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The Shocking and Inspiring Story of a Teen Who Survived Unimaginable Violence, Rape and Prison Cruelty

Teri Hancock illustrates her perseverance after years of assault both inside and outside of prison.
 
 
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The following is an excerpt from Inside this Place, Not of It edited by Ayelet Waldman and Robin Levi. Published by Voice of Witness Books. In their own words, the thirteen narrators in this book recount their lives leading up to incarceration and their experiences inside—ranging from forced sterilization and shackling during childbirth, to physical and sexual abuse by prison staff. Together, their testimonies illustrate the harrowing struggles for survival that women in prison must endure.
 
In the excerpt below, Teri Hancock recounts the horrific tragedy that landed her in prison and her struggle to survive there. 

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I Always Remember Horses

I always remember horses. My mom had a thing with them; she was a fanatic. That’s what we used to do all the time together, horseback riding on our farm in Michigan. We had seventeen horses on our farm, and I’d go out to the field and jump up on this old Appaloosa with a sway in his back. I’d pull myself up and put my feet up on his neck. He was old, he would just walk around and eat, and I would lay up there for hours. At that point, life was kind of good. It got worse as I got older, though.

My mom divorced my father when she was pregnant with me, and when I was a few months old she married another man. I never called him Dad, but he was like a father to me and my older brother. I’d say my childhood was good, until I was about eight or nine years old. My mom divorced her second husband then, and started dating this other man, Steve. That’s when everything went bad.

Steve was a full-blooded Blackfoot Indian, born and raised on the reservation. He was also a drug dealer, and once my mom got with him, she got into drugs. Her thoughts of me and my brother changed. I think she was more interested in the fast life and the money, and drinking and doing drugs, than the two of us kids.

My mom and Steve were going on vacations all the time—Hawaii, California, Detroit—and just leaving me by myself with all the responsibilities of the farm and the house. I couldn’t go to school because I had to stay home and make sure the animals were taken care of. My mom would leave us by ourselves for weeks. I was eight or nine and she’d leave me and my brother up on the farm with the seventeen horses. I had responsibilities to take care of them, and I would miss weeks of school because there was no one to drive me.

When my brother was fifteen, my mom ended up giving him away because he stole some money from her bedroom drawer. He was just a kid, you know what I’m saying? He probably just thought, Oh wow, lots of money! Let me grab some! My mom was so mad she gave up her rights to him. My brother moved to my grandparents’ house, which was in Florida, and then my uncle Mark took him to Texas with him, and I guess that’s where he lives now.

I guess I got to a point where I was comfortably numb and I didn’t care what people thought, what they said to me, what they did. I closed myself off. My mom was gone so much, and I did what I wanted, so when she tried to put authority down and tell me do this, do this, do this, I would rebel and do what I wanted to do. I thought, I’m taking care of myself anyway. You’re not doing anything.Don’t get me wrong, I love my mother, but she decided to do the things that she was doing, and I did a lot of bad things myself. 

I was twelve when I first drank and smoked a joint with my mother. She said she’d rather have me drink and smoke in front of her than go out in the streets doing it somewhere else. I’d been smoking cigarettes for a while. She tried to stop me—she’d rip up the cigarettes, flush them down the toilet, try and make me smoke a whole pack—until she got to the point of thinking, “She ain’t going to stop. I’d rather have her smoke in front of me than burn the house down.”

Things started to go really wrong for me when I was about thirteen or fourteen. One time my mom wanted to go to Hawaii, but she couldn’t leave me alone because I’d gotten in trouble by not being in school. So she dropped me off at a juvenile detention facility. When I first got there, I had a quarantine period that you have to go through like you do in prison, but it’s a little different. They sit you in this chair and they have these cameras that watch you, and you have to sit there for hours. You can’t move. You have to sit and think about why you’re there, and every time you move or get up out of that chair they add time to it. I’m a very active person, I don’t like to sit still, so that was so hard for me. You couldn’t even go by the window—they had these plastic bar things on the window that if you touched, an alarm would go off. It was a mess.

