PICKING UP THE PIECES
A 27-YEAR-OLD MOTHER OF FOUR WITH A STRING OF RUN-INS WITH THE LAW TRIES TO REASSEMBLE HER LIFE
BY EMILY SCHMALL
Estella Washington peered through the doorway of a small Brownsville church, looking anxious. She'd have to cancel the caterer. She didn't know whether the church's pastor would invite her to use the space again.
Washington said 112 people had signed up to hear motivational speaker Michael Freeman give a seminar on a recent Sunday. Yet less than a dozen people sat inside Disciples of Zion church.
Of those, many were under 10; four were her own children.
The 27-year-old Miami Lakes resident organized the seminar because she wants young people to avoid her mistakes -- which add up to armed robbery, assault and fraud convictions, and 14 months in prison.
''All youth must hear this and parents can't afford to miss this,'' she wrote on a flier for the Sunday event. ``It's gonna be a life-changing event. . .no one will leave feeling the same way they came in, on a positive note.''
The seminars, arranged through her company Keys to S.U.C.C.E.S.S., are also a way for Washington to reassemble her own life. But if the Sunday seminar is an indication, it continues to be a rough road.
No matter, supporters say.
''I always tell Princess, if you help one, you've done your quota,'' said Deanna Freeman, the speaker's wife.
Washington, who grew up in Carol City and graduated from Miami Douglas MacArthur alternative high school, ran into trouble with the law at 18, and was convicted of petty theft, according to court records.
Four years later, she was sent to prison for armed robbery.
''I didn't even have a firearm. My boyfriend did, and he was in my car,'' she said. Washington served six months, but landed back in jail in 2003 for violating her probation. This time, her liability had grown: She had four children whom her 20-year-old brother was left wrangling from one friend's home to the next.
Markell Washington, 7, had an idea where his mother was.
'Hell. There's a sign on the [jail's] door that says `jail is hell.' And if you're being bad you're going to get whooped with a police stick,'' he said.
Washington felt as much was true until she met Lorna Owens, a former defense attorney. Owens had recently started a program at the women's prison in downtown Miami, Women Behind Bars, a series of poetry and etiquette workshops.
''We didn't kick it off at first,'' Owens said, ``but eventually she became like my pet project.''
Owens agreed to represent Washington, and Washington's mother, who was also incarcerated, pro bono. Washington's sentence was shortened from 35 years to seven months, and she was released in December 2004.
As a reward, Owens invited Washington, the most skilled poet in her workshop, to read at her ultra-sophisticated ''And the Women Gather'' literary luncheon at the Biltmore in Coral Gables in March 2005. The event, which features women authors, raises money for Women Behind Bars.
Owens paid for Washington's poems to be printed on the back of an index-sized glossy with Washington's portrait on the front, for sale among the other authors' published books.
Still, a normal life continued to elude Washington. She and her children were staying in emergency housing, but the four-month time limit was fast approaching. She then applied for Section 8 housing, but was rejected because of her criminal record. She wanted to go to college, but felons are ineligible for financial aid.
``I was going to kill myself. What's the purpose going to jail, saying you're rehabilitating me and then not giving me a chance at life?''
Washington didn't wait for a break. In March of 2005, she walked into a Macy's and opened up a store account under a false name with good credit, and bought a flat-screen Plasma TV she intended to flip for money.
''On the street, flat-screen TVs go for $3,000. We had been at the shelter for four months and I couldn't find anywhere to go,'' Washington said.
She was convicted of fraud but managed to escape another prison sentence. Her probation expires in March 2008.
Through letter writing and persistence, Washington got her family into a federally subsidized home in Miami Lakes, got her kids into the Jose Martí School in Southwest Miami-Dade and enrolled in Florida Career College -- on a scholarship -- to study medical coding and billing.
She also started a company, Keys to S.U.C.C.E.S.S., with the idea that she could make a profit by sharing what she'd learned from Owens in prison: professional planning, economic independence and etiquette.
Due to her latest conviction, Owens' protégé was not invited to the literary luncheon this year. Owens was disappointed at first, but eventually just felt sorry for Washington.
''Clearly, it's not a lack of skill, and Estella is working extremely hard,'' Owens said, ``but [crime] is like an addiction. You have to fight like hell to get your life back.''