The Ryhthm of Grace
by Mary Frosythe
I tried to gather my composure as I walked with my attorney to the defense table to hear the verdict to be returned against me—fifteen felony counts ranging from mail fraud to theft of government property.
I saw my parents sitting on the back row, and the look on their faces indicated that their hearts would crumble into a million pieces if I were found guilty.
I was 31 years old, no longer their little girl, and my parents were powerless to help me. I watched the foreman hand my verdict to the judge who silently read its brief contents before handing it to the foreman who finally announced: “We the jury find the defendant, Mary Elizabeth Forsythe, guilty on all counts.”
Nothing could have prepared me for what I heard next. My mother wailed from the pit of her soul. I screamed from the defense table, “Mother! Mother! It’ll be all right! I promise you!” My attorney took my arm in an attempt to quiet me. I slumped into my chair, with fear, bitterness, and disbelief all raging inside me. Summoning enough strength to send a visual hate message to those who convicted me, I gazed straight into the eyes of the judge and the jurors with a look of pure venom. In that moment, hatred inhabited me, and I despised the jurors and judge with a diabolic force.
The guilty verdict meant two things: my pharmacy would have to be closed, and I could be sentenced to as many as seven years in federal prison. At this point, I lapsed into my usual habit of denial. All I could think was I’m not a criminal! I didn’t mean to do anything wrong! I didn’t want to leave the career I loved, and I certainly didn’t want to go to prison.
The Downward Spiral
Although I grew up in a delightful, small town in the heart of western Kentucky, I longed for a life that was larger and busier than anything I had ever seen. After college, armed with my pharmacy degree and a passing score on my board exams, I landed a job in Dallas, Texas. Within a few years I had opened a sideline business as a pharmaceutical consultant and owned a small pharmacy in a medical clinic. During the late 1980s AIDS was the focus of much public attention, and my pharmacy was chosen as one of the official state dispensaries for the drug AZT which had been released from experimental status and provided through state programs. Seeing AIDS patients every day gave me a vivid close-up glimpse into the impact of AIDS on a person’s life, and every time someone thanked me, I seemed to forget the red-tape. Dealing with the paperwork was a bookkeeping nightmare, and my pharmacy often ended up with excess inventory. Problems occurred frequently enough to catch the careful eye of a state auditor. When three agents from the Texas Department of Health and Human Resources walked into my store and stated the purpose of their visit—to audit my inventory records, I knew I was indeed dealing with a serious offense.
The period of time between the trial’s end in June and the sentencing in October was a flurry of activity. I lost myself in the process of closing the pharmacy and wondering what to do next. The sentencing, a process that would forever alter my life, only lasted about 15 minutes. The judge pronounced a five-year sentence to be followed by three years of probation. The judge set the date and time I was to self-surrender at the federal women’s prison in Benton, Texas: January 5, 1993, at 1:00 P.M.
I arrived at the federal women’s prison at 12:30 P.M.—early for prison. Absolutely nothing could have made me ready for what I experienced—the sudden and complete loss of freedom and the emotional tidal wave that hit when my identity was jerked away. I was no longer Mary, but 22490-077. As I completed the check-in process, the playing field was leveled. For so long, my possessions had defined my identity. Then suddenly, I had no more than anyone else. The only thing I had more of than anyone else was my arrogance. With my prison uniforms in hand, I suspected that I would soon have to change out of my civilian clothes. I survived the wretched strip search that terrible day—on the outside standing silently still, feeling the chill of the cool, prison air against my bare skin, but blazing inside with the heat of mortal embarrassment.
I stayed in a cramped first-floor cell in one of four dormitories that housed more than 800 inmates. In it were two sets of bunk beds, four industrial-grade lockers, a tiny table and a plastic chair. The bathroom was located several cells down the hall from mine and serviced about fifty women. Everything was so sparse, so harsh-looking. I knew it was prison; I knew it was designed for punishment and not for comfort, but still, I never anticipated living in conditions like these.
Within the first few days of my incarceration, I was assigned to work in the prison warehouse doing manual labor, lifting boxes and heavy bags of food from 7:30 A.M. until 3:30 P.M. with a 45-minute lunch break. I knew how to fill prescriptions and counsel patients, but I knew nothing about unloading trucks with a dolly and operating two kinds of forklifts. My job description also included mopping, painting, gathering and hauling trash, scrubbing stairs, cleaning out refrigerators, and cleaning restrooms. The boss, Mr. Isaacs, demanded everything be done his way, but I maintained my haughty attitude, doing precisely as Mr. Isaacs instructed, but silently criticizing him and resenting his authority.
