"Of all the questions I receive about my prison experience, I probably get asked about Orange is the New Black the most. I read her book my first year in and can relate to the whole being-thrown-into-a-foreign-world thing, especially after having come from a relatively privileged life...but, for as much as we had in common...state prison (where I was) is a whole different animal compared to the federal system (where she was)." -Natalie Baker
Who is Natalie Baker?
Recovering litigator/Fitness junkie/Travel enthusiast/Animal lover/Style maven/Aspiring author
And what is your current relationship with the criminal justice system?
In February 2010, I was given a 10-year sentence for (1st offense) DUI Serious Bodily Injury; 4 years prison, 6 probation. I served 41 months in the Florida state penitentiary and am now into my third year of probation.
So, what are you up to these days?
Currently, I am the Executive Relations Manager of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, a nonprofit dedicated to rehabilitating prisoners and reducing Texas’ recidivism rate. On the side, I have a prison consulting business, am a freelance writer for a company in San Diego, and perform legal research for several attorneys in the Dallas area. And now, for some crazy reason, I’m taking an advanced memoir writing class for the book I hope to complete and publish one day. I’m beginning to think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew!
Wow! Sounds like you’re keeping busy! I was lucky enough to attend a PEP event earlier this year, and it was such an incredible experience. How did you become involved with that program?
I was doing some research on prison reform for my consulting business, and PEP came up on one of my Google searches. Seeing that it was based in my home state of Texas, I looked into it some more and was immediately intrigued. There was an opening for what I considered the ideal position for me, so I applied, hopeful that my felony conviction would be considered an asset, rather than a burden. Even though a part of me thought, “there’s no way anyone’s going to respond,” our Chief of Staff called me within the hour to set up an interview. The rest is history!
Why do you think PEP is so successful?
I attribute our success to having an “inside/outside” approach – providing support to those while incarcerated and then after release – a combination not too many organizations provide. Surviving a prison sentence is tough, but I’ve found that the transition back into the “free world” is no small feat, either. By providing clothing, transitional housing, case management and job placement support to our men who’ve been released, they’re given a much better shot at success. And it works: our recidivism rate is 7%, compared to the national average of over 50%.
During the PEP event, I couldn’t help but think a similar program could be greatly beneficial for women prisoners as well. Do you know if PEP is planning to expand to include women, and do you think that would be beneficial?
Hopefully, one day we will, because the need is definitely there. Right now, though, we are concentrating on men, since they comprise about 93% of the Texas prison population. In the near future, we hope to expand our program to additional prison facilities in order to accommodate more men.
Did you feel that there were a lot of women in prison similar to you?
The median education level in the Florida state prison system is 4-8th grade, so it was quite an adjustment in the beginning, living amongst grown women who couldn’t read or write. But book smarts aside, prisoners, for the most part, are extremely talented, witty and personable, so I found that I could find things in common with almost anybody, even if I did come from a completely different background.
From what I know of your experience, you seem to have a lot in common with Piper Kerman (Author of Orange is the New Black). Do you agree?
Of all the questions I receive about my prison experience, I probably get asked about Orange is the New Black the most. I read her book my first year in and can relate to the whole being-thrown-into-a-foreign-world thing, especially after having come from a relatively privileged life. I can also identify with the amazing people she befriended, because the bonds you make in there truly keep you going. But, for as much as we had in common, our prison experiences weren’t identical by any means. State prison (where I was) is a whole different animal compared to the federal system (where she was).
If I remember correctly, Kerman was in one of the facilities where Martha Stewart was slated to serve her sentence. She served her time around other non-violent individuals, was treated decently by guards, and at one point in her book, even made a comment about not having spinach in their Chow Hall’s salad bar one day. Let’s just say it’s nothing like that in the state system – you are, literally, fighting to survive every day. To me, her prison experience seemed more like she was at a summer camp for 13 months.
If you could change one moment in your life prior to entering prison, what moment would it be?
The night of my car crash. For years, I’ve dissected every moment of that night, asking myself, “What if I had done this?” or “Why didn’t I do that?” It’s a terrible feeling knowing that your actions caused someone else harm. However, I’ve learned that dwelling on the past won’t change what has happened. What I can do, moving forward, is work on bettering myself each day and make a positive impact on society by helping others with the time I have left.
If you could effect change in one specific area of criminal justice reform, what would it be?
I think many in the system are over-sentenced, especially first-time non-violent offenders. I believe that prison is a place designed for people who we’re scared of, not for those we’re mad at. There are good (nonviolent) people in there serving unbelievably long sentences for a first-ever offense – and as a result, they’re coming back to society broken and damaged, faced with futures filled with sizeable hurdles. I understand that if you break the law, there needs to be consequences – but I think some states take the punitive stance a little too far.
And if you could go back to the day you went into prison, what advice would you give yourself?
That you’re going to survive this and be a better person because of it.
Who was your closest friend in prison?
Who you share a cell with can make or break your prison stay. During my 41 months down, I had dozens of “bunkies” – some who were godsends and some who were nightmares. There are a handful who stand out; those who were my everything at one point in time. I am a better person having met them, and actually keep in touch with a couple to this day.
Did you feel you received resources in prison that helped you prepare for life post-release?
The system doesn’t prepare you for freedom. In prison, it’s a different way of life, and you have to adapt in order to survive. When I got out, I found I’d forgotten how to function like a normal person in society – how to eat, how to sleep, how to make decisions on my own. If I hadn’t found a good therapist specializing in post-traumatic stress, I don’t think I’d be the person I am today.
Post-release, what have you found to be the most challenging?
Living with the felon label. As a convicted felon, you are forever a second-class citizen, and the social stigma against you is a very real thing. Basic civil liberties, housing and certain career paths – things that most of us take for granted – are suddenly off-limits. Even with my law degree and MBA, it took me a year and a half to get a full-time job, a hardship I was entirely unprepared for. For a time, I just wanted to go back to prison – because getting back on my feet again, all while being under the system’s thumb – felt nearly impossible.
What was your darkest day in prison?
That’s a tough one. I don’t know if there was one particular day that stands out, but the first two weeks in prison were definitely a dark period for me. The shock of prison culture, in addition to the treatment, conditions and violence, made for a difficult transition. Those first days passed by like months, and I was too terrified to cry or even speak. But once I settled into routine and made friends, my sentence slowly started to feel not so hopeless.
And does any one day you spent in prison stand out brighter than the rest?
Surprisingly, I had far more good days in there than bad. One evening stands out, though. I was about six months into my sentence, and my bunkie and I were discussing our dream weddings (ha!), when a group of friends yelled at me to come meet them at the Rec Yard. As I grabbed my radio to head outside, I remember feeling a sense of belonging and thinking, “Wow. I’ve really acclimated to this life. Who would’ve thought?”
I’m reminded of a quote:
“All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.” ― Yann Martel,
|Natalie with her family. She credits this support system with helping her survive nearly four years in prison.|
I’d like to extend a massive thank you to Natalie for sharing her story. I look forward to seeing what amazing things she does in the future!