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Women in Prison

Going behind prison bars, we interview four female inmates all serving 20-years-or-more sentences in a maximum-security prison. Their stories tell of guilt, innocence and the roots of violence, but also of healing and the beginning of forgiveness.

In a startling glimpse of real life behind bars, PT interviews four female inmates--all serving sentences of 20 years or more in a maximum security prison. Their stories tell not only of guilt, innocence, and the roots of violence, but also of healing and the beginning of forgiveness.

Nestled in a valley of one of New York City's most affluent suburbs is the only maximum security prison for women in the state. Were it not for the 15-foot-tall, touch-sensitive fences that encircle the compound, the squat, brick buildings within could be those of any college.

We are met by Sharon Smolick, director of the Family Violence program at the prison since 1987. Sharon, both an ex-con and a Revson Fellow from Columbia University, gestures in the direction of the guardhouse as the entrance gate grinds to a close.

"How many escape attempts does the facility have to contend with each year?" I ask her.

"I've never heard of one in the five years I've been here," she says.

"Not one?"

"In fact, the last took place several years before I arrived. Women just do not have the same reaction to incarceration that men do. Nationally and internationally, women simply do not try to escape. I believe that women don't see themselves as people who can afford to be on the run. The great majority of the inmates here have children or family obligations. They know that taking off isn't going to make things easier on them--or their kids. In addition, many find that they can spend some productive time here. It's horrifically ironic, but these women discovered that prison was the first place where they were clothed, fed, sheltered, and listened to in their entire lives."

Sharon listens to the women at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility with devout patience. A former inmate, she began to dispose of a lifetime's anger by educating herself. For six years, she has been both friend and confidante to the women at Bedford, slowly coaxing the fear from them by simply taking an interest.

At 10:00 A.M., the pathways between the main cell-block buildings are crowded with women wielding brooms, rakes, and paint brushes, many wearing very informal, brightly colored shirts and dresses.

"There's some latitude as far as dress is concerned," says Smolick, "but all the women must wear green pants if they wear shirts, or a green dress or skirt otherwise. They can wear something over the dress if they like, but the green element must be visible at all times. No blue, black, or orange on anything though."

"Why's that?"

"Blue and black are the colors of the officer's uniforms, and their raincoats are orange. A basic security precaution." Thirty-four percent of the 700 inmates at Bedford have been convicted of a capital offense--murder, conspiracy to murder, and kidnapping among the most common. Although it must house all the women offenders in the state whose sentences require maximum security, Bedford is dwarfed by its male counterparts such as Sing Sing and Attica.

It is unlike men's institutions in other ways as well. There are no dogs and no sharpshooters peering from watchtowers, just a lone officer in an attendant's booth at the main gate who smiles as he checks IDs.

Inside the front gate, the walls acquire an institutional yellow and gray, the air of informality disappears, and the walls close in as the security procedures begin: A menacingly large metal detector sends alarms coursing through the hall upon identifying pens, eyeglass frames, even the shoelace eyelets on boots. After several minutes on the phone with both the superintendent's office and the state's Department of Corrections in Albany, Sharon is able to clear our cassette recorder through the guard post.

C.J. was convicted of robbery and murder in Illinois in 1976. While on appeal bond in 1984, she was arrested for robbery in New York State and has not left a prison since. She celebrated her 38th birthday in Bedford this May. C.J. offers no excuses for and asks no sympathy from the people she speaks with. It makes sense to her now, though, that she had so little appreciation for life after a childhood in which her stepfather--a police officer--battered her with blackjacks and nightsticks from the time she was six.

CJ: As I grew up I began to think that men just abuse women, that smacking women around was how men took care of things. My husband did. He was a Vietnam vet and acted out physically as soon as he came back. More than once I woke up with a knife to my throat. He would be having a nightmare and think I was the enemy I guess.

One day in December he beat me so bad that I went into shock. My body just shut down. He got scared and took me to the hospital, and the next thing I remember was the examining room.

