Pieces she left behind

How a scholarship athlete ended up in ‘the hole’

By Brittany Hailer

Robin Tomczak first went to jail for shoplifting but then racked up assault charges. Here, she is sitting on the bank of the Ohio River at the Neville Island Back Channel, where she used to row. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)


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:

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: Sisters through addiction, jail time and new endeavors

Jason Toombs finds his voice while writing a novel and love letters from jail

Life in a cell

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.

The rower

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.

The many rowing medals Robin Tomczak earned in high school and college. She tied them around her wrists, like handcuffs, to juxtapose her jail time with her time as a scholarship athlete. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

When she eventually came out to her parents as a lesbian, her mother was supportive, but her father… There was a pause, followed by him telling me that I was a lustful animal. I just denied that part of my soul for a very long time, which probably led to a lot of self-medicating. I started smoking weed, started taking painkillers…At that time, you know, my addiction kind of kicked in.

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.

At its worst, we were getting $500 to $600 a day in merchandise. And, at the end of the night, we were still stealing Twizzlers at the gas station because we weren't eating.
It was shoplifting that landed Robin behind bars for the first time and every time after that. Robin isn’t sure when her first arrest was: Honestly, there were so many times that I got incarcerated, it all kind of runs together. … I was in and and out 10-plus [times]. I can’t give an accurate number.

Text in italics are Robin's words.

A necklace depicting a caged bird is favorite of Robin Tomczak’s. “The caged bird was something I saw at a craft store and had to have. The caged bird means a lot because it’s my story. It’s part of my life which shaped me. Part that many never know.” (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

A necklace depicting a caged bird is favorite of Robin Tomczak’s. “The caged bird was something I saw at a craft store and had to have. The caged bird means a lot because it’s my story. It’s part of my life which shaped me. Part that many never know.” (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

What happens inside can change your life

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.

Everybody knows where women would hide things if they're in jail. So everybody assumed that this is where she had the drugs hidden. It wasn't. What did happen is that she came into our cell. We kind of held her and roughed her up until she handed them over.

Robin tells me the woman had the drugs hidden in the waistband of her pants.

But that's not what she told the guards.
This girl immediately ran to the guards and said that we had raped her.

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.

So I went from shoplifter to... aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault, unlawful restraint, simple assault… somebody who was shoplifting to somebody who could possibly be on Megan's Law just to fuel an addiction.

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.

Robin’s mother, Elizabeth, made a quilt to represent Robin’s journey. The patches are dates of setbacks and victories. These patches mark Robin’s four months in isolation. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

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.

Honestly, I can say that if it wasn't for these ways that I found to speak to somebody else… it was tough to begin with, but, I might have lost a piece of myself in there. I feel like I did a little bit but I might have lost more of myself during that time.

Julie is the only person Robin has to talk to — really talk to — for the next four months.

The hole

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.

So all you can order with your money is stuff to write letters, you can order soap, you can order clothes.
Over the weeks, Robin ordered an array of shampoo and thermal shirts because ordering something meant talking to someone. I would also communicate with some of the girls down on the pod by writing on the windows.

Robin explains that inmates use their fingers to write in the air.

I would write the letters backwards on that window, so they could read it and they would write back.

The books sent in by her mother, who Robin refers to as Mama Duke, kept her sane while in isolation. She says she would devour the books and pass them on to other inmates. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

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.

It’s almost like, what do you sacrifice?
I would save up my medication. I would go in to take a shower. I would hide it up in the soap dispenser, and they would put whatever I need in the clothing bin. It took me a couple weeks to cheek enough medication to get myself a radio.

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.

The librarian

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.

Julie was next door to me and sometimes I would find a cool enough guard who would give her one of my books. The other times I would open up the toilet, and I would read to her through the line in the toilet.

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 starts asking her mother for books for the other inmates, even if they are titles she doesn’t necessarily want to read: I think we had some of the ‘Twilight’ series too.

Robin rolls her eyes.

