How a scholarship athlete ended up in ‘the hole’
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:
In a pathology lab outside of Pittsburgh, Robin Tomczak looks at the skin of strangers. She examines cells, the building blocks of human life, looks for cancer, separates the malignant from the benign and sends it to doctors for further analysis. Robin is the first door to a cancer diagnosis.
She holds that information in her hands every day, small pieces of people wishing for good news.
Seven years ago, she was holding a needle to her arm. Seven years ago, she was close to not surviving the Allegheny County Jail.
In 1999, Robin received an athletic scholarship to Robert Morris University for rowing. At the height of her athletic career, she was competing against Junior Olympians. She was an all-star athlete. She excelled in both volleyball and basketball, but there was something about gliding on the water, pushing and pulling oars through the dark waters of the river that released a calm determination in her.
Yet, under the surface, Robin harbored depression and a predisposition for addiction. College life introduced her to alcohol and partying, which unlocked the darkness she had been carrying inside.
On top of it all, Robin was not yet open about her sexual orientation.
Halfway through her freshman year, her drinking habit began to cripple her as a student and athlete: She was drinking 10 to 12 mixed drinks and several beers a day. Robin forfeited her scholarship, and for the next five to six years, she was in and out of psychiatric wards because of depression. She compensated with hard drugs and the rave scene.
Robin makes friends with a gay man who introduces her to the gay scene in Pittsburgh. They party together, get dressed up. They shoplift together, too. At first, the shoplifting is for clothes to wear to these parties, then it becomes a business; later, when Robin is using two bundles of heroin a day, she shoplifts to fund her addiction.
Text in italics are Robin's words.
While she is at the Allegheny County Jail, Robin starts dating a woman. Her name is Stephanie. She also befriends a woman named Julie. Robin calls Stephanie the ring leader. At her suggestion, the three devise a plan to steal drugs from a new inmate.
Robin tells me the woman had the drugs hidden in the waistband of her pants.
That’s what the victim says, even today. When I spoke with her, she maintained that she was sexually assaulted.
The official court records show Robin is charged with a string of assault offenses.
The drug Robin scores in the incident is Suboxone. She tells me this is a sought-after drug for heroin users in jail because it lasts so long. Because Robin hasn’t used in several months, she blacks out when she takes it. She has no memory of being processed or being escorted to holding.
She wakes up in isolation.
She will remain there for five months, awaiting trial for assault.
The other women, Robin’s friends in the scuffle, are charged with assault.
By the time their trial date arrives , Stephanie will have slit her throat with a shaving razor while in isolation; she survives. Julie will be dead from an overdose.
Stephanie is sent to a different pod for isolation, so that she and Robin are separated.
Julie is in the hole with Robin, in the cell right next door.
Robin hops up on her sink and talks to Julie through the vent system. Eventually, Robin clears out her toilet and talks to Julie through the pipes. They are on the same line, so their voices carry to each other through the plumbing.
Julie is the only person Robin has to talk to — really talk to — for the next four months.
This is when Robin tries to explain what isolation looks like. Imagine a cage. Cage after cage.
A cluster of stacked cells that circle a common area where the correction officers watch prisoners and where prisoners sit and talk. In isolation, you don’t have access to the common area but you could catch glimpses of the women on the pod through a 1-½-foot by 1-½-foot window.
Robin tells me that inmates can’t order snacks through commissary while in isolation at the Allegheny County Jail. What you get on your tray, which comes in through a slot in your door, is it.
Robin explains that inmates use their fingers to write in the air.
A system emerges: Robin will order something with her money in exchange for something from one of the women. Robin started cheeking (a colloquial term for concealing a medication in the mouth without swallowing) in order to trade things with other inmates.
I ask her how dangerous depriving herself of her Neurontin, a mood stabilizer, was for her, given her history of mental illness.
This radio becomes a lifeline for Robin, a connection to the world. Over the next 117 days, Robin’s mother and father will grow increasingly worried about their daughter. It is through this radio that Robin’s mother, affectionately called Mama Duke, is able to encourage her daughter to keep living, keep fighting, keep rowing.
Mama Duke calls into a radio show called The Rap Show, and this is how she is able to send her one-way voice message to her daughter outside of their once-a-week visitations. Despite the visits, Robin admits that her parents were thoroughly embarrassed by her charges.
Mama Duke started sending books and letters every two weeks. Robin devours the books well before the next package can come in. She starts sharing.