The doctors knew I had been beaten. They kept me in the hospital in an attempt to try and protect me. But my husband came up to the room I shared with another woman and started slapping me around, saying, "You better not tell anyone about it."

I freaked and started screaming, pressing all kinds of buttons trying to get somebody. Some attendants came in and put him out.

As he was leaving he said he was going to take my son and that I would never see him again. I was frantic--I had to do something. As soon as I got out of the hospital, my mother, who I hadn't spoken to in years, came with me to his house and we just marched in and took my boy back.

Well, I went into another mode at that point. Soon everything that I had stuffed inside for so many years began to jump out of me. I was always angry, but I started looking at things in a much different light. I would sit and watch men harass girls on the street and say to myself, "Hey, if this woman can't, you know, defend herself against men, then I am going to do it for her. I am not going to let this happen to another woman."

It seems stupid to me now, but for some reason the mechanism that I was running under at the time told me that I had to teach men they could not go around doing whatever they wanted to women.

So I would pick out various men I had seen mistreating women and I would set them up. Pimps, quite a few pimps. They would think they were going to get one thing, but they would find out different.

PT: Could you be more specific?

CJ: I would beat them, pistol-whip them, and take their money.

PT: And they thought they were going to get what?

CJ: Sex.

PT: How many times did this happen?

CJ: Oh, twenty times.

PT: What was more important to you, the money or the revenge?

CJ: I wasn't rich, but money was never the reason why I did it. I needed to rob them of their dignity first, and taking the money they had was just another way of hurting them.

PT: How far did you go? Did you ever seriously injure anyone?

CJ: Well, there was this one man--a very big man that talked in a Norwegian accent. I wound up having to stab him because he was fighting me.

I was trying to get his money and get out of there, because I had a bad feeling. I was running to get away, he chased me and grabbed me from behind. I turned around and he was reaching for my throat. I cut him from here to here (draws a line from wrist to elbow).

Blood spurted on my shirt. He staggered back. I was trying to tell him, "Look, I really didn't want to hurt you that bad." I took his shirt and wrapped his arm up. I didn't want him to die. I just wanted him to feel pain. So I made sure--thank God the hospital was only a block and a half away--made sure that he got to his car, you know, and told him where the hospital was.

PT: What were the circumstances surrounding the murder charge in 1976?

CJ: I was dating a bad guy at the time. I knew he was bad, that he was committing crimes, but I didn't know much else and he wasn't about to tell me.

One day he asked me to drive him to the house of someone he knew, so I did it. I waited in the car and he came running out. He told me he just killed the guy inside, and now I had to get us the hell out of there. Didn't get too far though. We got caught and I was up for murder.

PT: Even though you didn't know what was really going on at the time?

CJ: The law says that if I'm driving a murderer away from the scene of the crime, I'm a murderer too. That's it. And yeah, I was completely out of it to be dating a crazy guy, but everything I did then was crazy. I didn't know what normal was.

"C.J. WAS NOT GOING TO STOP UNTIL SHE was dead," Sharon tells me in her office. "I have no way of knowing what really happened to her when she was a child, but even if half of her reported abuse is true, it had to have a terrifying effect on how she perceived men.

"I'm not attempting to exonerate C.J. She committed some very serious crimes, but it's important to understand that a great many of the women here, like her, had their sense of right and wrong badly distorted from a very early age. To many, prison was the natural extension of a childhood in which abuse was the only communication.

"And make no mistake, the majority of the people here learned their strength and anger at home. They survived beatings with iron cords, belts, fists, and worse. They survived being sexually assaulted at the age of four, five, and six. Their nightmare, and that of their victims, is that they took revenge upon others. In most cases women will not or cannot avenge themselves upon their attacker, but they do not remain silent and passive forever. It is often an innocent person who winds up paying with their lives."

