Interview with Shawnee Ray
This interview was conducted virtually by Marci Marie Simmons with Shawnee Ray on April 17, 2023 at 1:35pm. Shawnee is the mother of a formerly incarcerated daughter. Shawnee describes how the mass incarceration of women in the United States has affected her family. She talks about the mental anguish of having an incarcerated loved one and how she, as a mother, dealt with having her daughter incarcerated. Shawnee also discusses things that she feels need to change in our justice system.
This interview might be of interest to individuals who want to learn about the affects of mass incarceration, how families cope with having incarcerated loved ones and/or want to explore changes that could be made to support families who are dealing with having incarcerated loved ones.
Marci Marie Simmons is a formerly incarcerated woman and social media personality who uses her lived experiences to advocate for incarcerated people and prison reform.
SHAWNEE RAY: Okay.
SIMMONS: Thanks so much for being here, Shawnee. I really appreciate you. I look forward to hearing your story as it pertains to mass incarceration and how it has affected you.
SIMMONS: So with that, have you ever been affected by incarceration or the prison system? And if so, how were you affected?
RAY: Well, I hadn't had any experience. I had a brother-in-law that was kind of in and out a few times. But that was drug-related and it was kind of a situation where he needed that. If nothing else, he needed to dry up for a while. But other than that, no, not until you became incarcerated. That's really all. I've never had any other really close friends or family members. So for me it was a totally foreign experience.
SIMMONS: So you had a daughter that became incarcerated.
SIMMONS: How old was she? When did that happen? How was your life prior to her incarceration?
RAY: Well, she had been having some problems before, but she was good about not letting us know what was going on because she was afraid of failure in our eyes, I think, and didn't want us to look upon her poorly. So she was in a marriage that sort of distanced her from us because he didn't have a lot in common with us. And so she moved a little bit of ways with him, and she had gotten divorced and moved a little bit of ways from us and was with him. And it was kind of hard simply because he didn't want her to have anything to do with us. She still did. We didn't really know what was going on in her life, and things were happening that we didn't know about. And I don't know if he knew or not, he says he didn't, but he wasn't telling us anything that was going on. We did notice that she had more money than we thought she should have given the job that she had, but she was explaining it away with bonuses and promotions, raises, because the business was doing so well. So we didn't really question it a whole lot, she had kind of distanced herself from us.
But then I get a phone call at work one day and he said, Marci's in jail. And just a phone call from him was weird so we knew something was up because he never called us. Marci's in jail, and I said, Well, what happened? And he said, Well, she got arrested for stealing from her job. I don't really recall a whole lot more about that conversation. And then sometime later he called back and said, Well, she admitted it, she confessed and they've offered her 20 years, and she signed it. And I about fell out of my chair at work. I fell apart. I could not imagine. And so I called my husband, and I couldn't work anymore. I couldn't work anymore. I stayed for a while and my coworker saw that I was not doing well. So I left and we didn't really see her again for a while. And then it was just so shocking and so devastating.
So she just went through a series of being incarcerated at this place, to the next place, to the next place, and then she finally went down to, I don't know if it's Mountain View that's down in Dayton, Texas – I don't know what the name of that unit was – but she was down there and she was probably gone for three months before I could even go visit, because it was just so heart-wrenching for me. It was solely the worst thing that's ever happened in my life.
Anyway, we went to visit and she eventually got transferred to the Lane Murray Unit in Gatesville. And still it was hard to go visit because, you know, I cried every time we left. My husband and I cried together every time we visited. And just leaving our beautiful, vivacious daughter at a place that was – the people were horrible. And I know that every time we visited and she’d tell us stories about things that happened. She cleaned them up because she didn't want us to know. She knew how hard it already was on us and she did not want us to know how really horrible it was. And since she, you, have been home, we've learned so much more about what it was really like. And it's still heartbreaking the things that you had to go through and the treatment that you received. And probably one of the hardest is the solitary confinement for 35 days for hugging your friend around the shoulders immediately after she found out that her mother died. It's so inhumane. It's so inhumane. And the fact that people are treated like animals and people are treated with no respect, no dignity. All of their dignity, confidence, everything is stripped, or they try and strip it. And it is not good, it is not good for people.
