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The Guilt Offering

by: Adeline Scout

“If a person sins and does what is forbidden in any of the Lord’s commands, even though he does not know it, he is guilty and will be held responsible. He is to bring the priest as a guilt offering a ram from his flock, one without defect and of proper value. In this way the priest will make atonement for him and the wrong he has committed, and he will be forgiven.” - Leviticus 5:17-18

I wish I had entered the courtroom of my own accord and not been dragged in like a petulant child by an aging, cigarette leeched officer. I wish I had prepared my statement to the victims with my much lauded lawyer and not with the homeless alcoholic with whom I shared my cell. I wish my old boyfriend had passionately pled for mercy on my behalf and not written a stoic account chronicling my erratic behavior and humiliating decline.

Instead, the salient, tension fraught day jerked to life like every day had for me in prison over the last eight months – dreadfully, alarmingly. Like a living nightmare, the physical surroundings are too stark to inhabit, only adequate to subsist, and the emotional reality is too terrifying to accept, just bear.

At 6 a.m., all inmates are jolted awake by the loud speaker system announcing, “COUNT TIME!” We stand by our beds, as if at attention, while the presiding officer peers through each slit of a cell window and counts each one of us – two to a cell, sixty-eight to a unit, and seven hundred and forty eight in the entire prison. After the officer passes, the women collapse onto their skeletal cots with the complete suddenness of marionettes whose strings have been released.

I stay awake after count on August 8th, 2007, a Wednesday, and reach for my embossed prayer book, a gift from the prison’s Rabbi. I flip open to the 40th psalm, a number one greater than my age, as the Rabbi instructed me. King David’s words are remarkably appropriate for my sentencing day. “Do not withhold your mercy from me, O Lord, may your love and truth always protect me. For troubles without number surround me, my sins have overtaken me and I cannot see . . .” I tear out the delicate page and fold it into eighths to tuck in the bottom of my underwear, the one place guards cannot check, as a talisman.

All inmates dread and eventually welcome sentencing day like a terminally ill person fights against, tires, and eventually surrenders to death. I tell myself, “at least this part will be over.” In seven hours, I will be sentenced. I have waded the expanse of my jail time focusing on the next step, one week until arraignment, three days until I change my plea, one month to my next hearing date.

My cellmate, Barbara, is a motherly woman whose body reminds me of a fertility goddess, fecund mounds of breasts, stomach, and bottom. As a gesture of solidarity, she stays awake to keep me company while I get ready. Barbara asks how I am doing as I brush my teeth at the stainless-steel sink-toilet in the corner of our cell.

“I’m okay,” I reply with forced bravery. “I’m ready. It’s time.”
 
She rises from bed and helps me place my state issued items into clear, plastic bags. Four uniforms, two sheets, one blanket, a pair of socks, I fill the bags and tie each one with a knot.

At 7 a.m., the doors buzz open, the noise of the electronic lock releasing its tension, the signal it is time for me to leave. Barbara gives me a hug and I soak in her softness. I push the steel door open with my shoulder and carry my bags down the stairs to the officer’s wooden desk, delicate in an enormous room of cinder block and steel. Officer Calcagno, the regular day duty officer, hands me a paper copy of my prison ID and wishes me luck.

As if walking a gangplank, I travel down the hallway towards admissions, a glamorous name for a spare set of rooms through which inmates arrive or depart. I have taken the route at least ten times before for various court dates and this trip will be my last. Today, I will find out if I return to jail to serve the remainder of a sentence or if I will be released with time served.
 
I deposit my belongings in a large, plastic bin and collect a hanging bag, clothes for court, which my mother mailed to the prison’s admissions department for the occasion. I walk further down the hallway to a damaged bathroom where I change, the tampon dispenser hangs off its hinges, the metal trash receptacle is dented, and the hand dryer is etched with initials. I slip off my prison uniform, a hunter green v-neck top and elastic pair of pants, and change into a smart, black suit and white blouse. Checking my reflection in the mirror, I hope what I wear speaks of my character, that a tailored look will make a good impression on the judge and persuade him to release me.

