Life, in prison
February 2, 2013 2 Comments
Wendy Renee Seelke is 44-years-old. She has a Bachelor of Business Administration from Tarleton State University, a second degree, myriad certificates of completion for classes and job-related training, and has just finished a paralegal program through Blackstone Career Institute where she has earned an average of 95% on the completion exams. In addition, Wendy has completed a number of intensive programs aimed at personal growth and development.
It is important that I now also tell you Wendy is serving a life sentence in Texas for a crime that occurred when she had just turned 15-years-old. She resides at the Christina Melton Crain Unit in Gatesville, Texas. The academic and personal achievements describe Wendy as the person she is today. Everything she has accomplished has taken place in prison and though she has reason to feel proud, her positive growth is forever shadowed in her mind by her involvement in a crime that took place in September of 1983.
I was approached by one of Wendy’s close friends, Melissa Ramey, and asked to look at her case. Melissa met Wendy when the two were incarcerated together in the late 1980s. The two women never lived in the same unit but “remained close through college classes, safety classes, kites, and passed verbal messages.” For those unfamiliar with the prison environment, a “kite” is a written note between prisoners that is classified as contraband and prohibited by prison officials. It is a means of communicating with others in prison and also sometimes serves to deliver threats or warnings.
Melissa was incarcerated after receiving 20 years in prison on three drug-related charges. However, she was able to significantly reduce the time to 5 years through good time credits and by serving an additional 15 years of parole. She was open and honest with me about her charges, saying “Yes, I was dealing drugs and looking back had that judge gave me a break instead of throwing the book at me, I might have continued with my strung out on drugs path and ended up dead or completely crazy.” She went on to say, “I needed a long time out….I’ve been out 20 years and I still do not use hard drugs anymore. That five years helped me get it out of my system I guess. It also allowed me time to understand prison life and to decide I never wanted to be there again.”
We discussed the prison environment and how it has changed over the years in Texas. “In the 80′s and 90′s, prisons were asylums. The number of unmedicated mentally ill people was scary. I’m not talking depression. I mean people who have serious mental issues. There was a woman who slept four or five cubes down from me who had killed her baby in a microwave oven just ‘to see what would happen’.” Melissa then explained that people who kill babies share the lowest part of the prison hierarchy, along with child molesters. “Most will say they are there on a drug or robbery charge. The guards usually let it slip why they are there.”
Some people unfamiliar with the American prison system believe the prisons that house males are scarier than the ones responsible for female inmates. “Women are much more vindictive than men,” Melissa said, “and can be downright cruel.” She talked about how she would sometimes get a tip in prison not to eat the potatoes, or something to that effect, because someone had put powdered bleach or ground up glass into the food. Another problem with the food was that sometimes the kitchen workers released bodily fluids into it as well.
Housing young female inmates within the prison is fraught with many challenges. For one, it is simply not a safe environment. Sometimes the younger inmates are housed in Administrative Segregation – a unit intended to separate inmates from the general population. Time spent in Ad-Seg consists of solitary confinement to one’s cell for 23-to-24 hours a day. This environment was the safest Wendy’s facility had to offer a young teenager convicted of a violent crime.
Wendy is no stranger to violence in prison, however. She had not even been in prison for more than a year or two before another inmate branded her with a tattoo in her chest area that read “property of Rita”. Melissa explained that when the guards noticed the tattoo they gave Wendy a punishment of 15 days in solitary confinement. Rita did not get in any trouble and soon left the prison to go home.
Melissa reflected on how much she and Wendy had in common when they met in prison. “That could so easily have been me in her TDC boots,” she said. Melissa and Wendy also shared a difficult childhood, filled with abuse and a lack of supervision. A history of abuse is common among those in female prisons, along with substance use and abuse. The lack of parental or family involvement in the lives of those condemned to spend their natural life in prison does not resolve once a person is convicted. If anything, the problem gets worse. “I have noticed that the young kids there all had little parental support and as time went by, people moved on with their lives…writing and visiting less and less until it just stopped.” She said that once young people lose their ties to the outside world the only place left for them to turn is to the inside of the prison for a kind of replacement family, usually consisting of a gang.
She outlined the similar experiences the two had while growing up. “I see myself in Wendy in a lot of ways. We were both sexually abused from a very young age at the hands of someone we were supposed to be able to trust. The abuse went on for years. We were both physically beaten by parents and siblings…emotionally and verbally abused. We were both pretty much left to run wild in the streets. Wendy’s mother was a topless dancer and her father a biker, so I’m sure she saw and heard things kids shouldn’t even know about.”