From my experience, you did receive some college classes, and I know that. You're an exceptional person because you've always been very, very intelligent and you kind of breeze your way through school. I sort of did the same thing. We didn't have to study, we could go to class, as long as we went to class and listened, we could pass the test with straight As and we were fortunate in that way. And very privileged that we have our intelligence. But I sort of feel like it was just paper, it wasn't helping you. It wasn't educating you because you already knew what you – there were a couple of classes you ended up teaching some of the class because you knew as much as the instructor. So it looks good on paper, you got some college courses but it wasn't really teaching you anything.
And as far as rehabilitation for a money crime, from my conversations throughout the years, there was none of that. It was solely catered for people who were there for drug and alcohol offenses. And that's never been part of your problem, ever, ever, ever. And I know that we have friends who smoke pot and, you know, we all do. If you are the least bit social, I guess maybe unless you just go to a church and you're friends with all of your church friends. You know, my husband's a musician. We've been exposed to all of that. I remember when my kids first started going to music concerts and we would just tell them, There will be marijuana there, and people will be smoking marijuana. And if somebody passes you the joint, the polite thing to do is you just pass it to the next person. I mean we taught our kids that but still they never – neither of my kids smoke or do drugs and I'm very proud about that. It's not that we stuck our thumb on them, it was just their choice.
But anyway, so just the thought that people are treated so poorly and they are all lumped in. It doesn't matter how minor, how major. I know there's different levels of custody. One time you were telling us that you were in the day room, watching a commercial about a lady who was oohing and ahhing over the Pampers commercial, and how cute the baby was and, Aww look at that baby. And she had killed her own baby. And I know that there are some – I don't know the circumstances of that or anybody else who does that to their children. But you were there with murderers and I've learned so much more about – of course there are circumstances and everyone's situation is different. But for a mother thinking about my daughter being there with all of those people and the disrespect that she's given, it was hard. One of the hardest things was feeling like I always wanted to protect my kids, and that was gone. There was nothing I could do about it.
And I searched and searched and searched and searched for programs so that I could talk to other mothers of incarcerated individuals, and I could not find anything. I could not find one group. There were some groups to support kids, and that's needed, that's definitely needed, and I can tell you about my grandkids but nothing for me. Nothing. And it got to the point where every time you were up for parole, it was denied. And then the next time we’d come, and we'd hold our breath, and we don't hold your breath, and it was denied. And then next time – it almost got to the point where, Is she ever coming home? And in your mind, you know, and you would tell us, Mom, they can't keep me forever. So that gave me hope, but still it was hard to go on day by day, by day. It was easiest for me to not even think about it. Put it completely out of my head because if I thought about it, I was in bed for the day. We would get a letter, and those letters were such a blessing, and we loved getting them – but it was hard getting them because it was just heart wrenching. It would bring it all fresh and out in the open again.
Anyway, it’s bad, it’s bad because of the environment. It was not necessary for any type of rehab that you would have needed, any type of classes. There are other ways to punish people for crimes besides throwing them in a bunch of cattle – well, cattle were treated better. But I don't believe that that is the way to punish or definitely not to rehabilitate because there was no rehabilitation. Your rehabilitation was in your mind and knowing that – probably the worst thing for you is knowing what you did to your family. I mean, that's how I feel. I know that I had to become the pseudo-mother for your children. And the three older kids have a stepmother, but that's still not their mom. They would call me, they would come to my house, they would cry. They grew up, all five of them grew up without a mother. Fortunately the two younger ones are still growing up, but the three older ones, they grew up all of their teenage years without their mom. And from adolescence, the things that were missed, high school graduations, the proms. They were sad. We were just all sad. It's still devastating for all of us. I know that you know that, and we're all just rebuilding, we're trying to get our mental health back.
And I mean, I couldn't work – I did, but I had been a supervisor. I was managing people. I was in charge of the regional manager for a state office for the entire northern half of Texas, which is all the way from El Paso to Tyler, and all the way, Dallas-Fort Worth, Wichita Falls. And I couldn't do my job anymore, and I eventually got fired. I had other jobs, which I just told myself, I can't have that kind of job anymore. And so I worked other jobs but I tried to just be low-key. I was always motivated to increase my career, be better, do better, make more money. And I just couldn't perform at the level that I had performed before.
