Long Read: “The Sister of Second Chances”

The unglamorous real-life sequel to Orange Is the New Black, as reported by John Leland in the NYTimes:

Venita Pinckney grew up around Catholic schools and churches, and she thought she knew about nuns. Then a small, gray-haired sister named Teresa Fitzgerald came to fish her out of a Harlem crack house. Ms. Pinckney had been a drug addict for 23 years, a dealer and a prostitute, and had lost both of her children to foster care. She was high at the time.

“She looked past all that,” Ms. Pinckney said of the nun. “She must’ve hugged me for two hours.”

Sister Tesa, as she is known, helped Ms. Pinckney get into a residential drug program, then gave her a job and a room and helped her get her children back…

Twenty-seven years ago, answering an open call from an older nun, she started a home for children whose mothers were in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Last year she was honored by the White House.

Now, on a drizzly May afternoon, she walked the battered streets of her expanding domain: three apartment buildings, three thrift stores, a day care center, an after-school program, a job-training program, a group home for women with children, a food pantry, a mentoring program. Three more communal homes, including one where she lives, dot nearby neighborhoods.

In each of the buildings, nearly every woman, whether resident or staff member, is an ex-convict. They are former murderers, drug dealers, embezzlers, smugglers, burglars and addicts. And for many, it was Sister Tesa who turned their lives around, often after they failed on the first or second try…

“Women get overlooked because they’re such a small part of the prison population, and they don’t commit the crimes that make headlines,” said Georgia Lerner, executive director of the Women’s Prison Association, a nonprofit advocacy and service organization.

“But it matters a lot when a woman goes to prison,” Ms. Lerner added. “If a father goes to prison, usually the mother takes care of the kids. If a mother goes to prison, there might be no one to take the kids.”…

67 replies
  1. 1
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    I have little if any use for the Church per se, but there are many people affiliated with the Church who are doing wonderful work. I think Jesus would prolly approve.

    ETA: By “many people affiliated with the Church,” I am not including bishops. But you knew that.

  2. 2
    Anne Laurie says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: Heck, even fifty (or probably a hundred) years ago, the Catholics I grew up with always drew a line between the nuns as part of the community, and the priests who, even at their most “beloved”, always considered themselves as above us mere parishioners!

  3. 3
    Corner Stone says:

    @Anne Laurie: Heck? That’s at least twice now.

  4. 4
    Gin & Tonic says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: While I see your point and understand it, as fate would have it I’m somewhat friendly from way back with someone who was elevated (not sure of the right canonical term) to the post of bishop fairly recently, and is probably the kindest, humblest and most dedicated person I know. There are people, even in those positions, who sincerely attempt to emulate what they believe was the path of Christ.

  5. 5
    Gin & Tonic says:

    @Corner Stone: Gosh, who’s counting?

  6. 6
    Corner Stone says:

    @Gin & Tonic: Heck, not me.

  7. 7
    Anoniminous says:

    Anybody know the statistics? I would guess the majority of female prisoners are serving time for prostitution and drug possession.

    ETA: heck

  8. 8
    Corner Stone says:

    @Anoniminous: Heck, drug muling maybe. You don’t serve a lot of prison time for pross.
    …I think.

  9. 9
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Gin & Tonic:

    I obviously don’t know your own bishop friend, and I will take your word for it that he is a good and kind and Christlike person. I was thinking more of the typical USCCB type. I’m quite sure there are some terrible nuns as well, but in the aggregate, from what I know, they are more likely to follow the precepts laid out in the Sermon on the Mount than are the priests and hierarchy.*

    *That seems, maybe, to be changing, a little, under Pope Francis. “By your works shall you be known.”

  10. 10
    Anoniminous says:

    @Corner Stone:

    I’m guessing there is a close connection between prostitution and drug use. But what the heck do I know.

  11. 11
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Anne Laurie:

    Heck, that’s sorta like the traditional difference between doctors (always male) and nurses (always female).

