ST. PETERSBURG — For Monique Baker, it’s never too late to make the right choices in life. Even if you find yourself facing a 90-year prison sentence.
Though she had a good upbringing and devoured books in her spare time, she was about 15 when she started hanging around the wrong crowd.
“I started choosing the wrong friends,” she said emphatically. “By being a military child, my exposure to different types of people was very limited, and I was a very impressionable and trusting person. I just sort of went with the flow, went with the crowd. I got caught up into a lot of things and when I decided to make a choice I made a bad choice. And that is what ultimately landed me in prison.”
Baker, whose father served in the Air Force, traveled widely in her youth, which exposed her to many different cultures. Both of her parents attended high school in the St. Pete area, so when her father retired he brought his family back to St. Pete to settle down for good in 1975. Baker attended St. Pete Catholic as a freshman before ultimately graduating from Gibbs High.
Baker said when she started hanging out with some bad apples as a teen things began to escalate. They skipped school, so she skipped with them. They committed petty thefts, so she started stealing, too.
“Little crazy things,” she explained. “Going into the 7-11 and walking out with a soda or a pair of sunglasses, things like that.”
What started off as petty crimes in time escalated until 1989, when Baker was arrested for cocaine trafficking. She was sentenced to a staggering 90-year term.
“That was kind of a mind-blowing thing,” she admitted. “I was surrounded by a lot of people with a lot of time.”
To hold on to her sanity, Baker decided that she had to stay active. She chose the inmates she wanted to emulate, the ones that “still had life in them.” She saw that they participated in programs, took classes—above all, they stayed busy. She decided she would do the same.
“That’s what I began to do,” Baker said. “I created a tutoring program, I was a clerk in the law library—I always stayed in a position where I was doing positive things. And I think that contributed a lot to my clemency. Not that I was perfect, because I had my bumps in prison as well. But I always strove to do better and they saw the progress and the growth in me.”
She was also in an arts program where she and others tried their hands at drawing, writing, singing, performing skits and other types of creative outlets.
“It was very instrumental in helping me maintain my sanity and working through the issues that I had,” she said.
Eventually her original sentence was reduced to 35 years as Baker served time in a number of state facilities, including Broward Correctional Institution, Jefferson Correctional and Hillsborough Correctional, where she received her clemency.
“I know this sounds crazy but the minute I filed my clemency I knew it was going to happen,” Baker said. “I just knew it was going to happen. People used to look at me like I was crazy. I had my hearing on the ninth and I went home on the 10th.”
When Baker was called in to the administration building at Hillsborough Correctional, her fellow inmates were waiting for her to come out with good news. When she told them she was going home the next day they all erupted in cheers, Baker said.
“They displayed more emotion than I did at that time!” she said, laughing. “I had already given away all my stuff; I was just so sure I was going home!”
After spending two decades behind bars, Baker was released in December 2010, only days away from her 51st birthday. She called it the best birthday present of her life. Once again a free woman, she was able to enjoy life’s simple pleasures, great and small. She said she had really missed her privacy.
“The other thing I missed was being able to go to the refrigerator!” she said, laughing. “Little things, you know? Waking up in the middle of the night really thirsty and just having a taste for some orange juice or Kool-Aid or something and not being able to get it? That was traumatic for me!”
Baker knows how hard it can be for some ex-prisoners to re-integrate into society, and now works as a job developer with the Pinellas Ex-Offender Re-Entry Coalition (PERC).
“I work with felons and people with misdemeanors who have a hard time re-integrating, getting a job, finding housing, a lot of the basic things that people take for granted,” she explained. “It can become very difficult when you have that conviction on your record because they run background checks. They may not want to rent you places to stay—it just becomes difficult.”
Baker will be at PERC’s 18th annual Showcase of Services Oct. 20 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the St. Pete campus of Pinellas Technical College. The event, which is free and open to the public, will have over 40 service agencies on hand to offer assistance to ex-offenders and their families. The agencies will provide such resources as resume help, identification assistance, employment assistance, voter registration and legal assistance, among many others.
Patti Razor, who has been with PERC since 1992, said that there will be ex-offenders present and also parents of incarcerated children to offer support to those who are struggling.
“We offer to those who want the opportunity at a second chance to be law-abiding and contributing members of our community,” Razor said.
Razor, who was also Baker’s probation officer at one time and first met her almost 30 years ago, believes Baker is an ideal role model for newly released offenders.
“Since her release, Monique has made a successful transition back home,” Razor averred. “She has not only set priorities for herself but is continually reaching out to those that want to turn their lives around.”
Baker makes time to speak to young people at seminars, in churches or wherever she can get her message across. And her message is always the same.
“You always have a choice,” she said simply. “And if you make a bad choice, you can always change your mind and make another choice. No matter what it is that you’re going through, don’t keep it to yourself, don’t feel intimidated, don’t feel like it’s a hopeless situation and there’s nothing that can be done. There’s always somebody you can talk to, somebody who will help.”
Pinellas Technical College in St. Pete is located at 901 34th Street South. For more information on the PERC showcase, call PERC at (855) 505-7372, Patti Razor at (813) 233-2530 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To reach Frank Drouzas, email email@example.com