About a month ago, I attended a women's event at the Lockhart Correctional Facility. One of my fellow volunteers was a woman named Lee. Her energy and brightness was magnetic, and I was drawn even more to her when she mentioned she was a felon. Lee's story is incredible, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see it told on the big screen someday. After she shared with me that she'd been extradited to the US from Australia, I knew I had to have her here on the blog to discuss the difference between the two correctional systems.
Who is Lee Barnett?
Lee Barnett is a mother, fugitive, prisoner and a felon. I put that on my LinkedIn description shortly after I entered the free world. My friends made me change it, for obvious reasons!
So, what are you up do these days?
Currently I’ve been staying with my oldest childhood friend Susan here in Austin Texas. I came for 3 months and now it is nearly 10 months, where I go next is uncertain. When I was released from Federal Prison May 15, 2015, I moved in with a dear friend and her husband in Charleston South Carolina, my home town. That too I thought would be for 3 months and it turned into a year and a half! I was certain I would be able to travel back to Australia even though I was on probation, however, I was not granted permission. I then was certain I could walk back into my old profession as an educational consultant for publishing companies, but I found out the hard way that, once I ticked the box on the application form, it didn’t matter how much experience I had—I was not going to be hired. Hence, I’ve been living with my kind friends for over 2 years now! Since February, I have been working on my memoir and am happy to say that I have been given an offer from a large publishing company, my agent is working on the contract as we speak.
And what is your current relationship with the criminal justice system?
I was arrested in Australia on November 5, 2013, and was immediately sent to maximum prison to await extradition. I fought extradition knowing it would be more humane to spend as much of my sentence in an AU prison, and I needed to gather evidence and obtain an attorney in the US. I was facing a possible sentence of 23 years in Federal Prison. I succeeded my extradition and was escorted back (by 3 US Marshals in chains) to the USA on September 26, 2014. On February 10, 2015, I pled guilty to one count of parental kidnapping and 2 counts of false statements on passport applications. I could not afford the extra $200,000 to go to trial. I received 21 months, which was the maximum of my sentencing guide lines. The judge said my sentence needed to be used as a deterrent for anyone else who wanted to follow my example. I exited the prison system (Federal Prison in Tallahassee, Florida) on May 15, 2015 and started my two years of supervised release. There were really no restrictions on me, including travel within the country. I did have to ask permission to leave the country. My probation was up on May 14, 2017 (ironically, Mother’s Day).
Did you feel there were a lot of women in prison similar to you in Australia?
In the US? No. I never met another woman who was in prison for what I had done, and to be honest no one believed me and it put me in jeopardy as they thought for some silly reason that I was a snitch put in there with a fabricated crime to spy on them!
If you could change one moment in your life, would you?
I’ve thought about this question a million times… and to be honest, I would change nothing. I couldn’t say I wish I would have never met my monster of a husband because I would have never had my daughter. I couldn’t say I wish I would have never told my “friends” who turned me in the truth because they were already fishing about answers to questions they didn’t know, and it would have been only a matter of time before they discovered who I was. I’m the lucky one. I achieved what I set out to do. I kept my daughter safe, and any ramifications from that are just that—ramifications, which pale in comparison to the end result.
If you could go back to the day you entered prison, what advice would you give yourself?
Wear a different outfit! I was initially placed in what they call in Australia a “Watch House.” It is a place you are put temporarily while awaiting bail hearings, and it is hell on earth. Not knowing what a Watch House was, I asked the Australian Federal Agent what should I wear. She said something comfortable, so I put on new white linen peddle pusher pants and a beautiful new cashmere type sweater. After 4 days of hell, lying in a feces infested cell, they did not look too good. Once I got to prison, I received prison issued clothing, which was quite nice.
As a mother, how was incarceration different for you, rather than for someone with no children?
I told myself I would not do more that 10 years, not because I couldn’t handle it, but because it wasn’t fair to my children and my future grandchildren to spend every work holiday and every break coming to see me in prison. They had already sacrificed themselves and needed to get on with life. I would have ended my life.
Who was your closest friend in prison?
I had a few in Australia. We lived and worked in a “normal” environment and became quite close. We also had access to daily newspapers, so we could read about inmates and know who was telling the truth and who was lying about their offense. My closest friend was Michelle. She embezzled a few million dollars from her boss. Many of my unit mates and friends were murders. This is something I could not have fathomed until I entered prison. Some of these friends murdered their pedophile fathers, their abusive husbands etc. I somehow could get past the horrific nature of their crimes once I got to know them.
What was your darkest day in prison?In Georgetown, South Carolina, in a jail which words will never adequately describe. We were freezing in this jail, no blanket to speak of, surrounded by moist black mold, usually confined for 23 out of 24 hours a day. By mistake I was put with someone with paranoid schizophrenic disorder and with multiple personalities. She laid on the floor, wouldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep and hadn’t bathed for months. One day, when we were going up the stairs back to our cell and I realized she was going to die in there. Her crime was loitering outside of Walmart and scaring people. That is the day I learned there is nowhere but prison for mentally ill people in the USA.
Australia has the most realistic plan to get women ready for the outside. The majority of women are drug users or alcoholics and they try to get them clean, feed them healthy food, and encourage exercise. They also had us work out food budgets and fill in an order form which was later sent to a grocery store that supplied our food. We had our own kitchens in our units, we needed to function like a family, agree on things including cooking and cleaning. This gave the girls normalcy, maybe for the first time. The US jails do not. Many, if not all, of the girls in jail gained an exorbitant amount of weight with very unhealthy food in which they substitute their other addictions for. They have no access to exercise or, in my case, to the outside. Depression and mental illness is a major factor in drug use. Add weight gain and no exercise, and you have a very unhappy and unhealthy person who emerges from prison.
What were the main differences you experienced between the Australian prison system and the US prison system?
There are so many, some mentioned above. First, their ideology is to treat the prisoners like humans you will be releasing people into the public. If you treat them like animals, you send animals out into society. We called the guards by their first names—they checked on inmates just to make sure they were ok. We had exercise classes, healthy food, and a family environment. The girls have women’s groups to come and visit them. They have free women's legal services. They had classes to help women who had been abused and to help them build self esteem. All this was done in a maximum security prison. I was told many times that the officers were there to make sure we were okay. The officers, along with every other job in Australia, are extremely well paid. I think this helps with morale and general job acceptance. I will say I did see them act with incredible force when necessary, but only when necessary.
What is your favorite food? Book? Hobby?
Food- I eat most anything but prison food. I’ve gained 35 pounds since my release. I crave salads and fruit—can’t get enough. Books—I read thrillers and mysteries. I don’t have the time to read as much as I would like, so I listen to audio books while walking/running. Hobby—the outdoors and anything to do with water.
What are you looking forward to the most in the future?
Getting my story told, and helping others understand the pandemic of the corruption in the family court system. Also, spending some much needed time with my children in a normal environment.
I would like to thank Lee so very much for agreeing to be featured on the blog and for sharing some of her story with us. The conversation above is just a tidbit of Lee's story; if you'd like to learn more, I would encourage you to check out Lee's episode of 48 Hours here, and stay tuned for her memoir!