The April 7, 1985, Sunday edition of the New York Times contained a story detailing the discovery by police, of the body of 62-year-old real-estate broker Thomas Vigliarolo in a tenement on West 142nd Street in Harlem. The victim, who had been starved, burned, beaten continuously, and eventually asphyxiated during nine days of captivity, was reported missing by his wife on March 20. A ransom demand for $430,000 was finally made eight days later.

A police investigation revealed a network of seven abductors, four of them women, who hatched the scheme because the victim had supposedly swindled one of the group out of $160,000. An eyewitness identified 18-year-old model Donna Hylton as the deliverer of the ransom note to a business associate of the victim, and she was the last of the gang to be arrested. All seven members were charged with murder, convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life.

The case quickly became ample fodder for the New York tabloids, with Donna's professional photograph displayed prominently alongside every article.

DH: It's strange--after all these years, I just can't get over not being able to answer the telephone when it rings. If I'm in Sharon's office and a phone two feet away from me rings, I can't touch it. I can't decide when to eat or sleep. Even holding hands with another woman sets people off because they're afraid that we're having sex. Little things you take for granted.

PT: You were just starting a career in modeling in 1985. How did you go from that to involvement in a kidnapping?

DH: I never wanted to become involved in the first place. It's true that I was just getting my first chance at modeling back then, and I was pretty broke. My friend Maria Talag suggested that some people she knew might be able to help me financially. It was stupid to think that people are just going to help me out for no reason, but I was 17 and I trusted her. I needed friends pretty badly and wasn't choosing them very well, I guess.

She invited me and a couple of my girlfriends over to this house in Queens, but first we were supposed to pick up this businessman, Vigliarolo, at a cafe. I'd never met him before so it all seemed fine at the time.

We picked him up and he seemed like a nice enough guy. We talked at the cafe for a while and then went to Queens. When we got there and sat down, three big Filipino guys came in and said that they would kill us all, including my baby daughter, if we didn't cooperate. I did what they told me to do after that.

PT: What did you do?

DH: I drove the car from there to the place in Harlem where he [Vigliarolo] was kept. Most of the time I was just driving Maria and the guys to different places in the city after that. They knew that I looked young and pretty and wouldn't attract much attention from the cops if they saw me driving around.

PT: So you did this for them over the course of several days?

DH: Yeah, but I never felt that I would be able to get away for a minute without them finding me. And I couldn't think of my daughter being hurt. When Maria and the others got arrested, there was no way for me to prove that I was forced to do what I did. I mean, Maria wasn't about to testify on my behalf and neither were the others, so my two friends and I were kidnappers and murderers. That's it.

PT: What are the days like here?

DH: At 5:30 in the morning the guards take the first count. They travel through the cell blocks and take a head count while we're asleep. Most of the time it wakes you up. The doors to the cells open at 6 A.M.; we have half an hour to shower and dress, and breakfast is served just after.

One of the things that got to me at first is that there aren't any mirrors here. Too dangerous I guess. I was so used to waking up every morning in the world outside and being able to see my face. Here there are these panels of safety metal that I can see a distorted reflection in, but I haven't really seen what I look like in seven years. Strange just to think of it.

PT: And the rest of the day?

DH: There's lock-downs at midday and in the afternoon. Everybody has to go back to their cells, the doors close, and the guards take another head count. If the number isn't right, the watch commander doesn't let anybody move until the problem is fixed. Lock-downs can take a while.

Since there's only enough room in our cells for a bed, dresser, chair, and cabinet, you get panicky pretty quick. It's the strangest time when you are sitting still in there, waiting for the doors to open. I convince myself sometimes that they never will, that I'll never hear the bolts sliding off.

Most of the women go to school or some kind of support group in the evening, but I've almost run out of school. Once I get my bachelor's in a few months, that's gonna be the end of the line. There's some talk of a master's program, but right now it's just talk. My main job both days and nights is counseling other inmates, helping them adjust.

PT: How is your daughter?

DH: I haven't seen her in a couple of years. When I came into the system, I was young and dumb and everyone told me to give custody to her father because she would need the stability of a full-time dad. He began to abuse her just after that. Then he violated the custody agreement by not letting me see her. Now he's at large, I guess. Sharon tells me that there's a warrant out for his arrest. I just hope my girl is all right.

