“She was doing a tour around the prison, and she was like, ‘This is Dorsey. She was a menace to my prison, but now she’s a model inmate.’ It wasn’t long before other inmates that knew I used to be bad would jump on the bandwagon.”
I‘m Tarah. I’m a person in long-term recovery. What that means is I haven’t used drugs and alcohol in three years. Since I haven’t used drugs and alcohol, my life has become a lot more manageable.
I go back to about eleven years old. Well, before eleven. It was me and my twin sister. I didn’t come into this world alone. It was me and my twin sister Tiffany. I have two other little sisters who are ten and eleven years apart from me. If I think back, I never had a idea what I want to be when I grow up, but I was the first girl allowed to play football for a team. Tackle football. I loved to skateboard, and I can always tell I was going to be some kind of leader because I used to have all the boys follow me around and things like that.
I used to get into a lot of trouble. My mom used drugs. I didn’t know that though, because we always had things. We always had nice clothes, [a] nice car, because my father took care of us. We always had food. She never got high in front of us, but I knew that’s the reason why I got to do whatever I wanted when I wanted. I wasn’t in her way, and my dad worked a lot. Around eleven years old I started acting out. I would go to Providence every summer to be with my cousin. Her boyfriend had gave me drugs to sell at eleven years old. To tell you the truth, I liked the attention part of it. Older people giving me attention. I would sell drugs, and then they would give me alcohol and weed and things like that. It was cool. They gave me a little nickname, Shorty, and things like that. It was cool.
By the age of thirteen, things got really out of hand. I was bunking school, going in one door and out the other. I remember my mother just being like, “Whatever.” My dad, he would yell at me, but I didn’t care. He wasn’t going to do nothing. I got arrested for the first time at the age of thirteen for stealing at a convenience store. I used to break into houses. Broke into school, I broke into a house and got arrested. The drugs and alcohol, I would steal my father’s weed, his little joints, and have older people buy me alcohol, and I would drink. I got pregnant at the age of fourteen with my daughter. I remember that day vividly. I bunked school and was drinking, and I got pregnant. My twin sister was already pregnant. My parents were like, okay. We’ll get through this. When my mom found out I was pregnant, she literally passed out.
It was me, my baby, my twin sister and her baby, and my two little sisters in the household. The house was crazy. I remember days where I would be in the yard still playing football as a kid, and my mom would be like, “Tarah. Come in the house. It’s time to feed the baby.” It was crazy as I think back on it. I would come home from school at like ten at night. My mother was babysitting, so she made me quit school to take care of my own kid. It wasn’t long before I would run out the back door and not come home for weeks, running away, leave my mother with the baby. My aunt ended up taking custody of my daughter when she was two-and-a-half years old. I’m thankful for that, but it made me feel shameful, like I was no good. I’m a no-good parent, but I didn’t know how to be a parent.
I got pregnant again at the age of sixteen by my mother’s friend’s boyfriend. I would hang with him because he had alcohol and weed. I thought it was my fault. I woke up with him on top of me. I’m sure it wasn’t his first time doing it. I got pregnant, and I hid my pregnancy until I was about seven months. My aunt came in the bathroom and she’s like, “Lift your shirt up.” I just started crying. I was pregnant. I tried to commit suicide. More or less, I think though for attention, because I knew my parents were going to be mad at me for being pregnant again. Lo and behold, I didn’t tell anybody who my son’s father was until my son was three-and-a-half years old. My mother wasn’t mad at me and my father wasn’t mad at me, but my aunt took custody of my son straight from the hospital. He was two weeks old.
Again, the guilt, the shame. I took to the streets. I was running away when I wanted to, coming home when I wanted to, selling drugs, doing drugs, becoming more violent. I was someone they call a ‘thug in the streets.’
My aunt took custody of my son, and at that time, same thing. Felt guilty, felt ashamed. I was living in the streets, running in and out my mom’s house when I wanted to, and things like that. At the age of eighteen, I went to prison for the first time. I went to the ACI for violent charges, assault with a deadly weapon. I did ninety days in prison, and I had the rest, seven years, nine months, on probation. When I went home, it was like I got a reputation. It wasn’t a bad thing. On the streets, you got that what we call the ‘street credibility.’ In that seven years [and] nine months probation I went to jail at least once a year, for ninety days, twenty days, picking up misdemeanor charges.