I spent a long time reading through Wendy’s case files, including a detailed description of her childhood and prior record as a teen runaway. Wendy was born in September of 1968 to Ronnie and Betty Joe Seelke. She had two older siblings and a younger sister by the name of Tanya. At nine months old, the infant received a fatal blow to her head that resulted in her death. Wendy’s mother and boyfriend at the time, Tommy Lige Welch, were indicted for the murder of little Tanya. However, neither of the two served time for it. The charges against Wendy’s mother were eventually dismissed, and the boyfriend pleaded to a lesser crime which allowed him to serve ten years on probation.
Wendy’s case file states the following: “According to Wendy, when she was five and a half years old, she witnessed the murder of her nine month old sister, Tanya, which occurred [in] 1974. Wendy states she saw her mother hit her sister with a dog hair brush and then place the baby’s head between the mattress.” Following the death of her baby sister, Wendy was placed in foster care. Her records note that prior to the child’s murder, Wendy was referred to social services on a separate occasion because her mother had hit her in the mouth. What appeared to be cigarette burns were observed on Wendy’s hands.
After a stint in the foster care system, Wendy’s grandparents received custody of the young child. A referral was again made to social services in reference to alleged sexual abuse of Wendy by her 15-year-old uncle. Wendy was not removed from the home, however. Instead, she remained there until her grandfather died in 1981. The death of Wendy’s grandfather was traumatic because he was one of the very few people she indicated she was close with. She was then sent to live with her father, whom she did not know or have any kind of relationship with. The grandmother made the decision to send Wendy to live with her dad because “she was unable to provide Wendy with adequate supervision.”
It was not long after Wendy’s placement with her father that she began to view running away from home as her only truly viable option. At one point, Wendy sought a placement on her own with a family who had children she had gone to school with. Wendy ran away from that home after her grandmother gave her a series of newspaper clippings regarding the death of her little sister. This seemed a tipping point for Wendy and she went to stay with some friends in the Pasadena area. The Wilson family traveled to Houston and brought her back with them. She remained there for some time until she had a confrontation with the elder Wilson in which she reported he “attacked her and was also sexually abusive towards her.” The case files note that Mr. Wilson claimed he was upset with Wendy because she was not always cooperative with the household chores.
Wendy experienced her first residential placement at Buckner’s Youth Shelter in 1982. She continued to run away from these placements and ended up in the Jefferson County Detention. She was in and out of other similar places throughout 1982 and 1983.
I wrote to Wendy to ask if I could share her story with the readers of my blog, and also to discuss the circumstances surrounding her case with her in more detail. I wanted to learn more about the journey she has taken from a remarkably painful and abusive childhood to her life in the Texas prison system. It was difficult for Wendy to talk about her past. In addition to experiencing intense feelings of remorse and guilt, Wendy was concerned about sharing her story and potentially hurting people connected with her crime by doing so. Her biggest reservation when it came to answering questions about her case and her time in prison was that she did not want anyone to think she views herself as a victim and she did not want to hurt anyone more than she believes she already has.
She recounted her experiences with running away, explaining to me that she had run away for the last time when she found herself within the company of a group of people, looking for a way to get a ride to Florida where she could finally distance herself from her troubled past. “Not a day goes by that I don’t wish I had made different choices,” she said. “I fully accept responsibility for my part of what happened and yes, I feel that I should have gotten time. A precious life was taken – a life that mattered.”
A description in Wendy’s case files states that she talked to police about the murder openly. She did not commit the murder, but for all intents and purposes she was present and abetted the crime through her actions. Wendy was interrogated by the police without the presence of another adult or an attorney.
We went on to talk about her first year in prison. “Well,” she said, “I ended up fighting a lot. At that time, being 15, I was the youngest on the unit. I was very scared. Who wouldn’t be?” she asked me. “In Texas, doing time now is nothing compared to what it was like in the ’80′s…What stands out most in my memory was the fact they would not let me take my GED until I turned 17 because they said I was 15 and too young. So I had to wait until I became of age, and yet they felt I was old enough to stand trial and be given a life sentence.”
Another difficult aspect of being in the adult prison environment as a teenager was that Wendy did not share common interests or experiences with the other women. She told me a lot of them talked about shooting up drugs or the corners they used to hang out at to score drugs. Wendy was never involved in those kinds of activities so she could not relate.
