CONTENT WARNING: This story discusses issues involving sexual and physical assault of a child and other topics that may be triggering to some readers. Viewer discretion is advised.
In July of this past summer, I was able to connect with Shelly through a mutual friend. Shelly Hart is an ex-prisoner and addict who has spent over 18 years of her life incarcerated. I had mentioned that I work for the Insurgent’s Prison Project and told her I was interested in learning about her experiences with the prison system, the failure of the system to better our society, and specifically how the system has failed her. Now in her early 40’s, Shelly has taken the time to sit down and take a deep dive into her past: starting from her earliest memories, to where she’s at today.
Shelly offers these words for our readers:
I want to let women know they don’t have to be ashamed. You don’t have to hide it and you’re not marked for life. You can overcome it- I got out, got off parole, and am clean. It doesn’t have to be your secret, there are people who care. If this helps one girl or boy feel better about themselves – to one day be able to look at themselves in the mirror again. To not turn to drugs or prostitution. Somewhere down the road you can remember this story and say fuck this I’m not gonna go to prison. You can make it to the other side, it’s easier said than done, believe me, but I did it and work everyday to keep it. I debated if this was the right time and place to tell my story, and have come to the decision that I can not and will hold on to this any longer. There is nothing stronger than women helping women.
We met at a diner over on West 11th and sat down in a booth towards the back of the restaurant. We both knew the conversation we were about to enter was a little too deep to begin casually next to the family of four sitting in the middle of the restaurant. As Shelly sat across from me I could feel the energy at the table start to set in, a heaviness took hold. I watched Shelly as she ordered a Pepsi, while her teacup chihuahua -cleverly named Misdemeanor- was sitting next to her in a cozy little bag. I looked at the questions I had written down but felt weird about diving into them right away. To my surprise, she was ready to dive in. She asked me what I wanted to hear first, if I was only interested in her time behind bars or if I wanted to know what actually led her there. I chose the latter, of course. I opened the voice memos app on my phone, hit record and we started with her earliest memories…
…In the 1970’s Shelly was just 5 years old when her life in Medford abruptly ended. One day, her family home was targeted by a drug raid. The FBI had shown up with shovels and started digging up the entire yard. They had found over 17 kilos of cocaine buried on the property. Shelly witnessed as her father was then arrested along with her uncle in connection with the mafia. Their bail was set at over half a million dollars. Shelly and her little brother went with their mother back to the house as she packed the necessities and loaded up the truck. They had one stop: Mexico.
As Shelly described the raid on her house she spoke fast and stammered a little bit. She had an almost confused look on her face.
As she continued, she prefaced this next period in her life as “The Ugly Part”:..
…A few years before the move to Mexico, when Shelly’s baby brother was born, her mom needed a hysterectomy, which is the surgical removal of the uterus. This posed a problem for their new start in Mexico since Shelly’s mother wanted to start a new family there and give her new husband a baby.
While Shelly is talking about this time in her life her voice maintains a remarkably still tone. Shelly and I have a brief conversation about how she has had the time and opportunity to work through this trauma in treatment and counseling sessions over these past few years she’s been out of prison. Her words staggered a bit. Slightly cringing in her seat, occasionally closing her eyes and shaking her head, she describes what happened to her…
…Due to her procedure, Shelly’s mother knew she was unable to have a baby herself, so she stood by and participated in a horrific cycle of abuse that was inflicted on Shelly over a ten-year period. Shelly would describe in gruesome detail the events that happened to her: her mother’s voice still in her head, “squeeze my hand when it hurts baby, it’ll be okay.” This was Shelly’s reality throughout her childhood, as terrifying as this is to believe. This was something, in time, Shelly would be able to overcome. The details of these events underline the intense manipulation that accompanies chronic child abuse.
I sat almost frozen in the booth as she told her story, my drink untouched. The few times I was able to meet my eyes with Shelly’s, my heart panged with emotion. Unable to even think to ask the questions I had originally come with, I just continued to listen for the next ninety minutes…
…Tragically, the abuse didn’t stop there. While her stepfather was out of the house his cousins would come over and Shelly’s mother would offer her to the men. There were times when people would notice something was off with Shelly, but her mom would instinctively take control of the narrative and explain how her daughter was probably “fucking the whole neighborhood.” Shelly’s mom would even go as far as to accuse her child of sleeping with other women’s husbands to distract from what was really happening.
