A Woman’s Journey From Mental Illness To A Prison Cell
By Larry L Franklin
Key Themes: mental health, psychiatry, PTSD, depression
Some 218,000 men and women with severe psychiatric disorders are incarcerated in an American prison or county jail. Most committed violent crimes — sometimes murder — while propelled by a crazed mind untreated with medications and therapeutic care. Cherry Blossoms & Barren Plains: A woman’s journey from mental illness to a prison cell, is such a story. My work explores the life of Rebecca Bivens, who beat her five-year-old stepdaughter to death. In 1998, a jury found Rebecca guilty but mentally ill, and sentenced her to life in prison.
Together, Rebecca and I began a story that became larger than her own. It grew into a narrative of Rebecca’s mental illness with all of its ramifications: from the lack of society’s understanding of a disease that plagues millions of people each day, to the strain on our national budget; and the residual effects on family and friends ill equipped to handle the demands of someone who suffers from a severe mental illness.
About the Author
Larry L. Franklin is 66 years old and resides in Makanda, Illinois. Franklin holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Music, and performed in the U.S. Navy Band, located in Washington, D. C., from 1976 to 1971. From 1972 through 1975, Larry taught music at Southern Illinois University. In 1976, he completed requirements for a Certified Financial Planner designation and maintained a successful investment business until 2007, when he retired to devote his energies to writing. In 2003, Larry received an MFA in Creative Non-Fiction from Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.
Each professional pursuit left Franklin with an unsatisfying emptiness that pushed him into marathon running, where he pounded the country roads longing for an answer just around the bend. Then, in 1998, and without warning, repressed memories broke through his subconscious mind like a runaway train, and left him afraid to leave his home. He was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with dissociative features. What followed were years of psychotherapy where he explored a physically and sexually abusive childhood. Now his problems have been reduced to a persistent mild depression which is controlled by medication and talk therapy. The therapeutic process unleashed his creative side, a new-found ability to write, and an unquenchable curiosity about the human mind. Larry now devotes his time writing about the mentally ill and victims of injustice who yearn for a voice to tell their story.
This was the place where I first heard about Cherry Blossoms and Barren Plains. A tall, chain-link fence, topped with rows of razor wire, circled the prison yard. The prison turned a rich, rust color after a steady rain or a wet winter snow, and suddenly lightened like sand when warmed by the morning sun. This stone-walled castle-like structure just off Interstate 55, one mile west of Dwight, Illinois, and seventy-five miles south of Chicago, was home for 1,039 women. Opened in November 24, 1930 as the Oakdale Reformatory for Women, it was subsequently renamed the Illinois State Reformatory for Women and finally the Dwight Correctional Center in 1973.
This was where I first met Rebecca Bivens. Her hair had darkened to a reddish-brown with an occasional streak of gray, her five-foot ten-inch stature made you take a second look, and her eyes, the purest blue you can imagine, mirrored sadness. We sat in dark plastic chairs that bent slightly with a shift in weight and we leaned forward onto a small circular table that wobbled on the uneven floor. This place – a room with twenty-foot ceilings, concrete walls and tiled floors, and vending machines that lined the outer walls like toy soldiers – was called the visit room, the place where visitors and inmates talked and sometimes shared secrets.
I was writing a book about Rita Nitz, who, like Rebecca, was an inmate at the Dwight Correctional Center. Rita was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole, not for participating in the murder but for allowing her abusive husband to beat a man with a baseball bat. I had asked for the names of other inmates who would broaden my insight into women’s prisons. It was Rita who gave me Rebecca’s name. Except for the scant details I had obtained on the Illinois Department of Correction’s website – Rebecca was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison – I knew little more. Inmates keep their sordid pasts close to the vest, knowing that any openness leaves them more vulnerable to their fellow prisoners.
After three years of conversations with Rita, reading books on the incarceration of women, and my imagined visions of a 6 x 9 foot cell, my mind had created a rigid picture of life at Dwight. Two metal beds and a steel sink were bolted to the wall, and an exposed toilet gripped the floor. Privacy was a distant memory. With little room to turn, one inmate’s exhale became the other inmate’s inhale, and the stale air held a slight smell of body fluids and human skin. Friendships were discouraged as inmates were continually moved to different cells, reminding me of musical chairs – the game children play.
On this day, the visit room was filled with the typical visitors: an inmate sat with a church volunteer here to spread the word of God, an older couple waited to see their daughter, a grandmother brought a child to see her mother, a man waited to see his wife, and someone like myself listened for a story. This was the inmates’ living room, where they entertained company and longed to be loved.
I suppose it was all of the pain and suffering that I had witnessed at Dwight. That must have been why I was so surprised when Rebecca said, “Prison is the best place I’ve ever been. I take my meds everyday and no one hurts me anymore.” I was momentarily stunned while I gathered my thoughts.
“What do you mean, this is the best place you’ve ever been?”
“If it hadn’t been for prison, I’d be dead,” Rebecca said. Prior to prison, she was psychotic and heard imaginary voices. While her husband inflicted pain and the doctors prescribed medication, Rebecca had times when she didn’t remember when one day gave into the next.
“Go ahead and ask me anything,” she offered. “I have nothing to hide. I killed my five-year-old stepdaughter, but I don’t remember doing it. I loved her so much and I think about her every day.” Rebecca was found guilty but mentally ill, and was sentenced to life without parole.
I couldn’t help but ask, “If you don’t remember doing it, how do you know that you killed your stepdaughter?”
“Because they told me that I did,” she answered.
It was here, in a prison for women, where Rebecca praised the beauty of Cherry Blossoms in Spring, and then blasted the starkness of Barren Plains; an image of emotional highs that shifted to the lowest of lows, and back again; a manic state so grandiose that she wanted nothing less, followed by a depression that drove her yearning to end it all. Mental health practitioners call this bipolar disorder, sometimes referred to as manic-depressive illness, which currently affects some 2.5 million American adults. Rebecca calls this her world of Cherry Blossoms and Barren Plains.
Rebecca described her state of mind when first incarcerated at the Dwight Correctional Center. “I spent six months in the mental wing,” she said. “It was so scary. I mean the screaming and yelling made my skin crawl.” She talked of other inmates, mostly young women who had dropped into madness. Some made it out, while others were not safe to be in a normal prison environment. Through an enforced medication regime and weekly psychotherapy, Rebecca demonstrated enough improvement to be transferred to the general population.
Despite the gains, the violent men in her life had left an enduring mark. Each time she came face to face with a male guard, her fears came home. “Just the sight of a man freaked me out.” She cried and screamed and slipped into a panic, followed by a stint in a segregated cell until the tears passed and the image of a man faded.