At the age of nineteen, I started using cocaine. I did all my nevers. All the things I said I’d never do, I did. I started snorting cocaine and selling drugs to support my habit. Doing anything, robberies to home invasions to support my drug habit. At the age of twenty-three, me and my twin sister got introduced [to heroin]. My sister never did drugs. She was like the goody two shoes, but she had a boyfriend who had introduced us both to heroin. I didn’t pick up a drug habit right away, but she did. Now that I look back on it, he gave her that drug to trap her, to control her. She wasn’t a street person. She didn’t know how to go to the streets and make money, so he’d feed her that drug to keep her in the house to control her because of the physical dependencies.
He went to prison, and when he went to prison I had to take care of my sister’s drug habit. I started using more with her. If I was getting it for her, I’m going to enjoy it with her. We both [developed] a drug habit. Wasn’t long before my mother took custody of her daughter. Me and my sister hit the streets together. I said I would never use IV. I used IV. We was twenty-four years old in 2002, and my twin sister died. She got stabbed one hundred twenty-eight times on the streets, and her body was left in the middle of the street at four in the morning.
Needless to say, I tried to get better. I did get a little bit better. When I say get better, I wasn’t using heroin anymore, but I was still popping pills and drinking every day. I did get an apartment. I did get a car. I started a escort service. That’s how I was able to do that. I was spending more time with my kids. I was able to buy them anything that they wanted, guilt trippin’. Oh, I want this. I want that. I’d buy it because I had the money. I never took care of the mental part of it, and the grief part with my sister. I used to sleep in the graveyard for the first six months that she died, because we never left each other’s side. I was like, “I’m not going to leave her side.” It was in April. I slept right on top of her in the graveyard. When it got cold, I slept in my car. I tried to get my stuff together, but it just didn’t work. I thought I had it together.
In 2006, I had what I want to call really a mental breakdown. My kids were staying with me a lot at the time. They was like eleven and thirteen at the time. I dropped them back to my aunt’s house, and I knew I wasn’t coming back. I didn’t know if I was going to die or go to prison, but I knew I wasn’t coming back. I went on this spree. I was just robbing people, fighting with people, stealing from stores. Just going from hotel to hotel getting high. I remember nothing’s happening, so I said, “I’m going to go and rob this store, this gas station. Maybe the person behind the counter would kill me.” It didn’t happen. Got away with it. I robbed another gas station, and I ended up with a fifty-year sentence, twelve to serve inside the prison and thirty-eight suspended. I’m on probation in 2044. Right now I’m on parole until 2017.
When I got to prison, they say there’s no such thing as geographical recovery. You take it with you everywhere you go, and that’s what I did. I took all that anger, that hate, that sadness, all them feelings that I had, and I brought it to prison. I used to act out in prison. I OD’ed in prison in 2006. The warden was like, “You’re getting out my prison.” They was wanting to kick me out their prison. My father wrote a letter to the director of all the prisons and asked if I could stay there. I stayed, but I spent six months in segregation. Basically, that’s six months in a room by myself for twenty-three hours a day, sometimes twenty-four hours a day for six months. I made a pact to myself that they can put me in this room, but that I’m not—I used to see people go crazy in there—I was like, they’re not going to take my mind no matter what. I’ll make it through this six months, and I did.
There was an officer there, that he was nice to me. He’d come up to me and [be] like, “You’re a good kid. God loves you.” I’m like, “There’s no God. If there was a God, why would my sister have to die?” I remember waiting for him to come to have somebody to talk to. He worked from three to eleven. I would act like a tough girl, but the things he said did resonate inside of me. I said, “Well this God thing he’s talking about, I’ll try it.” I still didn’t tell him. I was too tough. In 2007, I’ll never forget. January 1, New Year’s Day, I just said,—I’m going to say this big prayer, and I’m going to ask for help from God.” This God he was talking about. I was going to say this elaborate prayer. All I remember saying is,”God help me,” and I cried, and I cried, and I cried. Of course, I had to put the pillow over my face. I was so tough I didn’t want nobody hear me cry. I think about that now and I laugh. I cried. I must’ve cried for like a half an hour.
I felt good. I had about three more months left in seg, but I started ordering little things through the mail. Bible studies and just reading things. I said, “When I go back to regular population, I’m going to behave. I’m not going to clique up with people. I’m not going to do all the bad things I used to.” I went back to population, and I did what I said. I made a pact to myself, I’m going to do all the positive things. I said, “If I can’t find nobody positive to hang with in the mod, I’m going to hang by myself.” I couldn’t find nobody positive to hang with, so I stayed by myself. I didn’t watch TV for a year and a half. I didn’t read nothing but positive books. It didn’t have to be the Bible, but I read the Bible. I read self-help books.