SIMMONS: I want to kind of backtrack a little because you did bring up your grandchildren. And so, I'm trying to think about – Do you know how, how did they – first of all, let's start with how old about were your grandchildren when I got arrested?
RAY: Well, I want to say like ten, eleven, twelve, maybe around that.
SIMMONS: And the little ones?
RAY: The little ones were little, little. The youngest one was not even a year old. And there are only twelve months between the two youngest and so one of them was almost one – a few months from being one – and the other one was a few months from being two. So they were little, little. You could go ahead, and, if you're going to ask me how it affected the children, I could tell you that.
SIMMONS: Yeah, go for it.
RAY: So of course the baby, she's always been a sweetie, a smiley. It didn't really affect her much that I could tell because she was getting love and affection and all of the things she needed from her dad and her paternal grandmother who lived with them and still lives with them. So not really a lot for her, as she got older, it affected her more because she didn't know her mom. Except for the fact that they did visit, they did visit you. And then for the – I'm going to call her number four because starting from the oldest to the youngest.
RAY: The one who was two when you left, or almost two, she would cry. She would just start screaming and crying for no reason. There was not a reason she could express because she was so little. But we didn't know what was wrong, she would just – like if we were in the car, she’d just start screaming in her car seat and we didn't know why. We didn't know if it was something specific. We would just try and soothe her, and she would just cry and cry, and she was mad, she was mad. And she grew out of that. She only did that for maybe six months, and she grew out of that. But their dad, the entire time that they lived with him that you were gone, he never remarried. He may have had girlfriends, I don't know, like I said earlier he didn't really have a lot to do with us. So they didn't have a mom. They had their paternal grandmother who has pretty much raised them, their first ten, eleven years of their lives. And they live in Oklahoma, and we are in Texas, so we got to see them quite a bit at summers, at holidays, on spring break, they would come visit.
But I could probably speak more about the three older ones because they lived a mile from us. They lived with their dad and their stepmom, and they struggled. The oldest one – well, they all had anxiety, all of them, and they didn't all express their anxiety a lot but the oldest one did. He has always been an overachiever and despite all of his anxiety, he's done very well. He's done very well. He had lots of accolades happening for him at school. But things that normally would not affect some kids too strongly would affect him. He was so sensitive and he would call just crying because he was – and kids would say things to them about, Your mom's just in jail and what does that say about you? And I think that all in all, especially for the oldest one, his friends knew that it wasn't him.
One and two were boys, and the second, your youngest son, he probably only visited two or three times, visited you, because he just couldn't. He couldn't. It broke his heart, and he's always kind of been closed off, and he doesn't share his feelings. But he just couldn't visit, and for me, I understood completely because of how hard it was for me to visit. But he's never shared a lot but I know that – even though he never shared with me or with his grandfather, I know that it probably affected him as much or more than the others. He just didn't tell anybody because he's a little more closed off and reserved with his feelings and emotions.
I know that for your oldest daughter, my Petunia, they would call me and you know things that I would think that of course, kids struggle. Kids struggle because they're kids and they're in with a bunch of other kids and peer pressure, and just trying to grow up and be a good person. I know that a lot of their behavior was directly affected by their mom not being there and the reason that she wasn't there. I know for the whole family it's just, you feel like there's a stigma attached. Oh, your daughter is a thief, what are you, how did you raise her? And for a mom who was always so involved, and I guess that's why the kids, they came to us. They came to me. And that's actually been a hard thing since you've been home is that they don't come to me for anything anymore. And I know they love me and it's back to the way it should be. But it was hard for them and I know your oldest child, he's gay, and he didn't really have a mom to help him adjust to that. And he thought that we were going to disown him or something and of course, I told him, I know who you are, I've known you since you were born and you’re still my grandson. But there were just the things that happened in their life that, you know, I wish Mom was here for my graduation. I wish Mom was here for my prom. I wish Mom could see that I was the student body president.
SIMMONS: Take a break, Mom.
RAY: It broke our hearts. It broke our hearts.
SIMMONS: Take a drink and take a breath.
So you have these five grand babies and their mom is gone. I have heard the older siblings say that in a sense they helped raise the younger ones. Can you talk about that? Can you talk about when the young ones were in Texas visiting and how that looked, and how their interactions were with each other?
