“… and then the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
– Anaïs Nin
It is said that politics produces strange bedfellows; no more so than in the prisons of the world, where the guards, sooner or later, become the guarded and the impossibility of love becomes the norm.
Where the hater and the hated … Well …
Mary Riley sits upright in a chair at a table in a day room at Louisiana Corrections Institute for Women in St. Gabriel, 60 miles west of New Orleans.
From all appearances, Riley is a doyenne of the tea-in-the-afternoon and the Gerard Manley Hopkins readings crowd that meets in the shaded corners of the patios of the Garden District. Her white hair is coiffed in understated elegance. Her words and mannerisms are measured and proper – and restrained.
It would be easy to cheaply preface a summation of this woman with, “But in truth …” then reveal the “real” Mary Riley, but what is seen is the real Mary Riley.
Riley, a two-time murderer who spent three years here in the mid-1970s for killing her husband, then returned with a life sentence for killing her landlady in 1984 – that Mary Riley?
“She no longer exists,” the 63-year-old resident of St. Gabriel says.
“What I am, where I am – I feel is my calling,” Riley says. “I know that I was sent here to fulfill my life. I’m here to mentor the young girls, to teach them, to advocate for them. In fact, they all call me ‘Momma’; I like that. That kind of feeling between people is hard to find in today’s world. Strange that I came to prison to find it.”
From the beginning, Riley’s life had all the elements that portend a ship about to crash on the rocks. It was the stuff that fills the tattered pages of the notebooks of social workers who gather the facts and from those facts, predict such things.
“I was born in Iowa,” she says. “I had scarlet fever when I was 3 years old and my real parents never came to get me from the hospital. There were five of us siblings, and all you had to do was look at us to know we all had different fathers. The woman I wound up with and called Mother was an alcoholic. The man I believed to be my father was never there. I can honestly say that as a child I never knew what love was. I had no idea. It was just a case of daily survival.”
Riley blew into New Orleans two days ahead of Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and hunkered down for what she hoped would be a new beginning in a new place. Five husbands and 40 years later, she finds herself respected and loved by people and in a place not known for that commodity.
“My first husband used to beat the living daylights out of me,” she says. “We both knew and kinda agreed that one of us was going to kill the other. One day he beat me so bad I woke up and found myself on the kitchen floor bleeding and feeling like everything was broken. I got up to wash off the blood, and he told me that if I opened my mouth, I’d get more of it. I told him, ‘No more!’ I walked around the bed and got a gun and shot him. I knew I’d have to go to jail for what I’d done, but because of the circumstances of how it happened, I got out after serving just three years which was two-thirds of the original sentence.”
Having located only one of her siblings, Riley was hungry for family, any kind of family, as she bounced around from job to job and between run-down apartment houses in New Orleans and Tangipahoa Parish.
It was in one of those houses in Tickfaw that the knife was pulled and Mary Riley’s fate was sealed.
“My landlady knew that her husband was fooling around on her,” Riley says. “And she thought that I was the one he was fooling around with. But she was wrong. Well, one day, we had a disagreement over one of her grandchildren, and she said she was going to evict me. Well, I waited until things cooled down, then I went over to talk to her. While I was talking, she pulled a knife on me. I managed to get it away from her, and I killed her. I got life without parole.”
Riley admits she was the classic convict: surly, rebellious, fatalistic. She even saved her meager prison earnings to pay for a “decent burial for myself down the line when I committed suicide.”
Then, after hearing a preacher who spoke at St. Gabriel, came the “jailhouse conversion” Riley admits to. “It wasn’t one of those bolt-of-lightning things. It took a while – four years before I started trusting in a power bigger than any I had ever known … ”
With that power, Mary Riley turned toward bringing change to the prison.
“Up until a few years ago, any of the residents who died here and whose bodies weren’t claimed by family, well, their bodies were sent to Angola (the state penitentiary for men), where they were buried on Point Lookout (Angola cemetery). I felt the women who spent most of their lives here, and who died here and who knew only this place as their home, should be buried here. One resident here was dying of AIDS, and when she died a volunteer gave up her plot so this young lady could have a place to lie in peace. I didn’t want to see this type of thing continue. I advocated and others got involved.”
A cemetery was laid out not far from the prison: one lone. giant oak tree surrounded by 14 plots. Riley smiles and calls it “Lone Oak Cemetery.” And while those 14 bodies now lying at rest are those of men from Hunt Correctional Institute, also in St. Gabriel, the day is coming, Riley says, when the first woman from St. Gabriel will be placed there – “Maybe it will be me.”
And what was once a dismal, dreary time of year was transformed into the “Christmas Extravaganza,” spearheaded by Riley, who enticed volunteers and ministers to urge their friends and flocks to buy “the kinds of presents for abandoned kids, and kids whose moms were in prison, that you’d buy for your own kids.” The local drive now covers most of Louisiana and Texas. “One woman spent over $10,000 on toys for the kids,” Riley says. “She maxed out her $5,000 credit card, then borrowed her friend’s card and maxed that out too. That woman paid it all back and is here every year. She says it’s the happiest time of her life.”
Then there’s the “Easter Extravaganza, and decorations for the warden’s banquet, and this function, and that one. All that work, along with “voracious reading” and Bible study and the daily routines, such as twice-a-day head counts, keeps the St. Gabriel resident (“We don’t call them inmates”) going from 3 a.m. until she drops from exhaustion some time late at night
“One day several years ago, I found out there was a new resident on my wing. Her name was Brenda. Then I found out that she was the granddaughter of the woman I had killed. Brenda had a past similar to mine – broken. She had been adopted, and she killed her adoptive parents. She had grown to love her grandmother – and I killed her. It was a horrible, empty, dead feeling inside. I didn’t know what to do or say or even how I should feel about her. I just knew she hated me. This was an incredible thing – not just in the same prison, but on the same wing.
“One night, I was praying for forgiveness for Antoinette Frank (a New Orleans police officer convicted of killing two young restaurant employees and her own partner), who is here on death row. All of a sudden I heard a voice; it was God saying, “How can you pray for forgiveness for someone else when you can’t ask for forgiveness for yourself?”
Mary Riley got up from her knees that night. She was shaken and sweating and she knew what the voice meant.
“I asked for a meeting with Brenda, just the two of us,” Riley says. “I asked Brenda for forgiveness and she said, ‘Mary, I forgave you more than two years ago. I was just waiting for you to ask.’ She said, ‘You know, just like you, I always wanted a mother who would love me unconditionally. I never had that in my entire life. But now, I’ve found that person, here in this prison. I would love to call her mom. I knew what she meant. To this day, she calls me ‘momma‚’ and we are as close as any mother and daughter could be.”
Politics has nothing on prison life.