Former inmates say fight to save Gissendaner is only the beginning
"As we stand on the precipice of participating as a society in another state killing of a human, I pause to think of the tragedy that extinguishing Kelly’s life perpetuates. In vengeance and punishment there is no real resolution for the living, only the uneasy perpetuation of violence. Resolution is for fiction and not true to the reality of human existence. The truth in the reality of human existence is our only resolution is death and hastening the death of another that we have judged does nothing but add a new complexity to life’s tragic scales. In acting to finalize any life, we truncate any real possibility of faith in redemption for ourselves. We limit our faith to systems, rote moral codes, social structures and rigid law. When we deem ourselves worthy of pronouncing final judgment on a soul as impossible of repentance, impossible of redemption, impossible of regeneration we have uttered the same condemnation on our own souls." -- The Rev. Brian Merritt, Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center co-director
Kara Tragesser, our beloved building manager at the Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center, was incarcerated with Kelly Gissendaner. Kelly is set to be executed by the state of Georgia on Monday. We at Mercy Junction have walked with and supported Kara while she fought for her friend's life. While we know that it will take a miracle to save Kelly at this point, we are still proud of Kara's work to organize former inmates to tell a part of Kelly's story and be a voice for their sister. Below, we tell the story of the Struggle Sisters, the group that formed to fight for Kelly and that plans to continue being a voice on the outside for women on the inside. To read more about Kelly Gissendaner, CLICK HERE.
Megan Chambers remembers being pulled down the smoky hallway of the prison.
She remembers her lungs burning.
In that moment, she was overwhelmed with defeat.
It was even greater than the hopelessness that had driven her to set her Lee Arrendale State Prison cell on fire and hang herself from the light fixture in solitary confinement.
She didn't deserve to live. She wanted to die. And, she had failed even at that.
Now 31-years-old and out of prison just more than three years, Chambers is part of a group of former convicts who are fighting for the life of another inmate, a sister many of the women say saved their lives when they were at the darkest, most hopeless points in their incarcerations.
That inmate is Kelly Gissendaner. The state of Georgia is set to execute Gissendaner by lethal injection on Monday at 7 p.m.
Their sisterhood was formed by incarceration, but the group of women fighting for Gissendaner shared a common history of abuse, abandonment and poverty before finding each other behind the brick walls and steel doors of the Georgia prison system
"Every man Kelly's ever come in contact with has done something horrible to her," Kara Tragesser said. "From her stepfather who started molesting her when she was 9 years old to the man who raped her and got her pregnant when she was a teenager, to the judge and the DA and now the five men on the clemency board who decided to kill her in a meeting she wasn't even allowed to attend."
Tragesser, age 38, served 10 years for armed robbery, and has organized the former inmates to write letters, make phone calls, attend the clemency board hearing, and even have a face-to-face conversation with Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to plead for their friend's life.
Like so many of the Struggle Sisters, there's a line of abusive men in Tragesser's path to prison.
Pregnant at 14, Tragesser dreamed of having a loving family and being a mother and creating the kind of home she didn't have growing up in Cleveland, Tenn. She married at 18 and had her second child at 19. At 20 she was desperately trying to escape a husband who routinely beat her.
That escape came in an introduction to her mother's new co-worker at a chair factory. He was a few years older than Tragesser and had just graduated college.
"I fell instantly, head over heels, madly in love."
It was great until the anniversary of his father's death when Tragesser's new boyfriend returned to his cocaine addiction. That was at Christmas and by March both he and Tragesser were locked up for armed robbery.
They had been awake all night doing cocaine.
The next morning they left in Tragesser's car. He parked beside the road and said he'd be right back. He was gone a long time and Tragesser got into the driver's seat.
"'Go, go, go,' he said when he came running back, and I went, went, went."
Chased by the police, Tragesser lost her pursuers and she and her boyfriend went to the home of a Chattanooga drug dealer. Her boyfriend left for awhile in her car. When he came back they drove to Ringgold, Ga., where he held up a store with a toy gun.