RAY: Oh, yeah. Well, they did for sure. If the two younger ones were visiting, whereas I think in a normal family dynamic the teenagers would not be making that extra effort to hang out with their significantly younger siblings. They just normally don't do that, but in this case, they recognize that these girls were in the same situation that they were in, and so, I was so proud of them. They all would rally, you know, The girls are in town this weekend, let's go get them. And they would spend as much time with their older siblings as they would with us, and teaching them just probably coping and dealing with the things that kids have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. Thank goodness, I don't think our kids were bullied really per se but just the normal things that kids have to deal with. And I think that as a result, they are all stronger and closer than they would have been. They all made a conscientious effort to spend time, and they wanted to, they wanted to take on that role of helping with them. So yeah, that went on a lot. A lot.
SIMMONS: You brought up visits earlier, prison visits. Did you ever bring the kids to visit?
RAY: Yes. Yes.
SIMMONS: Can you talk about that? Talk about what the process going into visitation is and how those visits looked like?
RAY: Well, we couldn't take the older ones and younger ones at the same time because, in fact, I think we only took the younger ones once or twice because they weren't with us all that much. And their dad would take them to visit. In fact, the youngest ones got to visit more than anyone else. I know that quite often I would come with your grandmother, who was a regular visitor, and then I would come with either your grandmother or with your dad. And we would take whatever kids we could, whoever was available. Like I said, your youngest son, it was too hard for him to go. So we would bring either your oldest daughter or your oldest son, and I remember the first couple of times we came to visit, just the process of going through security is something else. Fortunately, they don't pat search kids. They do make them take their shoes off and they scan their shoes, look at the bottom of their feets. They scan their bodies but they don't do a pat like they do adults. They do a pat down. But it was just, the rules of you going, you sit down, you get your snacks, and come and sit down, and then you don't move. You don't get up. If you need to go to the restroom, you get up and you go tell the officer on duty, and then they have to let you out of a locked door to go to the restroom. And some of them are not nice. Some of them are not nice to family at all, they don't care. They act like the family of the incarcerated are scum because they have somebody incarcerated. They're just not nice. They don't care. You can say something and they just have a smart remark back, or rude, smart or rude.
So anyway, the kids, the first few times they were just like, Wow, and just kind of devastated, like a shock. We were all shocked. And I recognize that we're not some of the family types of those incarcerated because we're not used to it and we haven't had incarcerated family members and that's not a normal thing that happens. And yes we're white, and we have white privilege, and that probably has a lot to do with it. But just the way that you leave thinking, God, they think that I'm a horrible person. They think that I committed some crime, and all you did was go visit your loved one. So you're treated horribly. It was such a wonderful thing to find an officer that seemed to care or was kind, you know, How are you today? That was rare. That was very rare. They were very cold. So you just kind of learned to deal with that. We knew that we hadn't done anything wrong but they still treat you like you have. One time I even had to remove my bra just to come in to visit you so that my bra could be scanned because it had an underwire. In front of a guard, so it's kind of humiliating. I knew that they were probably just doing their job but they're not nice about doing their job. So anyway, yeah, it was shocking to them, but they knew that it was something that we all had to go through just to see so it was worth it. We would leave from visitation and we all had tears in our eyes. We’d get in the car and it would be quiet for a while, and then a little while later, it would just be back to normal hanging out. Anyway, that's what it was like.
SIMMONS: You talked about some of the things, graduations, and school events that were missed. Could you talk about holidays? How were holidays?
RAY: Well, there was something missing. Our family on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, not so much Christmas Eve because the kids couldn't be there always at Christmas Eve, but always on Christmas morning. Things have been the same since I've been married to my husband almost 43 years, and things have been the same for 43 years. On Christmas morning, we get together, we sit around the Christmas tree, and we hand out presents. And then we open them one, by one, by one. And every year, family members would comment about, This would be perfect if Marci was here. When we’re shopping, your dad would say, We have to get presents for Marci. And I would say, Well, she's not here and she's not going to be here. Everything we did that was fun, that was sad, that was a holiday, celebration, you miss your loved one. You know there's something missing.