I would talk to the COs or the volunteers that came in, people that did the Bible studies. I went and got my GED. I started taking college courses. That whole year was a big change for me. 2008 to 2009 was a big transformation year for me. It wasn’t long before the warden called me a model inmate. I’ll never forget. She was doing a tour around the prison, and she was like, “This is Dorsey. She was a menace to my prison, but now she’s a model inmate.” I’m like, “Okay. Wow.” It wasn’t long before other inmates that knew I used to be bad would jump on the bandwagon. I had this big recovery movement going on in prison. It was awesome.
I made parole in 2011. I went home. I did well for awhile. I did five-and-a-half years, and I did well. I never told anybody the loneliness I was feeling, the anxieties from being locked up for that time. Like, “Oh I got this.” I started using again. My parole officer was a good guy. He wouldn’t lock me up. By the third positive tox screen, he sent me to a program. I went to a program. That was in 2012. I did well in the program, and I’ve been in recovery ever since.
In 2013 my mom died, and I got caught driving without a license. I had to turn myself in the day after her funeral. I’m like, “I’m going to run.” I’m like, “I can’t run.” Lo and behold, I knocked on the prison door and said, “Can you let me in?” They let me in, and I stayed there for thirteen months inside prison.
I didn’t have nobody to help me grieve. All the people that said they was going to be there for me wasn’t there for me. It was hard. They put me in minimum security, so I knew that I had to leave there one day. I don’t want to leave messed up, so I knocked on the counselor’s door. I was like, “I need help. My mom just died.” She would meet with me every Tuesday, and we did grief counseling and stuff. Anchor Recovery Community Center came into the prison, and they offered a recovery coach certificate, training. I’m like, “They don’t have recovery coaches. You can’t be a recovery coach in jail.” Sure enough, I did the recovery coach 101 training. I took it seriously. Again, I had the whole mod. It was like thirty girls, and I turned [it] into a recovery [mod]. Everybody was on fire for recovery. Every Tuesday and Thursday we’d meet, the Anchor Recovery Community Center would meet in women’s minimum.
I’m telling you, if it wasn’t all thirty girls, at least twenty-five girls would go every night. It got to a point where the COs were like, when they would talk to people, “This is the recovery mod.” That’s how serious we had recovery going up over there. It was good. It was a positive thing. I wasn’t being arrogant or nothing about it. I was very humble about it. It was a positive thing. I said, when I come home, I’m going to go to Anchor, this place. I said, “I’m going to go to Anchor, and I’m going to volunteer.” I’ll never forget. It was last year and on June 18. I went home. It was on a Wednesday, and she says, “Well, we’ll see you Monday. Get yourself together.” I was like, “No you won’t. You’ll see me tomorrow.” I came straight here when I got out.
On that following Thursday, I came and I liked the place, so I said, “I’m going to start a group here.” I started Homecomings. Homecomings: From Prison to Positivity. It’s for people who’ve been to prison, come home, and tried to keep their recovery. I know the struggles. I know the anxieties. We started meeting every Tuesday from eleven to twelve, and this room got so packed that I had to add another day. I started a Thursday. Tuesday’s peer-to-peer support, and on Thursdays I do more of a teaching. I teach things that I learn in different trainings, or I have people from different agencies come in and teach things. We have Homecomings, and then I have a day in Homecomings called Community Give Back Day. Once a month, we go out and we give back to the community. One month, we went out and we fed the homeless. I had this lady, good lady come in, and she cut people’s hair for free from our [John’s Regis] Salon, a big time salon. We volunteer at the old folk’s home. We give back.
We’re not just prisoners. We had some time. We just did things. We did time in prison, but all people that been in prison are not bad people. We have some people that are really bad, but they say 71% of people that are in prison have a disease of addiction. I disagree. I want to say 90%. It’s either a mental disorder or addiction that people deal with in prison. I call it the house of the broken. We do that here in Homecomings. We focus on getting better, whatever we’re recovering from. We have women come in here and say, “Well, I’ve never been to the DOC, but my addiction imprisoned me.” Well, “Come on in. I’m not here to define your prison.” We have a good time in Homecomings.
Now, I’m hired as a certified peer support specialist for the Providence Center. It’s awesome. I’m state-certified. I’m married now to my wife. She just had a little baby girl for us. She’s four months. Little Gianna. Things are different today. I just grateful. I live my days in gratitude. I stay grateful, I stay humble. Especially a person like me, I do a lot of interviews, lot of somewhat publicity. I don’t want it to go to my head. Pride can be a person’s downfall so I stay humble, I stay grateful, and I treat people like I want to be treated, no matter what I go through. That’s my life.
Photographs taken at the Anchor Recovery Community Center in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where Tarah started a group called Homecomings: From Prison to Positivity.