I Felt Like I Wasn't Worth Anything

When Steve drank, he’d pull me up onto his lap and make me sit there. If I got up and moved, he would beat the shit out of me. I mean, I could sit there for twelve to thirteen hours. I would end up peeing on myself because I was scared to get up and go to the bathroom. Once, I pissed all over his leg.

From the very beginning, Steve beat on me. One time he hit me in the back of the head with a cast-iron frying pan, knocked me out, and dragged me across the floor by my hair. Another time he put my head through the wall. He held the whole back of my head in the palm of his hand, and all I could see was wood going through my eyes. I tried to cover my face with my hands, but before I could get my hands up there I could feel the wood smashing. I had a big old gash in my forehead, and my mom just butterfly-stitched it up. I begged her to do something. I asked her, “Why are you allowing him to do this to me?” She never would answer me. She would just stare off into space, and that made me feel like I wasn’t worth anything.

The only thing she’d do was tell me not to press charges. My godmother, she’s state police, and she used to come and get me all the time and beg me not to drop the charges. But I couldn’t do that to my mom. She was happy, you know what I’m saying? Every time Steve beat me she would promise me that she wouldn’t let him do that any more. Then the next time would come around and he’d do it again. It just got worse as time went by.

My mom would take me and hide me from him in hotel rooms for a day or two, or drop me off at this cabin she had up in the woods in Gladwin County, about five miles from our house. It got to the point where Steve shot the windows out in my bedroom with a 9-millimeter and made me lay in the glass. It was February, freezing cold. I had glass all over me, all in me, all over the place. While I was laying there, he threw his boots at me, he threw pots and pans. I knew better than to get up, because the consequences were going to be worse. My mom just sat there and said nothing.

Everybody Knew About It, But Nobody Would Say Anything

Steve would use me as a drug trafficker all over the country, even to Canada, and once to France. He taped the drugs to me because customs wouldn’t check me—I’m a kid, I’ve got boots up to here, and I’ve got drugs stuffed down them. I was taught to lie. It’s a secret, you smile and act like everything is peaches and cream, when it’s really not. Steve also used my name to send money to friends of his in jail, other drug smugglers like him, because he didn’t want there to be any affiliation with him. I didn’t know any better.

When I was fourteen, my mom and Steve bought me a brand new bed set, but then afterward they gave me to Steve’s brother for sex. I couldn’t understand why my mom would sit there in the next room and just allow that to happen. You know what I’m saying? I’m your baby, I’m your youngest, I’m your daughter, why would you do that to me? That went on for a long time. Everybody knew about it, but nobody would say anything. I begged and pleaded with my grandparents and my mom’s baby brother, and they would turn their back on me, refuse to help me. I had never had sex until then, but to them I was a slut, I was a tramp, I was a no-good bitch. I think that’s what made me so bitter about things. I mean, I’m really angry with my mother still after all these years.

Finally I ran away, but the cops found me two days later. My mom and Steve had to come get me from the jail. They were all excited to see me until I got in the car. I begged the cops to drive me home, because I knew what would happen as soon as I got in the car. As soon as we got out of that parking lot, oh Jeeze oh Petes, Steve swung back with his hand and hit me in the side of the head. I thought for sure my head was going to go through the window. My mom just sat there and did nothing.

It Was Like It Didn't Really Happen

When I was fifteen, Steve kept kicking me out and then reporting me as a runaway. Finally, I got sick of it. I said, “the hell with this. You’re not beating me any more, you’re not shooting windows out and making me lay in the glass any more. You’re not going to make me lay down and sleep with your brother any more.” I’d had enough by that point. The next time he kicked, I just took off.

I ran away to Grand Rapids to stay with my boyfriend Chuck. Chuck sold drugs for Steve in Grand Rapids, and we’d been together since I was twelve. He didn’t want to sell for Steve any more because he kept seeing how Steve was abusing me. He’d been there through all of it, seeing all the bruises, the cuts, the stitches, just all kinds of stuff. He wanted to get back at Steve for all the dirt that he had done to me, and you know, it sounded good to me—I wanted to get back at him, too. So we had this idea of going back to my mom and Steve’s house, breaking into the storage area where he kept his stuff, and taking it.

