True Story: I Was In Federal Prison

i-was-in-federal-prison

Meg and her son, while she was incarcerated

Tell us a bit about yourself!
I’m Meg Worden. I am a writer, a health coach and a single mom to a 13-year-old boy. I get to do the things that I love and it’s infinitely rewarding. I’ve found that entrepreneurship is a great way to avoid answering the “felony” question at job interviews – a more painful process than you might imagine. I believe in art, story and good design above all things.

I believe that creatives are the barometer, interpreters and historians of our culture and that being healthy is directly correlated to having killer ideas. I am literally days away from my 42nd birthday party and I plan to be all sparkle that night because this next decade is going to be so disco. And by “disco,” I mean “supremely abundant and ridiculously sexy.”

Growing up, how did you feel about rules/laws/that kind of stuff?
My parents were both pretty conservative Catholics from south Louisiana. When I was a year old, we moved to Alaska, and thirteen years later, to Spokane, Washington. My dad wasn’t around and my mother had to work long hours to support us. So, while I was raised with pretty strict ideals and a mostly Catholic School education, the combination of constant transition, a lot of time alone, and other more stressful family complications and predilections had me constantly pushing edges. I wrote in my tween diary – “I want to live a literary life.” Can you even stand what an insufferable dork I was?

Anyway, as I imagined it, literary types were all really deep and wise, having hit some kind of emotional bottom, they survived to write about it. I glorified angst and acid-fueled jam bands. I read Jack Kerouac, JD Salinger, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I smoked Marlboros, marijuana, and those absurd clove cigarettes. I drank stolen whiskey and skipped school to hang out with the skater boys at the empty swimming pool in the park. I callously wrung the hands and heart of my mother and I fear the karmic retribution coming my way when my own son becomes a teenager person. He will probably become a Young Republican or something and send me to an early grave.

What did you go to prison for?
I was charged with “Conspiracy to Distribute 5000 Hits of Ecstasy” and, because I crossed state lines, I was sentenced in Federal Court. The local Springfield news referred to me as the “New York Wing of Operation X-Posed”.

What led to you selling ecstasy?
It would sound romantic to say I did it for love. And it would be kind of true. But it would be more accurate to say it was a lack of self-love. My boyfriend at that time had connections which made it easy and the opportunity seemed kind of exciting and important to me. I wanted to be valued and valuable and I didn’t know how to do that inherently. It was deeply satisfying to be holding something in my backpack that so many people wanted. They came to me. They wanted what I had.

Eventually, however, it was just messy and dangerous. I was scared of getting caught and tired of being around other drug dealers. It wasn’t long before we stopped and I became pregnant and started doing yoga and learning new, healthier ways to feel good about myself.

Tell us about the day that you were arrested.
So, I didn’t get caught in the act. We had already stopped and it had been a couple of years. The conspiracy charge happens when there is enough collaborating evidence like people who say you did it. I have no dramatic undercover bust story. I just drove over to the courthouse for fingerprinting, mug shots and paperwork.

The more interesting story is the day the Federal Agents from Springfield showed up at my apartment in Brooklyn to question me, the day I found out this was even an investigation. My son was only eight weeks old. I had been completely sober for a year and was mashing bananas for my new baby when they knocked, I answered, and they told me why they were there. It was terrifying and utterly surreal. So much time had passed. So much had changed. There was yoga, bananas, breastfeeding.

The agents were a weird combination of tourists who were psyched to be in New York for the first time, and serious professionals with an indictment to prosecute. They tried several ways to pressure me to talk, including threatening to call social services to pick up my infant so they could take me back to Missouri immediately. Barely able to function, I managed to call a friend, who connected me with his lawyer, who got on the phone with the agents and told them we would be in touch. On their way out the door, they asked me what New York City hotspots I would recommend they visit while they were in town.

How did the people in your life react to your arrest?
These were some of the worst conversations I’ve ever had to have. The reactions were varied, everyone having, and being entitled to, their own loss around this news. A thing like this causes new pain and triggers old traumas.

My boyfriend insisted I agree to cooperate and name him as my supplier so I could get a reduced sentence and either stay home or serve a shorter time. My mother cried and offered support. My dad was angry and absent. My grandparents, whose house I would stay at for over a year while waiting to be sentenced, were of different minds. My grandmother said, “This too shall pass,” and told me that it would make a great book!

My grandfather was more frustrated and embarrassed. “You really ruined your life,” he told me. “I’m not dead yet,” I replied. Then he stood up in court and told the judge that I was a good mother, the peacekeeper of the family, and trustworthy despite this indiscretion. Even individual reactions were varied. It was no small thing.