  12. 12
    Gin & Tonic says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: I’m not saying he’s representative. I wish he were. I know that those who are terrible, are really terrible, and that hurts many people profoundly. But those I know who are in the hierarchy (and I know and/or am friends with a not inconsiderable number of priests and more than one bishop) skew far, far more good than bad.

    Anecdata, I know, and not necessarily a popular view around here, but so be it. Presented simply as one person’s perspective.

  13. 13
    WereBear says:

    All people need, most of the time, is enough support.

    The criminal part is how few times they get it.

  14. 14
    OzarkHillbilly says:

    Where the heck were Nuns like her when I was going to parochial school?

  15. 15
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Corner Stone: I spent twelve years in parochial school, I’m not gonna swear in front of a nun!

    The other reasons women get sent to jail in modern America seem to involve violent self-defense, having family members with drug problems (your idiot couch-surfing cousin gets busted & the cops find his stash in your public-housing apt), and parenting while poor (neglect/abuse, sometimes very serious, sometimes stuff a suburbanite wouldn’t be ticketed for, like a toddler getting out of the house & wandering the neighborhood). They haven’t managed to make it illegal just to be poor in America, but they’re sure working hard to do so…

  16. 16

    @Corner Stone: Heck, I think Anne Laurie is telling us something.

  17. 17
    Corner Stone says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: Heck I disagree.

  18. 18
    Hal says:

    This seems pertinent to this story. I just came across this point, and realize I hadn’t thought of this in regards to the legalization of marijuana in this way.

    Here are white men poised to run big marijuana businesses, dreaming of cashing in big—big money, big businesses selling weed—after 40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time for selling weed, and their families and futures destroyed. Now, white men are planning to get rich doing precisely the same thing?”


  19. 19
    Corner Stone says:

    Spurs destroying the Heat.

  20. 20
    some guy says:

    Francis seems to embrace the spirit of Vatican Council II and Sisters like Tessa. his stance seems to have angered less Christian Christians:

    A Tea Party candidate running for office in Oklahoma has appeared to endorse the practice of stoning gay people to death.

    Last year, Scott Esk, who is in the race to represent the 91st district in the State House, responded to a friend’s Facebook post about the Pope’s stance on gay people by copying and pasting Bible verses including Leviticus 20:13, which describes homosexuality as “detestable” and demands gay people be “put to death”.

    When asked by another Facebook user whether he supported executing homosexuals by stoning, Mr Esk replied: “That goes against some parts of libertarianism, I realise, and I’m largely libertarian, but ignoring as a nation things that are worthy of death is very remiss.”

  21. 21
    Gin & Tonic says:

    @Corner Stone: Good.

  22. 22

    Women like this nun make me appreciate just how shallow the faith was that I was born and raised in.

    Christianity isn’t supposed to be about saying a magic prayer and showing up once a week for services while voting Republican because abortion and teh gay. It’s supposed to be about remembering the outcasts, the rejected, the hurting, the sick, the prisoners, and getting your hands dirty.

    This woman puts many of us “Christians” to shame.

  23. 23
    Mike in NC says:

    @some guy: Extreme wingnuts want to have gay people put to death, while moderate wingnuts merely want them locked away for life.

  24. 24
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Gin & Tonic:

    In point of fact, I imagine the great majority of priests are in the good (or at least not-bad) category. It’s sad that a small number of them, through their own venality or worse, have put such a blight on pretty much the entire priesthood.

    Same with the Princes of the Church.

  25. 25
    micheline says:

    What the hell happened to the Miami Heat?!!

  26. 26
    mainmata says:

    @Anne Laurie: Oh yes, I grew up in an Irish Catholic community (MA and PA) and the nuns were the anchor of our primary schools and brothers in high school. Priests were mostly but not always there. But the bishops…oh give me a break…they were disgusting types.

  27. 27
    Corner Stone says:

    @micheline: They’s getting their ass handed to them.