Shelly, seemingly unfazed, took a breath and a bite of the fries we had ordered to share. Keeping the fast-paced and staggered words she started with, I leaned in…
…Shelly had her first baby when she was only 11 years old. She was out working in the fields with her aunt when she felt terrible cramps and she said, candidly, it felt as though she had pooped herself. Shelly told her auntie and she proceeded to grab a sleeping bag, put it in the trunk of a car and have Shelly climb in. Shelly recounts how her aunt helped her deliver the baby and laid it on her tummy. She remembers the baby being white with a mucusy film all over it. Then her aunt did something, Shelly is unsure what happened next, but thereafter her baby slowly turned a pale blue. When she cut the umbilical cord the baby died. Shelly was only 5 or 6 months pregnant at the time so the baby was a tiny thing—its mother a child herself.
Every person who was supposed to protect her failed. One after another, Shelly endured various traumatic events and periods in her life. The people who saw her in pain and chose to do nothing or be compliant to her suffering.
Shelly took another breath and continued on…
Soon after her first birth, Shelly fell pregnant once again by her stepfather; but this baby she carried to term. When Shelly went into labor this time, her mother took her to the hospital where they performed a cesarean section since she was so young. After the c-section, Shelly had to stay in the hospital for three days to be observed. But on the first day, as soon as the doctors took the baby out of the room, Shelly recalls how her mother took the baby and went home, leaving her daughter alone at the hospital for the remaining days…
Shelly’s tone shifted as well as the expression on her face. She was reliving that moment for a second time and the anger came back all too easy. Still, maintaining a low voice, she proceeded…
….When Shelly was finally discharged, she remembers calling her mom to have her come pick her up, but the response she received was cold. Her mother told her that she would have to walk home, that the exercise would do her good. Right after giving birth, Shelly was forced to walk five miles home. When she finally made it back her mother said to her, “on no uncertain terms: you are not allowed to look at that baby, talk to that baby, look in the direction of that baby- That is my baby and you better understand and understand good that is not your baby.”
The waitress walked over at this moment and asked if we needed anything. Shelly was so funny the way she looked at the waitress and said with some sass “thank you we’re not interested, mmhmm, yeah, ok yeah, thank you bye now” looked at me and laughed. She slipped back into the 2-word spurts…
Throughout Shelly’s childhood her mother was addicted to cocaine. One day her mother overdosed, found in the bathroom screaming, “Go get your aunt! Go get your aunt!” and Shelly did just that. Once her aunt realized what was happening, she told Shelly to take the baby and go hide in the other room.
Shelly just stood there for a minute.
Her aunt told her again,
Shelly, take the baby into the other room!
She told her auntie that she wasn’t allowed to touch the baby, her aunt looked at her and said: “I am telling you now it’s going to be okay, take the baby and hide.” So Shelly did as she was told, took the baby into her room and hid in the very back of the closet. It was the first time Shelly was able to really hold and look at the baby girl. The baby girl wrapped her little hand around Shelly’s finger, smelling like “little baby burp throw up.” She was so cute and sweet, and Shelly dozed off while gazing down at her. The next thing she knew she was awoken by being dragged out of the closet by her hair- things got ugly.
Her mom told her aunt, “you better get this little whore out of here before I kill her.” Her aunt came and got her and she stayed at her aunt’s house for two weeks until her mom demanded she come home. When she did return home the baby was gone. No baby clothes, crib, anything that could have been the baby’s was gone. No one even mentioned that the baby was ever there.
Years later she found out that her mother -afraid that Shelly had bonded with the baby- thought that she was going to run away with the baby and her husband, Shelly’s step-father.Shelly’s mom got high and smothered the baby with a pillow. Shelly says she has never fully come to terms with that event and didn’t find out about the incident until years later…
When Shelly was back at home the cycle of abuse continued and, not after long, she started missing her periods. Shelly was once again pregnant.
This is just the first part of the longer story of Shelly’s journey as a woman trapped within the prison industrial complex. Her childhood and the abuse she experienced set her on a path of addiction that ultimately led to her imprisonment. Shelly has been through so much counseling and treatment that she is able to talk about this with us today and be honest about herself in a way that many cannot begin to fathom. The Insurgent is indebted to the strength that Shelly exhibits by offering to share her story. From this, we can learn about the pathways to prison and begin to think about what we can do differently to avoid others from having similar experiences.