We called Chuck’s mom, who lived about two miles through the woods to my mom and Steve’s, and she told us that they were gone for the weekend at a family reunion. We thought, Great, we’ll go see Chuck’s mom and sister, and then break into Steve’s storage shed and take his money. We knew he had bills in a briefcase in the back of a car that he kept in storage, plus we knew he stored his marijuana there.

It was early August 1993. I went with Chuck, his brother Paul, and Chuck’s friend Mike up to Steve’s storage unit. It was up in Meridian County, and it was a large place, with big units for RV storage and smaller, regular units too. We cut a hole in the fence, and I went through and pointed them in the right direction. I told them where to go, I mapped it out, showed them what number it was and how to get in. then I came back out. When they got back and didn’t have the money, they wanted to go to my mom and Steve’s house to get the money out of the safe. I told them how to get into the house through a broken window, and that my mom and Steve kept his safe underneath the bed. I didn’t go with them to the house; I stayed with Paul in the car, about a half mile down the street.

Chuck and Mike went into the house. They had five or six different guns that they’d picked up at the storage center, including a 12-gauge shotgun and a 9-millimeter. I wasn’t there, so everything I’m saying now I only know from what happened in court. While Chuck and Mike were inside, my mom and Steve came back with my aunt and uncle. They’d all come home early from the family reunion.

Chuck and Mike shot my mom. They blew her left arm off and shot her in the face and then shot her in the stomach. They took Steve’s .357 Magnum, shot him in the eye, and then unloaded the rest of it into his chest. They shot my aunt and uncle once in the face with the double-barrel. Then they poured gas all over the house and threw in a half stick of dynamite and blew it up.

I didn’t find out until the next day all that had taken place, because Chuck and Mike only came by to where Paul and I were waiting for them for a moment. They told us to meet them later, and so Paul and I went back to Grand Rapids. When we got there, Chuck and Mike finally called, and told us to drive to Saginaw to meet up with them. In Saginaw, at first they didn’t tell me what happened—they just said they didn’t get anything in the robbery. So I drove back to Grand Rapids with Paul, and Chuck stayed in Saginaw with Mike. He said he had a few things to do, that he could get a ride home. As soon as Paul and I got to Grand Rapids we got a call from Paul and Chuck’s mom saying that my house had burnt down, and that they’d found four bodies in the house.

At this point, I went numb. This is kind of the way I always respond to bad things, to strong emotions. I’d much rather shut them down so I don’t have to feel anything. Part of me wished I could have taken my mom’s place, so she wouldn’t have to die. But part of me felt relieved that I wouldn’t have to worry about Steve shooting the windows out and making me lay in the glass, or trying to run me over in his car, or kicking me out, or being forced to have sex with his brother any more.

Paul and I went back up to Saginaw, and that’s when Chuck and Mike finally told us what had happened in that house. Chuck said, “I didn’t do nothing, it was Mike.” When Chuck and Mike were explaining it, they were joking and laughing. It was like it didn’t really happen. I didn’t really know what to believe. They were high and drunk, and they thought it was funny. I was in shock, I was freaking out. I didn’t know what the hell to do, because I was a co-conspirator now. I’d taken them there—I might as well have pulled the trigger.

I left Chuck and Mike in Saginaw and went back home. Then I went to the police and turned myself in. I also ended up turning state’s evidence against Chuck and Mike.

I was charged with four counts of first-degree murder, four counts of armed robbery, and four felony counts of use of a firearm. I was also charged with arson and breaking and entering. Because I’d turned myself in and testified, they dropped the murder charges. They dropped everything but the armed robbery and one felony use of a firearm.

I was supposed to be sentenced as a juvenile because I was only sixteen when I was arrested, but 1994 was an election year, and I was sentenced as an adult. I was given a sentence of four to fifteen years, plus another two. I had to do the firearm felony first, which was two flat, and then start the four to fifteen.

In my pre-sentence report there were all the details of the four murders, so that was one of the reasons it was so hard for me to get out of jail. Every time I came up for parole, the parole board would read this old report about the murders and just keep me in jail. The sentencing judge had told me I’d only do four years, but because of this messed up pre-sentence report, I just kept getting sent back for more and more time. Eventually, the errors with the pre-sentence report ended up being the reason I was ultimately released, though it would take seven years for my appeal to make it back to the judge. When he finally got my appeal, the judge was furious about how long I’d been in, and he let me out. But it would take seven years, and a lot would happen in that time.

