Prison: With wit, irony, small-time drug dealer turned author tries to make a positive out of hard time.


June 17, 1996|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff

CRISFIELD, MD. -- "The sun shone brightly in its September warmth, grabbing at the last few golden days of summer, and it appeared to be as good a day as any to be going to prison."

Carol Anne Dryden-Leef begins her memoir of life in the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women with a mordant wit that infuses nearly every one of her memories.

The golden days of summer turned bleak and wintry soon enough, but a penchant for detached irony seems to have helped her survive. Dryden-Leef served three years and nine months in the women's prison in Jessup before she was paroled from a 15-year sentence for dealing drugs in Ocean City.

She says she was one of the little people caught in a big O.C. drug sweep at the end of 1988.

"Oh, very small," she says. "It was like a gram here and a gram there. Just to friends. It wasn't anything big. I mean, I still worked."

She was a waitress. She now manages a restaurant at Princess Anne. She's a native of Crisfield and lives with her husband, Robert Leef, in a comfortable, weathered, A-frame house tucked into the edge of a woods at the end of a muddy lane near here. The neighbor's dog guards her porch. Cardinals bang into her windows.

She fishes and hunts for arrowheads with her husband and reads a lot -- most recently Dean Koontz's "Intensity" -- and tries to rework her memoirs into a book, maybe a novel. It's a work in progress.

Excerpts have been published by Clarinda Harriss Raymond, acting chair of the Towson State University English department, in a collection of writings by women in Maryland prisons, and by a literary magazine at George Mason University in Virginia. She'll read from her work at 8 p.m. June 27 at Baltimore's Halcyon Gallery at Margaret's Cafe in Fells Point.

Raymond, who has worked with prison authors for decades, says Dryden-Leef is among the finest women writers she has found. And she is by far the most likely to transform her prison memoirs into a novel, Raymond says.

"I've been writing continually since I got out," Dryden-Leef says. "I could probably write several good prison stories."

She remembers her arrest with a certain grim amusement. "I was sitting in my bed with a broken leg. And they came busting in my house and put a gun to my head. I was sitting there with a big pink blanket wrapped around me. What am I going to do? All these big dogs everywhere and all these policemen. I said, 'What do you expect me to do, strangle you with my pink blanket?' It was crazy."

If she was, as she says, a little player, she nonetheless got a big sentence: 15 years for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute it. She thinks it was 15, 16 or 18 grams, less than an ounce. She went to prison "bone-cold and strait-jacketed with fear."

"As we pulled up to the front gate," she writes, "two razor-barb-topped fences towered in front of me, the female officer turned around and said: 'It doesn't look so bad.'

" 'In that case you stay and I'll go back to the Shore,' I replied sickly, watching the gates open into my new world."

Carol Anne Dryden-Leef wasn't very typical of the women arriving at MCIW. She had two years of college, at St. Mary's and the University of Maryland. She was "European-American," in Clarinda Raymond's words.

She came from an middle-class family influential on the lower Eastern Shore. Her father owned a seafood business in Crisfield and a restaurant in Bethany Beach, Del. Her mother was and remains a pillar of the Baptist church in Crisfield. She was one of Maryland's first female deacons.

"The day I was arrested she stood up in church and told everybody that her daughter had been arrested for selling drugs," Dryden-Leef says. "She's the type of church person that it's her church family. She wanted them all to know before they heard it any-where else."

Dryden-Leef's sentence wasn't typical either. Raymond says it was about three times the average length for women imprisoned in Maryland. Dryden-Leef says the Worcester County state's attorney announced he was going to make an example of her.

"But when I did get to prison," Dryden-Leef says, "people told me, 'If you had been up here [in Baltimore] you'd have gotten slapped on the wrist and probation and they'd have said go home.' They couldn't believe I got 15 years."

In fact, she might not have even been arrested in Baltimore, where police have de-emphasized arrests for holding small amounts of cocaine and the state's attorney treats possession of 30 rocks of crack as a misdemeanor.

"My statement about my sentence is that I was guilty," she says, "but I was not 15 years guilty."

'Distasteful activities"

Because of her long sentence, she initially was held in a maximum-security block, escorted by guards everywhere, locked down every night.

"With all the murderers, baby killers, husband killers, all the goodies," Dryden-Leef says, "I wondered, 'What are they trying to do to me? This is insane.' I lived with them eight or 10 months before I got off."

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