[Editor’s Note: In the fall of 2013, I visited Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in Bedford Hills, New York, to explore the spiritual lives of women behind bars. Over the next three weeks, I’ll be sharing the stories of three women who found freedom in faith while incarcerated]
In 2006, when Karen Fisher was arrested for driving while intoxicated in East Hampton, New York, it was not the first time. Three months before, she had been charged with DWI and child endangerment—two of her three children were with her when she ran her car off the road and into the woods. Three years before that, she had pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of driving while impaired.
But this last time was different.
"It was a DWI and somebody died," Fisher told EBONY.com one rainy, fall morning inside of a classroom at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. That somebody was a 79-year-old retired Catholic priest who was out for a walk near his sister’s home. In 2007, Fisher pleaded guilty to manslaughter, driving while intoxicated and other charges, and was sentenced to up to 12 years in prison.
Nearly 7 years later, “I’m happier now than I ever have been with me,” Fisher confessed, “even though [prison] is the most miserable place in the world.” But getting to happy seemed a near-impossible feat to her, even when she was on “the outside,” as she calls life away from Bedford.
Before prison, before alcoholism, Fisher was a homemaker and a karate mom to two boys and a girl, her eldest, and a wife of 26-years. She had been raised Catholic and went to a private Catholic school from grammar school through high school, but admitted “spirituality was something that never entered my mind. I was busy; I just never got around to thinking about God or never felt the need to. It just didn’t occur to me that [a connection with God] was what was missing.”
Still, she described her early years of marriage and motherhood as “great,” saying that her kids were “the best thing that ever happened to me.” But when her children started to grow up and were at school during the day, the stay-at-home mother said, “I was home by myself a lot—then the drinking started. I think I felt isolated. They didn’t really need me as much anymore. [The alcoholism] was self-destructive behavior and I didn’t see it that way, that it was hurting anybody but myself, or even me for that matter. I think if I had had a stronger faith back then, a closeness with God, I would have been a lot stronger and seen that my life was important, and that never occurred to me.”
But after killing the Monsignor, Fisher’s real isolation began. A week after the crash, while Fisher was in county jail awaiting bail, her husband served her with divorce papers. “I was mad. I was mad,” she said. “I completely fell apart. Completely fell apart.” But when she got out on bail, her husband insisted that he never had any plans to go through with the divorce and that it was just “in case I pulled some stupid stuff like this again.” But he “apparently, immediately,” stopped wearing his wedding ring and the marriage was over, though it would be a 6-year, hard-fought, messy, painful court battle.
There was also the separation from her children to deal with. Her boys, then 12 and 9, were more forgiving of their mother, but her then-16-year-old daughter wanted nothing to do with her. Her daughter wouldn’t visit or write, telling Fisher that she had ruined her daughter’s life.
And then, there was always the guilt eating at her. She had killed somebody and even worse, a leader in her faith. How could God ever forgive her for that?
Unexpectedly, things started to shift for Fisher. In 2009, she got a visit from the Monsignor’s childhood friend, also a catholic priest like the deceased. She said of the visit, “At first I was very shaken because it was hard for me to understand why he was [visiting me] and how I could even face this person, [but] it was just a very easy conversation. He didn’t blame me, it was an accident, he said, and it just made me feel a lot more at ease about my guilt and it made me realize how important forgiveness is and that God forgives me. He forgives me. That’s a life-changing thing.”
But Fisher wouldn’t have very long to process that gift. Nearly three years into Fisher’s sentence, her mother died. Five days after that, the prison doctor told her that her mammogram was abnormal. Not wanting to deal with any potential health issues in prison, Fisher put off any further testing for six months, until after her parole board hearing. When it came time for the hearing, the parole board denied her parole and added two more years to her sentence. After the board’s determination, Fisher completed her follow-up tests from the abnormal mammogram and was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. In the six months that she waited to follow-up, the cancer spread to three other places.
Alone in the prison hospital for six weeks, Fisher survived another version of hell. “The hospital was disgusting. I hated the whole thing. I was by myself. The only people who came to visit were clergy. I didn’t want [my family] to come. It’s a prison ward, so what do you expect? I don’t complain much, but it was really bad. After I finally got out of there after 6 weeks, I had to go back every other week for chemo, between October and May. It was a long stretch between 2010 and 2011. During her chemo, she said, her husband knowingly subpoenaed her to trial. “So, it ended badly.”
As for how she was able to survive, emotionally, as well as physically, Fisher said, “There’s no explanation other than my closeness with God.” Something about being alone with no one but clergy, herself and God, during that most stressful time, sparked something in her. “I was able to pay attention to myself for a change. Someone hit me over the head and said, ‘Hello; you have to look at you,’ and I was able to do that.”
Over time, equipped with alcoholism treatment, the forgiveness of two more friends of her victim and eventually, her daughter, Fisher was able to reconnect with God and finally forgive herself. “[Now, I have a peace] that’s always there.” A part of that peace stemmed from finally forgiving her ex-husband.
“I didn’t tell him, of course, because he wouldn’t think he had anything to be forgiven for, anyway. But I’ve apologized for what I’ve done and the trouble that I’ve caused and the heartbreak and everything. I’ve written thank you notes, because he does bring the kids (now 23, 18 and 15) up here a lot. And I’ve sent him birthday cards, Christmas cards—nothing fancy. So I’ve come to terms with forgiving how he’s hurt me. I played a part in it too, of course. But it’s not something I can live with, holding that animosity inside me.”
Now, Fisher is focused on helping others with alcoholism. While at Bedford, she started an aftercare program and support group for inmates who have finished the mandatory alcoholism treatment but still need continuing help. She’s also excited about volunteering at the Suffolk County Court’s mandated alcoholism program where she has been asked to share her story. “If I can help even one person [through that program], it makes things better. How did that happen? I’m very, very lucky I have that to look forward to.”
She said of her spiritual growth since being in prison, “I don’t think you just all of a sudden become a strong person overnight. I don’t think that’s possible—at least not with me. I worked hard at it. It’s exciting. I know it sounds like kind of a weird thing to say.”
Brooke Obie is an EBONY.com contributing editor and writes the column, "The Spiritual Life." Follow her on Twitter @BrookeObie.