He Could See All The Pain That I Carried

At first when I was in juvenile detention, it wasn’t too bad. There were a lot of good people working in juvie. They tried to help me. They had threats on my life from Steve’s family, and the media kept finding out where I was at and trying to take pictures, so the juvie staff had to keep moving me to different rooms. I did what they told me to do. They told me to get my GED, so I did. It took me four months. I was seventeen, but I had it. I also took their Assaultive offender Group because they said I had to have that. I know how to draw, so I took graphic arts, and also a program for illustrations and computer design. I took classes on codependency, about HIV and AIDS, domestic violence, drugs, and self-esteem. I even took an eating disorder class, because it was pounded into my head that I was fat. Steve used to tell me I was fat, even though I only weighed 112 pounds. I tried really hard to better myself.

In the first adult prison I was put in, things weren’t so bad for me. There were a few good guards. They didn’t treat me like a criminal. Instead they said, “She’s a kid. She just lost her mother, her home, her family.” one guard in particular really tried to help me realize that just because bad things in life happen, it didn’t mean that I was a bad person. He said he could see all the pain that I carried, and he tried to keep me out of a lot of trouble. He was a lieutenant, and he’d basically tell my unit officer and the sergeants that run around, “If she gets in any trouble, radio me, send her to her bunk and make her sit there until I get there.” He was like my father. His daughters were the same age as me, and he used to say that they could be in the same situation that I was in. He’d say, “All it takes is one wrong turn. You’re driving down the street, accidentally not paying attention, and you hit somebody.” He helped me realize that not everybody’s bad.

I think it’s partly because of his inspiration that I took vocational training and college courses. I stopped getting in trouble, I got a job working in the kitchen, I was going to college. My days were full. I was going from one place to another all day until nighttime. Then I would go into my unit, take a shower, and then fall out until four o’clock in the morning. That lieutenant really helped me change the way I viewed things. When they told me that I had to leave, I cried. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I freaked out because I’d never really had anybody just care about me as a person and my well-being before. It was a really bad transition for me to move from my comfort zone.

I Figured If I Said Nothing, I'd Still Get My Freedom

My problems really started in 2000, when I was transferred to Western Wayne Prison. Western Wayne had transitioned from being a men’s prison to a women’s, but they left all the guards there that had been there with the men. Suddenly all these female prisoners came in, busloads of them. It was like a big-ass orgy going on at the prison; the guards were fucking with everybody.

I ended up in a bad situation with the assistant deputy warden, the ADW. I was his clerk, his cleaner. I cleaned the control center, the visiting room, the ADW offices, and the security offices. Because I worked in a secure area, every time I went in and out of there I had to be stripped, so I was getting stripped three, four, five times a day.

I worked the night shift in the control center, 2 a.m. to 10 a.m. everything closes down then, even the wardens go home, but the ADW would stay. He would always call me up there to be with him. Officers started asking questions, making jokes and stuff, which wasn’t funny because I wasn’t doing anything; I would just go up there, do my job, and come back.

One night he called me up, so I checked in and grabbed my cleaning supplies. Now, I had bottles in this hand, bottles in that hand, I had garbage bags and stuff hanging out of both my pockets, and I was on my way to get the vacuum from the closet. Then the ADW came and pushed me into a room and closed the door. He said, “If you make any noise, you’re the one who’s going to be in trouble, not me. I can cause problems for you.”

He bent me over and pulled my pants down. I still had all my cleaners and stuff in my hands. He tired to push himself in me, and with me being in prison for so long and being so young, it was like being a virgin all over again. He ripped me and I started bleeding all over the place. Then he sent me back to my unit to clean up and take a shower. He told the officers that I’d had a “female accident.”

I couldn’t tell anyone. My appeal was still in the courts, and I wanted to go home. I’d been in prison for so long, so I figured if I said nothing and just let it happen, I’d still get my freedom.