Tragesser was asleep in the car. She was awakened when a police officer knocked on the passenger's side window and told her to get out, she was under arrest.
Taken to jail, she said she slept for 24 hours. Guards routinely came in and kicked her to make sure she was still alive.
She doesn't remember when she finally realized what had happened and how much of her life she had just lost. She didn't realize it when she signed the plea agreement. She was in prison before she knew she would be behind bars for the next 10 years.
The Struggle Sisters was the name that came to mind when the security guard outside Gissendaner's clemency board hearing asked for the name of her group last week.
"There's certainly fights in prison," Tragesser said. "But when it comes down to it, we take care of each other. We became a sisterhood and we're not going to let anyone else mess with us. It's kind of a sibling thing, we might fight amongst ourselves but we'll also fight for each other, take care of each other, help each other stay afloat."
That's what the Facebook group that led to Struggle Sisters' formation was about, helping sisters stay afloat once they made it to the outside.
Tragesser said the Facebook group includes about 700 women. New members are added when women already in the group know someone they knew inside has been released.
The group was mainly about networking jobs, helping recently released convicts find places to stay, and supporting each other, Tragesser said, until the state of Georgia decided it was time to kill Gissendaner.
That night, after the fire, Chambers was transferred to Metro State Prison, where she was once again in isolation.
"Hopelessness consumed me. I felt that I did not deserve life or a second chance. I felt like I had done too much wrong to be able to be a good person, good mother or good daughter. I turned away from God and the chaplain that would walk up and down the hallways telling us of God's love. I felt like I was not worthy of grace or forgiveness and made that clear."
Tragesser describes the 10x8 rooms used for solitary confinement, one of which has held Gissendaner for 18 years.
"Brick walls, concrete floors, a metal bed with a hard mattress, a toilet and a sink. You get out two or three times a week to take a shower."
The only access with the outside world is through a flap in the door. Through this flap guards pass the 1,200 calories a day given to women inmates in Georgia.
"You lose your mind," Tragesser said. "You start talking to yourself and answering yourself. Your mind doesn't work right anymore. It's hard to explain because I've never experienced it out here. You become a crazy person."
But, the worst part is that the women in "the hole" didn't have access to anything beyond what the prison issued. They could not take personal items and they were not allowed to go to the prison store to buy snacks or toiletries.
"They take everything away from you, even your soap. You're given no change of clothes. You start to smell yourself."
Because of her death row status, unlike the other women in the lockdown area, Gissendaner was allowed to go to the store.
Even for an inmate with access to the store, visits were limited to once a week and being able to buy supplies depended on family members or friends sending money. Despite this, Gissendaner routinely shared the snacks and toiletries she was able to buy with the women on lockdown.
"I spent months at a time in lockdown," Patrece Young, another of the Struggle Sisters said. "Me feeling like my life was over, thoughts of suicide, thoughts of harming myself, and Kelly would encourage me to push on. That I'm better than my situation. Better than my past. When I had no food to eat, no soap to wash my ass, my sister friend was there for me. I know what she did was wrong, but I never got to meet that Kelly. I only know the loving one that helped and had everyone's back. That's the one we are all fighting for."
For Chambers, it was meeting Gissendaner that changed everything.
"An inmate was able to walk around and give the inmates locked down books or advice. This inmate was not like the others. She was kind, generous, gave everyone a type of encouragement that I didn't know of. She told me that we all make mistakes in life. Some out of greed, fear, anger, shame, etc. As long as you can find that want inside of yourself to be better, then it is possible to change from the ways you once knew.
"She planted a seed in my heart without even knowing. I found out her name ... Kelly Gissendaner.
"People said why she was there and that she was on death row. She would be put to death one day for the crime she was said to have committed. It amazed me that someone who could be so compassionate to others and instill hope for lost souls could commit a crime like that."
