Thursday, 6 June 2013

Telling Paige Johnson's Story

I was nervous to make the call to Jackie Johnson. We had been exchanging messages on Facebook for a few days but I didn't really know what to expect when hearing her voice. Would I hear a broken woman? A voice that shakes with grief? Would I hear anger? A mother filled with frustration for the injustices done to her daughter?

What I heard on the other end of the phone was a woman who was all of those things. But she was also humble and level-headed. She spoke of her daughter and her incarceration with grace and a determination to share her story.  And the words spoken from one mother's heart broke this mother's heart on the other end of the phone.

I am going to tell you Jackie and her daughter Paige's story as it was told to me. I realize that narratives can shift when examined from various viewpoints. If you are part of this story and have a different perspective please feel free to contact me.

Paige was an 18 year old competitive cheerleader being home schooled in Warren County, PA. In January of 2010 a 14 year old joined the team and the two became friends. As the girls got to know each other better their friendship turned to flirting and eventually into a relationship. Paige's mother Jackie was unaware of the relationship but said that she later learned that the younger girl's mother (who did not have custody of her daughter) had known and apparently told Paige "I don't care if you date my daughter. At least you won't get her pregnant. But hurt my daughter and I'll make your life a living Hell." If this was fiction you could call this foreshadowing. Sadly, it's not fiction.

Like many young relationships it wasn't to last forever. Paige ended the relationship and the younger girl then also had sex with Paige's friend (also 18 and also on the cheer team)*. In April of 2010 the girls travelled to Maryland for a National cheerleading competition. Over the weekend Jackie noticed tension between the two girls but didn't know until later that it was because Paige had ended the relationship and the other girl was angry.

Two days after returning from Nationals the police called Paige and asked her to come down to the station. Jackie described her daughter as "home schooled and a little naive." Paige didn't think that she needed to contact a lawyer as she had been raised to trust the police in her home town.

At this point in the story Jackie's voice breaks a little. She inhales deeply and tells me how much she wishes she could go back into that moment and find a lawyer for her daughter. How she wishes she had left work and escorted her daughter to the police station, telling her to trust no one. But that's just how hindsight works isn't it?

According to Jackie, the police officer who contacted Paige, and was in charge of interviewing her, was the only officer in charge of sex crimes in the county. He also happened to be close friends with the younger girl's mother. The interrogation moved quickly and soon Paige was faced with a long list of charges that included unlawfully transporting a minor across state lines (because, as peers on the same cheer team, they had traveled to Maryland for Nationals). In retrospect Jackie believes that they waited until after the trip to Nationals to press charges to include the charge of crossing state lines.

Jackie immediately went into action mode, looking for a lawyer who would help her daughter, but couldn't find one who would take the case for less than a $5000 retainer (a bill she could not afford). She contacted every LGBT organization and lawyer who did Pro Bono work but she could find but no one able to help.

Paige's future was then entrusted to a public defender. He looked at the long list of charges and suggested to his client that she take a plea deal that would have her plead guilty to two misdemeanour charges. He told her that most boys in her position would get 3-6 months served concurrently and that she would probably be out in 3 months. If she didn't take the plea and was found guilty she could be facing decades in prison.

Jackie looked at the long list of charges and told the public defender that the charges were riddled with lies and inconsistencies. She thought it would be better to go to court and defend her daughter. However, she was told "don't worry about the original charges. They will go away after she accepts the plea." Paige was clearly afraid of both taking the plea and going to trial. However, she was prepared to take responsibility and felt that if she accepted the plea her punishment would be fair and the rest of her life would not be ruined. Jackie then asked the lawyer if it would be a good idea to have others send in letters to the judge to speak to Paige's character but he told her not to bother the judge with that.

In court things went from bad to worse. Because Paige had accepted a plea she was not given the opportunity to tell her side of the story. The DA, on the other hand, painted Paige as a dangerous child molester in need of serious rehabilitation. Jackie sat in the court room and cried silently as he described her teenage daughter using terms that one would normally apply to a middle-aged man praying on a pre-pubescent child.