The Turning Point
My increasingly desperate circumstances in prison began to give birth to thoughts about God and to a longing to believe that He was involved in my everyday existence. By late January I felt heaviness in my heart that I had never felt before. The arrogant, independent woman who had walked into Benton a few weeks earlier had become confused, desperate, and terribly frightened. One day I rolled out of my prison bunk and onto my knees—and with tears streaming down my face, I cried out with unprecedented brokenness in my heart, “God! I can’t do it anymore! Help me!”
To my surprise, I heard a gentle voice whisper, “Mary, I have been waiting to hear you say that.” In that moment, something happened deep within me. The heaviness lifted, and the confusion, fear, and pressure rolled off. Nothing in my external circumstances was different at all, but everything inside me changed radically.
The next day I attended a church service in the prison chapel. As we sang the profound and simple old song, “Jesus Loves Me,” tears began streaming down my face. How many times I had sung that song as a child, but it had never affected me at all. This time it touched a tender place inside me. God had heard my cry. I was convinced He would indeed help me.
Word and Spirit
The brand-new “me” began to ravenously desire the Word of God. It was as if God had deposited in me an unshakable conviction that the answers and direction I desperately needed were in the Bible. Even after years of church-going, I was only familiar with a few Bible stories. I knew nothing of individual verses or biblical principles or life-changing truths in the Book. One of the first verses that pricked my heart was John 8:32, which told me that the truth sets people free. I knew it was impossible to physically escape my environment, but the Bible said that I did not have to leave prison in order to experience true freedom, freedom on the inside. 5 Standing in my cell, I took my Bible in my hands and said, “Lord, this Book is either totally true, or it isn’t true at all. If You will teach me how to live out of this Book, I’ll do it—even in a place like this.”
Shortly after praying that prayer, I stumbled across the verse of scripture that said we should love our enemies and pray for those who spitefully use us. My bitter hatred toward the judge, the jury, and the prosecuting attorneys who sent me to prison had not waned, and I knew exactly that the Lord wanted me to start the process of forgiving and blessing my enemies. At first, it was difficult to pray that God would bless them, but eventually, the attitude of my heart matched the words of my mouth. As I genuinely felt forgiveness and compassion for them, God released more freedom and peace to me.
From the Inside Out
In the midst of my internal revolution, I began to see evidence of God all around me. He was actively involved in the daily grind of my life within the walls of a federal prison. He chose a true friend for me—a sweet-spirited Christian woman named Liz with whom I could share my deepest need and she with me. I felt that the Lord had called us to walk a portion of the prison journey together.
The Lord also intervened in my everyday circumstances by providing me with a strategically located cell— next to the mop closet. Even though the mop closet was filthy and smelly, it had a door—a precious barrier no one could see through. By now the Lord had healed me enough that I wanted to help others, and Benton was filled with women who needed someone with whom they could share the secrets of their hearts. The mop closet provided a safe environment in which we could share and pray. Over time, the Lord brought together a remnant—a beautiful mix of women of different cultures, backgrounds, ages, and experiences who became His passionate worshipers. The heart of our group was praying for people in positions of leadership and authority at Benton—the warden, the chaplain, and the guards. We also prayed for our fellow inmates at Benton because we understood better than anyone else the harsh realities of their lives.
My Last Days
In November, 1995, I was granted an overnight furlough—an opportunity to leave the prison compound on a Saturday morning and not return until the following evening. This brief venture outside of Benton forced me to declare that I was far more institutionalized than I thought. Even though Benton was prison, it was where I lived. The same restrictions that made me feel like subhuman government property also formed a safety net that was familiar. I realized that freedom would require more faith and preparation than I ever imagined.
As I counted down the last months of my incarceration, I desperately needed the Lord’s encouragement and strength. At 7:00 on my last night, women began to arrive for our final time together. I prayed for each one, and I asked them to continue doing for others what the Lord had done for them—to comfort those around them who were afraid, to pray for those who needed help, and to encourage those who were depressed. Then I took a bowl of water and a dingy prison towel, began removing work boots and socks, and washed feet—hurting feet, feet that were walking the uniquely painful path through prison. Later, emotionally and physically exhausted but profoundly grateful, I took my towel and my bowl and walked toward the dorm with Liz. We walked together to the top of the stairs where I turned one way and Liz the other. We did not give voice to the gut-wrenching goodbyes that lay within our hearts. It was one of those moments words would have ruined.
My time at the halfway house was not easy, but it did provide an opportunity for me to re-awaken to the outside world from which I had been severed for so long. I faced enormous change and challenge, but I knew God would not disappoint me. I left prison an entirely different woman than I had been when I arrived, thoroughly changed from the inside out. What wonders I had seen— and what a miracle I was! I had gone to prison and had been set free!