Sisters through addiction, jail time and new endeavors


Regardless of setbacks and successes, Emily and Liza Geissinger are committed to helping each other find sobriety and happiness.

By Brittany Hailer

Emily Geissinger has spent six out of the last 10 years behind bars. She explains her “Misfit” tattoo as a representation of feeling alone or different. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

VOICES UNLOCKED

Voices Unlocked is a project telling the stories of Pittsburgh-area residents whose life experiences have been shaped by the penal system.

Explore another voice in this series

Sarah Womack: A song within a storm

Yeshua David's adaptation

Jason Sauer: Trying as best he can

Luna: Seeking compassion for those cast aside

Cedric Rudolph: One of the Mirrors

Emily and Liza Geissinger are sisters. They were born 21 months apart. Together, they endured a difficult childhood, addiction, then jail. Recently, they’d been sharing joy and new aspirations. All of these experiences have strengthened their sisterly bond. To my surprise, even the interview for this chapter of the Voices Unlocked series, they did together, sharing memories, laughs and pain.

Emily has been in and out of jail since she was 13. She is 30 now. She has spent six of the last 10 years of her life at the Allegheny County Jail. Emily’s initial charges in 2008 included possession with intent to deliver and criminal conspiracy. She was charged with attempting to escape a female offenders’ Department of Corrections program in 2012. She had been serving time for violating parole since.

Emily dropped out of school in the eighth grade but has gone on to earn her GED and, most recently, she graduated from a 16-week culinary program with Community Kitchen Pittsburgh. She now cooks at Hello Bistro in the South Side.


Listen to Emily and Liza's story on 90.5 WESA


This summer, she will be designing a four-course meal for a Community Kitchen Pittsburgh event. The Community Kitchen received a $10,000 grant to hire Emily for the event after she submitted a video testimony of her life behind bars and rehabilitation in the kitchen.

Liza, 32, has served time for prostitution and drug possession. She has been in recovery, reclaiming her body as her own and taking steps to reunite with her two young daughters. Emily has been her guiding force this past year. Together, they spent Easter with Liza’s children for the first time. However, just this past weekend, Liza hit another roadblock.

This is their story.

Sisters Emily and Liza Geissinger recently took a selfie while spending time together. This is Emily’s favorite photo of them.


***

Before you know it, you’re pushed out of the police van and escorted to intake at the Allegheny County Jail.

“Intake” is a room that should only seat 10 people max. But there’s 20 to 25 women in the room this time. Some are throwing up because they are detoxing. Some are murderers. Some are juveniles in on their first arrest. Some are crying. Some are violent, swearing and demanding to be let go. When the bologna sandwiches come, you fight for your fair share even though you hoped to never have to eat them again.

The Allegheny County Jail shows signs of being overpopulated. They’re trying to release women upstairs so they can get you in.

But what we're saying is, there's a half a floor for female inmates and seven and a half floors for male. The women are overpopulated, 100 women on a pod, they’re trying to put [mats] in a gym and have us sleep on them.

So you sit and wait.

You’re in that room for five days.

It smells like bologna sandwiches, bad feet, sweat and detox. Smells like bad decisions and horrible regret.

Text in italics are Emily's words.

Emily Geissinger, 30, says: “My hope is to be better than yesterday, to continue to be teachable, and to just keep carrying on.” This portrait was taken in the North Side on April 23, 2017. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)


Emily Geissinger, 30, says: “My hope is to be better than yesterday, to continue to be teachable, and to just keep carrying on.” This portrait was taken in the North Side on April 23, 2017. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

For someone like you, the smell is familiar. You’ve been here again and again. This smell will never leave your head, even when you are free. But you’ve relapsed again and you’ve been caught. And the smell isn’t just a memory anymore. You’re back. Again.

When you finally leave intake you’re processed, stripped, then taken to the maximum security pod. This is because you’ve violated parole so many times, you’re not allowed in general population. You get housed with murderers: a woman who poisoned her children, a heroin addict who killed her mother with a hammer. This is before the ACJ builds a unit for juveniles, so you have teenagers in there with you, too.