The judge then asked Paige if she had read the victim impact statement written by the younger girl's mother. When Paige said that she hadn't, the judge passed her the letter to read aloud in the court (thereby entering it into the official record). In her statement the mother wrote that Paige had been a certified cheer coach who had viciously pursued her daughter. Paige's anger built as she read this because it simply was not true. However, when she tried to refute the statement to the judge she was silenced. It now looked like Paige was an older predatory lesbian in a position of power who exploited a young girl in her care. A far different story from two peers, four years apart in age, on the same team who had feelings for one another.

Jackie had been told by the public defender that the original charges would "go away" once her daughter accepted a plea. However, she soon learned that was not the case. Instead, the judge had a list of all the original charges in front of her and took them into consideration when assigning her sentence.

Jackie says that at that point the room was spinning and she felt like she was underwater. Her brain barely recognized the words 2 to 4 years in a state prison, sex offender rehabilitation, and probation before watching her teenage daughter leave the court handcuffed and in tears.

The rest of that day was a blur. She somehow managed to get home and immediately tried to pull herself together enough to start researching appeal procedures. At this point Paige was transferred to her local jail as it would take up to six weeks to arrange for the transfer to state prison. Jackie visited her daughter as much as possible because she knew that soon the 4 hour drive to the state prison would mean limited visits.

The day came when Paige was transferred to state prison and Jackie was sick with fear. She soon found out that her daughter was being roomed with a convicted murderer. On her first visit to the prison she met a guard who said to her "Ma'am we really didn't know how to protect a baby in here." It turns out that they had roomed her with the convicted murderer, a large woman in her thirties, because they trusted her to protect Paige. During her time in state prison her cell-mate mother-henned her and prevented other inmates from messing with her.

At this point I stopped Jackie to ask how absurd it felt to feel such gratitude to a convicted murderer for protecting her child. She laughed. Ya, you have no idea. 

Paige spent three months in protective custody under the care of her cell-mate until, the day before she was scheduled to be released into the general population, she was sent back to her local jail. Jackie wrote letters to the judge explaining the lies that had been presented during Paige's trial and succeeded in getting her sentence reduced. After 5 weeks in county jail, 3 months in state prison, and 7 additional months in county jail, Paige was finally released on probation.

She moved back into her mother's home and Jackie says that for a while things felt "almost normal."  Paige met with her probation officer and was given a list of all of her restrictions. There was to be no guns in the home, no alcohol, and she had to be home by 10 PM each night. Paige got a job and returned to cheerleading. The age of consent in PA was 16 and the girls Paige cheered with, and was friends with, were all between the ages of 16 and 20.

Paige spent twenty months on probation without issue. She spent a lot of time with her best friend who was 17 and also on the cheer team. Her probation officer knew about their friendship and was not concerned. Paige and the friend began flirting with each other over Skype but never engaged in any kind of physical relationship.

In November of 2012 Paige and the friend got into a verbal argument on the street in front of Paige's house. By this point the friend had turned 18. The friend wanted to go to a party and Paige didn't want her to go. The argument was heated but in no way physical. The girl left and Paige went inside.

Angry, and in the heat of the moment, the other girl contacted a police officer who was a family friend. She told the officer that Paige was trying to tell her what to do and to tell Paige to stay away from her. The officer then called Paige and told her not to have any contact with the other girl. Paige was terrified and spoke with Jackie about what she should do. They agreed that it would be best to call the probation officer immediately to report what had happened. Since it was only a verbal argument she didn't expect any serious consequences.

Three days later her probation officer and another man showed up at their home. They brought Paige into her room and closed Jackie out. They were in there for 30 minutes before Jackie opened the door to see what was going on. At that point the other man jumped away from her daughter (he had been in her face trying to intimidate her). Paige was sitting in a chair crying.

