Tammy Franklin doesn't try to make much sense of her life story. By most standards, it's a miracle. She says simply, "I shouldn't be here."
By here, Tammy means the Oklahoma state prison where she sits sharing her story, a former prisoner with prison office keys in her pocket. By here, she also just means, "alive."
Many nights, the only light in her childhood home was the glow of the living room TV. Tammy would walk in to find her father drunk, if he was there at all. Her mom would be asleep on the couch. It was a dark, filthy place, as she remembers it. Feeling neglected, 13-year-old Tammy ran away to search for the love she craved. Instead she found abusive relationships, though she didn't know what to call them, and she began using drugs.
She had a baby girl at age 14 and gave the child up for adoption.
By 15, she was shooting meth intravenously.
Once, she was beaten and left for dead by a stranger.
"I look at my [teenage] granddaughter now," Tammy says, pausing with a finger to her lips, eyes downcast. She chokes back tears. "And I realize that I was just a child. But for all those years, I just thought that I was a really bad person."
By middle age, Tammy had a wonderful husband named Al and a family, but she returned to drugs and crime. She found herself hooked on meth at 50 and locked in county jail, facing her fourth incarceration. An envelope held her only memories of missed family milestones—photos of graduations, weddings, her newborn grandchild. Mere images on the wall of her cell.
"I thought my life was over," says Tammy. "Little did I know it was just beginning."
'I was just a child. But for all those years, I just thought that I was a really bad person.'
THE KEY TO FREEDOM
Al visited the county jail to see his wife. Broken and staring down a 20-year sentence, Tammy said she didn’t expect Al to wait for her. He looked at her through the plexiglass. "What do you mean?" said Al. "You're my wife. Of course I will wait."
Tammy knew Al was special. She couldn't say the same for herself. For years, she struggled with the lies she'd been fed: that she was worthless, no good, a mistake. She didn't believe she was capable of change. She carried her shame into Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center for her final prison stint.
On that vast prison yard, there was a small chapel where Christian volunteers led a program. Desperate and exhausted, Tammy gave it a try. The volunteers looked her in the eyes and spoke to her like she mattered. They taught her the Bible, saying there was a better way than how she'd been living. They led with kindness and love. When they said they would be there, they were true to their word.
"I couldn't get it—why these people would come and take their time out for me and other women like me. I didn't understand that," Tammy explains.
The chapel volunteers' sense of stability and purpose drew her in. She realized how much she wanted to be like them. She paid attention because they had keys to the prison: "If they had keys, I would listen to what they said, because I realized they got to go home ... and they knew more than I did."
In 2015, Tammy finally walked free. She found a local church and worked with Branch 15, a nonprofit transitional ministry for women. She helped women with stories like hers on the path to recovery. That's where she planned to retire, until a friend told her Prison Fellowship® was bringing a transformational program to Oklahoma prisons.
Before long Tammy was back behind bars, serving as Prison Fellowship Academy® program manager at Kate Barnard Correctional Facility, Oklahoma's first Academy site for women. Some Academy participants were her former cellmates; many attended their first Prison Fellowship Hope Event™ with Tammy last summer. And every day, Tammy would walk up a hill with keys to her office, past the room where she lived as a prisoner. She has since relocated to lead a new Academy site at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center.
At the thought of where she is now, Tammy says, "It doesn't make sense at all," and her face creases into a smile. She is still married to Al, who stood by her through her incarceration. They bought their first home together around Thanksgiving 2018. With time and with grace, she is rebuilding relationships she once assumed were severed for good.
Tammy and many in-prison volunteers were recognized during National Volunteer Month for their faithful efforts in 2019. Still, she is quick to credit God for restoring her future.
"I just want to give back, because so many people were feeding into my life," says Tammy. "And now the ladies who are incarcerated are able to [say], 'Wow, if all this time, money, and resources are being spent on me, maybe I'm worth it.'"
'If all this time, money, and resources are being spent on me, maybe I'm worth it.'