Chambers credits Gissendaner's counseling and encouragement with her entering mechanic courses.
Released from prison in November 2010, in two weeks Chambers had a job. as a mechanic.
"The classes the prison held to get me ready for society and the counselors that were supposed to help made absolutely no impact on me at all. They were as full of spite as most of the inmates."
It was Gissendaner, Chambers said, who made "me believe I could change from the person I once was."
A domestic violence survivor, Cheryl Smith remembers the first time she saw Gissendaner.
"I was walking on the compound and I was told to 'STOP ALL INMATE MOVEMENT.' It was as if a rare, exotic, dangerous animal was being transported from one area to another ... I saw a female in full restraint. Shackles around her waist and legs, cuffs on her wrists. My heart sank. Inside this gray, cold, dark, barbed wire existence, here was a prisoner among prisoners."
By the time she entered the chapel for evening services at the prison, Smith had learned that the bound inmate was on death row and that it was to church that Gissendaner was being taken when she'd seen her earlier in the day.
"Imagine that, to church! I don't remember the message that night because I couldn't take my eyes off of her as she sat alone, isolated from the rest of us. I wondered how people could believe that God converted Saul to Paul on the road to Damascus but those same people were unwilling to believe that God could touch Kelly's heart and make her remorseful or changed and thus worthy of mercy.
"I never spoke a word to her. She never spoke a word to me. But, she impacted my life greatly. I never forgot the pain I felt as I gazed at her during service. I wondered how a condemned person would even love God at that point ... May God have mercy on those that believe her death will ease anyone's pain ... God have mercy on those who lack mercy and compassion."
Tragesser became friends with Gissendaner when she worked in maintenance at the prison.
"She is so soft spoken," Tragesser said. "She is very apologetic, like she's had to apologize a lot in her life, if you know what I mean."
In 2009, two months before she was released, Tragesser found herself in the hole after getting into a fight. It was her long conversations with Gissendaner, yelled back and forth through the flaps in their doors, that kept her sane.
"I met some monsters in prison, Tragesser said. "Kelly is not one of them."
Today, Tragesser has devoted her life to being a voice for justice. She volunteers in animal rescue and has been active in women's rights campaigns. Like most convicted felons, she had difficulty finding a job after her release. In January 2015, she went to work as the building manager at the Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center in Chattanooga.
"Prisoners have no voice," Tragesser said. "I wouldn't have had a voice if it wasn't for Mama Jo. She was my voice. Now I feel like I need to be someone else's voice."
Mama Jo was her ex-husband's grandmother. When Tragesser was in prison, Mama Jo wrote a different person every week advocating for Tragesser to be released.
"She believed in me," Tragesser said. "I try to live by her example now."
Melissa Cromer, another of the Struggle Sisters, used to cut Gissendaner's hair during her incarceration. She says she knows through their many conversations that if Gissendaner is executed, she can die peacefully because she has set her soul right. However, Cromer agonizes over the re-victimization of Gissendaner's children.
Speaking of her children's pleas to the clemency board to spare their mother's life, Cromer said, "Their father died due to their mother's terrible decision to plot out the demise of his life. If her children can forgive their mother for the horrible crime she participated in, how can the clemency panel go against this?"
While the Struggle Sisters continue to fight for Gissendaner's life, Tragesser is realistic about the odds and knows nothing short of a miracle will save their friend's life now.
However, Gissendaner will leave her legacy with the sisters.
Once just a network to help sisters as they readjusted to life on the outside, the group has now gotten a taste of what it might be like to organize to change the system that seemed to be against them from the moment they were born.
Tragesser said they're already planning ways to support the "lifers" when they go before the parole board. These women have often been in prison for 20-25 years, she said, and there is no one on the outside who remembers them, no one to speak for them when they go before the board.
The Struggle Sisters haven't forgotten about them and they plan to be there and be their voices.