The next time I went back up to the control center, the ADW forced me to give him oral sex. The first time that happened, I puked on him, so I had to clean that up. This became an everyday thing for two years. One day, one of the girls in the control center counted that the ADW had called me out seventeen times. Seventeen times he’d assaulted me that day. I had bruises and marks, and officers were asking me how I was getting these hand prints. I was scared of the ADW, so I refused healthcare, but how was I supposed to explain that? I think that’s one of the reasons why I have a hard time with men touching me now. Because he damaged me. I feel damaged.

Everything Had Crashed Down On Top of Me

At the time, my case was going on. My writs and stuff would come through the control center, and when they do that you have to sign to get your legal mail. But I wasn’t even getting mine. My attorney would call me and say, “you missed a court date today.” I had no idea what was going on. It didn’t dawn on me that the ADW was stealing my stuff. I was eligible for camp at that time, which meant I was eligible to go outside the gates and work in society. But my papers kept disappearing. It turned out that he’d been shredding my legal mail, and had put a red flag in my file that said I was a problematic prisoner, so they couldn’t transfer me out of Western Wayne. Every time I was up for parole, it was the ADW’s job to write a statement to the parole board. What was he saying? I don’t know, I wasn’t allowed to see it. But they never gave me parole. He was trying to hold me there until my max day—that way he could have what he wanted.

I had bruises all over my body, and he would tear me up. It would make me walk funny, and some of the officers would joke about it. They’d say things like, “oh, did you run into the mop bucket again?”

Finally, in 2001, after about a year of this, the abuse got so bad that I decided to say something. I told the counselors, and they had me file a grievance against him, but the warden rejected it. They said I hadn’t done it in a timely manner.

Then the other officers started really giving me a hard time. They tossed my cell, threw away my stuff. They ripped up my pictures, took my letters. In the middle of this my father passed away. They didn’t tell me for six days, so I couldn’t go view his body, I couldn’t go see him and say goodbye. Oh my god, I was so upset. I was so mad, I flipped out. I threw a pool ball at the window. I lit a cigarette and was walking up and down the hall with it. I was screaming that I wanted to use the phone. Then they took me to the control center to see the ADW. They said I needed to go through him to see where my mind was at, to see if they needed to call someone in to talk to me. He was supposed to decide if I was okay. Of course he said I was fine.

But everything had crashed down on top of me. Now I had nothing. My dad was dead. I had this man raping me, this man who was supposed to be protecting me and watching over my well-being.

You Would Not Believe the Extent of the Retaliation

The assaults only ended because I wrote a letter to a friend of mind who was at camp, and I told her what was going on. The camp then sent the letter to internal affairs. The ADW had his friends threaten me before the investigation. They told me that if I kept quiet I wouldn’t be retaliated against, I would be left alone. They said I’d be able to go home, but if the investigation continued, he’d lose his job, and then everybody would come down on me.

I was afraid, and I lied to the investigators, told them nothing was happening, that the ADW was just my boss, a good friend. It was hard for me to sit there and tell them that. In the end they moved me to another facility. They took me out of his hands, and he couldn’t assault me any more.

The ADW was suspended with pay for a little while, and then he went to his union and had a hearing. Me and some of the other girls had to come and testify. But they didn’t care about what we had to say, and he got his job back. The one thing they said was that he couldn’t work in a women’s facility any more, but nothing else happened to him.

When I got to the new facility, a camp, another prisoner told me that she’d been sexually assaulted, too, and that she had a lawyer who was helping her out. The investigators were still interested in my situation with the ADW. They hadn’t believed me when I’d said nothing happened. Well, it was time for me to get some help with all this. The prison wasn’t going to be on my side, and I needed a lawyer of my own. So I called the lawyer the next day and she came up to see me. Getting into the visiting room to see her was my worst nightmare. The female officer stripped me in the bathroom, took my chain, my glasses. She made me strip in front of everybody who was in the bathroom, even the male officers, because she’d kept the door open. The officer then went into my room and took all my legal work. She even took the notebook that I was supposed to give to my lawyer, with the list of dates of what happened to me. I had to redo everything.