I give the bag of my prison clothes to an inmate and tuck my manila folder of legal documents under my arm. Amongst my papers is my apology, my expression of remorse to the judge and the victims. I remind myself as I steady myself for the day that the purpose of the day is for me to be punished, not for me to atone. Forgiveness, no matter how much I desire it, is not on the agenda.
 
I walk past officers, fat from their sedentary jobs behind desks and smug with their uniforms’ superiority, chatting in an office and enter the holding cell, a square room with steel benches lining the perimeter. Twenty women in varying states of repose sit in the outfits in which they were arrested. One young woman wears pajamas. The majority wear low rise jeans and hoodies. They fill the room with twittering chatter not unlike the sound of a grand lobby during the intermission of a Broadway play on a successful run.

Most of the women are in jail for drugs, either possession or distribution. Their sentences will vary based on the quantity of drugs, their previous offenses, and the crime’s proximity to a school zone. But far more important to all of our cases is the disposition of the judge; a formerly alcoholic judge will give far less time than one whose relative was killed by a coked out driver. Somehow, in the manner of all great knowledge that is passed on by word of mouth, the inmates know the judges’ personal stories.

A long hour stretches until we hear the syncopated jingles of handcuffs and clomps of footsteps signaling the arrival of county officers and a paddy wagon. A red-head with a tattoo circling her neck like a choker, rushes to the door and relays to the rest of us what she sees. “It’s Essex County.”

My county’s sheriff’s department, Middlesex, arrives last. 10:30. I divide the trips to court into manageable sections just like my jail time; part one: waiting in the prison holding cell is over and part two: the trip to the courthouse begins.

Cambridge Courthouse is the seat of Middlesex County and covers a rambling, geographical area, so I always travel with a number of women to court. My strategy is to pair off with someone strong and ride in the wake of their confidence. Today, I am fortunate. Amongst the six traveling to court with me is Wanda, a wholesome-looking woman in for a second charge after having served ten years Federal time for drug trafficking; Christina, a spunky drug addict; and Donna, a veteran of the prison system serving her seventeenth sentence. It’s a good group with lots of experience, some intelligence, and a bit of wit.

One by one we are cuffed, shackled, shuffled out the door, and filed into the back of a paddy wagon where we sit sideways. Cuffs pinch my wrists and ankles, a chain cinches my waist, and my body presses into the women next to me as the vehicle speeds up, turns, and stops. I breathe rare bursts of ventilated air and stare at the steel grate that separates the two seating compartments.

To survive, I force my mind to leave my body. I learned meditation in a class I took in prison called ‘Houses of Healing’. The perpetually sedate teacher spoke to us in hushed tones about pain bodies, our inner child, and forgiveness. She taught me specific meditations to practice on court days and I try to remember them now. “I am a person of value. I am more than this moment.”

I close my eyes and I am in my younger brother’s backyard in the suburbs of St. Paul. My niece and nephew squeal in delighted fright as I chase them around the carpet of green grass. The rest of the women are unusually quiet and I know they too must be thinking whatever thoughts they need to in order to survive.

With a lurch and a slow descent, I sense we have reached the rear entrance to the Cambridge Courthouse. A street runs parallel to the driveway where the press parks and reporters jockey to take pictures. As I step off the paddy wagon, I glance up to look for cameras and, thankfully, see no press.

Inside the building, the Cambridge court officers take possession of us by removing the deputy department’s cuffs and clicking county shackles on our ankles. I used to be scared of court officers, cowering every time they came close and ‘yes sir’ing them. Over time, I observed they treat women who make them laugh with preferential treatment, cups of water, a cigarette, or a decent sandwich. Today, I act sassy and joke about the driver’s awful handling of the van.

