The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across the keyboard.

The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across a keyboard

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Friday, January 31, 2014

LOCKED UP: An Interview with Kelly Banaski



English: A prison Cell. Suomi: Yksi Alcatrazin...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Fiona - Good morning Kelly. The news said
            it was going to be -36F with wind in
            your part of the world.
            Are you a Popsicle this morning?

Kelly - It's actually 9F right now, and I'm
           pretty close to frozen, yes!

Fiona - Here, I poured you some hot
           cocoa. Won't you have a seat and
           introduce yourself to my readers and
           tell us about your work with
           prisoners?






Kelly - My Name is Kelly Banaski. I am an inmate liaison and
           prison reform activist. I help prisoners with long terms and
           death sentences cope with life in prison. I find them educational and religious outlets
          - classes, books, etc. I find them pen-pals, and I write to
           many  myself. I visit them and help their families with whatever I can.

Fiona - Is this a job that you stumbled into? Or did you go to school specifically to train for your
            interventions?

Kelly - I went to school for a degree in criminal justice. During the course of my studies and through early
            life experiences, I found I had a knack for being able to connect with inmates. I began working with
            various nonprofits that helped inmates but nothing really did what I wanted to do. So I decided to do
            it myself.

Fiona - Fabulous. Do you mind talking about your early life experiences?

Kelly - My step father was a notorious local criminal in and out of correctional facilities from the moment he
           came into my life at five-years-old. With crimes ranging from the uber-violent to exceedingly stupid
           we often found ourselves getting the hell outta dodge and as a result I found myself in a different
           school every year of my life until I was just about to start high school.

           My mother was a consummate narcissistic enabler, and I grew up with a certain feeling that the cops
           were out to get us. We were working class stiffs, my mom would explain. We couldn't make it on the
           regular wages others were scraping by on. No. Dear old Dad loved us way to much to settle for that.
           He was supporting his family in the way he knew best.

           As I grew up, my personality morphed and meshed and went into survival mode to find a way to
           make life manageable among the criminal element that was my family, friends and peers. I was
           constantly creeped-out by some of the men my dad would have around and kept a running fear that
           one of them, or someone, would hurt me. When I was in the third grade, a mentally handicapped
           neighbor man grabbed me off the street and threw me down in the yard, ripping at my clothes. I was
           able to escape with the aid of my little brother, but the fear and the uneasiness of life in general kept
           that fear alive in me for years and years.This ingrained fear has served only to draw me closer to the
           very element that scared me.

          Over the years, my youngest brother became a criminal of the highest ilk much like my step father. His
          crimes, however, were more of the bumbling variety and I would often step in to persuade probation
          officers, police, prosecutors, public defenders and even judges to give him one more chance.

          Eventually, I became a nonfiction writer and covered the crime beat in my home town. I became
          familiar with the cops and the criminals. I interview investigators and lawyers, victims and family, and
          the criminals.

          More often than not, I see the many ways the crimes could have been prevented, the victims spared,
          and the future a little brighter for everyone. There is always a trigger; a trigger set in place by forces
          other than that person.

          I hope my actions to understand and humanize our nations inmates, moves us a step forward in
          reducing recidivism. I want the United States to be more excepting and welcoming of prisoners
          who are starting a new life.


US incarceration timeline
US incarceration timeline (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Fiona - Thank you. Here at ThrillWriting the aim is to write it right. Can you tell us some of the realities about
             prison life that are perhaps not understood by those who have not been inside of a prison?

Kelly -  Regimen is God. Life long inmates depend on the regime of everyday life to survive. If someone is
             used to receiving mail from someone every week, and they don't receive it, that can set off a chain
             of events that can turn violent depending on the inmate. Any little disturbance in routine is major
             major deal.

             Also, in my experiences with women prisoners, I can tell you that women on death row become a
             different breed of human all together.

Fiona - How so?

Kelly - In outside life, women can be clique-ish in certain circles. In prison it is THE way of life.
           You must have a circle to keep breathing but what happens inside those circles is even scarier.
           Women are way more devious than men

Fiona - Can you give me some examples?

Kelly - I wrote to a woman on Pa. death row. A reporter contacted me for info, and I told this prisoner
            about it.This woman was convicted of killing her boyfriend's new girlfriend. In one of her letters she
            asked me about what I had read about her on the internet. I printed the article and sent it to her.

           The next week, I received hate mail that threatened my life from every girl on the row in Pa.
           You see, the article also listed the other girls on the row and their charges. They were all pissed that
           I'd let out their secrets. It didn't seem to matter to them that it was public for everyone to read.
           They didn't want each other to know.

Fiona - How did you feel when you received those letters - Did you take them seriously?