My lawyer was working toward trying to stop the officers from harassing me and physically assaulting me. Our goal was just to stop them from doing things like taking me out of my room in the middle of the night and moving me to another facility, keeping my property, strip-searching me, taking my mail, stealing my photographs. You would not believe the extent of the retaliation.

One time that female officer who stripped me just went crazy on me when I was talking to my lawyer, screaming at me and at her too. But my lawyer wouldn’t have it. She said, “Excuse me. I’m her lawyer. I’d appreciate it if you don’t talk to her like that any more.” then she said to me, “Teri, you can go back in there and sit, I’ll be right back.” My lawyer got the attorney general to tell the officers that they couldn’t abuse me, they couldn’t come into my room without permission, and they couldn’t strip me without permission, unless I was on a visit or I was doing a random urine drop.

I'm Still Standing

After I got transferred to the camp, the ADW had no control over my writs or my legal mail any more. Then, seven years after I was sentenced, I finally got into the courts in front of the judge. The judge was furious about the seven years I’d been inside. He said he’d never meant it to be more than four, and he pulled my sentence back and released me directly out of the courthouse. Usually you have to go back to prison and be processed out, but he was so angry at what had gone on with me serving all that time, and experiencing all that abuse, that he just let me go. The prison didn’t want to let me go, they were freaking out. The officers that escorted me to court said they wouldn’t release me—they said I had to come back to the prison first. But the judge said, “No, you have no jurisdiction over her. Release her now. I’ll hold you in contempt if you don’t. She is free to go; she is no longer a ward of the state. She is a civilian now.”

I had been in front of the parole board so many times that I just couldn’t believe it was finally happening. I freaked out, I fell to my knees. The prison officers kept insisting that they could take me, and the judge kept saying no. Finally, the court officials just hustled me into another room. It took me a while to comprehend that I was really free.

After I got out, I took the ADW to court. That was hard, having to see him sitting right next to me, smiling, when I did my depositions. The state’s answer was that he’s working in men’s facilities now, so it’s okay. From their point of view, whatever he did to me was all right because I was a convict. That really upsets me. How can women bring charges when they’re abused, when they know they’re just going to be retaliated against? Even the officer who was assigned to help women like me with this kind of case, she was really on the side of the officers. She lost paperwork on purpose and disciplined women who filed charges. Officers stick together, right or wrong.

With the help of my lawyer and her friends, I came back up to Saginaw. I got a job, I got an apartment. I even went on The Montel Williams Show. But I don’t sleep at night; I have really bad insomnia problems. I have nightmares, I wake up seeing him. It never goes away. I feel frustrated and closed in.

The hard part is, when I look in the mirror, I look just like my mom. That’s been a real issue for me to deal with. I’m scared I’m going to be like her if I have children. That’s probably the reason why I don’t have any yet. I see her in me sometimes, when I get angry, and I just have to close myself off. I walk away from people and literally close myself off for days—I won’t answer the phone or anything. I guess I go into a deep depression. There were a lot of things said between me and her that I can never take back. I mean, the last words you would hate to hear from your mother are, “I hate you and I wish I’d never had you.” She said that to me. She said I would be the one to cause her death.

When I found and contacted my grandmother, she told me I was dead to her, right along with my mother, and I should never call again. I don’t have family to turn to for advice or anything. It hurts, and I’m scared.

I was trying to get therapy, but the therapist is in Detroit, and it’s a long way to drive a couple of times a week. But I want to have a normal life. I want to get the past behind me. I know it’ll never go away, it’ll always be part of my life. But here I am today, still standing.

Ayelet Waldman is the author of the forthcoming "Love and Treasure" (Knopf, April 2014), "Red Hook Road" and The New York Times bestseller "Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace." She co-edited "Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women's Prisons" with Robin Levi.

Robin Levi is a consultant working in the field of human rights, and former director at Justice Now. Levi spent four years as Advocacy Director for the Women's Institute for Leadership for Human Rights, where she advocated for the human rights of women and girls in the United States, especially women of color. Preivously, Levi was staff attorny at the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, where she monitored and documented violence and discrimination against women worldwide, in particular sexual abuse of women in U.S. state prisons. She is the co-editor of a book of essays by prisoners called "Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons."