The women’s questions for the speaker — a former heroin addict and prostitute — were as illuminating as the replies.
The hourlong conversation Tuesday explained a lot about how such an introspective group of women wound up in jail. The stark concrete floor and cinder block walls at the Platte County jail could have been the setting for a documentary on the mistakes women make.
Holding onto blame for a mother’s perceived and real parenting failures. Hating a father for the same, or for not being present at all. Falling for the wrong man — time and again. Thinking they could fix a man. And finally, attempting to soothe low self-esteem and trauma with alcohol and drugs.
“What was your inspiration to stop?” one woman asked.
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Francine Ward pulled up the black knit fabric of her pants, revealing the scars. A few of the women shuddered.
Ward was hit by a car, or so she had to be told. She doesn’t remember it, only waking up in a Las Vegas hospital, her body in traction, her leg in a cast up to her thigh. Ward’s left leg is 1 inch shorter than her right. She shifted her weight, wobbled a bit on her heel, demonstrating the legacy of the injuries.
“But I wanted to live more than I wanted to die,” Ward said. She was 26 when she stopped abusing drugs and alcohol on July 26, 1979. She’s been sober 37 years.
Still, she introduced herself like this: “I’m a drug-addicted prostitute from the streets of New York.”
Ward is a San Francisco-area attorney, an author and a motivational speaker who chose to spend the afternoon with female inmates. In fact, she insisted on it. Ward was brought to Kansas City by First Call, which runs prevention and recovery services for individuals, families and the community, along with a 24/7 crisis line.
Ward was First Call’s speaker for a dinner Tuesday night. The afternoon session at the Platte County jail was arranged by the Municipal Court of Kansas City. Ward spoke with 30 women, a larger group than originally planned because the session was moved there from the Jackson County Regional Correctional Center. Female inmates from the center were moved to Platte following a sexual assault at the center in late August; the session was open to inmates from both places.
Capt. Joseph King, the Platte County jail administrator, OK’d the visit. He attended the talk, silently taking in the interaction.
“Did you have any children while you were addicted?” Ward was asked
No. “For me, it was one of the best decisions that I made,” she said, adding that by the time she was 18, she was so strung out on heroin, who knows what would have happened to any child she conceived.
“I’ve seen women sell their own children for drugs,” Ward said. Heads nodded in agreement.
Ward, who is married, counseled the women to allow their children to be an inspiration for sobriety. But ultimately, she insisted, they will have to get sober for themselves.
Several inmates began to share. A former meth addict talked about her 10-month-old daughter. She’s grateful, with only one child, she can manage and she hasn’t lost the support of her family. Another talked about being addicted to heroin when she had her first child. She moved to the Kansas City area to get away from drug-addicted friends in another city.
Heads nodded again when Ward said: “Many of you are here at some level because of a relationship.”
She told the women to “put the men on the back burner” and get straight with themselves first. Seek support from other women, especially those who are not addicts. Ward, 63, had mentors to help guide her sobriety.
“Did you try to live your life through men?”
Yes. Men, Ward said, “were everything.” She finally had a moment of clarity when someone asked her how she felt and she turned to her male companion, as if he were to answer for her. She had no thoughts of her own.
She told the women, “It was almost like I came out of my mother’s womb feeling like I didn’t fit.”
As a child, books were her escape. Ward’s mother was a librarian. And she had movies — Ward was impressed by the boldness of starlets like Bette Davis and Susan Hayward.
At 14, she had her first drink. Heroin later became her drug. That led to prostitution. She was arrested three times for selling herself.
“What do you do about family and friends who are addicted?”
Ward said the women must step back from the people who don’t want help. “You can’t save them.”
“At what point did you start being accountable?”
Gradually, Ward said. Little steps added up. She talked about how she stopped cussing, “lazy language.” And she began to see her mother differently, a single mother who was never home because she worked. Now Ward sees that as an advantage, a role model for returning to school, to start a career.
She changed how she dresses. That sparked behavior changes, to be more demure. When she first got sober, she’d continued to wear taps on her shoes, always making an entrance. As if her hot pants, a sash about her waist and strips of fabric for a top weren’t enough of a statement. The women laughed at the image, so different from the speaker before them.
Finally, Ward spoke of disengaging from a victim mentality, from seeing herself as a poor black girl.
More discussion. A few women shared about being introduced to drugs by relatives as children. They talked of being molested by relatives, of being ashamed about being poor and made fun of at school. They discussed the struggle to understand that maybe their parents tried, but many had their own addictions.
One offered that since she has been incarcerated, it’s the longest that she’s been clean from drugs and alcohol. “It gives me hope,” the woman said.
Finally, the questions ceased. The raised hands began offering thanks. “It’s so great to talk to someone who has been here, where we are,” one said.
Applause. Then a standing ovation. The women were escorted out by guards, but a few straggled. They stood in a line, waiting to offer Ward an embrace. She firmly hugged each woman, saying later that if even one makes a change for the better, the day will have been well worth it.
The agency provides prevention and recovery services 24/7 at 816-361-5900.