“I treat other people like I want to be treated.”
- LaQuanda Faye Jacobs
What follows is the first of many conversations I’ve had with Faye since her release. This occurred about six months after she was freed from prison in Arkansas.
It’s a late Tuesday afternoon in February. It’s the third rescheduling of our interview at Journey House but I’m not so sure about it… sleet ticks the dining room windows and it’s already starting to get dark. I’m nervous about traffic and my drive home. Faye sits across from me nervously folding and unfolding the corners of the placemat on the table in front of her. She wears a knit hat and a jeans jacket with a sequined collar. She has a kind, open face and a soft, engaging voice.
Are you sure you want to do this now, Faye? We can reschedule again.
We better go ahead. I’m moving out of Journey House tonight right after this. Bella and I are driving to my new condo about twenty minutes from here.
My companion dog. They got her for me through Truman Mental Health. They thought she would help with my PTSD.
(We hear voices and laughing in the living room.) Sounds like Bella’s the center of attention out there.
Faye smiles. Yeah. Everybody’s gonna miss her.
Are you nervous about the weather? We truly don’t have to do this now.
I’m all right, I think. Let’s see how it goes.
Okay. Where would you like to start?
I’ll start off with my entering prison when I was just sixteen. I wasn’t used to getting up early and being told what to do. My home was not as structured. In prison the security guards had authority over everybody. They told you how to wear your hair, how to wear your makeup and clothes.
What did you bring with you?
The only thing you can bring in is a Bible. So, I had the Bible my parents had gotten me. They brought it to me in jail. When you arrive in prison, what they do is they measure you and you are given three uniforms, two pair of underwear, two bras, two pair of socks and a pair of state shoes. The shoes are for men. They hurt your feet! You get ten dollars to buy stamped envelopes, deodorant, and a bar of soap. You have a bag with two rolls of toilet tissue, thirty sanitary napkins, a small tube of toothpaste, a tiny little toothbrush. There is no such thing as a regular toothbrush. I am so happy to be able to really brush my teeth now. For twenty-six years I used a tiny toothbrush about the length of my pinky.
So, you were swept into this rigid system with no preparation.
I had no clue whatsoever! The prison routine was my having to get up at 2am if I wanted to eat breakfast at 3am.
Breakfast at two o’clock in the morning?
Breakfast was between three and three-thirty for all the prisoners unless you had family who sent you money and then you could buy something. I am a breakfast person but I couldn’t adapt. Eventually I did but it took years.
What time were lunch and dinner?
Lunch started at nine o’clock in the morning and had to be done by noon for everybody on the compound. Dinner started at two-thirty and had to be done by five-thirty.
Were you the youngest person in the prison?
No. However, I was the youngest who had life without parole. There were other young girls. For instance, there was a girl there for murder but she just had life. In the state of Arkansas if you had a twenty-five-year sentence you had only to do five years to the door. Several girls there were fourteen. But I was not only the youngest girl there with life without parole, I was the only juvenile there (under eighteen) with a sentence of life without parole.
What were your accommodations?
When I first arrived, I lived in a dorm. It was the only female prison in Pine Bluff, Arkansas and it could only hold three to four hundred women. They had outgrown it when I arrived, so they moved us to a bigger prison that could hold six hundred prisoners and then the women outgrew that and they build another prison that could hold about one-thousand women.
Why was the population growing so fast?
I would say it was due to drug abuse. So many women did not belong there. They needed a drug treatment program. I also encountered many women with such mental problems they couldn’t fend for themselves. They just locked them up and threw them away. So cruel. So sad.
Could you give a specific example?
So… I got close to an older lady who is deceased now. Her name is Shirley Curry. Her and I were very close. She taught me how to play Scrabble and I eventually became undefeated! I beat everybody in prison. I am still known there as the champion. No one can beat me and Shirley is the one who taught me. But she had a mental problem. She killed her whole family. Her dog, her cat, her kids and her husband because she had a severe mental disease. Every sixty days they would have to give her a mandatory shot to keep her calm. She didn’t have any medication or help before her crime and prison. No one noticed her condition out there in society. She was in prison thirty-seven years before she died. In another particular incident a young lady who has severe mental problems has been confined for thirty-five years. She has become an animal. They keep her in an eight-by-eight-foot cell. She can’t be released because she is dangerous to herself and to them. She is still there.
An eight-by-eight-foot cell sounds like solitary confinement.
That’s exactly where she’s at. She is in the hole. Not on the ward. She needs to be in a state hospital not the mental health area of a prison. I know a lot about the mental health area because my job in prison for five years was Mental Health Porter. I was able to interact with them and I was able to do one-on-one with them.
What does that mean?
One lady couldn’t come out of her cell so I would pull a chair up to her door and talk to her. She would play different little hand games and gestures through the door. So, I befriended them. Listened if they wanted to talk. Doing one-on-ones got me close to Mrs. Curry because not everybody… well, I’m not saying that I can handle anything or any person but I was really patient and I could listen and so that was something the staff entrusted in me and I could go in that area. It turned out to be really great because it was a learning experience for me. I saw the other side. In prison they are called the crazy people like in a haunted house or something over there. Dehumanizing. But they are not like that. They are human beings with feelings and dreams and desires. You just have to sit down and listen. Some of them are so bright, like Mrs. Curry. She had an IQ way high. Brilliant.
