More than 60 inmates at the Norfolk County House of Correction in Dedham gathered late last month in a room used for the prison’s addiction-treatment program.
They had come to see Sheila Raye Charles, daughter of Ray Charles, but they weren’t there to be entertained.
“I hope you’re ready,” she told a few officials as they led her into the room. “The story I have to tell is not a pretty one.”
She went on to speak — her voice rising, falling, pausing, and commanding attention like a preacher’s — about her three stints in federal prison, her children who were taken away from her, and her longtime addiction to crack cocaine.
As a way of introduction, her husband, Michael “Tony” Steptoe, described his own experience in prison. He asked how many fathers were present in the room, and many hands went up. Steptoe spoke of his feelings for his son, who had suffered because of choices that Steptoe had made.
Since they were married in 2010, Charles and Steptoe have visited dozens of prisons in 10 states as well as hundreds of churches, recovery programs, and service organizations as part of the One Way Up Prison Ministry.
They visited Dedham at the invitation of Norfolk County Sheriff Michael Bellotti, who in 2010 began a six-month program for inmates who want to break their addictions while incarcerated.
Steptoe said his goal was to help anyone in that room enter a different life than the one that brought him to prison.
He said that after he was released from prison in 2008, he was tempted to return to old ways of selling drugs. But his prayers for help to resist the calls of his former associates were answered, he said. To give back, he speaks in prisons, churches, and youth groups.
“I’m letting my brothers and sisters know this is not your destiny; this is what you choose to be in,” he said.
When Charles took the microphone, she told the inmates, “I know some of you out there are thinking, ‘Oh, she’s Ray Charles’s daughter; what could she have possibly been through?’ It is only by the grace of God that I’m not sitting in that chair right now,” she said as she gestured to the front row.
Charles described her life up to the moment of her third federal incarceration — 20 years of addiction to crack cocaine and having five children by four men, with a son born so prematurely due to her drug abuse that he weighed only 14 ounces, she said. Her mother had died and her father would not return her calls.
At her lowest point, she slipped off her prison bunk onto the concrete floor and began sobbing.
But at that moment, she said, God had spoken to her, told her to release her pain, her abandonment issues with her father, her resentment for her mother, her shame, her lack of forgiveness for others, and her secrets.
“I’m telling you what I know, not what I heard about,” she said. “My secrets were killing me.”
After that night, for the first time in more than 20 years, Charles said she didn’t want to smoke crack.
Her story ended on a positive note — she met some of her children after she served her sentence and they were willing to accept her. At this, the prisoners cheered. As the applause subsided, she added that the son who weighed 14 ounces at birth now plays music in churches with no health problems.
She concluded by singing songs, some of which her father had sung, and she impersonated him as she did so.
Afterwards, many inmates approached Charles and Steptoe to shake hands and talk.
William Dorsey of Braintree, who had been incarcerated for breaking and entering and assault with a dangerous weapon, said he related to Charles’s story. He grew up in foster homes with his mother being an addict and his father in prison.
“I felt like she was speaking directly to me,” he said. “It was my story, but from a female’s perspective.”
Information about Sheila Raye Charles's speaking series is available at www.sheilarayecharles.com.
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.