When you went to court, did you have any idea that you’d be sentenced to jail time? How did you feel when you heard the sentence?
I knew jail time was among the potential outcomes, yes. However, my lawyer was sure that, because I wasn’t a typical case, that this was a one-time thing, that I had made changes before they showed up and was, therefore, not a “foxhole conversion,” there might be a chance I would get five years of probation instead. And if I did get jail time, then I would have six months to self-report.

Instead, I was sentenced to serve twenty-four months and be immediately taken into custody. I had dropped my son off at daycare that morning. He had stood at the window, his tiny hand waving the sign for ‘I love you.’ He was fourteen months old and it was the day before Christmas Eve. He would be waiting for me to pick him up. He wanted a rocking horse for Christmas and I’d hidden it in the attic. And I wouldn’t be there for him. My family, even my lawyer was crying. It would take a very long time process the emotions of this day.

In the grand scheme of federal crimes, selling party drugs seems like a pretty light offense. Did you resent the two-year sentence?
I didn’t go to trial, which means I just pled guilty. My lawyer and some family were allowed to speak on my behalf, and my cooperation worked in my favor, but the Federal Guidelines aren’t so malleable. I try navigate life with a mindset of gratitude rather than resentment; that sounds pretentious, but it’s true. I have to. Because, yes, I deeply resent being separated from my son for this reason. The punishment didn’t fit the crime. The streets were no safer while I was locked up. Paying my debt to society was really expensive for society and did nothing to win the War On Drugs.

I have pretty big feelings about the inefficacy and conditions of a prison system that self-perpetuates, breeds violence, inadequacy, stigma, and oppression. I was in a low-security prison camp and there wasn’t anyone in there that couldn’t have been contributing, tax-paying members of society at home with their kids. Certainly, plenty of the women (including me) needed therapy and/or recovery, but not incarceration.

Did your son understand what was going on while you were in prison? Did you tell him? Where did he live while you were away?
He was only a year and a half when I left so he was too young to fully understand. I’m grateful for that. He stayed with my mother and we told him I was in Texas and that I would be back soon. I called him every day and wrote him letters. He was able to visit three times during the two years.

My mother tells the story of driving away from the prison after the first visit and he was crying in his car seat saying, “Mommy wants me to stay with her. Mommy wants to hold her baby.” He was right. I did. More than anything. Since I’ve been out, my son and I have had a slow and honest conversation over the years that gets more sophisticated as he grows. It’s important to me that I teach him how to tell his story without shame. He is amazing and doing really well.

Tell us about your first day in prison.
There were several first days. After my sentencing, I was handcuffed and brought to the holding cells in the basement of the courthouse. After a few hours there, I was bussed to the county jail where I was stripped, deloused, given a bed roll and sent up to the over-crowded, women’s unit where I had to sleep on the floor by the toilet. The industrial, fluorescent lights stayed on twenty-four hours a day, breakfast was served at four a.m., and we never got to go outside. Since it was Christmas, transfers were delayed and I was there for three weeks. It was rough.

When I was moved, I would stop in Oklahoma City, the primary transfer center for the federal system. It was more spacious and there was a rec room with a vented wall for fresh air. The lights went dim at night and we had rooms instead of cells with metal doors. The sound of slamming metal locks is a truly chilling sound.

After two weeks there, I was finally moved to the prison in Texas where I would serve my time. The long road to my first day in prison made getting there more of a relief than anything. The previous weeks I had been through, and been witness to, some of the worst things I’ve ever imagined. It made that first day in prison, where I’d be able to go outside, get some rest and routine, relatively, one of the best days I’ve ever had. Perspective is so weird.

What surprised you most about prison?
The absurdity and the laughing. I think the Flannery O’Connor quote captures the unexpected levity the best: “The maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy.” Human resilience is amazing.

Did you make friends there?
I became very close to two women and am still in touch with them both. We live in different states and I don’t see them often, but we are bonded by this unique experience and will always be friends. There will be elderly reunions with aching belly laughs and tear streaked jeans.

How did your sentence come to an end?
I got three months off for good behavior. When my out date arrived, my mother picked me up. I had about a million Starbucks drinks on the twelve hour drive home to my son.

heavenmcarthur-meg-w-117-webMeg today

How did it feel to be back outside?
Most people are surprised when I tell them that getting out of prison is harder than going in.

After living in a monochromatic world with only the belongings that fit inside a locker, sensory overwhelm was a huge problem for me. It took a while before I could go into a large store without having pretty major anxiety.

