over the last twenty-five years? I know I have.
The pleasant woman to my left - the one who hooked me up with a cup of coffee before she, herself, sat down - is a murderer. I don’t mean that in a figurative or symbolic way - she’s the real deal: tried, convicted, guilty in the first degree - and now she’s looking forward to a new chapter in life. Among the 20 or 24 people gathered around our table, various pastors and felons, at least three others are killers, too: one is an older woman with a quick smile and a gentle touch who has learned how to reach out to others through her artistic talent, another seems to be creative, enthusiastic and capable of leadership, and another has recently developed a new view of the value of her own life as she explores different angles of the concept of forgiveness. And the pleasant woman with whom I have been sharing coffee and conversation might actually get her freedom someday.
Note: We Had Sandwiches is an edited version of an essay which won 5th place in the Writer's Digest Annual Competition, (memoir and personal essay category) in 2017.