… there was something about the man’s posture or the way he stood between Pamela and the door that triggered the young woman’s paranoia… A gun was lying on the coffee table and Pamela lunged for it.
By Elaine Blanchard
I was doing some mitigation work with the Shelby County Public Defender’s office here in Memphis when Pamela Green was arrested. The police found the thirty-year-old black woman in an abandoned building near Graceland. It had been weeks since Pamela had had any medication for her schizophrenia and only a day since she shot and killed a man, a stranger, who overheard Pamela scuffling with a “john,” and came in the room to see what was happening.
Hungry, frightened, and paranoid, Pamela offered no resistance to the police when they discovered her hiding place, read her Miranda rights, handcuffed her, and led her to the car with its flashing blue lights. “I ain’t no bad person,” she spoke to the back of the officers’ heads. Neither officer was listening; one of them was on his phone and ordering their dinner as they pulled out on Elvis Presley Boulevard and headed toward Jail East.
One of the public defenders asked me if I would befriend this new client. “Truly, the saddest case I’ve ever run across,” the attorney put her bulging briefcase on the floor and slumped into her swiveling office chair. “This woman could use a friend. We drove over to Helena, where her people live, and I stood by the door while we interviewed her family. I honestly didn’t want to touch anything.” She winced at the memory as she turned to her laptop and began writing up her initial note on the case.
The next morning I got out of my car at Jail East, hiding my cell phone under the floor mat. I opened the trunk and dropped my purse inside. Looking around, I saw no one watching me but it bothered me to leave my things in the car. Everyone who has any familiarity at all with the jail and its practices knows that phones, purses, money, cigarettes, and jackets are to be left in the car while visiting inmates. Every time I visit there, I am aware of that parking lot as the best place in town for busting a window and quickly snatching whatever was left behind.
Jail East is the holding site for women in Shelby County. A woman who can post bond will be booked and usually released following an arraignment. Women who cannot post bond, who have no family or friends able or willing to get the money together, will remain incarcerated until their case goes to court. Standing by the x-ray machine, I unfastened my belt and put it in the plastic bin. The correction officer’s voice was boomeranging around the drab green concrete walls, “Who you here to see?” And before I could remember Pamela’s name, the officer roared on, “Any cell phone, money, cigarettes, or other contraband needs to be left in your car.”
I had no way of knowing, as the corrections officer looked for trouble on my face, that I would be visiting Pamela in this holding site for nearly three years. Three years would pass before my new friend went to trial. Three years would pass without her proper medication, three years of insomnia, extreme depression, and paranoia. Three years of waiting. During that time, her attorneys and I were her only visitors.
Pamela had little or nothing to say to me when I arrived on my side of the glass divider. I picked up the telephone receiver as she slumped into her chair. “Hi. I’m Elaine. Your attorney invited me to meet you. Would you like for me to visit you while you’re here?”
She agreed with a nod. I asked about her food and medications. I learned that her food was tasteless and needed color and seasoning and her medicines were not what she was accustomed to getting. I asked about her family and learned that her five children had been separated into various households, the youngest two having been placed together with a family member in Atlanta. “I hope somebody bring them to see me. Don’t know how they be doing and not knowing is killing me.”
At the time of this writing, six years have passed and none of Pamela’s children have been brought to visit her.
Her attorney was right; this was a sad case. With no other visitors, Pamela never turned down my visits, but she sat silently while I, somewhat desperately, generated chatter. I tried to think of things to say that might engage her. Because Pamela dropped out of school early, and because of her intellectual challenges, she reads on a third-grade level. I asked her if I could help her improve her reading skill. And when she agreed, I went to Target and bought flash cards.
“What that?” the correction officer scowled at the two packages of cards.
“They’re flash cards. I am going to help Pamela read better. I’ll hold these cards up to the glass and she can tell me what it says.”
“Nope! That’s not allowed! Take ‘em back to the car or throw them in the trash.”
The only volunteers allowed inside Jail east were church groups and their pastors. Pamela wasn’t interested in the singing and preaching. “I went once and they just told me I be going to hell for what I done if I don’t join they church. I don’t think God care that much what I done, good or bad.”
Pamela gained weight at Jail East, nearly a hundred pounds of extra weight, as she waited to go to trial. The plastic chair she sat in grew smaller and less accommodating for her size. She told me that she ate chips and chocolate bars to pass the time of day. I asked her about her sleep. “I don’t have my medicine so I lie awake all night. Stay sleepy all day.”
