Someone to Lead the Tribe: A Conversation with Terri Linton

Someone to Lead the Tribe: A Conversation with Terri Linton

Meet our Incarceration Resource Guide

Terri Linton, ESME’s new Resource Guide for Incarceration, has quite a story to tell—one characterized by compassion, a love of justice, and a desire to uplift Solo Moms. Raised by a Solo Mom and a Solo Mom herself to her son, Linton has earned a law degree and worked extensively within the arena of the criminal-justice system. She is currently poised to start a new chapter that includes studying for her master of fine arts (MFA) while continuing to teach criminal justice as a full-time professor at a college in Westchester County, New York—all that while parenting her son, writing (her blog, She Is Terri Linton, discusses motherhood, womanhood, and becoming your own “sheroe”), and embracing new responsibilities at ESME.

ESME recently chatted with Linton about her new role as Resource Guide and the extraordinary path she’s taken to get to this point.

Q: You have a law degree. Can you tell us a little about the job opportunities and experiences your degree created for you?

A: In 2000, I graduated from Rutgers School of Law in New Jersey, and right after graduation, I worked for the Office of the Appellate Defender in Manhattan. It was a two-year fellowship, and while there, I worked on behalf of criminal defendants. We handled the appeals of indigent defendants. These clients were convicted, and we were appealing their cases. From the time I started law school, I knew I wanted to work in criminal law.

Q: Why is that?

A: Well, I think it was basically my background. I’m from the southeast section of the Bronx. Where I lived was lower middle class, and in my neighborhood, there were many people who were affected by the criminal-justice system: they were in it as defendants, or they had family members in the system as defendants. And I just always had a concern about people who were in trouble in some sense or another.

Q: Where do you think that concern came from?

A: I was raised by my mom from the age of three (my parents divorced), and she always instilled in me a sense of public concern and a sense of community. We’d go to the Salvation Army and serve meals on holidays.

Q: Tell us a little more about your mom.

A: My mom rose all the way up the ranks at Con Edison. She was a firm believer that you had to be in a professional career to be self-sufficient and successful; she wanted that for me. Her desire for me to go to law school and my concern for humanity led me to pursue a career in criminal justice.

Q: Can you tell us a little more about your fellowship with the Office of the Appellate Defender?

A: The whole nature of criminal defense, it’s not a very glamorous type of work. People who work in the criminal-defense arena get a bad rap because the common question is, “How can you defend people who have committed crimes?” But I worked with some brilliant litigators. And I really came to understand [from them] that defense work is not about defending the actions of a person. You’re defending a person’s constitutional rights. That always stayed with me.

We all tend to rush to judgment about [a defendant’s] guilt. The way the media tilts the story can affect our perceptions, too. I think being in that industry, on that side of the law, made me appreciate that, yes, our system is flawed and there’s work to be done, but we need to check ourselves when we presume another’s guilt. What makes our country’s system great is that we do have rights, and the system, flawed as it is, allows us those rights.

Q: What else did the fellowship teach you?

A: Even though I found the work rewarding, the fellowship [helped me] realize I didn’t want to practice law.

Q: Can you tell us more about that?

A: I realized that I went to law school for the wrong reasons. I’ve always been a creative person at heart; I went to a creative college [Linton earned her undergraduate degree at Sarah Lawrence College], and while I was there I was interested in pursuing a creative track. I wasn’t good at math and science, but I could write and read and process well, so I decided to go to law school. I don’t regret my law school education; I graduated and found work that was fulfilling, but I knew I didn’t want to make it my life’s work.

Q: So you went on to work as a presentence investigator for the United States Probation Department. What did that entail?

A: I was still keen on matters related to the pursuit of justice. My role at the U.S. Probation Department was kind of moving toward the middle of the spectrum of the criminal-justice arena. There’s defense, there’s prosecution, then there’s the court in the middle. I held a quasi-legal role: my job was to investigate the defendant convicted in federal court and write a comprehensive presentence report for the judge, the defense attorney, and the prosecution. That report is like an encyclopedia on the defendant: it could be 10 pages to more than 100 pages. The report includes detailed information, such as the offense committed, any applicable laws and statutes, and a summary of the defendant’s history (including financial, medical, employment, and psychiatric information)—anything the judge would want to know about this defendant. The judge would rely on the report at the time of sentencing.

Q: It sounds like a rewarding job.

A: It was. I did that for five years and then decided it was time to move on. In 2008, I got married, and I was well into my 30s when I learned I had some fertility issues. The Probation Department was a high-stress job: a patch of my hair actually fell out during my tenure there! Because I was trying to get pregnant, it just hit me one day: How was I going to get pregnant working in this arena under this level of stress? I thought I might want to do something else. A friend suggested I apply [to teach] at a college in Westchester County in New York, which was looking for adjunct professors. I started as an adjunct while still at the Probation Department, and not too much later was offered a full-time position.

Q: You experienced a period of loss, enduring infertility and miscarriages in your journey to become a parent.

A: Yes. And at a certain point I decided I wasn’t going to do any more fertility treatments for a while. I decided to get off [fertility] medications. My system was taxed, my emotional being was spent—I hit the wall. After taking a year off, I returned to the fertility doctor and had the initial visit that included blood work again. And I remember I got a call Memorial Day weekend 2012. The fertility doctor said, “Terri, you need not make your next appointment [with us] because you’re pregnant.” Not only that, but I was pregnant with twins. I had my son. The other twin stopped developing early on.

