Articles

Iowa Kids: After prison, mother aims to show her kids a better path

By: Kyle Munson, Des Moines Register
Date Published: Monday, December 02, 2013
 

WATERLOO, IA. — A pencil-drawn portrait hangs above the living room sofa in the duplex where Tamica Allison lives with her two youngest children. 

The image on the wall of the 36-year-old mother was sketched from a photo and shows her smiling as she leans against a tree. 

The drawing captures her smile but also represents a sad phase in the Waterloo woman’s life. 

The sketch was a gift from a man Allison has never met. He was her East Coast prison pen pal while she served three years at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville on an arson conviction. (In a fit of rage, she set fire to her then-boyfriend’s home.)

Now Allison shares this narrow duplex across from Lafayette Park with her 8-year-old son, Javez, and her daughter Famirra, 7.

The Allisons spend much of their daily lives among six of the 32 census tracts in Iowa identified as pockets of extreme poverty, based on research from the Child & Family Policy Center in Des Moines. (All six tracts are in the vicinity of downtown Waterloo.) The Allisons reflect many of the characteristics of the poor families in their neighborhood: Allison is a single parent, and she was raised by a single parent. 

Although she’s a high school graduate, the arson conviction has made it virtually impossible for her to find a good job or proper housing for her family. 

Allison slept on that sofa until recently, when the local Boys & Girls Club donated a bed that fills what otherwise would be her dining room — and is also the walkway between her kitchen and living room. 

Since she was released from prison two years ago, Allison has craved discipline and order as the necessary stability to let her focus on rebuilding her life and family. 

“Organization. Structure. That’s what I like,” she says. 

Each weekday, she wakes up and gets her two kids ready for school. She also preps herself for classes at Hawkeye Community College on the southern outskirts of the city. Later, she picks the kids up at the local Boys & Girls Club. In the evenings, it’s time for homework, dinner, a game or TV, and eventually bedtime. 

“I call them just ‘Groundhog Days,’ really,” Allison says with a reference to the 20-year-old Bill Murray movie. 

Allison has waged a methodical battle against her past mistakes. Few landlords, for instance, are eager to rent a decent apartment to a convicted arsonist. Allison and her two kids spent 24 days in a homeless shelter last year in their struggle to find a permanent, affordable home. 

Through self-reinvention, she intends to “let my kids see there’s a better path to take.”

Starting at 15, she gave birth to four children by four fathers. The men didn’t stick around.

She got “involved in just crazy stuff.” 

She drank daily after her third-shift job and slid into alcoholism.

She tried to drink her way to a miscarriage.

“I think about how my kids could’ve been born deformed, and it was just crazy,” Allison says. “It was overwhelming to me about what could happen.”

When she shared a hospital maternity room with a mother whose newborn twins were underweight, a mother who likely followed a strict health regimen, she felt deep shame.

“I just thought, ‘Tamica, how dare you!’ ” 

Javez and Famirra were 3 and 2 years old when Allison was sent away to prison. 

“Somewhere, things started clicking, and I started getting things, and I started understanding things,” Allison says. “And I started realizing that I wanted life to be different for me, and I didn’t want to die at a young age. And I wanted more for my kids. … I wanted my kids to see a loving, productive mom that’s able to care and nurture and just be the mom that they need to have.” 

Allison’s oldest child, 20-year-old JaPreia Jones of Waterloo, remembers when life with her mom was more chaotic — a move to Georgia, then a move back home to Waterloo in 2005, when things really started to unravel. 

While Allison was locked up, Jones endured a tumultuous time living with her father and ended up in jail on her own 19th birthday. 

“I’m not going to say that I like that she went to prison,” Jones says of her mom. But she’s grateful for their fresh start as mother and daughter. 

“I like who she’s become now,” Jones says. 

The current key to Allison’s comeback is her dogged pursuit of an education and career path. 

She graduated from Waterloo East High School in 1998 and enrolled in classes at Hawkeye shortly after the birth of her first two children, but soon dropped out. 

She’s run the gamut of minimum-wage fast-food jobs, temp agencies and distribution warehouses.

Before prison, she toiled at a meatpacking plant, where she disemboweled hogs.

“It was nasty,” she wrinkles her nose. “It was filthy.”

But she made decent money. 

“I’m pretty optimistic, even if it’s a job I hate.”

Fresh out of prison, she set out to earn a degree in criminal justice. But once at Hawkeye, she transitioned into the CNC (computer numerical control) program. Allison says that she never was good at or particularly fond of math. But here she sits with a “Machine Tool Practices” textbook and a genuine interest in programming industrial machines.

“She was very nervous to start out with,” says Paul Kurt, her 27-year-old CNC instructor.

Allison is one of 17 students in her class this fall semester.

“She doesn’t get down very easily, and she seems very determined in what she’s doing,” Kurt adds. 

On a recent morning in the shop in Buchanan Hall, Allison fixes her gaze on a small block of steel — 3 inches long, 2 inches wide and an inch thick.

“Is all those steps really necessary to get the end product?” she says of the tedious process of marking and drilling the steel within hundredths of an inch.

She might ask similar questions of her own life.

Allison still doesn’t really know the “root of it all” and why she used to be such a quick-tempered woman.

Maybe she inherited it from her father, Joe Martin, who raised her as a single dad.

A nearly identical prison pencil portrait of Allison hangs in the living room of Martin’s house across town.

“Sometimes it takes a little good with the bad to get you on the right track,” he says of his daughter.

Martin, 54, a Chicago native and high school graduate, now copes with a titanium hip but previously worked on the maintenance crew at Hawkeye. He remembers when his daughter was 11 and sneaked out of the house, stole his car and wrecked it a block down the street.

“I was like, ‘Boy, I want to kill her,’ ” he says with a wry grin.

Allison knows she’s a different person now. “I’ve seen so many women go through those doors in Mitchellville, and then they would leave and a couple months later they’re right back there,” she says. “I cannot see myself doing that.

“I would never deal with my kids like that again.”

Near the end of yet another “Groundhog Day,” Allison browns ground beef in a skillet for dinner and wonders whether she’ll ever get married.

But most important, she wants to be the mom that her kids need.

“That wasn’t going to happen if I was an angry, drunken mom,” she says. “It wasn’t going to happen that way. I just knew that I needed to learn how to use all of those coping skills and get that anger and all of that stuff, learn how to deal with that and not let it just arise at any given moment and take over me and lead me back into the same types of situations.”

Someday, she intends to replace the prison sketch on her living room wall with a giant family portrait.

“I know I didn’t go through all that I’ve been through for nothing,” she says. “There’s a purpose behind it. Let me make it have a purpose.”

Thumbnail photo by Bryon Houlgrave, Des Moines Register