Driving and talking to people was hard. I stayed in my room a lot those first few days. I even had to sleep on the floor until I could acclimate to sleeping on a mattress. The most enjoyable thing was my son. I stayed right beside him for as long as possible until I had to go back to work a few weeks later.

The day I got home, he ran out of the house and jumped into my arms, buried his face in my neck and said. “I’m so glad you’re home, Mommy. “We don’t have to cry about missing each other anymore. Now we can cry about other things.”

And, of course, we still cry about other things all the time.

What’s one thing you learned from prison that any of us could apply to our day-to-day lives?
Time is a gift. It should be spent, never wasted. It is possible to find freedom wherever you are. Also, breaking rules can be destructive, but pushing the edges of your comfort zone can result in a kinesthetic experience of faith.

Thank you so, so much for sharing your story, Meg. Do you guy have any questions for her? 

27 Comments

Meg

My pleasure. I’m really proud of this one. Sarah does a great job of bringing out the best stories. Thank you so much, Ashlie.

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lindsay

thank you for sharing your story, meg. i don’t want this to come off as critical of meg, but i think readers should keep in mind that her story of incarceration is atypical and highly privileged. the vast majority of people who spend time in prison do not have the same support system or the freedom to be so open about their experience after the fact, if indeed there is an after-the-fact, given that it is so, so hard to stop the cycle of involvement in criminal activity after people get out. sorry to be a downer, but i spent time working for an organization that works to both prevent incarceration and to help folks re-enter society from incarceration, so i couldn’t let this point be left unsaid.

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Meg

HI Lindsay,

I’ve worked for, and still work for, organizations that work with re-entry. I’ve also written many other things about the topic. Most recently a 2-part essay dealing with that specific topic (rather than here where the focus was on personal story). Here is a link to part 2 at Salon.com -http://www.salon.com/2015/10/25/welcome_to_the_new_jim_crow_michelle_alexander_is_right_our_justice_system_doubles_as_a_racial_caste_system_partner/

Because you are right. That is a fact that is incredibly important. My experience is atypical. Which is why I try and tell it as much as possible. Not everyone has that privilege. Thank you so much for reading. – Meg Worden

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June

I am glad you brought this point up, Lindsay, because it is so absolutely integral to the story. Meg’s experiences before and during imprisonment, and her subsequent life afterward are prime examples of privilege at work, from the cops asking for her advice on the NY hot spots after days of questioning (instead of, ya know, beating or killing her on the spot) down to her generally warm and welcoming reception on this forum.

That being said, I enjoy your storytelling, Meg.

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Carrie Morley

Wow. What a great True Story interview. I’m so sorry Meg had to go through that, but I thank her for sharing her story, and I hope she writes a full book like her grandma suggested!

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Marie

This just makes me more and more angry that we still use incarceration as a way of “reducing the bad guys” in our society. A. There are no bad and good guys and B. Incarceration should only be used as a last resort when someone is beyond hope. Which is pretty much never. It damages people much more than the “crime” they ever committed- and we call ourselves a civilised society?

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Paula Howley

I’ve heard you tell it on podcasts and I’ve read it in several places. This is one of the best interviews thus far. I’m curious to know if you have much of a relationship with your parents. Can you go deep with them or is it a “Nice outside isn’t it?” kind of thing? Do they read your writing?
Happy almost birthday! 🙂

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Meg

Thank you, Paula. I was really pleased with how this turned out. Credit to Sarah. The parent relationship answer is: tender and tenuous. This piece is probably more than I’ve ever talked about them publicly. It’s hard. I feel protective no matter what. I talk to my mother some. Not my father at all. Not for years.

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Paula Howley

I appreciate your answer Meg. That’s hard. And I get it somewhat. My dad and I were off and on with years in between also. I think you are a pretty amazing person for what it’s worth.

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steph

This story is exactly why I’ve always been opposed to the Drug War and arbitrary minimum sentences. Also, as you mentioned, drug use is often due to an underlying cause that should be treated. Incarceration is not the answer. Thanks for sharing. Maybe it will change some minds or at least start a conversation.

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Sharon

Meg, thank you so much for allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to share your story.
You have inspired me a great deal.
Congratulations on the turn-around!