And at one point – this is going to be hard to say and I was never going to tell you this – but I have a friend who's a very, very dear friend who helped me through a lot said to me, “I think it might have almost been easier for you if she had died.” Because just the constant knowing that it's almost like you're in a third-world country. The way that people are treated, and like I said, there's no rehabilitation. That's not even thought of. I've made a comment to your dad that some of the officers act like kids who were really, really bullied and were beaten down, finally are placed in a position of power. And they can treat others the way that they've been treated, which is a good reason for people not to bully. That's kind of how you think, is like, how were they treated so that they think that it's okay they treat people as poorly as they treat them? So anyway, yeah, I think for probably any family if you have someone incarcerated, you miss your family member. There's something missing at every event, every step of life.
SIMMONS: Were you able to practice any kind of self-care while I was gone, Mom?
RAY: Well, I had to, to survive. Like I said, I looked and looked and looked and researched, and could not find anybody, any support groups, or support for someone in my situation. And although all of the grandchildren were in my life, I didn't really have that control where I could say, We're doing this or we’re doing that. And I think we were all just living day to day, just trying to survive. But for me, it just about broke me.
SIMMONS: Mom, how many children do you have?
RAY: Two. I have two.
SIMMONS: Let's talk about your other child.
RAY: My eldest. I have you, who I love and adore and always have, and then I have a son who's two years younger than you, who I love and adore and think he's amazing. He couldn't visit, he couldn't visit. The two of you have always been extremely close, and I guess it's just because there are the two of you. He never needed to be kept in line but had he ever stepped out, you would have been right there because you were the big sister. You were the big sister, always. You're still the big sister. He’s kind of a quiet guy. Probably the sweetest person you'll ever meet and I say that as a mother but also knowing that other people feel that way about him. It's really kind of amazing because he's quite popular in Fort Worth in the music scene. He’s a recording artist. He is a singer-songwriter. His dad's a musician, probably one of the best guitar players. And again, that's not just me speaking, many people have told me that. Through my experience with him and my exposure to music, I can see how good he is. And then for our son to follow in his footsteps, it's pretty amazing. He played baseball, he went to a division one college on a baseball scholarship. He was throwing 90 miles an hour at the age of fourteen. He was a pitcher, but when he got to college, he injured his shoulder. So it was pretty devastating because he's a very sensitive kid, and baseball was his life. His love, his life, his everything. And so, he was three and a half hours away at college. We were worried horribly about him because he didn't have baseball anymore.
So he started picking up those guitars that his daddy had always given him, by that time he probably had six guitars. And he also has always been a writer, so he's written poetry and he was published in the college newspaper. They did a book of poetry, so he's had some poetry published, but he started putting music to his writing. So he's written some pretty good songs. Of course, I'm proud about all of that. I'm proud of my kids’ accomplishments, but mostly I'm proud that my kids are good people. They have kind hearts. They don't have hate in their heart. One of the things that we would say with your youngest, she hated the people that you worked with, that you got in trouble with, your bosses, the one boss who was doing the finagling of all of the finances and got you indirectly involved in doing that. She hated him and she wanted revenge. She knew that that was not feasible, she could not do that. But that's what she wanted and she had hate for him, and so did your oldest daughter. We would just talk and I said, You can't live with hate in your heart. And you can't be happy if you have hate in your heart. And so they worked through it and they got over that. But that's the thing I'm proudest of with my kids, is that they're just such good, kind people. They literally would give you the shirt off their back to someone, to anyone that needed it. They would feed you if you were hungry. For my son, he's had a couple of friends with some pretty significant mental illnesses, and a lot of times people like that – they drink too much, they do drugs. Their mental health has run off. They don't have any friends. And they would be friends with my son, and his buddies would say, Man, why are you even giving that person the time of day? And he would say, Because they need someone. Both my kids are just so kind, they're just so kind. That's the thing I am proudest of. I don't care what their jobs are. I don't care who they love. I just want them to be happy and kind people, and they are. They are. That's the thing I'm proudest with my kids.
SIMMONS: Mom, I was maybe four or five years old, and we were driving by the max prison in Florence, Colorado or Penrose, Colorado, where that big max prison is, and I remember asking what that was and I don't remember if it was you or Dad that said, Well, the bad people go there. And I think that was a short, easy answer to give a small child asking what a prison is. Tell me how being directly impacted by the justice system in this country has changed your opinion of a prison is where the bad people go.
