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Hard lessons

Ashland resident Karen Campbell spent six years in prison for vehicular manslaughter, and she hopes her book about the experience will help humanize female inmates
Photo by Tammy AsnicarKaren Andrea Campbell spilled blood, sweat and tears for five years writing “Falling: Hard Lessons and the Redemption of the Woman Next Door.” The book is a memoir detailing her six years in Coffee Creek Correctional Facility. She hopes the book will be a tool for prison reform by humanizing female inmates.

“The metal doors of the jail crash open, my ears ring, my teeth rattle, and the hairs stand up on my arms. The noise screams, ‘You are not free, you are here for punishment and this is your life now.’ We step into the jail and the doors slam shut behind us. That’s why it’s called the Slammer.”

In 2005, Karen Andrea Campbell — then Karen Baker — became “state property” of Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville. She began a six-year sentence for vehicular manslaughter fearful, anxious and overcome with guilt and shame.

She left prison in 2011 with a fierce determination to make sense of what she had lived through, but it would take more than four years for her to begin writing about her journey.

During her incarceration, Campbell kept a journal and interviewed female inmates willing to share heart-wrenching stories of domestic violence, sexual abuse and addiction. Writing tablets were precious commodities, so her copious notes were scribbled on any available scrap of paper. She wasn’t sure what form the lurid details, raw emotions and coarse language would take or where the description of the grit, grime, despair and depravity would lead. But, she had promised to share the women’s stories and “honor their voices.”

After five years of blood, sweat and tears, “Falling: Hard Lessons and the Redemption of the Woman Next Door” was published in November 2020. The book is a memoir and — Campbell hopes by humanizing the female inmate — a tool for prison reform.

Although she hasn’t stepped into the reform arena, yet, she believes the book may start a discussion about “restorative justice,” she said.

A former Portland resident now living in Ashland, Campbell spotlights issues specific to the female inmate. The names of inmates and the Department of Corrections staff have been changed. Campbell’s aliases for the women play off their personalities or physical features.

For many inmates, life outside and inside prison is a battle for survival. Inside, there is little incentive or initiative for taking responsibility, making amends or atoning for past deeds, Campbell said. With few resources, programs aimed at “corrections” generally fall on the shoulders of volunteer agencies or churches. Education, job training and improved mental, emotional and physical health are not priorities for many of the women. While she engaged in many of the extracurricular activities offered and job opportunities made available, others were just biding their time.

“There was no step-by-step plan laid out for them to transition to a better life,” she added.

Upon release from prison, the women are given a handful of condoms, a $50 Fred Meyer gift card and a bus pass. Without a home, family or job waiting for them, many end up picking up where they left off and “falling” back into prison.

Campbell is grateful beyond measure she had friends and family, a place to land, and a detailed plan for restoring her life.

Campbell’s story of “falling” is tragic. Her memory of the events leading up to the crash that killed both her husband and the women driving the other car is still a collection of blurry snapshots.

At the end of a day skiing on Mount Hood, Campbell took a final run at dusk. She schussed her way down the 6.3-mile-long trail that begins at Timberline Lodge and winds down to Government Camp. Exhausted and sore after more than 10 falls on the slope, she met her husband, Tom, and friends for celebratory drinks. Later, an inebriated Tom slipped behind the wheel and she into the passenger side to head home. At some point, she ended up in the driver’s seat.

She said she read the accident report and was horrified by the details. Both Tom and the woman driving the other car died on scene, and she was life-flighted to a trauma center. Her family was told to expect the worst; it was uncertain she would make it through the night.

Campbell survived the crash, but just barely. Her “Bible-thick medical file” listed more than 20 broken bones, including face and teeth, a lacerated spleen, GI tract and bladder, and a punctured lung. She underwent seven surgeries to repair damage to her legs, torso, ribs and face. A surgery to mend her back and pelvis failed, leaving one leg an inch and half shorter than the other.

Due to the extent of her injuries, it took two years to settle her court case and get her affairs in order before she entered Coffee Creek.

Oregon’s Measure 11 meant that a minimum prison sentence was mandatory. She was scared not angry. She knew the sentence of six years in prison for second-degree manslaughter and driving under the influence was fair. She was grateful that the victim’s family — given the choice to punish her with a stiffer sentence of 10 to 20 years — had chosen compassion. Six years was long enough for her daughters, then 13 and 16, to be away from their mother, it was decided.

There was no other direction to go except toward “a life worthy of their grace,” she said.

Despite the fairness of the sentence, Campbell wondered whether she would survive prison. A suburban wife and mother with a successful career as an assistant physical therapist, she felt no kinship with the other female inmates and was at first terrified of them.

Thanks to a trio of “fairy godmothers” she dubbed Silver, Tizzy and Buzz Cut , a string of cellmates, Celly, Mittens and Sinful, and a bond with Hippie Chick, Blondie and Angel, she learned to navigate life on the inside without drowning in a sea of self-pity or bitterness.

“They told me, ‘You did the crime, do the time, and get over yourself,’” she recalled.

She learned practical survival tips and became hip to the colorful, often raunchy slang. She learned to side-step conflict with the other inmates.

“I began to recognize (the other women) as my people,” she said. “We banded together in our oppression, rejection, mistrust, loneliness, shame and guilt.”

Looking beyond their fierce façade, she was “astonished” to discover “depth and courage.” In moments of vulnerability, the women shared common grief and pain.

Released from prison on April Fools’ Day 2011, Campbell spent the next several years reestablishing her life and repairing the strained relationship with her daughters. She said she didn’t have the energy to write or reflect about prison life. There were “black doors” she didn’t want to open.

When she finally sat down to write, she intended to write a guidebook.

“No one had written one about women’s prisons when I needed it,” she said.

When she took out her journals, sketches and the scraps of paper with the women’s quotes, she laughed and cried. She “organized” the scraps into heaps and drafted chapters that made sense only to her. She sought advice from two editors — Michelle Smith and Kate Hopper.

“I plopped a pile of lined pages into their laps,” she recalled. “Kate told me I had ‘a beautiful mess.’”

After five or six revisions, Hopper told her the work was still missing something. She had captured the women’s voices, but her own voice was silent.

“She said I hadn’t gone deep enough. She dared me to write myself into the story. ‘There needs to be more blood on the page,’” she said.

Campbell wept with each word, and then like a dam breaking, the words flowed.

“I had held back for so long,” she said. “I laid myself bare.”

Through the process, she began forgiving herself — the first step she realized in accepting her daughters’ forgiveness and love. Although she hadn’t made it easy for them, it was a revelation to discover that her daughters and extended family did indeed love her.

Now pounding the pavement promoting “Falling,” Campbell feels as though she is “coming out.”

Reluctant to talk about her past, she has lived insulated and isolated, fearful she will be rejected by the perception of an “ex-con” or that new friends will feel betrayed.

Writing the book was “the right thing to do,” and now is “the right time” to talk about her experiences, she said.

“I was locked up until the book was complete,” she said. And now that it is done?

“I am free.”

“Falling: Hard Lessons and the Redemption of the Woman Next Door” is available on Amazon.com in either paperback or Kindle version.

Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at tammyasnicar@q.com.