“I think one of the hardest things for me to adjust to was the everyday violence between both inmates and officers,” she said as she reflected on those earlier experiences behind the prison walls. At first Wendy found it hard to stay out of trouble. She was housed for a time in Ad-Seg. “I was glad because I was in a single cell by myself and no one could hurt me. I could go to sleep without worrying that I was going to get jumped on.” Her mindset began to change as she grew older in prison, however. “I started taking responsibility for my actions. I started to mature and think differently. More than anything I knew I didn’t want any other teen to go through what I did.”
In prison, Wendy has looked for opportunities to help troubled youth. She was involved in a program called “Project Outreach” that is similar in some ways to the Scared Straight Program. She felt that she could use her own knowledge and experience to reach out to the teens in the program. Wendy said of her involvement, “I had my original ID at the time with the picture on it of when I came in at 15 and I would show it to them and talk with them. I would let them know how easy it is to make the wrong choice that could mess up a lot of lives.”
I talked in more depth with Melissa about her feelings about the sentencing of juveniles to life without parole, or similar life sentences that amount to the same thing. She acknowledged that while some youth do deserve to be punished for the crimes they commit, sentencing them to life is “a travesty and cruel and unusual punishment”. She added that she believes young people should always be housed at a juvenile facility until they turn 21-years-old. “I know 18 is considered an adult, but 18-year-olds, by law, are too young and immature to purchase and consume alcohol. If that’s the case, how can we justify sending a child to an adult prison?”
She enhanced her point by talking about the limited educational opportunities for minors in the adult prison system. She reiterated what Wendy had discussed with me about the GED requirements. “In Texas if you do not have a high school diploma or GED you have to get it. Well, in Wendy’s case she didn’t have either, but in Texas you have to be at least 17 to take the GED. Odd, isn’t it?…Old enough to be in adult prison with hardened criminals, but too young to take the GED test.”
Melissa talked at length about the impact Wendy has had on her life. “Wendy has touched me in so many ways I don’t even know where to begin. She is the strongest person I know. She really has had every reason to believe she’s never getting out and yet she is not all ‘prisoned’ out. She still has hope. She’s starving for knowledge and loves to read and learn things. She still has her light inside. So many people in prison don’t have that. ‘Walking Dead’ is what we used to call them.”
In terms of Wendy’s participation in a crime, though minimal when compared to the others involved, Melissa said, “She is not a victim. She takes full responsibility for her role in the murder of Linda Richardson as well as in her day-to-day life.”
Wendy repeatedly expressed remorse for her part in the murder and carries the guilt inside of her like an organ. “I live with this every day,” she said. “I have a lot of guilt behind the decision I made and the part I took. Should I have been punished? Yes, without a doubt. Should I have gotten a slap on the wrist? No. But prison does not help a child and no matter what someone may think, 15 is not grown. Just because teens commit crimes does not mean they are grown adults to be housed with grown adults. The prison system does not offer help for ‘us’. By that I mean for drug users they have places like SAFP – that’s like a drug rehab. For sex offenders they have programs. But what do they have for teens who are here for the rest of their life? Or for 30 years?”
She has found motivation to become a better person, despite the lack of hope her sentence reflects. She made the decision that she wanted to become educated and get involved in helping others who were at risk for ending up in a similar situation.
Since entering prison at the age of 15, Wendy has grown considerably. “I have changed a lot,” she said. “I have matured from a juvenile into an adult. I think as an adult.” As a teenager, Wendy found it difficult to think ahead to the future. “I never thought a lot of times; I just acted. I’m not that way now. Before I make any decision, I think of what could happen.”
She wants people to know that she is not the person she was when she was charged with murder as a young teenager. “I would just like a chance to prove that I have changed and that I am not the same. I believe it is up to the individual to want to change if change is going to occur.”
After Melissa was released from prison she lost touch with Wendy for about fifteen years. She was doing some research online one day and came across Wendy’s name, along with a couple of other names of inmates, describing how they had received a license to translate Braille. Melissa was stunned that Wendy was still in prison and so she wrote to her. She found out that Wendy had no real support from anyone in the free world. She got permission from the Warden to visit her former friend in prison and the two resumed the close friendship they shared previously.
Melissa has been instrumental in helping to encourage Wendy to pursue her goals. She also provides Wendy with the emotional support that women in prison so desperately need from people in the outside world. Melissa believes in Wendy and hopes that someday, somehow, her friend might have a second chance at a real life.