Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three part series about Vikki Hankins, who spent nearly two decades in prison for a non-violent drug offense, and is now an advocate for the rights of convicted felons who have completed their prison sentence.
ORLANDO – Standing before a federal judge at age 21, Vikki Hankins learned the penalty for delivering crack cocaine: 23 years in federal prison.
“It was awful,” she said. “I went in green, and when I came out into society, I was still green to so many things. Here I am in this prison, I’m here for another 20 years, and I’m just surviving. Life for someone from 20 years old to 40 years old, that’s the highlight of a life span.”
Barely out of her teens, Hankins was on her way to a federal women’s prison, will little hope for a reduction in her sentence.
“They totally abolished parole,” she said. “And at this point, everyone who is a federal inmate has to serve 85 percent of their sentence. Good behavior will only get 54 days per year off your sentence.”
She was headed to prison – and the only mystery left was where she would end up.
“When I was sentenced in 1990, they did not have a lot of federal prisons in this country compared to now,” Hankins said. ”They had two women’s prisons for the security level I was at, which was medium, and one high level and a few low levels. One was in Kentucky, and the other was in California. I flew from here in Florida to Kentucky. If any female from the East Coast committed a federal crime, they went to Kentucky.”
Over the next decade, Hankins bounced around from one federal prison to the next, and went from Kentucky to a new women’s prison that opened in Connecticut. She would move on from there to California, then eventually to a women’s federal prison in Tallahassee, and then to Texas.
“What they’d done is anytime they would open up a new federal prison, they would take the men out,” Hankins said, adding that she rarely complained about being transferred from one prison to the next.
“A lot of the time, I volunteered to go,” she said. “My sense at the time was I felt rather than being in one place, I knew I had 23 years to do, I felt that if I moved around, did five years here, four years here, it wouldn’t be so hard.”
And prison life? Hankins said it depended on the institution, and life behind bars ran from tedious and mundane to torturous.
“Some of them were okay,” she said. “From what I hear, comparatively speaking, the state prisons are a little bit rougher. But there are some things I saw within the women’s federal prison that were shocking. I did see people lose their lives to medical negligence, and I saw a lot of drug abuse. I think that’s what shocked me more than anything. I never saw a heroin addict before until I was in prison.”
She did see violence in these prisons, including abuse by corrections officers.
“Some of the women in California got raped by some of the corrections officers,” Hankins said. “All I knew was prison life, people either gossiping and playing cards or some people trying to get an education. At first I didn’t trust anyone working for the prison system, no one. Finally I came to see there were corrections officers who were good people and saw something in me and decided to try to help me.”
The worst experience that Hankins had was at the Coleman Correctional Insitution, a medium security prison in Coleman, Florida, where Hankins discovered that she had a fibroid tumor – and that the prison’s medical staff wasn’t about to do very much to treat her.
“I think the worst incident that happened to me was at the camp down in Coleman,” she said. “I had a fibroid tumor that had grown inside of me, maybe the size of a four or five month fetus pregnancy, but the medical staff decided not to do anything about it. That fibroid tumor had started to grow and was taking over my insides, and grew to the size of a seven and a half month pregnancy, and the prison wasn’t going to do anything about it.”
She finally got the tumor treated outside of the prison.
Hankins served 18 years of her 23 year sentence. What finally got her released was when Congress rewrote the drug laws, lessening the federal penalties for crack cocaine.
“They said these laws are racially unbalanced,” she said. “So many people were complaining about their family members being incarcerated. I was in prison for 23 years for a non-violent offense for delivering something the size of a chocolate cookie. A lot of people were complaining about that. You had college students who were going to jail for that.”
When the law was changed, Hankins suddenly found herself having served five years more than the new mandatory sentence. She applied for a reduction in her sentence, and was released in March 2008, at the age of 39.
She was suddenly free again, in a world she hadn’t seen since the early 1980s. A lot had changed in those nearly two decades when she was behind bars.
“My ‘normal’ has not been normal at all because of that,” she said. “When I got out at 39 years old, I had to hurry up and grow up and somehow compensate for a 20 year time frame I lost.”
End of Part II
Tomorrow: Starting over, finding a job, writing her autobiography “Trauma,” and becoming an advocate for other convicted felons.
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