They handcuffed Paige and said they were taking her in on a 96 hour hold for "overt behaviour." They also took her phone and computer, telling Paige that they didn't need a search warrant. However, they took them out concealed which leads Jackie to believe that they knew they needed a warrant and suspected that Jackie would know that.

Before the next hearing Jackie again tried desperately to find a lawyer or group who would help but was unable to find anyone. The public defender didn't meet with Paige before the court date and Jackie knew that he was not going to fight for her.

In court the DA read transcripts of the Skype conversations between Paige and her friend and called it an "inappropriate relationship." Her friend testified that she never meant to get Paige in trouble and that their relationship had not been physical in any way.

Paige's parole officer said in court that although the age of consent in PA was 16, he had told Paige that she was not to have any contact with youth under the age of 18. Paige had her written directives which didn't list that requirement. But when she refuted his statement her probation officer said that he had told her as an oral directive.

The judge believed him and instead of sentencing Paige to a probation violation she decided to re-sentence her. She revoked her 11 months of jail time and 20 months of good behavior on probation. Paige has again been in custody since December 1st, 2012 and is set for early release in August of 2013. At which point her probation will begin again for a period of 2-3 years.

When this all began Paige was a naive 18 year old. She is now 22. She has lost the last four years of her life. And instead of graduating from college she is hoping to be released from jail. You may not think that her previous relationships were "right." You may think that if your 14 year old daughter was in a relationship with an 18 year old that you wouldn't be too happy about it either. I get that. I truly, truly, do. But keep in mind that Paige was willing to take accountability and accept a plea deal. I hope that you can also see that this punishment has not fit this "crime."

As Jackie finished telling her story she finally stopped to take a breath or two. I think she had just been trying to get through it all and there was a sense of relief as the last few words tumbled out. I asked her how Paige is holding up and she paused before saying "good, well, OK, I guess." Jackie told me that for all she has been through Paige is a pretty well adjusted young woman. I asked her how she imagined Paige has changed in the last four years and she took a sharp inhale. "Well, she used to be really brave and outspoken. She'd stand up for herself and her friends. But now she has trouble trusting people and she's more likely to just keep her head down. But she's doing OK. She'll be OK."

I hope so. I told her but was unable to match her level of optimism.

Two more deep breaths.

And how are you doing Jackie? How have these last four years affected you? There was silence at the other end of the phone.

"You know, it's been a long time since anyone has asked me that," she admitted. And now her voice was breaking and I could hear the pain breaking through. "It's been hard. Paige is my daughter and she's my best friend. I miss her so much. And I'm alone now. Working to pay her court fines and put money in her commissary. Even having a phone call with her costs $6."

The line went silent again and Jackie's previous determined and steady voice returned. "But, you know, we're doing it. I'm not looking for sympathy."

It was clear the conversation was coming to an end so we thanked each other for the call and said our good-byes. But before I could let the call end I had to tell Jackie that I admired her unrelenting support of her daughter. Too few LGBT youths benefit from such fortune.

"Well that's what it is. Right?" she responded. "When you hold that little baby you don't know who or what she or he will be. But you love them. The next step is just to never stop."

Are you interested in offering help to Paige and her family? 
- If you or someone you know is able to offer legal support please contact me and I will put you in touch with Jackie
- You can join the Justice for Paige Facebook group (update: the group is now private. If  you would like to join please contact me directly at and I will put you in touch with Jackie)
- If you live in the United States you can put money into Paige's commissary account via OffenderConnect (Paige Johnson in Warren County Prison)
- If you would like to make a donation to help cover Paige's legal fees and support her re-entry into society please email me and I will give you directions to donate directly to Jackie via Paypal or Western Union (can be done from anywhere).
- You can also write to Paige for the next 12 weeks while she is incarcerated. Message me for her address.
- Share this story!

**** Added November 2013: Paige is now out of prison and on probation. There is much more of her story to be told when the time is right. For now here are faces to put with the names. If you are part of a media outlet that would like to pick up this story please contact me for additional images [].*****

*Paige's friend was also prosecuted and received 6-12 months in local jail.

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