Books, California Department of Corrections, Female Offenders, fiction, Latinas, Strong Women, Women in Prison

Meet My Characters: Orange is Not the New Black

Piper, main character in Orange is the New Black, Netflix series

When people ask me “What’s your novel about,” I usually say it’s a teenaged Orange is the New Black –the Netflix version, not the book- featuring a naive 17 year old mother who’s an immigrant.

I’ve been asked, by YA author Evelyne Holingue, to talk about the characters in my YA novel. Her novel, TRAPPED IN PARIS, took me on an adventure through the streets of Paris.Evelyne continues to take me on an exciting jaunt  through her blog and now through the Meet My Character blog tour.

I’m so glad she asked me to join the tour.

In case anyone wonders, I began writing this novel in 2008 before OITNB was published. I wrote it based on my 28 years experience working within the California Department of Corrections.

Now, I’d like you to meet some of the characters in my novel:

1. What is the name of your character (s)? Is he/she fictional or a historic person?

Juana Maria Ivanov is the fictional main character. She frequently has a look on her face just like Piper in the photo above. The similarities end there, but the description gives people a quick picture.

Juana is younger, Mexican, and without Piper’s resources or language skills. And, she is not like the Latinas featured in OITNB.

The antagonist in my story is Jester, who is one of the gang leaders. Juana’s friends are two outsiders, one an idealistic protestor and the other a pastor’s daughter.

2. When and where is the story set?

The story is set within the twelve foot chain link fences of a correctional facility in California in the late 1980’s. This was the time of “Lock ‘Em Up,” laws and when there was little recourse or rights for teenagers in the criminal justice system. Sentencing laws and due process were different for young men and women under the age of 18 years old.

3. What should we know about him/her?

Sweet, helpful and unintentionally funny, Juana is basically an optimist. Sometimes these qualities don’t serve her. She thought she was going to be part of the American dream when she married her first sweetheart, nineteen year old Alek Ivanov, a first generation Russian American that she met while working in a border town. When she has her baby, they move to Los Angeles  where  she learns that he is abusive, more so when he is under the influence of alcohol.

4. What is the main conflict? 

After a beating, Juana runs away and takes her baby to her sister. When she returns she is arrested for Alek’s death, convicted of manslaughter and given a six year sentence. She is heartbroken over his death and leaving her baby, who she is certain will forget her. She desperately wants correctional staff to believe that she didn’t leave her husband to die, but she has no evidence except her word that he was alive when she ran away.When she finds out that her sister can no longer care for her baby and her mother-in-law files for custody, she has to find a way to keep her child.

5. What is the personal goal of the character?

Figuring out how to survive prison, learning whom to trust, how to find help and how to stay strong are Juana’s goals.

6. Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

STONG WOMEN GROW HERE is the working title of this fictional novel. To download a free 17 page excerpt you can use this link. SWGH is a quarterfinalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. Semifinals are in late June 2014.

7. When can we expect the book to be published?

There’s no definite answer on this one. If the story is picked up by Amazon it could be published within a year. If it’s not a finalist, I hope to find an agent to represent my novel.


Now I’m tagging Jennifer J. Chow, author of the award winning, The 228 Legacy, who is now typing away on her next novel.

Make sure you check out Jennifer’s post on June 16, 2014.

She has an adorable protagonist and I hope you will stop by to read about her story.


California Department of Corrections, Female Offenders, Juvenile Justice

What I Learned in Prison: Women in Front and Behind Bars #6

GA Daily News

For the past few weeks, I’ve written about my past career with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Division of Juvenile Justice. It’s a state agency that oversees more than 162,821 prisoners within institutions with an additional 91, 700 more offenders on parole.

My intent is to give a very small view of the world that is foreign to most and share some lessons learned from my experiences from life inside youth correctional facilities from 1980-2008. 
In past posts, I talked about female offenders as the fastest growing prison demographic in the U.S and gave some of my career backstories.
My training  involved several stages with the main value gained by on-the-job training. Listening to staff and  female offenders was helpful too. My college degree was the least helpful except when it was time to write case reports.

There are three photos here. All look like the typical teenagers that I worked with in prison. Can you tell which one committed murder, assault with a deadly weapon, drug trafficking? 

AP Photo
CA Dept. Corrections

Sorry, no points given for correct answers as you may recognize two of these young women from recent newspaper articles. The point is that many female offenders looked like these girls but were in for some heinous crimes. As a staff member, a woman, and not too distant from their ages at the time, it could be easy to forget that the offenders were some very troubled people. 

                                                            You can’t judge a book (person) by its’ cover

After I returned from the Academy I was assigned another young woman to my caseload. She had to be reassigned from her Youth Correctional Counselor who transferred. The caseworker pointed to a girl in the dayroom. She looked older than the rest and with her long dark hair, pretty face, and eager smile she looked like a college sorority girl. The caseworker said the girl was enrolled in the community college program within the facility. “Sure, no problem,” I said.  

“Glad it wasn’t me,” one of the older staff women said when I told her I had the girl assigned to me. “I had her four years ago.” 

I didn’t have time to read the girl’s case file. It was time for weekly small group and I assembled my caseload of gangbangers, drug offenders, and thieves. One girl moved her chair away from the college looking ingenue when she sat down. Throughout the group time, I caught the drift that the college girl wasn’t disliked but feared in some way. She seemed intelligent, minded her own business, and paid attention although she didn’t interact with anyone. 

After group, I walked my girls to their rooms, unlocked their doors, and locked them back in. The ingenue had the room closest to the top of the hallway and I locked her in first. When I locked in the last girl, she turned to me and said she didn’t want to be on my caseload anymore if the ‘satan-worshipping murdering’ so and so remained on the caseload. 

“As long as she doesn’t do that in group, she’s staying,” I said. “But you don’t have to sit next to her next time.” The girl looked relieved. 

I made a beeline to the staff desk and asked the other staff about the comment. “Yeah, didn’t you read her file? She’s famous, you know the girl from up north who….” Not only was she famous, her crime was infamous and the subject of books. A television movie came out after her release to parole. 

The lesson about not judging a book by its cover never had so much meaning. 

Have you ever come across a difficult situation where you learn a lesson?