  28. 28
    Corner Stone says:

    Tony Parker decided he wanted to ball, afterall.

  29. 29
    micheline says:

    @Corner Stone:I know :(

  30. 30
    The Dangerman says:

    Not one, not two … oh, wait.


  31. 31
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @Corner Stone: It’s fucking contagious. I’ll fucking fight it like heck hell. Christ, that was a close one.

  32. 32
    Corner Stone says:

    @Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name): Heck just watch the Spurs win another title with us.
    Don’t worry about the rest of it.

  33. 33
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @Corner Stone: I will not be assimilated and I don’t really care for basketball. Can’t play it, never could, and never really developed an understanding of the game.

  34. 34
    Corner Stone says:

    @Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name): Heck I was always a pretty good 2 guard, and could go with either hand. But I was better at baseball.

  35. 35
    aimai says:

    Sister Elaine Roulet was another nun who was very involved with the women of Bedford Hills Prison. She is an amazing woman, now very old and frail, who served that community heart and soul but with a shrewd, practical, wisdom.

  36. 36
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @Corner Stone: Baseball. Another sport covered by the “Can’t play it, never could, and never really developed an understanding of the game” mantra.

  37. 37
    WaterGirl says:

    @Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name): I’m pretty sure the goal for both teams is to try to get the ball in the right basket at the end of the court.

    Edit: sorry, low hanging fruit

  38. 38
    Violet says:

    @some guy: Scott Esk, the guy who advocated stoning gay people, seems like he’s got a lot of problems. Check out this previous thread on the story. In the comments you’ll see links to and discussion of various things on his website–Vitamin B-17 (laetrile), how he didn’t know Log Cabin Republicans existed–and excerpts from his seven (or more) year long divorce case, which includes requirements he undergo anger management classes, supervised visits with his kids, and his attempt to claim he was broke to get out of paying court fees.

    He seems like a mess and I feel really sorry for his kids. They’ve been required to go to counseling, probably because this divorce is so awful for them.

  39. 39
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @WaterGirl: That much I know. I just enjoy sports more when I understand and can appreciate how and why things are happening.

  40. 40
    Gin & Tonic says:

    @Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name): Just think on this — their star player has played his entire career, 17 years now, for the same coach and the same team, winning now five championships during that period.

  41. 41
    Corner Stone says:

    @Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name):

    I just enjoy sports more when I understand and can appreciate how and why things are happening.

    I never played competitive football but I understand, appreciate and enjoy it more than any other sport I actually did play.
    It’s like a ballet chess match when it’s done right, or even well.

  42. 42
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @Corner Stone: Having played something can certainly help one’s understanding of it, but so can years of watching and thinking about it. My mom has been a baseball fan since she was a kid. She can’t play at all, but she knows the game and almost instinctively knows what should happen in any given situation.

  43. 43
    democommie says:

    “Now, white men are planning to get rich doing precisely the same thing?”

    They’ve been doing it for years and the authorities have treated the two groups very differently when the bust came down.

  44. 44
    WaterGirl says:

    Baseball is a dad thing for me. I grew up in Chicago and my dad would take me to baseball games. And of course if the white sox or the cubs were in the world series, the nuns would bring a TV into the classroom so we could all watch the game.

    My mom was a cubs fan, my dad was a sox fan. Being a daddy’s girl, I of course liked the white sox.

  45. 45
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @democommie: Unrelated to this post, I just took a look at your blog. I liked the Veterans/Memorial Day piece.

  46. 46
    Foregone Conclusion says:

    Two of my mother’s cousins were nuns in the Pacific Northwest (one still is, the other one passed away a few years ago sadly). They were involved teaching, in nursing and later the administration of the local Catholic hospitals and running low-income housing for the homeless and elderly. Two truly incredible ladies.

