Why would a farm girl from the Ozarks write about a highly publicized St. Louis bank robber? What would lead her to become an outspoken advocate of criminal justice and prison reform in Missouri? In some ways, it began when I was a child. My father was a deputy sheriff, and I had grown up around the courthouse and sheriff’s department of my small town. Criminal justice issues were a topic of conversation in our home, and it was no wonder that when I went to college at the University of Arizona I chose Political Science as my field of study. I had always seen the criminal justice system in terms of the arrest and trial of those accused. My knowledge stopped at the prison door. That is, until July 2011.
I accepted a teaching position at one of Missouri’s maximum security prisons that summer. I was one of a handful of teachers who taught the GED program to those inmates who had not already earned a high school diploma. As staff, over the course of the next two and a half years, I witnessed criminal behavior on the part of some staff as well as a culture of fear and intimidation that was cultivated to keep employees quiet about what really happens inside our prison system. Shawshank isn’t that far from reality.
I met Keith Giammanco in March of 2012 when he interviewed to be my tutor in my classroom. Prison relationships have hit the headlines lately thanks to the escape of two inmates in New York. By now, most of us know an emotionally involved prison employee helped with the escape. Not all prison relationships should be viewed in the same light. While numerous scams are perpetrated, there are many devoted, loving couples who find themselves in this situation. Not everyone is manipulated. Not every relationship is about money or power. Sometimes two people fall in love in very unusual circumstances. That’s what happened with Keith Giammanco and me.
I am college educated and a professional. I grew up in a military and law enforcement family in conservative southern Missouri. I am not a soft-on-crime, bleeding heart kind. Having a prison relationship was the last thing on my mind. I wouldn’t change where I am at, though. What Keith and I found is worth the daily struggles we go through.
Keith is not the stereotypical criminal. If you met him, you would see he is much better suited to be in a business board room than to be wearing prison greys. He is bright and articulate, and is a good example of what happens when a good man and father are pushed to his limits by fear and desperation. He regrets his crimes, and not a day goes by that he doesn’t accept responsibility for his mistakes.
As soon as he was arrested in the fall of 2008, people pressured Keith to share his story with them so they could write a book. Universal Studios offered to buy the rights to his story for a movie deal. Keith is a private person, and he refused to open up his life and his innermost vulnerabilities to strangers. Even his own children hadn’t known he was robbing banks, and he certainly wasn’t going to confide in people he didn’t know. That all changed when Keith and I met. He once told me that I was the first person he had met since his arrest that didn’t ask him why he had done it. I didn’t need to ask why. As a parent of two children, I understood why he would risk his freedom to make sure a roof was secured over his daughters’ heads when the economy tanked and good jobs that could pay the bills were nonexistent. I don’t condone robbing banks with notes, but I also can see how someone could cross lines of acceptable behavior out of desperation for their children’s well-being.
After leaving the prison in October of 2013, I resolved to do something to change the system. My motivations aren’t out of a misguided sympathy for inmates. My motivation is a determination to make sure that our tax dollars are spent to make the system better, not worse. For all of the money we pour into incarceration, we should expect a better product coming out the other end. Rehabilitation should be the focus. Since 95% of all inmates in Missouri will be back in our communities at some point, the citizens of our state are the real losers if we don’t get the service the “Corrections” Department claims to provide for us. We currently spend $680 million a year to incarcerate 33,000 inmates. Certainly, we can make those dollars be well-spent and geared toward what will be good for our communities, not for what is good for the administrators of the various facilities across our state.
I will blog about a wide variety of prison topics, including the struggles of having a relationship separated by prison walls. Many people wonder what prison is like, and it is eye opening to know what the reality is. I will help you learn how you can get involved to bring about positive, constructive change in our system. Thank you for joining me as I share my experience and my knowledge of the Missouri prison system.