Orlando Sentinel – July 18, 2013
After nearly 13 years, Beth Dodd will walk out of prison at the stroke of midnight July 29 and into the arms of her mother, whom she hasn’t seen in five years.
Life is rebooting for Beth, and the 33-year-old woman who loves knitting, crocheting, sewing and dogs is bubbling over with plans.
There’s no second chance for her victim, however. Beth was wasting her life and hooked on heroin when she raced through a Paisley school zone in her boyfriend’s car, killing 8-year-old Amy Rosa and seriously injuring Amy’s mother in 2001.
Once troopers pulled a babbling Beth out of the wreck and took her to a hospital for treatment of a broken pelvis, that was it — her freedom was gone. She was 20.
Beth’s early years in prison were haunted by thoughts of the child she killed.
“It should never have happened, and I am fully responsible,” she said tearfully during a 2003 interview at Lowell Correctional Institution. “Every time I have a birthday, I think of her. Every holiday, I know it’s one she doesn’t have.”
Over the years, Beth was moved to several prisons, along the way building up 12 college credits from Ohio University, training service dogs — her favorite was a golden Labradoodle named Buckmaster — and making layettes out of laundry baskets for pregnant women too poor to afford cribs.
And now, it’s time for Beth to focus on Beth.
Some may say she doesn’t deserve a new chance. But in truth, it is impossible to spend an entire life in penance. A judge deemed this the proper payment — indeed, it was the maximum — and Beth served her time.
Now, it’s on to the cereal aisle at Publix. Yes, breakfast cereal. Beth is missing it something terrible.
“I’m going to buy cereal, and I’m going to eat it,” Beth said enthusiastically in an interview this week from the work-release center where she is assigned in St. Petersburg.
What kind will she buy?
“Every single one,” she said with certainty.
Ah, the small details of life.
“Little things are super-exciting to me now. I can buy shoes. I can buy two pairs. I can sleep in bed with them. I can wear them in the shower if I want to! I can wash my own dishes! I’m gonna clean out the refrigerator! Fabulous!” she exclaimed.
For the last five months, Beth has been getting ready to be out on her own. Her family is in Indiana, but she doesn’t plan to move back there. At first, she’ll be staying at the Gateless Gate Zen Center in Gainesville, which in addition to teaching meditation also helps women in prison get back into society.
She has been working at night at a Dunkin’ Donuts shop and during the day at a small family-owned business that sews seat covers for golf carts. She pays the work-release center $900 a month for her room and board and has been able to save $2,000 to get her restarted in the world.
In addition to appreciating small choices, Beth has learned the value of kindness. An older Korean lady she works with at the sewing job learned that Beth was from the work-release center and began bringing her homemade food for lunch. That woman probably never will understand what her gesture meant.
“She’s my hero,” Beth said.
One thing she has learned in these last five months — other than that doughnuts have to be baked and iced real, real fast — is that she must be up front about her background.
“When I meet people, I say, ‘I want to let you know — I just did 12 years in prison.’ I might as well get it over and done with. Otherwise, it becomes kind of awkward,” she said.
Not that such a declaration is a sprightly conversation starter, either. But it avoids having new acquaintances feeling that they’ve been duped by a convict.
And everyone, literally, will be new now.
Beth said that in prison, many inmates are second- and third-generation drug addicts.
“If they look at their family and friends for how to behave, they’re drawing a blank. There is nothing to revert back to.
“I’m not like that. Everybody in my family does the right thing, and nobody is strung out on anything. I’m the only person who has ever been locked up.”
Beth has come to realize that she saw herself as a misfit, and she looked for others who felt the same way. She said she figured, “If we drink together, we’re friends. It was an easy way to make friends.”
Now, she said, she knows that “once the drugs and alcohol run out, so does their friendship.”
Her goal on the outside is to make friends who don’t do drugs.
“Although friendships may be harder to form because you have to look for things you have in common like shared goals, it’s a more lasting friendship.”
At the zen center, Beth said, she will have her own room — a precious privacy that doesn’t exist in prison. The center is close to the bus line that goes directly to Santa Fe College, where she plans to enroll for the semester that begins in October. She’s hoping that her credits from prison will make her a sophomore. Her goal: a degree in architectural engineering.
“I’m kind of stubborn, so I think I can make it work,” she said.
Meanwhile, she already has scouted out the nearest Dunkin’ and hopes to get a job there baking while she goes to school. She plans to put up signs around the University of Florida campus: “Are your jeans too long? I’ll shorten them.” She hopes to develop a little cottage industry doing alterations at reasonable prices.
But first, she and her mother will be taking a little trip. Beth plans to visit two former inmates with whom she has kept in touch. One just had a baby and graduated from Florida State University with a master’s degree in electrical engineering. The woman is starting studies for her doctorate. The other is in Alabama, working in a sports bar. That girl’s mother was kind enough to send Beth packages that contained breakfast cereal in prison.
Then, it’s on to see family in Indiana. Beth’s niece was 4 months old when Beth went to prison. Beth has kept every scrawl the girl sent as a child and the letters she now writes on a computer, inserting photographs and chattering about boys. Beth is looking forward to meeting two ladies from her aunt’s church who have faithfully written her since she was sentenced. She wants to look them in the eye and say “thank you.”
Beth’s mother persuaded her father to send her a plane ticket rather than having Beth ride the Greyhound all that way.
The conversation went like this:
Mom: “I don’t want you riding with those kind of people.”
Beth: “Mom, I just did 12 years in a penitentiary.”
Mom: “You don’t have to anymore.”
And there it is, a mother’s message, bundled in an emotional nutshell, fragile as hope itself: You’re not like them, Beth. You never were. You don’t have to be ever again.
You can make it.