| This is the 358th story of Our Life Logs |
I don’t know who my parents are because I was raised in foster homes from the time I was born. I was told I was born on January 2, 1957, in Austin, Texas. At least that is what it says on my birth certificate. The rest is blurry.
My days in foster care were riddled with abuse. For the first 18 years of my life, the closest I ever came to feeling loved was simply being appreciative that my final foster family didn’t hurt me. This led me to date terrible men in my early days until I met a trucker named Steve while I was working in a convenience store. Steve made me see that I was worthy of love. We had 20 splendid years of marriage and raised two young boys together. But then, Steve unexpectedly died of a heart attack in 1998. I was overwhelmed and broken by his loss.
Steve left us with nothing to live on. Our two boys—Steven and Robert—were just about eleven and seven at the time. We had no savings. Steve had no life insurance. I sold everything we had bought over the years just to have food for my children. I built a wall so tall no one could get through it. I had no back-up plan for my life. I wanted no second chance with anyone else ever again. I had no idea what I was going to do now that Steve was gone.
A couple of months after Steve’s death, I found that Tulsa, Oklahoma, the place where I lived with Steve and my sons, was too cold and too expensive. It cost way too much to heat our apartment and spend money on snow tires, so I moved me and the boys back to Austin, Texas, even though I didn’t know one person who still lived there. I found an apartment and got a job at Walmart. Still, I hadn’t magically solved our financial problems. I woke up worried and I went to bed freaked out. I never slept and rarely ate. So, I started bouncing checks.
I bounced so many checks the police came and arrested me. All for $321 of bounced checks for food and school supplies. While I was working off the bounced-check balance in jail, my boys were put into foster care. I felt the sting of the pain as life passed by, only to reach out and grab my children. My heart lived inside two little boys who were put into a system I knew to be crazy, unstable, cruel, and uncaring. I finally worked off the penalty through serving time and picked up my boys from two different foster homes a month later.
As soon as I picked them up, I knew they had changed. But in my mind and heart, I thought I could make it right again. I could erase the 30 days like they never happened.
Unfortunately, life just got harder when I got home from jail. I lost my job and could hardly find anyone to hire me, but I did get a job as a waitress. I worked mostly for tips and it was never enough. Knowing nothing better to do, I kept bouncing checks, so they kept coming to pick me up to serve time to work it off.
In 2001, I was arrested for the last time. With about $500 in fraudulent checks, the bank fees and penalties totaled over $2,000, making it a felony. I was sentenced to the longest sentence I had ever had—18 months. I begged the judge to let me work off the fines, as my two boys had already lost so much and now, because I couldn’t keep a roof over their head, they were going to the very place I feared the most—foster care.
I was a first-time felony offender so I prayed I could get out in about a year with good time. Prayer was all I had left.
I spent the next several months of my life inside the walls of a state prison. Unlike federal prisons that are set up for white-collar crimes, state prisons are meant for…everyone else. They are places for wretched behavior. I wish I didn’t know all I do now.
In the first several months, I met a mother who killed her four children with poison (she wasn’t even in prison for any of those murders–they never figured her for the killer). The woman was in for meth manufacturing. I felt like vomiting when I overheard that conversation. I met a nun who killed the priest that sexually assaulted her for 18 years. I met prostitutes and women who were their pimps (yes, there can be women pimps). Most of all, I found out there is a special place in prison and hell for those who harm children. Those were the low women on the totem pole.
I found out that guards sexually abuse female prisoners and no one does anything about it. No one believes you no matter what you say once you are in prison. And while there were women who became my “prison friends,” they were not in any way, size, or shape, “real friends.” It’s all about what you can get them inside the prison and outside when they are released.
For months inside those cement walls, I was in a dark place. And yet, one tiny beam of light shone as blindingly as a star. My children. I had to get out to find my children. The thought of them urged me to keep going when I wanted to simply fade into the void. They are why I kept living.
Then 9/11 happened. It was horrible and tragic and it happened on the week I was due to be let out of prison. I was told I would be staying a little longer until they could get the government back up and running. I figured I would be home before Christmas, so that is what I told my boys when I wrote them. See you soon.
I was then told I wouldn’t be let out until 2003 because I “owed” more time. I didn’t owe any more time, but there was another person with my name who stole my identity while I was in prison. A woman with my name committed bank fraud under my social security number and ID. It obviously wasn’t me because I was in the state’s custody, but they still took me to court, found me guilty, and put me back in prison for another five years.
