Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three part series about a remarkable woman, Vikki Hankins, the author of the book “Trauma” and now an activist for the rights of convicted felons.
ORLANDO – There isn’t a trace of bitterness or resentment in her voice. Listening to Vikki Hankins talking about her future, she sounds excited and enthusiastic about the possibilities that she can now take advantage of.
Even when Hankins talk about something that makes her feel frustrated – such as the decision by Gov. Ric Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi to make people convicted of non-violent crimes wait five years before they can get their civil rights restored – she doesn’t sound angry. But she does sound ready to speak up and challenge that political decision, and one way she may do that, she said, is by telling her story.
It’s one that, at age 42, makes Hankins feel like she’s lived many, many lives in just four decades.
Hankins is not concerned about convicted felons and their civil rights because or a friend, relative or loved one impacted by this decision, and she’s not a member of a civil liberties organization that works to assist felons get back on their feet.
Hankins is herself a convicted felon, one who spent very close to two decades in federal prison. Today, it’s easy to sense that joy in her voice at the freedom she now can enjoy after so many long years behind bars, under sometimes agonizing circumstances.
But at the same time, her future remains clouded by the challenge facing all convicted felons trying to make a fresh start and move on with their lives, when so many doors are closed shut to them the minute they admit to having served time in prison. That’s why Hankins became so frustrated when she learned that Florida’s new cabinet had voted to make it much harder for convicted felons to get back the civil rights that the rest of the population likely takes for granted, including the right to vote, serve on a jury, and hold an occupational license.
“My situation is like thousands of others, and obviously pertains to that decision,” Hankins said. “I was pretty floored about it. I spent 18 years in federal prison for a non-violent offense. In 2008 I was released, and in 2009 I applied for my civil rights to be restored. Last week I wrote to Attorney General Bondi asking about the lengthy process it takes for non-violent offenders to get their civil rights restored. I called and I called even before last week, and they were telling me that the process takes years. I was complaining about that last week, only to find out yesterday they totally reversed it and now make you wait five years before you can get your rights restored. I had been planning to vote next year.”
Since being released from federal prison in 2008, Hankins moved to Orlando, struggled to find a job as a convicted felon, convinced her probation officer that her five years of supervised probation should be terminated, and wrote a book, “Trauma,” about her life. Now she’s ready to take on a new challenge, convincing the state that non-violent offenders should be given the opportunity to prove they’ve changed and can be trusted to vote, serve on a jury and get an occupational license.
“I want to give a voice through my situation,” she said. “My situation is not the norm.”
That may be a major understatement.
Hankins was born in New York, but raised in Crescent City in Putnam County. How she ended up heading to prison when she was barely out of her teens started on a tragic and fateful day when, at age 19, her mother committed suicide.
Leaving behind three children, with Hankins being the oldest, she left behind a family shocked and devastated.
“When my mom took her life, I was the oldest,” she said. “At the time, when my mom took her life, I transformed completely. I kind of died inside. My mindset at the time was a 19-year-old who was traumatized. And what ended up happening is I thought about my two younger siblings. My mindset was I needed to make money fast or do something so my siblings will not feel the loss of their mother.”
Struggling to find work, her life got even more off course when she began dating a man who was dealing crack cocaine. He convinced Hankins that she could make easy money delivering the drugs for him.
“That’s how I got into illegal drug activity,” she said, adding that she had never been in trouble with the law before then.
“Prior to that I was raised in a strong Christian household,” she said. “I went from that to the illegal drug activity. The only thing I could think about was I need to do something fast to replace what we lost, which is our mother.
“Two years later,” she added, “I was standing in front of a federal judge.”
An amateur in the drug world, Hankins was arrested in Volusia County. The state turned her case over to federal agents who brought her into federal drug court. The prosecutors didn’t initially want to get tough on Hankins, and even offered her a deal: tell them about the man supplying her with the drugs in return for a lighter sentence.
“It was the guy that I was dating at the time,” she said. “My mindset was I needed to make some money fast. Instead of being around someone who would say ‘Go work at so and so,’ other people came into my life and they were people into the illegal drug activities. I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about a lot of things, but it was a grand opportunity for them to make money, to use me to make money.
“What ended up happening was when I was arrested, the prosecutors wanted me to tell on the person, where I got the drugs from,” she said. “They knew I was not the big fish.”
But she absolutely refused – a decision she now admits was a terrible mistake.
“Me and my misplaced loyalties,” she said. “Either way, I still felt a sense of protecting people that were the suppliers.”
So the prosecutors withdrew the plea offer. Instead, Hankins learned her sentence for delivering crack cocaine: 23 years in federal prison.
Her life as a young woman trying to look out for her younger siblings was over.
And Hankins was on her way to a federal women’s prison in Kentucky, at age 21, with more than two decades of prison time awaiting her.
End of Part I.
Tomorrow: Life in a women’s prison.
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