I was all messed up, depressed, angry. I thought I was indestructible. I carried a straight razor and an ice pick, ready for anybody who came at me wrong. I was headed toward death.
Juliette Lett felt trapped in a windowless cell of grief. It was late December 1987. She remembers carrying her newborn niece home in a Christmas stocking. The baby had been born in the iron-clad containment of the California Institute for Women (CIW) to Juliette’s sister, Flozelle Woodmore, affectionately known as Muka.
Flozelle, then a lifer at CIW Chino, had been involved with “Sweet Thing” — an inappropriate nickname for a man who’d frequently lunge into violent rages. One fateful night Flozelle, determined to save herself and her toddler son, shot Sweet Thing dead. Forgoing her day in court to prove self-defense, Flozelle decided to spare her family the ordeal of a trial and pleaded to a sentence of 15 to life. She served 21 years.
I was close to all my siblings — I was one of nine children — but Muka was special. She was the youngest girl. It tore me up to see her sent away. And then, not long after, my oldest brother was murdered.
I had already started dabbling in crack cocaine that was everywhere. I had a son by then and it occurred to me that my living wasn’t pretty. I didn’t want my son to walk by my casket and hear people whispering about the life I was leading. I also had Muka’s voice in my head telling me to get off those drugs.
During the throes of her addiction, Juliette had been arrested on a misdemeanor possession charge. She served 30 days in the Los Angeles County jail. But the “failure to report” warrant, recorded as a summary probation, was never removed from her file, locking her into an unending violation status.
Muka asked me why I always seemed to be back and forth in jail whenever she called. I explained to her that it was on account of the one conviction. She told me that the courts were notoriously bad record-keepers and violated people’s rights as a result.
She said something that hadn’t dawned on me: I have rights. Go to court to ask the state to revoke the warrant and impose a sentence.
Juliette would appear before a judge and request a sentence in place of probation. She could serve out cleanly and finally, settling the warrant that seemed to never go away.
The people in the courtroom thought I must have been crazy, asking to be sent away. The silence was priceless. But it was liberating… Prompted by my baby sister, I declared I had rights and took a stand on my own behalf. Even when the judge imposed a sentence of 16 months plus 90 days, I didn’t regret it… I was sent to Chowchilla.
Early on in her incarceration, Juliette heard her name boom over the loud speakers. “Lett 22, yard exchange.” Her heart rate spiked as she figured she was about to be reprimanded for an altercation in the yard with another prisoner that morning. “Yard exchange” sounded ominous.
“You got a visitor by phone,” the guard said. When she picked up the handset there was Flozelle’s voice in her ear, sounding ever so close. She turned around and her sister was standing there. They’d not seen each other in 16 years. The time and space melted away as they hugged, held on and cried.
If there is a silver lining for a lifer, it’s that they are at the top of the hierarchy of prison politics. Flozelle negotiated Juliette’s transfer to her yard. There Juliette benefited from her sister’s knowledge of the law, of recovery and spiritual journeys. Rights were made tangible. She didn’t realize her sister was preparing her for reentry.
After Juliette was released, and her prison record kept her from gainful employment, the old shadows loomed like a living ghost. Depression. Absence of sunlight. Hard rock bottom. Drugs again. This time she tried something different — something most parolees would seldom consider. She dared to ask her parole officer for help under little-known revisions to support treatment and recovery.
He got me nine months of treatment in a residential facility, a hundred-dollar clothes voucher, and other resources that are available but rarely requested on behalf of people like me.
And I haven’t looked back.
Her sister looked forward. When Flozelle came home in 2007, her activism was put to use as an organizer for the grassroots group of formerly incarcerated people, All of Us or None. She was just beginning to flex her political muscle in February 2013 when Juliette’s family was called to rush to the hospital. Flozelle had suffered a brain aneurysm.
Janisha, the precious daughter whose first journey was in a Christmas stocking from Chino, made the difficult decision to remove Flozelle from the ventilator that was breathing for her.
It was the saddest day of my life. But in a different way it was also the proudest because my sister left a legacy of helping other incarcerated women and their families pursue their rights. I’m so grateful to her for her guidance, that voice in my ear that made my journey possible.
Juliette Lett, 55, is a certified addiction specialist, mental health social worker for citizens on parole, social media enthusiast and advocate of interventions to help women find the path to recovery and sobriety through treatment.