We take an elevator to the thirteenth floor and the six of us stuff into a urine soaked holding cell the size of a closet, half of which is taken up by a toilet hidden behind a partition. Once, my lawyer was speaking to me and we had to wait for the toilet to stop flushing to hear one another. Used to the routine, the half dozen of us try to stay comfortable by alternately sitting and standing throughout the day.

Christina’s lawyer visits the holding cell first. He’s a grey haired man with Mediterranean features and a dress shirt open three buttons revealing gold chains. We respectfully stay quiet while he briefs Christina about the legal negotiations. “The prosecution wants two and a half years with five years probation.”

“Jesus,” Christina exclaims. ”What happened to eighteen months?”

“That deal was with the last judge and he retired. You are never going to get a deal like that again. Never,” her lawyer says.

“Shouldn’t I wait for my co-defendant to plead guilty? Take some heat?” Christina asks.

“By the time that happens, you’ll be out of jail,” he says with finality.

Donna chimes in, “Accomplice to an Armed Robbery of an Older Person? You ain’t gonna do much better than that, dear.”

Christina agrees to the deal.

A court officer calls my name and unlocks the cell door. He moves me into the elevator which we take to the eighth floor where Superior Court cases are heard and puts me in a holding cell, alone. I have not communicated with my lawyer since my last court date, a month and a half ago, and then just briefly. In the meantime, he has asked the judge if I can make an Alford Plea, to state that it was not my intent to harm anyone but that I can understand how a reasonable person can think so. My lawyer hopes my lack of intent will encourage the judge to sentence me to probation and no additional jail time.

I look up from my pacing and internal discussion and see my lawyer grinning at me like a proud parent. Mr. Bergoff is short in stature with sand-colored hair. He dresses well, but with the disarray of a preoccupied person, an absent-minded professor.

“You ready?” he asks, still grinning.

“Well, what’s the deal?” I ask. “What’s going to happen?”

“He’s going to let you make an Alford Plea and he will consider giving you time served,” Mr. Bergoff says.

I could almost forgive the bastard for being out of contact.

“The prosecution wants five to eight,” he adds.

“Oh, my God,” I say. Eight, dreary incarcerated years transpire in my mind’s eye, eight years of viewing a sky rimmed with barbed wire; eight years of eating the same meals day in and day out, and eight years of my family aging, changing, existing without me.

“Sheila, you have the best chance of getting time served with this judge. He is a real gentleman,” my lawyer says.

A court officer interrupts us and motions for Mr. Bergoff to enter the courtroom. “See you in there,” Mr. Bergoff says before he turns to leave.

I compose myself; I pull my suit jacket down and relax my facial features. The court officer approaches to handcuff me and lead me into the courtroom. I read the name on his bronze badge, “Willy.”

“Hi, Willy,” I say to test my composure.

He grunts and opens the barred door. I exit the gloomy, paint peeled holding cell area and step into the well-lit grandeur of the courtroom. A haze of fear obscures my vision. I perceive but cannot individually identify a grouped row of my family and friends. I sit, hyper-aware of my supporters to my left and the judge’s profile in front of me.

The judge, a slim man with graying, thin hair speaks, “The purpose of today’s hearing is to sentence Ms. Eldrich for the crimes brought against her by the State. I’d like to hear from the prosecution first.”

Ms. Laney, a slender woman in her thirties, projects across the nearly empty courtroom like she is on a stage. “Judge Peel, this nine month pattern of criminal harassment began when the defendant, Ms. Eldrich, deliberately and intentionally followed her ex-boyfriend and new girlfriend on a date. . .” I let Ms. Laney’s well-rehearsed speech fade into the background. Her words are ingrained on my brain; I read them in the police report, heard them at several court appearances, and judged them to be appallingly one-sided. I stare forward and return my attention when I hear her predictable, concluding remarks. “Her ex-boyfriend characterized her behavior as ‘unnerving’.”

The scant remnant of hope I had that Jake would admit he corresponded with me disappears. I lift my head and gaze forward, alert, like a grazing deer that becomes aware humans are near. The judge will hear my side of the story. Finally, the opportunity for my defense has arrived.

