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Archive for November, 2011


When I was in prison, I was blessed to be the recipient of a very powerful newsletter called Freedom Inside, written and edited by Janine Cantin. It is a newsletter for prisoners based on the Conversations with God books. Later, upon my released, I was introduced to Janine by a mutual friend and asked to submit something for the newsletter. I wrote a few things that Janine kindly included. Then she asked if she could print Gina’s letter to a 15 year old friend. My dream and the dream of Gina’s parents is to have Gina’s letter read by every teenager in America and taken to heart, so I was delighted. For those of you who don’t know, Gina was my roommate in prison for a very brief and meaningful time. She was a beautiful, intelligent, curious, and delightful young woman who impacted my life in ways I could not imagine at the time.

This week the letters started trickling in. Six from New York, Wisconsin, California, Texas and Arizona. All from inmates who were somehow moved by Gina’s words. One man said, “I haven’t cried in five years, but Gina’s letter brought me to my knees.” Gina’s letter is in my book. It is also on the website. But those inmates letters made me realize I should reprint it here as well. Gina wrote that letter to the daughter of a friend of mine who had just turned 15. She wrote it from her heart and her words will never go out of date. I hope it will touch you, just as it has touched the hearts of others including the inmates who wrote from all the corners of this country.

Letter from Gina to a 15 year old friend.

Dear Friend,

I am writing to you to share my life story in hopes that it will help you in some way. I come from a good, Christian family who are working middle-class. I was never abused or neglected, unlike so many of the other girls here in prison. My parents worked hard and were very loving. Perhaps their only mistake was not enforcing real discipline upon me.

When I was 14, I had an older boyfriend. I got pregnant that year. I should have talked to my parents (or any other adult close to me) about what was going on in my life. They could have helped me and maybe I wouldn’t have gotten pregnant. Telling my parents that their baby was going to have a baby was frightening and shameful.

Once my son was born, I felt so out of place because I wasn’t a regular teenager any longer, nor was I an adult. I was 15 years old and I didn’t fit anywhere. I ended up marrying my boyfriend the next year, partly because I felt it was the right thing to do and partly because it was a way out of my parent’s house. The marriage didn’t last long because he wasn’t ready to grow up. I left him and found myself a single mom at 17. Unfortunately, I also found out I was pregnant again! Birth control, I discovered, isn’t foolproof.

I had an apartment and was working and I did manage to finish high school, but I couldn’t make enough to pay bills. I was too stubborn to go back to my parents’ house. I felt I had imposed on them enough. Besides, I was supposed to be a big girl, right? While my old friends went to parties and the prom and got ready for college, I had two babies to take care of. Those teenage years that I cheated myself out of can never be replaced. I’m just now realizing how important those years are to young people and how much of an impact it has had on me to have missed that experience.

Anyway, I was desperate to make it on my own. A “friend” suggested I could get a job as a dancer (stripper) to make enough money to live on. Finally I tried it and found it was degrading and yet exciting at the same time. The money was fast and easy. I got a big house, a new car, and did a lot of shopping! What I didn’t realize was the damage I was doing to my morals, my standards, my image, my self-esteem, not to mention the dangers of that environment. My intentions of going to college were forgotten. At this point, I was an 18 year-old single mother of two children whose future was being sacrificed by my chosen “career.”

It was during this same year that my now ex-husband got into a car accident because he was drinking and driving. It was devastating! He suffered massive head trauma. When I first saw him at the hospital, my knees buckled and I vomited.  His head looked broken and it was so swelled up. He had staples all over, holding him together. His eye socket bone was broken, his jaw was busted in several places and he was hooked up to so many machines. The doctors said he would most likely die within a few hours. Instead he survived, but for months he was in a coma. When he finally woke up, he didn’t recognize any of us. He couldn’t feed himself, couldn’t do anything. A full grown man in diapers. Over the next year, he learned how to do all those thing again, and one day I went to see him and he saw our baby daughter. There was recognition in his eyes. His memory came back more each day after that. Today he works full time, but he lives with his parents and probably always will. The girl who was in the car with him suffered a broken back and will never walk again. Such are the consequences of drinking and driving.