I've been a felony re-fail, which means I've had so many felonies on my jacket I'm considered a maximum security inmate. I have no violent charges, never have. All mine are drug related.

You haven’t hurt anyone, all you have done is violate your parole, but that doesn’t matter.

You’re assigned a cell.

Two months later, your sister will be in this same cell, next to you.

The Geissinger sisters started taking Xanax at the age of 13. Their drug use escalated to heroin and led them to frequent brushes with law enforcement. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)


***

Emily and Liza Geissinger describe abusing Xanax as early as 13. Heroin was the drug that eventually took over their lives. They come from a family rooted in addiction. All of the telltale signs are there: A transient father, an addict mother. No rules. Fleeting discipline. At one point in our interview, Emily tells me her mother was also housed at the Allegheny County Jail during one of her sentences. She’d meet her mother for church every Sunday: I’d hold her hand, and she rubbed my face at church. Even though how f*cked up our family is, we still were extremely loving. We never left the house without her ‘I love you’ or hug and a kiss.

The story of generational addiction and cyclical incarceration is common, but I didn’t leave this interview feeling clouded with despair. I walked away astounded by the love and connection between Emily and Liza. In order to survive the system, which one could argue has failed both sisters, they relied on one another for support.

Emily tells me she was treated better than most women in jail — mostly because she’s charming but partly because she’s a girl-boy, a stud. She's like the next best thing, Liza says. She’s handsome. Shaved head and tattoos, hands worn by years of abuse and using. She tells me about the control she had inside. Better blankets, moving friends to her pod and better commissary.

I ask her: “Can you use your power in some way when you're in jail for other people?”

Emily points to Liza. She says she was able to convince a correctional officer to move Liza to her pod.

Emily Geissinger says she had a lot of privileges in jail because of her rapport with other inmates the the correctional officers. This allowed her to take care of her sister while they served time in the same pod. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)


Liza: She was allowed out a lot. She would stand at my door and slip peanut butter and jellies under my door. I was in cell 124 and she was in 125, and there’s holes in the wall from where they removed the bunks. At one time, the bolts were there. The night before she left, we stayed up all night and talked through those holes.
Emily: You find love in a hopeless place. Like the Rihanna song.

Emily did find hope. Having earned her GED certificate and graduated from a culinary program, she now works two jobs, has her own apartment, and is planning a major catering event.

I ask Emily if the passion for cooking was always there. She starts with her childhood:

My mom wouldn't eat unless I cooked the meals. She'd sit and eat four bags of pretzels and drink 2 liters of Coke and five Hershey kisses. It was like a meal.

Emily brings up Liza, too. She talks about feeding her, nurturing her sister through times of depression or drug use. She describes Liza lying on the couch for days and Emily waking her up with a homecooked meal, usually a healthy offering of chicken and veggies to get her back up on her feet.

Even in jail I would cook, Emily says.
We’d throw [together] ‘Oodles of Noodles’ — they’re called Chi-Chi’s — and cheese and jalapenos, tuna packets or chicken packets. I’d make huge bowls of Chi-Chi’s. We’d put them in wraps or on crackers.
We made homemade birthday cakes in jail out of peanut butter, hot water, sugar and we mix it and make a batter. We would smash cookies and oatmeal cream pies, and we'd make f*cking layered cakes. We would just let it sit, like ‘no-bakes.’ …
We would eat as a family in jail.

Emily Geissinger said she and her mother have always been close, despite the difficult childhood. Though her mother also struggles with addiction, Emily says, “She always loved me; she did her best with what she had.” Emily got her “Mum” tattoo in 2014. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)


Emily Geissinger said she and her mother have always been close, despite the difficult childhood. Though her mother also struggles with addiction, Emily says, “She always loved me; she did her best with what she had.” Emily got her “Mum” tattoo in 2014. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

It is while Emily talks about food, I realized just how much of her life has been in the system. This is the place where holidays were spent. This is the place where her blood and chosen family lives. When you consider how truly institutionalized her life has become, it is a wonder she broke out and has made something of herself, how she managed to turn jail cake into a viable career.