Kelly - After a few weeks of threats, I received letters from the same girls secretly asking for help, and also  
           asking me not to tell the others.

Fiona - Interesting.

Kelly - If one found out I had written the other or sent her a book or put money on her records, I would get
           the threats again. Eventually, I stopped writing that prison at all. The most trouble came from a
           woman  named Michelle; Michelle starved her daughter to death, kept her chained to a chair in the
           kitchen.

           She asked also for the most help. We wrote off and on for several years. She
           denied any culpability in her daughters death, saying she [the daughter]was always sick. One day
           Michelle would be angry and the next apologetic. It was tiresome. The threats became too much.
           I never took them seriously, but they were scary nonetheless.

Fiona - What kinds of help are they looking for?


English: Inmates Lisa Bode (left) and Cynthia ...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kelly - Mostly they want to talk about their cases and
            their lives. They look for books,
            correspondence courses, religious materials,
            pen-pals, craft supplies, money...

Fiona - What kinds of craft supplies are they allowed
             to have?

Kelly - Craft supplies depends on the prison.

Fiona - Most of my craft supplies would make
            excellent weapons.

Kelly -That is true. That's why it depends on the
          prison. Some have great classes that the
          women have to
           prove themselves nonthreatening to be in.

Fiona - How are you funded?

Kelly - Out of my pocket mostly. My blog gets a few donations a year, and I stretch that as far as it will go.
            I've considered something like gofundme.com to raise money to become a nonprofit. I'm just not
           sure enough people would support this cause.  I'm also working on a true crime book that I hope will
           aid me financially in this.

           This is a  LINK to Kelly's page and blog, if you would like to help out, become involved, advertise
           on her site

Fiona - Going back to Michelle's behavior, are most of the women you correspond with like that?
             Highs and lows and threats?

Kelly - No. Some are very normal, average women. That's the kicker. I will forget these women have
           committed these crimes because we talk about kids and movies and cross-stitch patterns, men, and
            food.

Fiona - Tell me about some of the coping mechanisms the women develop on death row.

Kelly - Women on death row are alone most of the time. They cope by keeping their cells in immaculate
            conditions, staying in touch with family and writing letters. Many will attach themselves to a particular
            television show and obsess on it. Religion of course always always comes into play. Not always
            Christianity, but some type of spirituality emerges.

           Women with life sentences are different. They are in general population often, and they cope by
           forming families and working as one.They designate mothers and fathers, children, cousins, and
           sisters - the whole shebang.

          Death row women socialize with each other. Pass notes to each other and even have outsiders mail
          messages to each other.

Fiona - Just to clarify, death row women and life sentence women are treated differently by the prisons. Can
            you explain the differences?

Kelly - Death row women are kept in solitary in most prisons (not all). If not they are kept in a separate area
            and still pretty isolated.
         
            Life sentence and long term gals are usually kept in general population unless they are violent and
           deemed a threat to the rest of the population.

Fiona- So that death sentence versus life sentence is a REALLY huge deal not just for longevity's sake but
           for life style sake

Kelly - Oh yes! Even a life sentence is different than say 99 years with possibility of parole in terms of living
            style. That with/without possibility of parole is a biggie.

Fiona - Please explain

Kelly - If you have a huge gigantic sentence that is longer than you could possibly live, it doesn't matter
           if you get a chance for parole or not, right? Wrong. If you have a chance for parole after 15 years,
           and you behave, you have a shot at it - you could be a free woman. This happens sometimes with
            the black widows. Black Widows have killed their husbands or had someone else do it.
           They get sentenced to death or LWOP (life without parole) or parole after 20 years.

           Then the appeals come along and it turns out she was abused etc. In 2008 (I think) a woman was
            taken off death row right here in Tennessee after 40 years.

Fiona -So she was in confinement for 40 years and then let into the general prison population? You would
           think that  mentally she would have snapped.

Kelly - Her sentence was commuted. She went free. I have watched many women lose their minds. It's a
           sad thing. A gal with a chance at parole will be housed in a lesser security prison with more programs

Fiona - Programs might include...

Kelly - Sewing, painting, gardening...some prisons have animal training programs and quilt making classes,
           GED and college classes. They can also hold jobs and make money in the kitchen and laundry etc.

            Death row women, violent offenders, lifers without parole - they get none of those opportunities

Fiona - So Writers, if you are writing your heroine into a court case, she better hope for sentencing that
            includes the possibility of parole. With that, our time is up. A huge thank you to Kelly for sharing her
            information, and to you for stopping by.

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.


1 comment:

  1. A reader noticed that there was no scar story in this interview, Kelly escaped to adulthood without any scars - no story to tell.
    Thanks for noticing though, Andrea! It means you've read lots of my interviews.

    Cheers,
    ~Fiona

    ReplyDelete