Robin and Julie read titles like “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn, “Scar Tissue” by Anthony Kiedis and “Dreamseller” by Brandon Novak.
The books she finished and gave to Julie were passed on.
Robin rolls her eyes.
Things will get worse for Robin.
The books occupy her mind temporarily. It was before the dark days set in. It was before holidays pass, before she loses 20 pounds, before Julie is gone and Robin goes a month before speaking more than one word at a time to another human being.
Two months into isolation, Robin went to court for the assault charges.
Robin, Julie and Stephanie learn their court date was continued, so they’ll have to wait even longer before any sort of conclusion.
Robin was cuffed but managed to pick up a milk from a tray. She drop-kicked the carton. It angered a guard.
Robin says she kept repeating that she was sorry but the guard continued to yell.
Robin says the guard attacked her.
Other guards stop the attack. She’s put back into her cell.
We reached out to the Allegheny County Jail for comment. Warden Orlando Harper confirmed reports regarding the 2010 incident exist, but, in a statement to PublicSource, he wouldn’t confirm specific details Robin shared with us. He stated that these records are internal incident reports, which are not public record.
According to his statement, Harper was unable to speak to the policies and procedures that were in place seven years ago because Robin’s incarceration predates his tenure at the facility as well as that of his leadership team.
Robin said it took about four hours before she was taken to medical to have her swollen wrist evaluated. Her wrist was not broken, and Robin is moved away from Julie.
Robin is placed into administrative custody; she has no window, the officers find and confiscate her books and radio, and she no longer has someone to whisper to through the vents and toilet.
She is kept in this cell for three more months.
Robin also claims that she wasn’t allowed a phone call for this week. She thinks this is illegal. According to ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Sara Rose: “Although inmates do not have a right to visiting and phone privileges, taking them away without any due process as a disciplinary measure may also violate pretrial inmates' 14th Amendment rights.”
Eventually, Robin is granted her recreation time back. But when she is let out, everyone else had to be on lockdown because of her status in administrative custody.
Robin describes trying to steal conversations as she passed by other cells. She tries talking to guards even, anything to have human interaction. She can’t remember the last time she’s touched another human being.
Soon, September bleeds into October and, when Halloween approaches, Robin celebrates alone. Although no one will see her, she still dresses up. She ties a cape around her neck and puts her underwear on the outside of her red uniform.
Robin’s depression consumes her. Her parents grow increasingly concerned for her well being. She has no sense of time, only able to judge the hour by when meals arrive. She tries to sleep constantly, but she tells me you can only sleep so much.
Christmas is approaching at this point. Robin has been in isolation since August. Julie and Stephanie have both been released back to general population. Finally, Robin’s parents take action. Her father calls the jail administration.
To this day, Robin doesn’t have any idea what her father said in order to get her out of isolation. She doesn’t know if he threatened to sue.
But, because of her father, Robin’s isolation sentence is suspended immediately. She is put back into general population.
Julie is released some time after Robin is back in general population; she goes home, but all three women are still waiting for their trial. Julie overdoses four days later and dies. The news spread quickly through the pod.
During this time, Stephanie ends up back in the hole. She slits her throat but is saved and sent to a mental health unit.
I ask Robin if she ever considered suicide.
Julie and Robin held each other accountable while they self-harmed. They confided in each other, made sure the other didn’t actually slit their wrists.
I ask her what stopped her from pressing the blade down harder — why did she choose to live?
She tells me she doesn’t know.
Robin, the champion rower turned addict, now a 35-year-old mother and wife, is a woman conditioned to endure.
When Robin finally stands trial, Julie is dead and Stephanie, a suicide risk, is deemed unfit to appear. Robin’s lawyer convinces her to take a plea deal and asks the court not to pin her with the charges.
Robin walks with the lowest charge from the list: a misdemeanor simple assault.
Robin just got a job but had to let her employer know about the simple assault charge from seven years ago. She lights up when she talks about her work, when she tells me about going back to school for biotechnology and earning two associate’s degrees. She provides for her wife, Holly, and their 2-year-old son, Sterling.
Now Robin also serves as an ambassador for mental health court. She takes Sterling with her and talks to young women who are struggling. She tells them to stick with it, stay in programming. If she had done that in the beginning, before she ever landed herself in a cell, none of these charges would have happened. The piece of her that she left there, she might still have it.
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.