Women Send Words from Prison
It's New Year's Eve 1972, and 15-year-old Janice Billie has decided to kill herself. She lives in a trailer on the Seminole reservation in Broward County with her brother, his wife, and their baby, and she's waiting for the ball to drop. She has already stolen a gun, and after everyone goes to sleep, she can go to her bedroom and close the door. Then her friend stops by unexpectedly, so she delays the plan in order to smoke a joint and share a flask with him. At some point, her friend decides he wants a soda from 7-Eleven, and they get into his car and drive over. Billie figures he'll leave afterward, and she'll finally be able to kill herself in peace.
Then something else happens that Billie didn't count on. She has an idea, and the idea is so perfect that as soon as it emerges from somewhere just beyond the fluorescent lights of the 7-Eleven, it eclipses her suicide plan. Why not rob the store and run away with the money instead? Her friend thinks she's crazy, but Billie pleads with him not to leave her alone. When she pulls the gun on the cashier, her friend collects the money from the register. Everything is going according to plan, even though there wasn't a plan, until two customers walk in. This is where Billie's memory gets hazy, but the result is indisputable: She shoots the clerk to death. Less than two years later, just before she turns 17, Janice Billie is in prison, serving a life sentence.
The teenage Billie is not one to blame others for her problems — not even her alcoholic father, or the sexual abuse she endured at a very young age, but neither does she view the dead clerk as an innocent victim. You see, there are three types of people in the world, according to the pre-1995 Janice Billie: members of society, like the clerk, operating inside an illusion; the authorities, like the prison guards, who enforce that illusion; and "the cons," like Billie, the only people who see the truth — that "life sucks." Officials can lock her up to maintain their illusion, but they can't make her do that time the way they want her to, so Billie gets creative. She loan-sharks. She makes bootleg liquor out of rice, hiding the fermented bowls in the kitchen where she works. She smuggles in contraband. She steals everything that isn't nailed down. She maintains her drug habit. Life is not good, she knows, but at least it's not "a lie."
If she hadn't met Leslie Neal, an associate dance professor at Florida International University, Janice Billie's life would still be like that. Instead Billie finds herself free at age 50 and about to perform in Eve Ensler's Any One of Us: Words from Prison, a show that chronicles life in women's prisons through a series of monologues. (Like the rest of the performers, Billie will read an account of another woman's experience.)
Neal had visited a fellow choreographer in Seattle who in the early Nineties was running an arts program for incarcerated women, and she'd invited her friend to South Florida to help launch a similar program. Neal called it "Inside-Out" and brought it to the Florida Department of Corrections prison system in 1995. The women who volunteered for the program were asked a series of questions: "Who are you?" "Who are your families?" And the strangest: "Who do you want to become?" The answers were expressed in writing, dance, theater, and music. No judgments were made, only expressions.
Because she was a con, Billie knew a con when she saw one, but "Inside-Out" was different. Even if Neal and the other volunteers couldn't understand the pain, they could at least conceptualize it, and slowly, over the course of almost seven years, Billie's truth about the world became a lie.
She was a free woman in 1999 and became editor of the Seminole tribe's newspaper. For a year, life was really good, until the stress of working led her to drinking again, and she was arrested for DUI. Even though she was acquitted, she had to go back in. Her lawyer asked for treatment instead of jail time. Soon Billie was undergoing a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program and seeing a therapist, who asked her to address a letter to herself as if it were written by the 7-Eleven clerk she'd killed 30 years ago. He called it "reframing," and for the first time in her life, Billie began to accept responsibility. She grieved. The letter had forgiveness in it, provided that Billie took on the responsibility of behaving differently.
So now she sticks with her 12-step program. She returns to prison whenever she can in order to share her story. She serves on the board of Art Spring, the nonprofit Leslie Neal created. And in a twist of fate seemingly too fictional to be true, she runs a convenience store off I-75, standing behind the counter and serving whomever comes in, no matter his intentions.
When Neal decided to bring Ensler's Broadway smash to South Florida, she was stymied by her nonprofit's lack of funding. Janice Billie — former con, drug addict, and murderer — went before the Seminole tribe and asked for a $25,000 diamond sponsorship. She got it. "I always thought I might save an inmate," says Neal, "but I didn't count on an inmate saving me."
Next Thursday Billie becomes a performer, as she reads the testimony of another former inmate and abuse survivor in the one-time-only performance of Any One of Us: Words from Prison: Miami. She'll share the stage with author and performer Eve Ensler, whose Obie-winning play The Vagina Monologues has been translated into 24 languages.
Also onstage will be one of the authorities who ran the prison where Billie stayed, Dr. Laura Bedard, deputy secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections. She'll read alongside Miami-Dade Commissioner Kathy Sorenson, broadcast journalist Hunter Reno, and ex-inmates like herself. But most important, the proceeds from the show will fund the publication of an anthology of testimonies from women like Billie. The books will be given to girls in Florida's juvenile detention centers, 64 percent of whom have been sexually abused.
The con whose most creative act was a planned prison break has a new mission: using her talents to inspire hope.
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