I am sure there are those of you out there who will say that couldn’t happen. All I can tell you is it did.
I had no family who cared about my circumstances. My feelings of being locked away for so long ranged from true, unadulterated rage to disbelief. The warden never believed me. The prison counselor never believed me. My case worker in prison never believed me. My pastor never believed me. Every outside pastor who visited the prison never followed up with me or checked out my story. Countless letters I wrote to newspapers, magazines, advocacy groups, and more—not one checked my story out.
My life’s path was long but circular and I kept going around in a circle I couldn’t get break free. My kids were moved to other foster care homes and no one would tell me the address. I couldn’t write to them, and they quit writing to me.
It was around this time when I joined a group while in prison called Truth Be Told. We learned to tell our stories for the first time (our REAL stories) and we learned to speak about our real stories in public. The prisons would bring in people from the outside who ran Truth Be Told, who taught us how to reveal our inner truths, begin our self-love exercises, and all that. That’s when I realized that all I had to do was muster up my confidence, and change my life for the better.
Sure, I hadn’t been outside the prison gates in close to four years, but I was serving time for a crime that I didn’t commit. So, when my court-appointed attorney had fallen asleep during the trial, I did my own paperwork in the prison library and appealed my sentence.
It took me a few more years for the appeal to send me home. But first, they told me I had to go to New Jersey. It was 2007 and the Texas Department of Corrections sent me to New Jersey to face charges of more bank fraud.
Back then, New Jersey and Texas were not connected via the criminal justice web. When I arrived in New Jersey, I screamed at everyone I met that I had been in prison for close to six years on an 18-month sentence. I had been wrongly convicted on a stolen identity bank fraud case. I couldn’t have possibly committed bank fraud in New Jersey because I was incarcerated in Texas.
To their credit, New Jersey seemed to care, but it took them another two years to let me go. So, for those of you who want to know how long I really served. I will tell you. I served nine years for bouncing $500 worth of checks.
When I was finally free, the events in my life didn’t magically fall into place. I wish they had, but it’s never that simple.
After being in prison for so long, my boys had aged out of the foster care system and I had no way to contact them. The roads I shouldn’t have taken resulted in their hearts becoming broken. I hired a private investigator who gave me his services free of charge when he read about my story. He said the most he could find out was they live on the streets of Austin, and with that, I began looking. I decided I would stay in Austin until the day I died or the day I found them.
Thankfully, not all was empty when I returned from prison. Life is never that dark if you know where to look.
I got back in contact with Truth Be Told, the group I had joined while in prison, and I began volunteering my days to its purpose. Truth Be Told gave me a platform to tell my story to those who so desperately need to hear it. I share my story so laws can change. I let others feel my story so no one else has to suffer through the same mistakes I made. I now sit on the Truth Be Told board of directors.
After one of my speeches, a man approached me and told me he was a retired deputy. He told me he wanted to help me in any way he could. Little did I know that not only would this man spend every evening with me, searching the city streets, but also that I would eventually fall in love with him.
I have not reunited with my boys yet, but I have stayed hopeful. I have learned to wake up each day with a new hope. I have learned to have confidence with life even though it seems void of progress. And, truth be told, I will keep sharing these lessons for the rest of my life.
This is the story of Sandy Henkle
Sandy will never give up looking for her sons. After bouncing $500 in checks, Sandy was sentenced to 18 months in prison, consequently, sending her sons in foster care. But when her time was almost up, it was delayed by the 9/11 attacks. After that washed over, her stay was once again delayed due to a case of identity theft—to which Sandy was wrongly sentenced to five more years in prison. Her experience in prison led her to partner with a group called Truth Be Told which gave her confidence and a platform to share her story.
Her fiancé and she dedicate each night to walking the streets of Austin and passing out flyers with pictures of her sons from over 10 years ago. Her fiancé was able to get all the word out to all the law enforcement agencies to keep their eyes moving towards finding these young men. Sandy speaks to many advocacy, prison reform and justice coalition groups. She shares her story, so others never have to learn the lessons which came at such a high price to her. After every speech she stops, looks around and has hope she will find her sons in the crowd.
This story first touched our hearts on May 1, 2019.
| Writer: Samantha Seconds | Editor: Colleen Walker |
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