I ask Emily about hope. They say hope stands for, ‘Hold On, Pain Ends.’ I know that I've hated the word ‘hope’ for so long.. The definition of hope is ‘a feeling or an expectation or a desire for something to want to change.’ I’ve studied the word ‘hope.’ For me, hope stands for tomorrow and for everything I’ve worked so hard for.

Earlier in our interview from a month or so ago, Liza talked about when Emily relapsed. Emily has bright, robin-egg blue eyes. Liza said when Emily is using, her eyes change. The brightness leaves. Having sat with Emily for three hours, I can’t imagine her dimmed.

Emily is still talking about hope, that word she hated so much:

And hope is a look in [Liza’s] eyes when she told me that she's seen the blue eyes back in my face. And that’s hope for me. Right now. As we sit in this moment. There's a new star. It's for something new. Give something back again. Make it better than today.
Liza: And help other people.
Emily: That’s it, dude.

Alicia Gildea, Emily’s girlfriend, is expecting her second child, to be named Braedyn, on June 5. She said she plans to raise him with Emily. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)


Liza is beautiful, Greek with long black hair and big eyes. She’s been smiling through tears as Emily tells her story. She keeps saying how proud she is of Emily as she sits cross-legged on the floor watching us. We’re in Emily’s living room, in the first apartment she’s ever had as a totally free individual. This is the first time in 18 years that she hasn’t been on some sort of probation.

Liza tells me about the last time both sisters were in jail together, from March to May 2016: There was such a difference. She said, ‘I'm going to make this my last time, Liza. When we leave here, this is it. I love you.’ And she went and she did it.

Emily fights back tears when her sister says this. She tells me something clicked for her when she saw Liza in jail. She got clean this time because of it. She decided enough was enough.

I wish [Liza] didn't have to go through it, Emily tells me. I wish she didn’t have to endure the pain that we went through being in jail. I’d lay in my cell and know she was in her cell, and it would f*ck me up because I know how bad that sucks. I know that pain.

Emily and Liza have been supporting each other as they transition out of jail and strive for sobriety. Liza has been attending a drug rehabilitation facility called Renewal and she says she is working to better herself as a mother to two girls: ‘Lil’ Liza, 8 and Lina Rose, 7. She struggles to overcome body and self-worth issues through PRIDE, which stands for the Program for Re-Integration, Development and Empowerment of Exploited Individuals.

***

The day of the photo shoot for this story, I got a call from Emily. It was Sunday afternoon. I knew the photographer was on her way to Emily’s, so I figured Emily just needed her number or was waiting for her and checking in. Liza and Emily had purchased matching T-shirts for their photo shoot.

I could hear something off in Emily’s voice as soon as I answered the phone. Before Emily said it, I knew what the news was.

Liza disappeared.
She pissed dirty and is going to jail. … I haven’t heard from her in two days.

Emily’s voice broke. Then there was silence. I thought the call had dropped, but she was still there, composing herself. I told Emily if she wasn’t up to doing the photo shoot, she didn’t have to do it. She did.

This is the reality of addiction. People need to know. It just happens so fast; it takes hold of you so fast.

So, this is still their story, but during an ‘in-between’ time. Every addict and friend, relative or partner of an addict knows this time well. In-between time is after sobriety but before the relapse. It is a time of hope and fear. It’s an addict’s purgatory.

But she was doing so well.

Emily believes Liza will continue on the path to sobriety again, and she intends to be there for her, clean and ready to link arms on that climb.

Emily Gessinger is totally free for her first time in years, meaning she is not even on probation. And she finally has her own apartment, too. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

Brittany Hailer has taught creative writing classes at the Allegheny County Jail and Sojourner House as part of the Words Without Walls program. Her work has appeared in The Fairy Tale Review, Word Riot, HEArt Online, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. You can read more of her work at BrittanyHailer.com.

PublicSource is collaborating with 90.5 WESA to produce audio stories for Voices Unlocked. Follow along! A new story will run biweekly for five months.