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Juliet

I hate to dredge up old and painful memories for you – but did they bring you back to Springfield, Missouri for court? I’m guessing it was Springfield, Missouri, from the mentions of Springfield and the threat to drag you back to Missouri. I’m curious because you mentioned having to sleep on the floor by the toilet due to the overcrowding in the jail while you were waiting to be transported to BOP – and that sounded like T2 in the Greene County Jail (a situation that is no better now, sadly). I’m actually a CO there.
I have to say, it’s interesting to read of your experience – I deal with people up to the point where they go to prison, but I only have a vague idea of what happens there. I will definitely agree that our “justice” system is broken – we have people who are robbing houses who are getting released in six months, and then there are people like you who have reformed their life and get sentenced to twenty-four months. It’s ridiculous. We aren’t “correcting” anything in this system – I’ve worked as a CO for years and in that time I’ve met exactly three people that I thought might actually reform who haven’t been back in my jail.

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Sky

The more I read about our criminal justice system, the more disgusted I become. This War on Drugs is insane and the amount of time it takes to get people to jail is ridiculous too. My friend was arrested in April on drug charges – his sentencing isn’t until December. In that time, he’s been to rehab and a halfway house and completely changed his life around. There’s a chance of solely probation, of course, but even still, how is jail supposed to improve or “fix” anything now? I wish we’d spent less on incarceration and more on rehabilitation. Yes, of course, there are plenty of people that should be kept off the streets…but we lock up so many for petty drug charges or people who have completely changed their life around (like you). It breaks my heart and makes me sick.

Thank you for sharing your story. <3

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The Jadeite Shutter Blog

I couldn’t agree more. It’s disgusting and particularly affects the vulnerable in our society. It [the war on drugs] has completely destroyed communities.

I pray we as a nation can make better choices with how drug abuse is dealt with. I work at a church that is the NA hub for Minneapolis and have been so shaken by the stories I’ve heard. Time and time again: someone with a difficult childhood falls into selling drugs (you know, because it’s lucrative and seen as a way out of poverty, desperate times and desperate measures– it’s almost obvious. As a goody-two-shoes Jesus girl I can completely get why someone in poverty might get into the drug trade), they’re eventually arrested, and they spend years and years in prison. My church is one place where we’ve actually hired people with a criminal record. Do I feel less safe with them around? Never. The stigmas and prejudice against those who are released also needs to end.

I think one way we can do all of that is through stories. Thank you Meg for sharing your experience.

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Sara

I had stumbled upon this powerful interview/personal story with Meg Worden through Meg’s blog… and through my email inbox. I have fallen in love like a spell with Meg’s past posts because of her writing! Her writing lures me in and welcomes me as a beloved guest. So here I am this one fine day scrolling through my email, deleting this, reading over that… bam, I find this interview and end up reading all of the comments below (alas, I am one of the commenters). Here’s my two cents worth… Meg, you are an amazing woman and thank you for shining your light, so that others can see through the darkness. This particular True Story interview was dated as the 2nd of November 2015, which was my 40th birthday. Happy upcoming and/or belated 42nd birthday to YOU, Meg. I shall close this note with what my 8-year-old daughter had shared with me after school one day as they were discussing a well-celebrated children’s author: “Today you are YOU, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is YOUER than YOU!” -Dr. Seuss… much love and grace, Sara

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Beky

I am soon supposed to self surrender, I have a young son also. I do not have the support system you did 🙁 I am scared, not for myself but for my son…..
I committed healthcare fraud and I am supposed to serve 6 months…. I would love to talk to you more about the system.

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University of Solitude

“Time is a gift. It should be spent, never wasted. It is possible to find freedom wherever you are.”
Reading that I can sense that despite everything negative, prison experience served you really well. Thank you for this interview and don’t forget to spread the message.

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Lydia Thomas

Thank you for sharing. I’m convicted of tax fraud. It’s a old crime I did about 4 years ago. Totally changed my life everything. Have gotten engaged living myself finally. Start turning to God instead of man, buy my past came back to hunt me. I’m grateful for the mercy God showed me. I just wish I always was on the straight and narrow path. I’m thankful for your story. I have four children ages 21,17,16,12 even doe they’re older they’re still my baby’s I’m so worried about them. I also have 24 months

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Alwyn

Why do they incarcerate people for what they want to ingest? I am hostile to alcohol, tobacco, and all the other drugs, and advise people against them; but why should the state intervene? One country even banned alcohol for a decade or more – handing over a very profitable business to criminals, thus making them very rich – oh wait, it was the U.S.A.! And the country still hasn’t got rid of the gangsters who did so well out of Prohibition. The War on Drugs has perhaps caused more human misery than any other recent home-grown political campaign – and after all the millions of humans it incarcerated, and families it broke up, it has failed to stop widespread drug-taking.

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