So, you were a good person to be doing one-on-ones on the mental ward. Did you have an itinerary?
No. I’d just walk in with games and candy and sit down with them in the hall that was totally silent. I’d try to help them open up. Or if they couldn’t be out, I would go to the doors of their individual rooms.
Paint a picture of what that ward was like.
When you walk into the mental health place it is two stories with fifty-two cells. Each has a toilet and sink and a concrete slab bed with a thin mattress. No locker. No property box. Some don’t know what property is because they are so drugged up. They don’t know where they are at. They keep them controlled so the prison and society don’t have to deal with them.
How did your mental health visitations get started?
It was a job assignment. The Classification Committee assigns people jobs. They are very careful about this. So, at the time I was working in the kitchen and they’d bring in the mental prisoners. I would come out and sit down with them and eat with them. Word got out about how those ladies would ask about me, so the committee decided to assign Jacobs this job. “She helps them stay calm. She interacts well.” I wasn’t trained for that position. It was just sort of a gift…
Yeah. Some staff were really harsh to them.
How’d you know of Mrs. Curry’s horrendous crime?
Security talked about the different crimes. “That’s the lady who ate her baby,” or some other heinous thing. But when I first met Mrs. Curry, I didn’t know her crime. They said that she really liked me and I said I really liked her. And they asked do you know what she’s here for? And I said it didn’t matter to me what she was here for. I like her, the person I know today - not the past person.
How did your attitude and intuition about people help you survive in prison?
Going on that ward with them was an escape. I wondered about my own family on the outside - if they were being treated all right - so in prison I treated people like I wanted my own family members to be treated. Somebody in my family might have a mental disease - you just never know. I treat other people like I want to be treated.
That attitude seems a major factor of your resilience in prison.
Yeah. It’s who I am. It caused my serving time to not be so bad. I’ve witnessed decisions and attitudes that make other prisoners’ time hard but it don’t have to be.
What’s an example?
Somebody comes into prison. She has choice to get in the game and when I say get in the game, I mean what’s illegal - tobacco, drugs, pills, and something else - it’s like a drug that comes in on a letter and they put it on their tongue, disobeying the rules that protect us, disrespecting security, arguing, making hooch.
Hooch? Cooking alcohol?
Yeast and fruit - fermenting.
You observed this and chose not to get into those things. Did you ever mess up?
Yes. Going in very young I was unsure who I wanted to hang out with - girls who weren’t good for me. I was pegged by being in a troublemaking clique. Attitude. Disrespect. It’s what I was up under. As I got older, I thought this is not who I am. I am by myself. So, I left, became a loner and got involved in church, which I did very heavily until my release. I had favor. I tried out and was allowed to travel with a singing group. All of us were lifers. We didn’t have shackles. We had a white uniform with a choir robe over it. We’d travel, sing and testify all over Arkansas. We were called the Prodigal Daughters. It’s still going on since 1975.
What about family visits?
When I was locked up in 1992 my dad came every week. After he passed my siblings kinda fell off - every blue moon. My mom came once a month. My parents - my mom and stepdad are going to come live with me in my condo. I will drive to Texas and get them. I’ve had two good dads. I was a Daddy’s girl. Two of my siblings passed away while I was in prison. I went to their funerals. I have seen the others since I got out.
How about education in prison? Do you have your GED?
Yes. But for the first year I was there they wouldn’t allow me to go to school because I was a lifer. They have a list of people who are going to get out, so they needed the GED. Not me. They came before me. But finally, I passed it… quickly!
What other types of training did you have? What’s a typical day in prison?
Routine. Always. Breakfast at three o’clock am. Intercom very loud screaming, “Wake up! Chow time!!” Very rude. I also worked in the inmate and staff beauty shop, cosmetology, kitchen, laundry, floor crew buffing and waxing. I did every job there was. Maintenance clerk. Substance Abuse Clerk. Later I became an intake clerk that started at seven in the morning. It’s where inmates leave and come in. My last three years I was at a desk.
What about emotional support groups?
Because of my sentence I wasn’t allowed to do a lot of things. I did everything I was allowed to even if it didn’t apply to me. I took a drug class because a family member of mine might be sick and need my knowledge. I wanted to know why drug users do what they do. I took a faith-based program, basically every program available. I took it even if I couldn’t personally relate to it for myself. It helped me understand more. My brother could have been an NBA player but he got on drugs. Went to jail. His letter to me was like from a little kindergartner. I mean, what is this? I wanted to know.
Was there free time?
