Former Coffee Creek Correctional Facility AIC shares tales from behind bars
Fast asleep on her prison cell bunk, Karen Campbell awoke in the middle of the night to startling shakes from her cellmate "Sinful" and a command to immediately rise and scurry downstairs.
Campbell assumed the building was ablaze or a terrible incident had occurred. Instead, when she went downstairs into the recreational room and then outside, she learned it was a fire drill, meaning the group could venture outdoors. Soon, she found fellow adults in custody — some of whom faced decades in prison — gazing into the stars and a full moon, smiling and whispering. For the incarcerated women, peering into the universe was a privilege they rarely experienced.
"The deprivation in prisons goes so far beyond rules and clothing," she said. "I was so glad to witness that. To this day I look at the stars and the moon all the time."
Campbell served her sentence at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, located in Wilsonville, from 2005 to 2011, and recently published her book "Falling: Hard Lessons and the Redemption of the Woman Next Door," which delves into the lives of the many women she met along the way and her process for coping with the hurt she caused in her own life. Her goal was to provide an accurate account of prison life and to humanize women stuck behind bars.
"I was so moved by their histories and the beauty of their courage to talk about the things that happened to them," Campbell said. "I was so terrified to go in and meet these women. What did they do? I figured I'd get beaten up. Instead they just were generous to me."
The night that led to Campbell's incarceration is a bit of a blur. She remembers faint glimmers of the bar she and her husband, Tom, visited, the glass of wine she drank and inexplicably taking the wheel in the middle of the ride home. They did not reach their destination.
Campbell caused an accident that killed Tom as well as a woman driving the other vehicle. Her blood-alcohol level was just over the legal limit and she was convicted of manslaughter and driving under the influence of intoxicants-alcohol.
Prior to that point, Campbell described herself as a busy mom who attended her daughters' volleyball games and served as an assistant physical therapist. That all changed when she began her sentence as an AIC who didn't feel she belonged with the crowd. She was quickly told otherwise and given the nickname "Snow White."
"Three women took me under their wing. (One of them said) There's women who stole and they're going to look at you and say 'At least I didn't kill anyone,'" Carpenter said. "Another one said 'As soon as you get over yourself the sooner you are going to get along in here.'"
Campbell described prison life as relatively boring most of the time — her days filled with mundane tasks and perpetual helpings of mashed potatoes and white bread. But then, all of a sudden, an AIC would pour a pitcher of water on someone and a fight would break out, a woman dealing with psychological issues would brutally beat her cellmate or she would walk in on two AICs having sex, for instance.
"It looks pretty calm, but there's always a current and there is always a little something going on all the time," she said.
And she said prison life is hierarchical. She recalled that an AIC who ran the canine companionship program had inordinate power and her cellmate, who was affiliated with a Los Angeles gang, carried enough gravitas to recover Campbell's stolen pajamas in just a few seconds. Dumbfounded, Campbell asked "Who are you?'" only to receive a smirk in reply.
"When she walked through the room people would stop and try to get her attention. She was so calm and soft-spoken because she didn't have to act out," Campbell said.
The book includes a conversation with two women who decided to have sex with each other in the prison. The women aren't allowed to hug or even touch each other and the pair told Campbell the need for affection led them to do it.
"They had fond memories of that experience," said Campbell, who talked with the women following the release of the book. "It was a time when they felt loved for a little while."
Campbell also noticed that cliques often divided along racial lines: Latinx, Native Americans or Black people, for instance, would band together and protect each other.
"I was quite impressed with the mothering and the sisterhood some of the groups displayed compared to a lot of the white people. They (white AICs) don't have a tribe. They don't have a way to band together for safety. One woman said she was a little jealous," she said.
Campbell's stories throughout the book dive into the harrowing life experiences of the women she met, such as a one who was pregnant at nine years old from a family member. Others faced domestic abuse and another woman was held down and had to eat out of a dog food dish growing up. Others told her about the vicious crimes they'd committed.
"I honestly was surprised about how open people were (about) their crime. One woman sat me down and told me her side of the story, even though it was an awful murder. None of us lied about our crime. All of us were open about that. None of us were open about: 'How we are going to heal from this,'" she said.
Coffee Creek has many extracurricular programs prisoners in good standing can join in on, such as dog training, raising butterflies or cosmetology. Campbell said they were challenging to get into and that prisons should focus more on helping people cope with what they did and work toward self-forgiveness. Instead, Campbell said most AICs exhaust mental and emotional energy thinking about day-to-day survival.
"It might be something simple that as you are doing your time, you have to complete some sort of workbooks or maybe the word 'atonement' goes up in the unit and everyone learns what that means, and the concept of restorative justice, to learn what these things are. None of that happens in prison," she said.
Campbell's experience followed a thornier trajectory than the typical journey of self-forgiveness. Once she got out of prison, she closed off from society, only staying connected with a couple close friends. And her relationship with her kids grew even more strained than when she was behind bars.
"I would get around my kids and act really happy or be overly sensitive. I was a really difficult person for them to be around, although they loved me," she said.
Her original drafts of the book included vivid descriptions of the people she met at Coffee Creek, but her own story was sidelined. Her editor's encouragement led her to begin to document her struggles with grief and guilt — not only about the loss of life but also causing her family financial and emotional stress and shattering the childhoods of her kids.
"I did a light version and then a deeper version. At the end I would weep in front of the computer," she said.
This process proved cathartic and she compared it to revealing your sexual orientation after many years in the closet. She also said forgiving herself allowed her to develop a better relationship with her children.
"I feel like I've come out, too. It feels liberating. I've been making friends. It's amazing. I don't hold anything back because it's my duty to put my story out there. It's my job," she said.
Campbell doesn't wade into the morass of prison reform, but thinks it's needed. She hopes her story and those of her fellow inmates will urge people to tackle the issue.
"If I humanize myself first and do a thorough job of it, then maybe I could humanize these women and maybe we can come up with better solutions," she said.
For more information about Campbell's book, visit amazon.com/Falling-Hard-Lessons-Redemption-Woman-ebook/dp/B08Q2MBCZD.
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