    I was also told a couple of times growing up about how one of the sisters had been arrested for lying in front of a train carrying nuclear warheads. I always presumed that this was a garbled or exaggerated family story… until a couple of years ago when, out of curiosity, I put her name into Google and, sure enough, up the story popped from the early 1980s. I shall have to ask her about it the next time we meet…

  47. 47
    ruemara says:

    @WaterGirl: Do you really like it? I want to go see a baseball game soon. It seems very long, but with exciting moments when they’re throwing the balls around. When someone has hit the ball and they’re all doing the throwing so they can have an out. I so want to go see it. Maybe I will find I really enjoy the sport. Do you think it’s worth seeing the pro ball teams play or do you think a know-nothing like me would be better off just watching a good minor team? I’ve read up on the basics, so I can’t wait to see how it all gets put together.

    They’re still playing now, right? I mean, they were reporting about hockey last week and I thought that was simply a winter game. It seems confusing knowing what sport is in season

  48. 48
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @WaterGirl: Mom’s baseball love came from being a daddy’s girl. She listened to Milwaukee games with her dad throughout each summer of her childhood. He taught and thus was able to listen to games during the summer.

    Me, however, dad and I hiked. rode bikes, backpacked, and dabbled in climbing. I climbed my first mountain (Mt. Woodring) the summer I turned ten; it wasn’t a technical climb, but is was me, my dad, and his dad. One of the only compliments I have heard my grandfather give me – he didn’t do compliments – was that he was amazed at my stamina and ability to just keep slogging up the slope. God, I loved that climb.

  49. 49
    Violet says:

    @ruemara: Baseball goes on forever. Starts in early spring with spring training and then opening day happens in early April usually. World Series is in October. So a really, really long season. You’ll have plenty of time to catch a game, whether you choose minor league or the big leagues.

    Minor league baseball can be fun because the tickets are cheaper and that means families can go and so there are non-baseball activities for everyone. That happens at major league games too but tickets are usually more and the games are in a bigger stadium with associated higher prices for food and other stuff.

    For me, the point of going to a game is the entire experience. From the guys selling beer and peanuts to the seventh inning stretch to actually watching the game. It’s all part of the experience.

  50. 50
    WaterGirl says:

    @ruemara: I grew up seeing games in person at the ball park, so I get bored with baseball on TV. On the other hand, my eyes aren’t as good as they were when I was a young pup, so maybe that ship has sailed for me with live baseball from the cheap seats.

    It’s definitely baseball season. Some people think watching baseball is like watching grass grow, so I have no idea whether it would be a thing for you or not. For me it’s all about the warm fuzzies and the memories from childhood.

    Someone else here might be better able to answer your questions.

  51. 51
    Gin & Tonic says:

    @ruemara: Many of the minor league baseball parks give very good value for the money, and if they are the AAA club, you are likely to see players who will be in the major leagues shortly, or maybe were already there and are recovering from injury or something. The quality of play, particularly from the POV of a casual fan, will not be much different.

  52. 52
    Tissue Thin Pseudonym (JMN) says:


    And of course if the white sox or the cubs were in the world series, the nuns would bring a TV into the classroom so we could all watch the game.

    So you’re saying that, growing up, you had no idea what a television was?

  53. 53
    WaterGirl says:

    @Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name): Three generations climbing together, that’s a great thing. What a nice story.

    Are you lucky enough to still have your mom with you? If so, she might really like This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash.

  54. 54
    Corner Stone says:

    @Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name): My dad’s dad, who was the only decent son of a bitch amongst a lot of really vicious harpies, never criticized a god damned thing myself or my sister did. He took us fishing, equally, out in his flat bottom boat and never seemed to mind one way or the other whether we ever even bothered to try and catch anything.
    That old man was too good for the motley assholes he had to put up with.

  55. 55
    WaterGirl says:

    @Tissue Thin Pseudonym (JMN): No, I’m saying how cool it was to get to watch baseball in school!

    Edit: we were watching the games live.

  56. 56
    Gin & Tonic says:

    @WaterGirl: His point was that neither the White Sox nor the Cubs get to the World Series much. The Cubs haven’t been since 1945 (?) and the White Sox twice (?) in the same period.