“Do you see a doctor here? Have you talked to somebody about your insomnia?”
“Yeah. He say I can sleep anytime in here. Say that ain’t a real problem.”
Fury flew from my mouth. “Ain’t a real problem?! Oh my God! Any doctor should be smart enough to realize that prolonged insomnia is a big cause of sugar craving! That’s something he could address to help you with all this weight gain!”
She recoiled and dropped her shoulders. It would be several weeks before Pamela dared to make eye contact with me again. That was only the first of our miscommunications. Who was I to get so involved with her care? What did I know about her craving and what right did I have to focus on her body and its weight?
The grand jury met, and Pamela was indicted. Her legal counsel advised her to plead guilty and take the deal that was offered to her by the District Attorney’s office: twenty years, serving 100%, for second-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder. Her case never went to trial, but she waited nearly three years at Jail East before her conviction and sentence were established and Pamela was sent to the Tennessee State Prison for Women in Nashville.
Visiting Pamela in Nashville was a memorable experience; it was the first time I had stood next to her, and the first time I had a chance to hug her. She is tall, towering over my 5’4’ frame. I had no idea how tall she was because we had both been seated during our previous visits. Pamela is six feet tall.
Visiting at the state prison in Nashville was much more satisfying for both of us. As a visitor I could pay three dollars to purchase a vending card, which I could then load with funds, allowing me to purchase snacks from machines in the visitation room. Pamela and the other inmates are not allowed to get any closer than three feet from the machines. But their guests can operate the machines, so the inmates point at what they want to eat, and guests use their Jpay cards to provide snacks for the visit.
Pamela pointed at a burger. “Do that say Big Ass Burger, E?” she asked. We fell into each other’s bodies laughing. “Big Ass Burger!” we took turns repeating it, laughing so hard that tears poured down our cheeks. The guard called to us, “Knock it off!” But we had waited years for this chance to bond. It felt too good to let it go quickly.
We took the burger, sodas, crackers, and chips to a plastic table and sat in plastic chairs. Pamela told me about her children. She has five children. All of them were conceived without any family planning and without Pamela’s consent. One of her children is not a result of incest. That rape took place outside her home. Joycelyn is the oldest and she was born when Pamela was fourteen years old. The next child is another daughter, Tre’nequa. She was born when Pamela was seventeen. Kenjahreeya and Kenjahpaill have the same father. Pamela’s youngest child is Darius. He was eight years old when Pamela was arrested.
On that first face-to-face visit, Pamela leisurely enjoyed her burger, chips and soda. She told me about other inmates around the large room, giving details about their crimes and their drug habits. With pride, she says, “I ain’t never got messed up with drugs or alcohol. Never wanted to mess myself up like that. And I ain’t never had no abortion neither, like some of these girls up in here. I ain’t never had no miscarriage and I ain’t been on no birth control. Just natural me, all the way.”
“This is no bad place to be, E. They treat me good here. I be getting my medicine like I should. They take care of what hurts. I got a job too. They assign me to empty trash, and I get to see a lot, going around emptying trash. They be lovin’ me here.” My eyes filled with tears as I realized that this prison experience was Pamela’s first experience of feeling cared for and safe.
She was born in Helena-West Helena, Arkansas in 1982. Freedom Park is directly across the street from the apartment complex where Pamela was raised. On July 4, 1863, an African American troop of soldiers, the 2nd Arkansas of African Descent, took their stand on the ground that is now Freedom Park. They held the city against Confederate Colonel William H. Brooks and his men.
A monument stands downtown, less than a mile from Pamela’s home. It marks the location of “the first Christian service held west of the Mississippi River on June 25, 1541.” Not far from that monument a statue of a black boy stands beside a historical marker that tells the story of Helena’s Quaker Orphanage and School. In 1864, Alida and Calvin Clark came to Helena to house and educate children of freed slaves. Disease, death, and the practice of separating families through slave sales left thousands of children with no one to care for them after the Civil War. Charitable organizations in the northern states sent doctors, nurses, teachers, food, clothing, and medical supplies. The humble orphanage and school in Helena eventually became Southland College, a teacher training school.