When I was 19, I met and married my second husband. Let warn you that people are not always what they appear to be. Anyway, for a short while our marriage was great. I quit dancing, got pregnant two more times and enjoyed life. Somewhere along the way, he and I started doing drugs. I used to think pot was no big deal, but the problem is that once you start smoking pot, you will surely find it acceptable to try other drugs. The very best advice I can give anyone is NEVER try dope. You’re not missing anything if you don’t ever get high. Trust me on this one! It starts out fun, but it will end up as pure misery. I got addicted like most people do. Being addicted to a drug is the most agonizing thing I’ve ever experienced. Addiction happens fast and it’s sneaky. You don’t even realize you’re addicted at first. I started doing more and more drugs. Eventually, I went back to dancing because supporting a habit is very expensive. Being an addict is like being in your own prison…the addiction keeps you prisoner. Drugs did not kill me, but they surely took my life. Addiction and criminal activity are a package deal.

To make the story of my crime a short one, let me just say I ended up on probation several times (it’s easier than you think to mess up) and I was in and out jail several times. Finally, I messed up for the last time and got sentenced to 3.5 years in prison. Custody of my first two children went to my first husband and his parents. My children from my second marriage are both now living with my parents. My second husband is still living the wrong kind of life and he can’t take care of our children, but I continue to pray for him. My children are now growing up without their mother and I am missing out on more than you can imagine. The children all complain about missing me and not a single hour goes by that I don’t ache to hold them.

Looking back, I realize that the choices I made at 14 affected the outcome of my entire life and the lives of my family. I didn’t realize it then, but the choices I made as young as 14 were vital ones. I was selfish not to see ahead of time that getting pregnant so young would affect that child’s life as well as mine. I was a good mother, but a lot of the time I felt as if I was just playing a role. Do you see what I mean? Until we’re full blown adults, we’re not equipped mentally or emotionally to handle having or raising a child. I think about all the babysitting and costs of the babies that were unfairly put on my parents, not to mention they are raising them altogether. Lesson: “The choices I make profoundly affect the lives of others.”

I didn’t have to teach myself how to become a drug addict, but teaching myself how not to be one is a long, hard process, one I may always battle. I am attending Rio Salado classes that are offered here at the prison. That’s the only good thing about this place. Most of the time I am locked in a small cell. There is no such thing as privacy. I wear the same uniform every day, eat the same nasty food, and the hours seem endless. My bed is a metal bunk with a worn out, skinny mattress. The guards are heartless, sometimes cruel, and so are most of the other female prisoners. I thank God for the few compassionate guards and for the few good friends I have.

I am isolated from the world and my family. I live life from behind a fence. The funny thing is, I feel free for the first time, free on the inside. Do you understand? I am one of the lucky ones who prison has affected in a positive way. I am stronger mentally, emotionally, and spiritually than I have ever been. This is rare though. Most of the girls here get caught up in prison life and never learn differently. And by the way, strip searches are as degrading and humiliating as the first time you have one, no matter how many you have.

I want to become a high school guidance counselor. I will have to finish earning my degree once I’m released from prison. Once again, I’ll be depending on my parents. My story and others like it don’t just happen to the poor, the abused, or the bad. It can happen to anyone. It’s all about choices. Please be careful to make the right ones, especially now at your young age.

I send this letter out with a prayer that touches you.

Sincerely,

Gina Panetta                                            

Gina was 25 years old when she passed away on June 19, 2003, from acute leukemia, less than one year before being released from prison. Her one wish was that her family and friends would find the hope and peace she had found through her faith. May God bless you on your life’s journey.

Gina’s former husband, JR, passed away on September 2, 2011, leaving their children without either parent. Thankfully, they are surrounded by loving grandparents and family.

We pray that this message causes young people to think deeply about their actions and the consequences that have a never ending impact on our loved ones. 

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In Gina’s memory, her parents and I founded Gina’s Team. We bring educational programs into our prisons and juvenile facilities because we know that “Education, not incarceration, is the cheapest form of crime prevention.”


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