  57. 57
  58. 58
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @ruemara: Hockey just ended with the a California team winning the Stanley Cup. This is wrong for many reasons.

    @WaterGirl: She’s still around, and maybe I’ll just give it to her for her birthday.

    @Corner Stone: My two grandfathers, both assholes in their own way and at the same time both admirable people in their own way, treated their grandchildren differently. Dad’s dad, the one from the climb, actually paid me two compliments, the one about the climb, and the fact that, after I went into the army and got commissioned, he told me stories about WWII and military life that he didn’t tell anyone else (except, perhaps, his brothers who had also been through what he had). The other one was a machine shop teacher who saw himself as a master in a craftsman’s guild who had an obligation to teach his craft to future generations. I could read a micrometer and set up a drill press for a job by the time I was nine.

  59. 59
    WaterGirl says:

    @Gin & Tonic: That flew right over my head! And maybe we didn’t have to be in the world series, because I was in school in the 60s, and we got to watch the world series more than one year. Maybe nuns were just baseball fans?

  60. 60
    WaterGirl says:

    @Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name): The Blackhawks should have won!

    Do get your mom the book: baseball + dad + childhood + a great writer, how can you go wrong?

    Jealous about your grandparents. I never got to know any of mine.

  61. 61
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @WaterGirl: I was very lucky on grandparents. I lost the first one when I was 26. Then two more in five years, but the last one was around until I was 48 and she was 91. She voted for Obama both times ( the first one, she did say “I voted for the black fella.”) Hell, I knew two great grandparents. In both cases, I preferred my grandmother to her mother.

  62. 62
    KG says:

    John Oliver just coined a phrase that we will probably need over the next couple of election cycles: undocumented opinions

  63. 63
    WaterGirl says:

    @Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name): Now I am super extra jealous, but in a smiling cause you’re so lucky kind of way.

    I voted for the black fella. Heh.

  64. 64
    David Koch says:

    @KG: perhaps the undocumented opinions will self-deport.

  65. 65
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @WaterGirl: My other grandmother vote twice. Once, just after she married, for FDR, my grandfather was appalled that she voted the ‘wrong” way and never took her to the polls again (she didn’t drive)(he also voted for every school levy on principle; his kids had been educated with other people’s money; he needed to pass that on). The second time was when I drove her to the polls to vote for Clinton in 1992 after my grandfather had died. He was the teacher/mentor one. The other grand father was an FDR, pro-union Dem (he was the one involved in the climb).

  66. 66
    David Koch says:

    Mr. Obama is having a seriously good year. In fact, there’s a very good chance that 2014 will go down in the record books as one of those years when America took a major turn in the right direction.

    First, health reform is now a reality — and despite a shambolic start, it’s looking like a big success story. Remember how nobody was going to sign up? First-year enrollments came in above projections. Remember how people who signed up weren’t actually going to pay their premiums? The vast majority have.

    Then there’s climate policy. The Obama administration’s new rules on power plants won’t be enough in themselves to save the planet, but they’re a real start — and are by far the most important environmental initiative since the Clean Air Act. I’d add that this is an issue on which Mr. Obama is showing some real passion.

    Oh, and financial reform, although it’s much weaker than it should have been, is real — just ask all those Wall Street types who, enraged by the new limits on their wheeling and dealing, have turned their backs on the Democrats.

    Put it all together, and Mr. Obama is looking like a very consequential president indeed…

    Dr. Paul Krugman: “Mr. Obama is looking like a very consequential president indeed”

    KThug is a bigger reader of Balloon Juice than I thought.

  67. 67
    shalimar says:

    @Violet: Esk’s divorce was final in 2009. Domestic cases are kept open until all minor children are grown. The last 5 years aren’t the divorce, they are Esk continually asking the court to ignore his long history of violence and lousy parenting and allow him to see the children outside of the supervised facility. And lots and lots of psych evaluations which apparently all showed he hadn’t changed.

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