This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsroom covering the US criminal justice system.
I grew up in Texarkana, Arkansas. I became a rebellious teenager. I met a boy. At that age, I did not know my own value, and was so caught up in the thrill of our young love that I made excuses for him when, shortly into our relationship, he started to call me names and was physically rough with me. In short order, the name-calling escalated to yelling and locking me outside in the cold. Then, he started hurting my family — including assaulting my father, who was blind.
One fateful day, he suggested that we rob my great-aunt. I went along with him, because by then I had learned that it was paramount to my safety to not anger him, to humor him, and to support him unconditionally. He told me that he would commit the robbery, and that I should then come pick him up so we could leave town. I agreed, unable at that age to process the risks we were taking and the potential consequences.
But when I arrived at my aunt’s house at the appointed time, my boyfriend was covered in her blood. The robbery had gone awry. He had murdered her.
I was hysterical. He told me that she had attacked him, after which he blacked out — he said he didn’t remember harming her. Afraid my boyfriend would kill me, too, I helped him rob the house.
The next day, we were arrested and charged with capital murder, which carried two possible sentences: death, or life without the possibility of parole.
We got life. I would be incarcerated forever. It was 1985, and I was just 17 years old.
“Adults in my life, including my lawyers and the jail staff, told me that I would certainly die behind bars. And I believed them.”
Once I got to prison, I was dealing with extreme guilt over my aunt’s death, and fear, because I was still a child and felt desperately alone. I continued to act out, like the teenager I was, by committing all the standard rule infractions, among them insolence to staff and possession of contraband. In hindsight, I was misbehaving not because I was a bad person, but because I was a very young person. My brain, according to scientific research I’ve now learned a lot about, was not yet fully developed.
Most of all, I was a hopeless person: Adults in my life, including my lawyers and the jail staff, told me that I would certainly die behind bars. And I believed them.
In 1993, the women in my facility were moved to a more dangerous prison that housed both male and female inmates and employed both male and female officers. It had been built in 1916, and by the time I got there the walls were riddled with massive holes and streaked with feces.
And even though I was only supposed to be supervised by female officers, I was assigned as clerk to the field major who ran the prison farm.
In this role, I interacted regularly with a male supervisor, who was 6-foot-4 and over 200 pounds. For the second time in my short life, I found myself with a man who was verbally abusive and aggressive, constantly calling me and other female inmates an array of sexist names.
One day, he came into the office, which was located in the back of the barracks and had brown paper covering its windows. He locked the door, and he raped me.
Then he told me to “get my ass back to work,” and left.
In the following days and weeks, he regularly threatened me, telling me to keep my mouth shut or else.
And then I realized I was pregnant.
When the officer found out, he attempted to induce an abortion by making me take quinine and turpentine. He threatened my life and told me that I had to point the finger at another guard who had also been sexually harassing me. I did, but eventually the true identity of my rapist was revealed; he took an extended leave for back problems but continued to call me by phone and tell me what to say and do.
He continued to be employed at the prison for another year, at which time he was terminated not for my assault but for an unrelated infraction: bringing drugs into the facility.
“Against all odds, I gave birth to a healthy baby boy. He completely changed my life.”
Meanwhile, the prison staff tried to force me to terminate the pregnancy, claiming that as a ward of the state, I had no choice. But I refused, and was put into solitary confinement for lying about who had fathered the child, and for having had “consensual” sex with an officer. In solitary, I had no mattress and was fed only bologna sandwiches.
Against all odds, I gave birth to a healthy baby boy. He completely changed my life.
Even though my son was conceived in the most traumatic possible way, his birth was my saving grace. Suddenly, I had a little human to care for, and I became consumed with ensuring that he had the best possible life. He changed my whole understanding of who I wanted to be: I started to see that I was a person who could grow, and change, and live again.
Another life-changing figure also appeared in my life during this time, after a prison guard contacted the ACLU and told them about my case. They sent me an attorney named Clayton Blackstock, who over the next 25 years helped me place my son with a good family, got me decent medical care when I became sick, and ultimately fought for me to get a second chance in society.
I was denied clemency five times. But in 2017, an Arkansas law was passed that allowed me to be resentenced because I committed my crime as a minor — and by that December, suddenly, gloriously, I was released from prison.
Today, I am home. And homecoming has certainly not been without its challenges: obtaining legal identification, medical care, and employment, among other things. But I consider myself among the beautifully lucky.
I get up in the middle of the night and walk around in the pitch dark — because I no longer have to wait for the prison wake-up call. I rise around 4 a.m. every morning to make sure I don’t miss even a moment of the day, starting with the sunrise. I can do things like go camping, and roast hot dogs and marshmallows over an open fire. I can hike through the mountains, and I can get in my car and drive — just go — whenever I want to. I spend every moment I can with my mother and my friends.
Being free is a truly sublime feeling. I live my freedom in a constant state of awe, and I want the others who were sentenced young, but have changed, to join me. ●
Laura Berry, 51, lives in Hot Springs, Arkansas. When she’s not working full-time, she helps others who were sentenced to long prison terms as children navigate the process of coming home.