Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Lessons learned in prison

This column appeared in the Tri-Valley Herald in February 2007.

In 2001 and 2002, Donna Miranda Perez lived with a secret she dared not tell anyone, a secret she would live to regret.

A legal assistant with a good salary, Perez had attended high school in San Francisco and earned a 4.0 grade point average. Though at 18 her talent as a singer landed her a job in Los Angeles, she soon found her way home to the Bay Area and enrolled at San Francisco State University, where she earned a degree in Accounting.

But by 2001, her oldest daughter, just ten years old, was suffering from cerebral tumors, and in spite of Perez’s education and the income she and her husband earned, it wasn’t enough to pay for the medical expenses and make ends meet.

So she secretly started to embezzle from her employer.

“I was working for a high-powered attorney,” Perez said, “but this was still not enough, so in a two-year period I managed to steal $66,475.”

Arrested in November 2002, Perez spent 16 months in county jail at Santa Rita. Then she was sentenced to prison.

“Prison was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “Try to imagine never laughing, smiling or feeling any type of happiness. It’s a completely different world.”

During her first week at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, Perez shared a cell with another woman: “She was quite the crazy one. She woke me up in the middle of the night standing naked in front of me. Then she attacked me. She was a very large girl and hurt me pretty badly for no reason.”

Perez said you have to become a fighter in prison, otherwise inmates “will destroy whatever life you have.”

Soon, Perez was sharing a cell with seven other women, and was degraded on a daily basis. Some of the women were not so bad, she said, but some, incarcerated for life, “ran the prison.”

After six weeks, Perez was assigned to go outside the prison to work in the almond fields making eight cents an hour. Still, there were moments she wanted to die: “I hated every moment I spent there and told myself nothing is worth this, nothing.”

During her incarceration, she rarely saw her son and youngest daughter, and no one brought her older daughter to visit. Her marriage suffered, and she received no letters.

To help handle the emotional stress, Perez started writing, including poetry. One poem to her older daughter includes this line: “Please keep my words close to your heart, no matter where I am, in my memories we are never apart.”

But writing could not change the consequences of Perez’s incarceration.

“When I was arrested we lost everything: our house, furniture, cars, everything,” she said. “My husband and our daughters moved in with his sister and her family.”

Perez said her oldest daughter’s health suffered further, and at one point she weighed only 28 pounds. “It was like a knife stabbed me.”

Perez, on the other hand, weighed almost 400 pounds when she was first incarcerated. “I know, terrible,” she said. “But then I began working on not only my inner self, but on my outer self.” Perez began walking six to eight miles every chance she could and eventually lost 160 pounds.

“I left prison weighing 240 pounds,” she said. “My youngest daughter didn’t recognize me.”

Released from the Chowchilla facility after seven months, Perez spent just under two years behind bars: “I learned more in prison than the past 44 years of my life.”

Perez said her life before her arrest was a mess. Prison gave her the opportunity to stop blaming others and start working on finding her own happiness. “I woke up and I didn’t want to feel angry any longer.”

Today Perez pays restitution at $50 a month. She met all the requirements of her 13-month parole and is no longer required to check in with authorities. Her oldest daughter, now 15, requires constant medical care.

Perez works as a part-time legal assistant for a friend—the only person who would hire her—but is looking for full time work.

“I’ve applied for so many jobs in the past two years, but I’m turned down every time,” she said. “I wish someone would let me get my foot in the door and let me prove how different I am today.”

Looking back on lessons she could share with readers, Perez encourages anyone who is blaming others to begin taking responsibility for their own actions. And committing any crime for whatever reason, she said, is never worth it.

“What I did was wrong, so wrong,” she said. “When they say crime doesn’t pay, it’s the best statement to remember in life. I am living proof.”


she said...

what tremendous courage donna, to not only endure these challenges but also share your story for the benefit of others.

and i have it in my head and heart that these stories you share jim, with such compassion and understanding, do land -on purpose-into the hands of people in need of these particular insights.

donna does not sound like someone who will reoffend

it reads like the necessary internal shift has taken place, and from here on out she can face life's challenges with this hard-found strength and spiritual dignity

often the weight of the scale (too heavy, too perfect or too light) tells a story about the weight of stress and confusion a person's soul is struggling to manage

it reads here like donna is on her way and will find a healthy balance very soon.

"to courage!"


Jim Ott said...

Nicely said, she. And yes, "to courage."