Yes. Every Saturday we had choir practice at six o’clock pm. Also, there was outside or inside recreation two or three times a day. I didn’t do much Yard call unless someone wanted to talk and then I’d go out. We played the staff in sports and were undefeated. There are pictures on the gym wall. My last three years I became more isolated because I knew attorneys with the Midwest Innocence Project (MIP) were working to get me out. They gave me a tablet. I was fascinated with technology. I stayed in my room on that tablet.
Before that had you ever thought you might get out?
Yes, I always knew. I had faith I would. I would express - man gave me life but God gave me freedom. I encouraged others to not give up. In 2014 I got a letter saying that I might qualify for re-sentencing. A lady at prison who is my spiritual mother said, Girl, you going home! I said, yes, I am going home through the Innocence Project.
What do you mean by spiritual mother?
She was a mother to me in prison. She was a certified minister and our Prodigal Daughters choir director. She took me up on her wings. She pushed me when I was nervous, gave me motivation that I could do it. She was very spiritual. She really helped me.
Was she a prisoner herself?
Yes. She has been there since I was born. 1975. She knew everything. I still write her.
She must miss you.
I miss her, too.
Let’s go forward for a moment. What was it like the day you got out?
So…when I was released there were a ton of people and attorneys and my family there to greet me. We go meet up at a restaurant. The first thing my attorney did was hand me this. (Faye waves her phone). And I said, “What is that?” I didn’t know! She said, “It’s your phone. We turned it on for you.” It was just so, so overwhelming but I was trying to act like I had it together. We were there at the restaurant for ten minutes and a reporter from The New York Times called me. She wanted to do an interview. I said how do you know about me? The New York Times? I did an interview right then. She was interested in how am I feeling at this very moment and asked about my plans - did I intend to sue the state of Arkansas? She was just going so deep. I hadn’t been free for twenty-four hours. I said I am not thinking about any suing, I am trying to get my life together. Suing is not my focus.
Are you thinking of suing the State of Arkansas?
I want to be completely pardoned by the Governor - Aza Hutchings. That is my focus. I want to be exonerated completely.
Where does that stand now?
It is being presented to him - he has six months to a year - but I don’t think it has been filed yet.
Is this through the Midwest Innocence project? Are they optimistic?
They have good vibes about it. The Kansas City law firm of Lathrop and Gage is also working on it. Kim Winters. She stands out. But six months after my release it is still overwhelming with me just trying to adjust into… uh, what’s the word… adjusting and trying to get it… uh…. So many responsibilities…
(The maintenance guy at the Journey House knocks on the dining room door. Barges in. He says that the roads are starting to ice up and that Faye needs air in her tires.)
(Faye’s tone shifts to panic.) “Oh, no! I can’t do that. Oh, my God! Air in my tires? I don’t know how to do that!”
He replies, “It’s nothin’. Every time it gets cold the air in your tires will shrink and you will need to fill them up. Cold air contracts. Warm air expands. It’ll be okay, Faye. You’ll pass a gas station.”
He leaves. Faye sits back with her arms down at her sides. Her tone is very anxious.
To tell you the truth I am a nervous wreck! I am scared to be alone. I panic over the smallest things. I want a house but I don’t want to be alone.
You haven’t lived alone ever…What can I do right now to help you?
Oh, nothin’. (Laughs.)
You have a 20-minute drive to get to your new house from here?
…Yeah …But I don’t know the area at all. They found the place for me on a Zillow list. I feel like I am trying to do everything and I’m just…
In prison everything is done for you….
Yes. And all the sudden everything is just off the charts. I had to get mental health help for my anxiety. That’s how I got my letter at Truman Medical Center for Bella, my therapy dog. I love her dearly. She’s my baby. I can take her everywhere. They think I suffer from a severe case of PTSD. I have all the symptoms. On Thursday I’m starting a trauma class. I don’t want to take medicine but honestly, I worry every minute that something bad is going to happen. Or like when I first looked at my new place the neighbors looked funny to me. I instantly got paranoid.
So, your anxiety has shot up since you got out on your own?
In prison I wasn’t paranoid but outside…I am a nervous wreck. I wish somebody could stay with me. I want security cameras and I called ADT but because I don’t have any credit, they won’t do it. This other company said they could come tomorrow. I don’t want a landlord coming into my place unannounced. It’s like in prison when they can just come in anytime and ransack through your stuff looking for contraband. I didn’t have anything private. I will feel better with cameras. I can block the doors if Bella hears noises.
Do you have people you can call?
This will be my first night in my new place and it sucks. I’m not ready to go out there by myself but I have to do it. I am not used to being outside in the dark. I’d rather stay at Journey House. It feels safe. The fence is locked. I am used to a secure environment.
I know you need to go right now. We will talk again. I’ll keep in touch.
Thank you so much for talking with me. We will continue this after I get settled.
Several Journey House women help Faye put the last things in her packed car. They put Bella in her kennel in the back.
The Drive Home:
Understandably I cannot get our conversation of my mind. I know it is the first of many. I text Faye later that evening: “Thinking of you tonight in your new bed in your new home. Sweet dreams.”
Faye’s reply: “Thank you so much. I’m okay. I am laying in bed holding Bella until we both fall asleep. Good night.”