Q: Tell us about your son.

A: He is my miracle baby; he is just the light of my life. He is such a special boy, and so many times I’ll look at him and say to myself, Now I understand why it took me so long to get you. He’s funny, lovable, and he’s always been so compassionate—he’s only four years old, but talk about a child who’s concerned about the feelings of other people.

Q: Would you like to speak to your experience of becoming a Solo Mom?

A: I got divorced in 2012, and for me, my divorce was a rebirth. I had a very difficult marriage; [for a long time], I was resistant to looking at the handwriting on the wall and accepting that my ex and I were not best for each other. It takes two, of course, but when I got pregnant, for me it was a miracle and a wake-up call.

I was given this blessing [becoming pregnant with my son], and I didn’t want to mess it up. I wanted to be the best mother I could be, but I knew in this marriage I couldn’t be the best mother. I was experiencing a high-risk pregnancy and knew I needed to make some changes. At 41, I knew there wouldn’t be a lot of room for any more unnecessary mistakes, and I decided, I am going to live my best life. At this juncture, I’m going to design my life the way I want it to look and feel.

Q: What does that look like now?

A: Starting in August, I’ll begin my MFA program. I hope and believe that I will have the opportunity to immerse myself in the craft of writing and that I will finally be among a community of writers. I think it’s invaluable to have that community: writing can be a lonely experience. I have been hungry for that community—hungry to get feedback, to engage.

Writing is my life’s passion, and I’m going for it. I had shelved a lot of my creativity for decades. And if [writing is] what I want to do, I’m going to be educated in the craft.

Q: You are also continuing to teach criminal justice.

A: Yes, I feel that teaching is in my blood—I’ll always do it somewhere and in some form. It is part of the reason I’m pursuing this MFA. I see my life being teaching and writing.

Q: As a professor, if there is one misperception you’d like to clear up about what criminal justice/incarceration accomplishes in this country, what would that be?

A: I would say [there is the misperception] that incarceration removes everyone who needs to be removed from our society. The misconception is that everyone who is incarcerated belongs [in prison] and that the people there are beyond redemption. Not everyone who is incarcerated belongs there; not everyone who is there is beyond redemption. There are some people who are there who should be there, but I have seen people who were [in prison] and are redeemable; they got out and are now successful.

I have a friend whose husband was incarcerated for maybe 17 years; he came out of prison, and he had a substance-abuse issue when he came out. He relapsed. He wound up going back [to prison for] five more years. Well . . . if he didn’t tell you he’d gone to prison, you’d never know it. He’s been home for years now, and their family is doing well. He’s working; he’s been the picture of a law–abiding citizen. He’s one of several people whom I’ve seen stumble but who has turned his life around.

Q: What do you think contributes to a person being able to achieve success after prison?

A: I think if people have a support system, if they have a desire to do better, and if they can come out from under the societal stigma [regarding incarceration], we see success stories. But the way our system is structured, there are many barriers post-incarceration that make it hard for formerly incarcerated people to succeed—employment, housing, these are issues. In New York, for example, they are starting to work on this, but for years you couldn’t live in public housing if you had a felony. And sometimes public housing is the only option for someone just out of prison. There are mental-health issues: situations in which people with mental-health problems are warehoused into prison and don’t get the treatment they need. Or when you have people with substance-abuse issues: you can get drugs in prison. How are you going to get clean? When you look at these barriers, what are the odds of being successful post-incarceration? [The obstacles] push people into repeat offending. When it comes to the prison system, there is so much work to be done if rehabilitation is the true goal.

Q: Terri, you are the new Resource Guide for Incarceration at ESME. For readers who don’t know what the Incarceration Resource Guide is, who is your audience, and what will they get from you?

A: The audience is women and Solo Moms who are affected by incarceration—namely women whose child’s father may be incarcerated, or her brother or father, for example. Or maybe a woman who has been in prison, then is reunited with her child and is now navigating parenting post-incarceration.

What I would like to do is provide a community of support, understanding, and nonjudgment. A lot of times when someone says they have someone in prison, they feel judged; I want to create a community where women can feel kinship and talk about what it feels like to go into a prison [to advocate for a loved one] and be treated badly by correctional officers or the administration. I want to address the enormous financial responsibility and emotional overwhelm these women have when supporting a loved one in prison. I see the Incarceration Tribe as a place where people can come to commiserate but also find resources that will help them.

Q: How do you think your experiences to date will inform this role?

A: I think that my professional background has readied me for this position. I’ve had experience in the arenas that affect the audience for this resource. I’ve been inside prisons. I’ve been inside the courtroom.

On a personal level, I’m from the South Bronx, I was raised in the Bronx. I was raised by a single mom, and I know that experience and struggle. I am a single mom and have been from the time of my son’s birth.

A lot of people in criminal justice look like me. They come from backgrounds like mine, and the things they are experiencing I understand. I share a common connection [with my audience] based on who we are and where we come from. We’re connected, and that’s a connection I hope to grow. I plan to do my best to serve [my audience] as a resource and as a guide—to be someone to lead the tribe.

Are you a Solo Mom impacted by the criminal-justice system? Join our Community for support and information.

Janice Deal is a writer, an editor, and a lover of found objects. Her short-story collection, The Decline of Pigeons (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013), was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her first novel, The Sound of Rabbits, was recently named a finalist in the Many Voices Project Prose competition. Janice lives in Downers Grove, Illinois, with her husband, daughter, and three disreputable cats.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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