It got to the point where I had so many books that people that I didn't know when I got out of jail, when they met me and I tell them my last name, they'd be like, ‘Oh, I read one of your books.’
I became the library at the ACJ.

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.

Robin Tomczak and her wife, Holly, have a son named Sterling. Robin said: “My son gives me hope. Everything has more meaning to it now.” (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

Robin Tomczak and her wife, Holly, have a son named Sterling. Robin said: “My son gives me hope. Everything has more meaning to it now.” (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

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.

… but I got to see my girlfriend.
I was kind of on cloud nine. I was coming from being locked up in a cell. I was amped up. I was like a kid who had too much sugar.

Robin was cuffed but managed to pick up a milk from a tray. She drop-kicked the carton. It angered a guard.

We were all laughing and goofing around, but the guard decided to single me out and she started yelling at me in the elevator as we were heading up: ‘Wait ‘til we get upstairs. Wait ‘til we get upstairs.’

Robin says she kept repeating that she was sorry but the guard continued to yell.

I said to her, ‘I apologized to you three times, lady,’ and I pushed my cuffs out in front of her and I said, ‘Whatever you're going to do, just do it already, because I'm done.’

Robin says the guard attacked her.

So we were coming off the elevator. I was cuffed. I was walking away from her and she told me to go to my pod, which was all the way down at the end of the hall. I started walking away. She grabbed me by the back of my hair and pulled me down the hallway.
I got kicked at least once, maybe twice. I’d fallen on my wrist because I was cuffed.

Other guards stop the attack. She’s put back into her cell.

This is what happens down there. Nobody said a thing.

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.

The keytags represent milestones of sobriety that Robin Tomczak has earned. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

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.

They moved me on a different pod across the way to a cell in the back, where I couldn't see anybody.

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.

They put me on assault precaution. So for a whole week I was not allowed to shower. I was not allowed out of my cell. I was not allowed recreation...

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.

I was Superman.

Suspended immediately

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.

They felt like they needed to discipline me further than most inmates. It was hard. I would sit in my cell and cry and [think], ‘This isn’t looking good.’

Robin talks about the lack of human contact she experienced while in isolation.

I have this very important case and it looks like I am acting a fool in here. It looks like I am not a model inmate, looks like I’m not trying to get better, but really, I am just trying to survive.
And eventually I just gave up.

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.

Robin Tomczak’s relationship with her parents was tested when she came out as a lesbian, when she lost her rowing scholarship and throughout her jail time. But both her mother and father came through to support her while she was in Allegheny County Jail. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

She recalls an official telling her: I was just getting ready to leave for my vacation, walking out of my office and your father called me and voiced his opinion on you and got the better side of me in an argument. And that doesn't happen too often. And I admire that.

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.

The trial

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.

Robin believes the assault charge and her time in isolation haunted Julie: Julie was so tore up about it. We didn't know what the outcome of this trial was going to be. I wholeheartedly believe that that was one of the main reasons she got out and went so hard that it killed her.

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.

I mean there is not a day that went by in there that you don't think you can end it. You can get access to razor blades. There was times that Julie and I cut. We would cut ourselves just to emote something.

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.

There's days that I feel like sometimes my background with sports and not giving up, sometimes that was it. I’d say, hey, I'm not going to do it today. I'm just going to keep going.

Robin, the champion rower turned addict, now a 35-year-old mother and wife, is a woman conditioned to endure.

Robin Tomczak, now many years out of jail, serves as an ambassador for mental health court. She takes Sterling with her often to put life into perspective for young women who are struggling. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

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.

Every part of me wanted this to not be on my record at all. Every single part of me wanted that.

Robin walks with the lowest charge from the list: a misdemeanor simple assault.

I already had misdemeanor retails. So I took it and sometimes I regret that. There's certain jobs that I can’t get because I have assault on my record. There's certain jobs I can’t get because I have theft on my record.
And I hope that one day they change that.

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.

My son gives me hope. Everything has more meaning to it now. On the days I feel like giving up...if I feel like I wanna get high today, I just look at him and I can’t. I needed to gain something that would hurt to lose.

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.