PT: How do you survive with all of your anger?

DH: For a long time I didn't. For years after I arrived, I hated everyone I saw. I woke up every day and felt like screaming, "I won't get out of this place for 25 years! How could I be here? I have a daughter I'll never be able to raise."

Those feelings went on for years. I even felt more hatred for the people who tried to listen. I didn't want to hear, or think, about anything. I got into a lot of trouble.

PT: What kind of trouble?

DH: I fought a lot. You can get into a fight every 10 seconds in here if you want to. I figured that I was going to spend the rest of my life locked what the hell? A lot of the women here feel the same way. Just look at them the wrong way and they'll go right for your eyes.

PT: What kind of punishment did you receive for fighting?

DH: I was sent to solitary. For serious offenses we were sent to Little House on the Prairie, which is an isolation cell block way off at the end of the prison compound. It was a long walk to that block, knowing that you weren't going to see anyone for at least 30 days.

Once you're in, it's just you and the cell for 23 hours a day. They let you out to take a walk for an hour and they let you have a shower every three days, but other than that, you're all alone.

PT: When did the fighting end?

DH: In about 1990, I began to find out that I didn't want to die, or just blame myself for what happened to me. Sharon had approached me before, but I just couldn't deal with the truth she wanted from me back then. The only thing that made me come around was the thought of my daughter growing up without me. I had to straighten myself out and see if I might be a mother to her again, even if it was for just a few days a month.

The whole thing was just deciding to take control of the little life I had left.

PT: What happened to the others convicted in the case?

DH: Well, I don't know what became of the men...but the women are right here.

PT: At Bedford?

DH: Yeah. Maria Talag and Selma Price are here somewhere. I see them around.

PT: How can you deal with people who essentially ruined your future?

DH: I don't. I can't get into this with them. It can't do me any good to do anything to them anyway. My days of fighting are over.

"I CAN'T DO THE JOB I HAVE to do without being a good judge of people:" says Sharon as she sits next to Donna in her office. "And there are many women here who are desperate to blame anyone but themselves for the circumstances they're in. But here we have a 17-year-old girl with no criminal record of any kind arrested with a group of repeat offenders like Maria Talag and Selma Price. It makes no sense whatsoever. Where did this hardened criminal inclination come from? From aspiring model to kidnapper in one step? I think this case is worthy of another look."

Theresa and Andrea have been both friends and lovers since 1976. They each ran away from home before they were 15 years old and found what refuge they could from friends, boyfriends, and the street. The people who promised them protection were often drug dealers, and by the time they were in their early 20s they began to rob to support their addictions.

PT: What was your friendship like when the worst of your addiction problems started happening?

T: We lived together. We were best friends. I was the one who decided that since we needed money for drugs we should go and rob this guy.

PT: Was this a dealer you happened to know?

T: No, he wasn't a dealer; he was our next-door neighbor. And we went in through the fire escape and tried to rob him. There was a third woman who came along with us. She watched him in the bedroom while Andrea and I looked around the house.

PT: What happened?

T: He died.

PT: How did he die?

T: He was strangled.

PT: How?

A: I don't know. We all really can't say. We tied him up when we first got in there. We tied him up with his feet and his neck kind of roped together. Kind of hog-tied him. Maybe he fell pushing himself or whatever, you know. We are not clear. I know the guy died.

PT: And the cause of death was asphyxiation?

T. Yes.

A: But the whole time he was in there, this other woman was with him.

PT: Didn't she know that he was strangling to death?

T: We didn't even know he died right away. We only found out when the police came. There was this other guy in the hallway. He heard the commotion in the apartment and he called the police.

PT: So as far as you knew, you tied him up, you got your money, and you took off.

