NEWS- Kelly's plight: Incarcerated 'soccer mom' talks at last
Elisa Kelly hasn't had a shower in two days, and she's a little worried about how she will look in her photographs. "You have 15 girls in a cell," she explains, "with one shower, one toilet."
One week after starting her 27-month jail sentence for buying and serving beer for her son's 16th birthday party, Kelly is more composed than she was in teary interviews she gave during her first few days in the joint.
She's also freezing in her red Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail jumpsuit, and has already learned to request a jumpsuit three sizes too big so she can stick her arms in the sleeves for extra warmth. Another inmate gave her an undershirt, but when she entered jail on June 11, she didn't think she'd need socks to go with her jail-issued shower shoes. "It's like an iceberg in there," she says, mentioning that she has thermal underwear on order.
Her previous life did not prepare the 42-year-old former PTO president for living behind bars. "I never had a speeding ticket or a parking ticket," says Kelly. She did volunteer at her children's schools and worked as a substitute Spanish teacher.
While more than one friend has called her a "soccer mom," she actually coached her two sons' baseball, football, and basketball teams. She knew all of the 30 or so teenaged attendees at that fateful birthday party because, she says, "I had coached all these kids."
Kelly's decision to buy booze for them has cost her– even though she took steps that fateful August 16, 2002 to keep the kids from driving. She collecting car keys in a bucket and says she planned to block the driveway so no one could leave. That didn't sway local judge Dwight Johnson. In February 2003, he hit her and her estranged husband, George Robinson, with eight-year sentences. The terms were reduced to 27 months– still unheard of for hosting teens in party-happy Albemarle County, and two years longer than the 90 days recommended by Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos.
Before she was arrested, "I was picking these kids up from other parents' houses when they'd been drinking," says Kelly.
The punishments made international news. Kelly was interviewed by the BBC last week. Her story has appeared in the Times of London and bounced to Australia and South Africa as an example of American neo-Puritanism. Later this week, she's supposed to talk to Inside Edition. And she believes her son, Ryan Kenty, is on his way to an appearance on Oprah.
Telling her story to Washington Post reporter Daniela Deane, says Kelly, has inspired her to go into journalism, and she may write a book too.
Besides spending the last five years trying to stay out of jail, Kelly also went through a contentious divorce from Robinson that went to the Supreme Court of Virginia. And two days after he remarried on October 16, 2004 (wearing knight's armor), the 6,000-square-foot Bleak House Road house she'd shared with him burned to the ground. "We had an elaborate alarm system that was wired to the fire station," she says. But it wasn't on that day.
Kelly clears up a report from a neighbor that she fled the fire clad in a towel. The neighbor was being polite, she says. "I was in the bathtub. I ran naked."
Kelly and Robinson appealed their sentences to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case. And beyond the issue of underage drinking, she's still outraged at what she contends was a violation of her Fourth Amendment rights. "Even if you're on rural land, police officers have the right to come up to your property any time," she contends.
Though convicted of misdemeanors– three months for each of nine counts– Kelly finds herself in a cell with women who've been convicted of assault and battery.
"It's very scary in there," she says. "The second day I was there a girl beat another one severely. We were screaming. [The attacker] said, 'Who's next?'"
She says she's been threatened twice, and nights are particularly terrifying. After lights out at 11pm, "You could scream your head off and be dead until next morning," she says.
In jail, as on the outside, people are deeply divided about the severity of her sentence. Several fellow inmates she describes as "crack heads" have spit at her and told her they think what she did was terrible and that she should have gotten more time.
"And I'm a misdemeanor, and they're felons," she muses.
Kelly bemoans the fact that while men have a gym and a basketball court, women at the regional jail get one hour of exercise a week, and she says a nurse informed her that each meal has 3,000 calories.
Jail superintendent Col. Ronald Matthews concedes that male inmates in the new wing have more access to exercise. But he contradicts Kelly's claim about the meals.
"It's not 3,000 calories," he says, adding that the meals meet the dietary guidelines established by the National Academy of Sciences.
"All inmates are safe," he says. Once women prisoners are locked in at night in their 15-woman cells, officers make two random checks each hour. If there's a fight and inmates are making noise– and an officer is at his or her post– they will break up the ruckus.
"If there's fighting and no noise, I don't know if we'd know," Matthews acknowledges.
He points out the difficulty of maintaining comfortable temperatures in a jail with old and new wings, when some people like it cool and some don't. He estimates the jail temperature is between 70 and 72 degrees. "All I can say is it's not hot in here, and no one's in here sweating," he says.
Kelly questions the wisdom of using taxpayer funds to keep her in jail when, she believes, she could be more productive doing work release or community service or under house arrest. Her children, she says, "are very affected" by the whole ordeal.
Her younger son, Brandon, is working two jobs because he feels he needs to provide a place for his mom to live when she gets out. He's going into the 11th grade and getting ready to go to college, which Kelly feels is the most important year when he most needs his mother. And she doesn't want him to be like Ryan, a straight-A student and athlete who dropped out of Albemarle High because, she says, "I was the subject of ridicule."
Kelly wants to clear up two other allegations about her alleged cover-up attempts before and after the party. "I didn't tell any kids to drink vinegar, and I did not lie to any parent [about whether there would be alcohol at the party]," she says.
She's hoping the next time she's before a judge, she'll be shown some leniency for the four-year ordeal she's gone through before ever setting foot in jail. "This has ruined my life," she says. "This has ruined my children's lives."