Mr. Bergoff rises from his seat near my supporters and steps forward. He pushes his glasses back on his face and looks at his feet as if to compose himself before he speaks. I am anxious to hear his defense of me, how I had not meant to hurt anyone, how Steve kept in touch with me, how he lured me in and out of his life, how I attempted to seek psychiatric treatment but was turned away, and how I am a well educated and productive member of society who made a mistake that resulted in no harm to anyone.

“Your Honor,” Mr. Bergoff begins, “I am so glad I am not a judge. This is a terribly hard decision you face. What you have here is an accomplished woman,” he motions to me, “with no criminal background. She would be highly unlikely to re offend if you gave her time served with a sword hanging over her head.” The sword refers to a suspended sentence and Mr. Bergoff moves his hands over his head, clutched together like a Samurai warrior, to emphasize his point. “You’ve read the letters that have been written on Sheila’s behalf and I couldn’t ask for more compassionate testimony.” He nods in the direction of the judge and returns to his seat.

I am rattled. Where is my impassioned plea for mercy? My hardy defense? The penetrating questions that will make the judge’s synapses pulse with doubt?

I am further startled when the judge addresses me directly to ask if I have anything to add. I glance at Mr. Bergoff who scurries over and whispers, “How long will it take?”

“Five minutes,” I answer and I had, in fact, timed my words.

“Fine,” he allows and walks away. I stand and fumble open the folder with my handcuffed hands. What I have to say is embarrassing, a sacrifice of my pride, but the unblemished truth, as pitiful as it is, is what I have to offer.

“I want to apologize to the victim and the court for my behavior. My apology is heartfelt and my remorse is deep. I know I acted rashly and endangered many by doing so. I am truly sorry. What I have to say next is not a request to excuse my behavior but information I hope will let the victim and those affected have some peace.” I pause and take in some air.

“When my relationship with Jake ended, I became despondent and because Jake and I had created a home together, our ending reminded me of another home dissolved the one after my parents’ divorce. I do not blame any member of my family for my actions. I was not aware I had suffered so much in the divorce’s aftermath until recently. I created a reality in which I did not suffer: that Jake and I were still together, and his phone calls and emails were enough to fuel this delusion. I was insane with jealousy and often drove by his house and looked in his windows. I had a weird, unquenchable thirst for information. I was so confused. I would look in Jake’s house while he was home and when he wasn’t. I did not plan anything more.” My voice cracks; I lose my composure. I swallow.

I start again, “I am now on medication and in therapy to deal with my issues. Whatever my reasons, I am sorry I acted in a way that resulted in harm to anyone in any way. I am very sorry.” I look over at the judge who nods and indicates I should return to my seat.

The judge clears his throat and I sit stock still, rigid with fear. As the judge speaks, I sob, burbling sobs that serve as mere background noise for the judge’s precisely spoken decree like a gun's crisp, singular shot sounding next to a continuous, babbling brook.

“For the charge of ‘Criminal Harassment’, I am sentencing Sheila to two years in the House of Corrections and ten years of probation, two of which must be spent on the bracelet.”

The court officer clutches the flesh of my upper arm and whisks me away. I glance backwards as the door to the courtroom closes and see my family and friends talking in a huddle with my lawyer.

“Can I speak to my lawyer?” I ask Willy.

“He’s gone,” he says and pulls me to the holding cell like I am a reluctant dog in need of a walk.
 
“He’s not. I just saw him.” I say.

“No,” Willy says, “he’s gone.”

“No, he’s not. I just saw him.” I say.

Willy ignores me. He tugs me forward, places me in the holding cell, and locks the door. He is, in a strange way, imposing his sense of justice.

Locked in the holding cell, I regulate my breathing and wipe away my fast-flowing tears. I try to calm myself, mollify my fears. Then, it occurs to me, the exact reason I am upset: I pled guilty, I sacrificed something valuable but I was not forgiven.

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