RAY: Well, it's easy to get in trouble. It's easy. And I can't think of anyone I know that hasn't done something that would land them if not in prison, in jail, in jail. Like I said, my husband is a musician, people go out, they party, they all go home drunk and the majority of them drive. Maybe not drunk, they don't think they're drunk. Even if they've only had two or three beers, they're legally intoxicated and should not be behind the wheel. I don't know of anyone that this has happened to, but it does happen. If they killed someone, they would be in prison because they drove intoxicated. Or as a teenager, I couldn't ever do it because they would know instantly that I was trying to steal something from a store. But my friends, we would go look at the rack of earrings, me and my girlfriends who I always hung out with, and if they liked one they’d just take it off the rack and put it in your pocket, and didn't think anything about it. And I couldn't do that probably because I was afraid of my dad and I knew what would happen if I ever got caught.
But people do things and they don't even think about it. Yet the stigma that is placed on people who are incarcerated is horrible. And I've met some wonderful people since you've been home. Most of them, their crime was drug-related. It's so easy to get caught up in that lifestyle, and some of them are raised that way. So there are things I've learned that living in middle-class white America, you just really don't hear about what it's really like on the streets. I've never lived on the streets. I've always lived in a middle-class neighborhood. Even when I lived in poorer neighborhoods, you'd walk around, blinders on, I guess. But just the things I've learned, that people who – there's no escape. There are children living in homes. Their parents are drug addicts. Their older siblings are drug addicts. Everyone who walks in the door is a drug addict. Their parents are selling drugs. How is that kid supposed to not? How do they not? That's how their parents make a living, that's what they know. My kids were taught that you go to work at a job, and you come home and you buy your groceries. And these children were not raised that way. Why should they be looked down upon? Because that's the way that they were, that was the environment that they lived in, it's not their fault. And so they grow up, and they are doing exactly what everybody in their family does, and everybody in their neighborhood does. What they know, and they end up in prison, and they're not bad people.
People are a product of their environment, and I think that it's really opened my eyes that – I mean, I've never looked down on people like that who have lived that way. But it kind of makes you think, Golly, you’re snooty. Why do you think you're better? There's nobody better than anybody else. It's just kind of a different lifestyle that people don't know. And things that just, again, back to the drugs, and to learn that you can be in a vehicle with somebody who – you're just driving. There was a man I met and he was driving and his buddy asked him for a ride somewhere. So he pulls up, he's waiting in the car, his buddy goes in. Drug deal goes bad, his buddy ends up killing someone, and the driver of the car gets 30 years in prison, and he didn't even know. His buddy asked for a ride, because he didn't have a car, because in their neighborhood you're the guy with cars so everybody wants to ride.
Or women whose husbands abused them, years, and years, and years, and years, and years, and finally, they just think, Well, I can't leave because if I leave he will kill me. I can't. I have no escape. I have no escape, so it's either me or you, buddy. And you don't even intend to kill them, but it happens, they end up dead and that doesn't make you a bad person. It means that you were a beaten person who had to get out, whatever it took, because there was no help.
I think I've just learned so much more about the way society really is and probably how much more I need to do to step it up. Just the fact that there are people in prison who just don't need to be there, most of them, most of them do not need to be there. Now I'm not saying that if you viciously – women who kill their children. That might be some problem that's not mental health, but I can't think of what it would be. And there's no mental health in our society, there's no mental health treatment. They got rid of that back in the 90s, and so if you have a problem, you just better figure it out. And if that leads to prison, sometimes I guess it just does. But prison is not the answer. Prison is not the answer for people who – we need to take better care of our people before they go to prison, and when they get there, they need help. They don't need to go to prison. They need help.
SIMMONS: Mom, was there anything that you had in your heart or in your mind to share that we haven't touched on today?
RAY: I guess not. I'm just happy you're home.
SIMMONS: I’m happy too, Mama. Okay, I just have one final question. So if you could go back in time, thirteen, fourteen years, before I got incarcerated, and you could tell yourself something to help you, you're just going back to younger Shawnee, what would you say to that Shawnee before her daughter became incarcerated?
RAY: I don't know. It's the same thing about me always beating myself up because – maybe if I knew that my daughter had a problem, get her help. Before anything really bad happened. Probably that. I tried, she fought me.
SIMMONS: Okay. Mom, you did great. Thank you so very much. I'm going to stop the recording.