T: Right, and I was in shock. I was like, "Oh, damn, it couldn't have been that tight that it would strangle him." And I questioned the other girl at the time and she said, "No, I didn't hurt him' "

Later on we found out that she'd had a lot of psychological problems since she was like five or six years old, a whole lot of stuff that we didn't know that came out in the trial.

PT: How do you feel about the man who died?

A: At the time, I don't think it hit us at all. We needed drugs and were going to do just about goddamn anything to get what we needed. It was a road that had no end to it. Still doesn't.

The drugs owned me, and we both knew we were going to die any minute. That's the way I see it. And yes, I feel for the guy.

PT: How many times did you rob people for the money you needed?

T: Lots of times. We were taking crazy chances. We were doing a lot of crazy things. We would just set people up, then rob them.

PT: How were you setting them up?

T: Andrea was the con artist. She would find out where the money was, tell me, and I would go back and get it.

PT: Can you explain?

A: I was an impeccable dresser, and you couldn't tell that I used drugs at that time. So I could be fairly attractive when I needed to be. And I would pick up some guy I knew had money connections and say to him, "Let's go to your place." And they always went.

I would go to their place, scam them till I found out where the money was, where the hiding places were, or whatever. I would say goodnight and then Theresa would go back a few nights later and take whatever stash there was. She was the burglar and I was the con.

PT: And this went on for years?

T: We played so many con games, you wouldn't believe it. I had drugged myself down to just about 80 pounds then, and everybody thought I was a little boy anyway, so we would con people into thinking that I was her son.

PT: How has prison changed you both?

A: Prison just forces you to deal with the truth. I know I won't use drugs anymore. When I was faced with all that time by myself, I learned why I used drugs and why I did the things I did.

I am an incest survivor, and I was molested by my grandfather when I was three. And then I was molested by my sister when I was older. I was sexually molested all my life by different people, so-called family who lived with me. My brother-in-law, my uncle, grandfather...

T: We both had to get the hell away from home pretty quick.

You could tell since I was younger that I was going to be gay or something. I didn't like to wear skirts or nothing like that. My father couldn't stand it that I wasn't the girl he wanted.

At that time, in that era, the way that I wanted to dress was a no-no. I used to come home and guests would say, "So that's your son?" My mother would get in an outrage and my Dad would beat me up, throw my clothes in the incinerator and things like that. They didn't want to accept it, so I was out there by myself

PT: How old were you?

TH: I was around 15 when I took off. They busted me for the first time the day after my 18th birthday. Life didn't get a whole lot better after that either. I was 21 when I lost my daughter.

PT: What happened?

TH: I was pregnant and I got hit by a car. I don't know why but I wanted a kid so bad. All the women that I knew had children. I thought I was meant to have one of my own--something that belonged to me.

So, I set this thing up to have a baby. And I was just so lucky that I did it one time and I got pregnant. And I was about five and a half months pregnant and I got hit by a car. She lived for four days after the accident. And I had to go to the burial and all that.

After that, I didn't care about anything. I was doing everything in the street and I didn't care what anyone did or said. I had the kind of attitude like "If you want to kill me, come on." I met Andrea during that time.

PT: And you've been together ever since?

A: Seventeen years. Thirteen years spent in here.

PT: Can you carry on the same relationship while in prison?

A: They don't allow sex in here. But we're best friends though, you know. I mean we don't have the greatest relationship in the world. There are tough days in here, but we couldn't get along without each other. And there is nothing I couldn't tell her, nothing that she couldn't do for me. She is just cool. She has always been in my corner.

PT: And you're up for parole together in...?

A: The year 2000. We'll be up for the same hearing together.

T: The same release date, too. Till then, we'll just keep on hoping.

PHOTO: Donna Hylton, 27, an inmate in Bedford Hills since 1986, is serving a 25-year to life sentence for murder.

PHOTO: Donna Hylton

PHOTO: Sharon Smolick

PHOTO: Sharon Smolick with a few of the women inmates she counsels in Bedfords "Family Violence" program.

PHOTO: Newspaper clippings

Photographs by Mario Ruiz