Regardless of setbacks and successes, Emily and Liza Geissinger are committed to helping each other find sobriety and happiness.
By Brittany Hailer
Voices Unlocked is a project telling the stories of Pittsburgh-area residents whose life experiences have been shaped by the penal system.
Meet the people behind this project July 7 at 6:30 p.m. at Alloy 26 in Pittsburgh. We will have food, refreshments and a jail cake. Register here!
Explore another voice in this series:
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.
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.
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.
So you sit and wait.
You’re in that room for five days.
Text in italics are Emily's words.
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.
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 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.
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 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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.