Pamela’s apartment complex stands across the railroad tracks from Fellowship Church, where she and her sister attended church services regularly. Had the pastor ever visited in the home, he might have noticed the girls’ need for far more than preaching, singing and praying. A cotton mill was located at the end of Pamela’s street, and big trucks roared by her home at all hours of the day and night. Mr. Choo owned the corner store where Pamela and her sister went every day, spending their nickels on candy and chips. When asked if anyone in her neighborhood or school ever expressed concern for her welfare, Pamela says, “No. I didn’t feel noticed or special by no one.”
Joyce, Pamela’s mother, was a single parent. She had four children. Pamela was her oldest child. Next was Zinnia, then Latoya (who died at age 9), and Thomas was the youngest.
Pamela remembers the day Latoya died. “I remember me and the others got tested to see was we a match for bone marrow surgery. But that never happened. Maybe we was a match. Maybe we wasn’t. But that day she died, we was on our way to Little Rock Children’s Hospital, going to pick up Latoya and bring her home. I think she died from poison in her blood.”
Pamela says, “I was seven when my mom recognized something was wrong with me and I needed help with my mental side. She seeked to get me help. But my family isn’t the caring type unless they could benefit from you and get money for you to get their pockets fat. When my mom died, all that seeking help died with her.”
Pamela’s mother died when Pamela was fourteen. “My mom died from the main artery in her neck busting open. I remember that day real well. She was wanting to go fishing. I begged mom to let me stay home from school and go fishing with her. But she said no. I was already in trouble and they done put me in alternative school for skipping so much. So my mom went fishing and that’s where she was when that artery busted, right beside the lake. I coulda gone for help if I’d been there. But she was alone and gone.”
In 2012, when Pamela was 30, her grandmother died from kidney failure. Losing her grandmother left Pamela without any supportive people in her life. That same year, Pamela was convicted of passing “hot checks” in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and she was sentenced to two years on probation. That incident prompted the Arkansas Division of Children and Family Services to focus on Pamela, apparently for the first time in her life.
The state of Arkansas took all five of Pamela’s children, and separated them, placing them in four different foster homes. The two youngest children were placed together with a family member. Pamela found herself in an apartment with an abusive grandfather and abusive uncles, the fathers of four of her children. And she saw no reason to stay.
Memphis looked attractive to Pamela. She caught a ride to the city and began selling her body. One of her customers let her stay with him, so Pamela settled into a place near Graceland.
One Saturday afternoon Pamela was walking toward Elvis Presley Boulevard and a man called to her from his upstairs apartment. He wanted to do business with her. She climbed the stairs and did her job. The man paid her.
But there was something about the man’s posture or the way he stood between Pamela and the door that triggered the young woman’s paranoia. (She had had none of her meds for weeks.) A gun was lying on the coffee table and Pamela lunged for it. She got the gun just as her customer lunged for her. The scuffle and shouting brought the man’s neighbor to the door. “What’s happening, man?” And the gun, still in Pamela’s hand, went off and shot the neighbor, killing him.
Pamela ran down the stairs and down the road to the place where she was staying.
The police found her the following day and arrested her. She was assigned a public defender and the public defender asked me if I would be Pamela’s friend.
We look forward to our visits together. Pamela was moved to a prison in Henning Tennessee, West Tennessee Women’s Therapeutic Residential Center. She gets her medication and sees a therapist regularly. Because of the current visitation restrictions due to the coronavirus, we have not seen each other face to face in six months. But we recently learned that visitation privileges are reinstated. We will see each other just before Thanksgiving.
Pamela was surprised to learn that I am writing about her life and sharing it with the readers of StoryBoard. “You know I used to be ashamed to tell anything, good or bad, about me to anybody. Most people would label me a failure no matter what I tell them about me. I remember when you first came to see me. I was scared to trust you. I couldn’t figure why you wanted to visit me. But you kept coming and I finally figured you just cared. That’s all. You just cared.”
I asked Pamela what she would like to do with the rest of her life. “I want to inspire women what got themselves in a mess like me. Those women that been through a lot need somebody to look up to. I want to love me so I can be that somebody for these other women in here that say they got no reason to live.”
Elaine Blanchard was honored with a 2011 Jefferson Award because of her work with Prison Stories; honored by Facing History and Ourselves as an Upstander for her Prison Stories work; named by The Commercial Appeal as one of the 16 people who made Memphis a better place to live in 2011. The Shelby County Division of Corrections selected Elaine Blanchard as Volunteer of the Year for 2012. She received the 2016 Women of Achievement Award for Vision. Elaine is a guest speaker for churches, retreats and conferences around the country.