Outer walls, inner peace

Tammy Morgan walks unhurriedly into the small room, softly singing to herself, “You are my passion,” a line from the theme song to the NBC soap opera Passions. She has a pleasant voice, firm and a little country. A faux diamond on a beret above her right ear winks in the fluorescent light.

In the large outer room we pass through, several other women smile politely at us. Each is in uniform; each has a gun. Tammy and her friend Darlene Dills smile back. As inmates at the Black Mountain Correctional Center for Women, the two are used to people with guns.

Darlene, 45, whom Tammy affectionately calls “Grandma,” is doing time for second-degree murder. We talk on New Year’s Eve; Darlene is about to begin her 17th year in the North Carolina prison system. Scheduled for release on Aug. 15, 2004, she has only recently started counting the days.

“Tomorrow I can say, ‘I’m going home next year,'” she observes with a laugh, brushing a long strand of gray hair from her face.

Where is home? Anywhere she wants it to be, Darlene adds brightly.

Tammy, 37, looks like some cheerful Southern homemaker in a commercial for iced tea or Jimmy Dean Sausage. She’s in for armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon on a government official. Drug addiction had a lot to do with it, she reveals.

Tammy is beginning her third year of incarceration; she is scheduled for release in May 2005.

Neither woman fits the stereotype of the hard-hearted inmate stewing in defeat. Both have sunny dispositions.

And as time on the inside goes, Black Mountain Correctional isn’t the worst place to pay your debt to society.

The 80-inmate center, which residents call a “camp,” is minimum-security, one of six such facilities in the state. There are no metal bars; housing is dormitory style. Woodsy walking trails are available on the property, as are outdoor picnic benches. Up to 23 women have the option of paid work release — Darlene is employed five days a week at the Marjorie McCune Memorial Center (work-release inmates pay the state $80 a week in rent, notes Darlene; they also turn over $12.50 a week for transportation). There are supervised field trips to church, restaurants and other entertainment — a movie, perhaps.

“And we can do the female thing,” says Darlene with a chuckle: “Shopping.”

But in the end, it’s still prison. Someone else decides where and when you can go — and, ultimately, you can’t go far. You’re up at 5:30 a.m., then it’s breakfast at 6-6:15, followed by mandatory chores in some section of the prison if you’re not out on work release. There’s a lockdown at night. And always, there’s someone around in a uniform, packing a gun.

“There’s plenty of times it’s hard to find peace in a place like this,” Darlene admits. “You’ve got to start with the inner peace. That means forgiveness, self-respect, self-esteem and finding positive things in everything you can try.

“There’s gonna be some rough days, and things that aggravate you,” she continues. “But you still find good times — cuttin’ up, and just finding quiet time sometimes.”

For Darlene, forgiveness doesn’t come from the outside — it’s personal. The first step toward finding peace, she asserts, is “total forgiveness for yourself, after God has forgiven you.

“Forgiveness for your crime. “Forgiveness for what you’ve done to society and to your family.

“Once you get to that point right there, you can find peace.”

Tammy agrees, though she admits that such forgiveness hasn’t come easy for her. She hates what she’s done to her family — especially her daughter, who’s now 9.

“I’m just now forgiving myself, trying to find peace and let it go, and to think positive about life,” Tammy confides.

Her family has stood behind her through it all, she adds a little wistfully. Her daughter stays with Tammy’s mom these days, and knowing her child is safe and being taken care of gives Tammy some peace as well.

“Also for me in here, I have a lot of good friends” — she glances at Darlene, and they both smile warmly — “and that helps.”

It’s an intriguing friendship. The two women, by their own descriptions, come from widely different backgrounds.

“I was raised in a totally dysfunctional family,” Darlene says matter-of-factly. “Totally. Child abuse. Alcoholism.”

She attributes her own destructive streak to a youthful failure to grasp what choices were open to her.

Darlene came to Western North Carolina in 1979 from her native New Orleans. She was 22 then, and she wanted to put her ugly upbringing behind her.

“I think I was just trying to find something to save me,” she muses. “But I still wasn’t choosing the right pathway.”

She settled in Bryson City, where seven years later she would kill a man she says she didn’t even know.

Tammy grew up in Mount Airy, in what she describes as an every-Sunday-to-church family. Her parents split up when she was about 14, and she and her brother, with whom she’s always been close, settled in with their mother.

“My mom was always like my best friend,” Tammy reveals — along with a serious drug habit, that is.

“Towards the end,” Tammy confides, “crack cocaine was my drug of choice.”

At that point, she was running with a man with a very checkered past, and she let him influence her too greatly, she says now.

“Y’know, I’ve always heard how people [can] take over other people’s lives, and I never thought how someone could let that happen to them,” she elaborates. “The more I think about it, that’s what happened to me with him. Anything he asked or said was OK.”

Both women make no bones about it: Landing in jail was the best thing that could have happened in their lives.

“It saved my life,” Darlene insists.

“It saved mine,” Tammy chimes in, almost in unison.

“Nothing could have helped me otherwise,” confesses Darlene. “I was screaming for help.

“I was on a total destruction [path],” she adds. “I didn’t know who I was. I had no self-esteem. I didn’t know how to make choices — to choose right from wrong. I didn’t care if I lived or died.”

She does now. Darlene has filled much of her incarceration with college courses — and with periods of quiet reflection.

“I like me-time,” she says. “I can be by myself for hours. I love myself.”

With her sentence drawing to a close, Darlene has been contemplating opening a business in the Asheville area, a New Orleans-style soup-and-sandwich shop — po boys, gumbo, the works.

Tammy, meanwhile, envisions her future as finally becoming a good mother to her child.

“I want to be with my daughter and make up for some time,” she declares. “I can’t get back the time I’ve lost; I just want to be there, because I wasn’t there before.”

The rest of the verse to the song Tammy was singing as she walked in to begin our interview goes like this:

“Breathe in, breathe out/ You keep me alive/ You are the fire burning inside of me/ You are my passion for life.”

“I’m learning to like myself,” she asserts, her bittersweet smile flashing like the fake diamond shining above her ear in the dull, institutional light.

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