“I am not saying that I am innocent. I did some really foolish things and failed to reach out for help for my addiction. I broke my mother’s heart.”
Celeste Blair’s path from childhood trauma to addiction to prison is all too common. At the end of such a path, is a decades-long sentence really the answer? In prison, Celeste has thrown herself into helping other women live lives deserving of a second chance. Now 50, she won’t be free until she is 71 – unless she gets a second chance herself.
Celeste Blair has sweet memories of her childhood – ballet classes, Girl Scouts, a school she loved, an adoring and fun family. But those years were also chaotic. “Daddy was larger than life. He drove one of those Harleys that had the giant handle bars and he parked his bikes in our living room, much to my mother’s dismay.” She witnessed her father drinking heavily and using drugs – “It was the early ‘70s and they were experimenting with hallucinogens, making acid in the basement” – and she recalls accidentally eating “magic mushrooms” she’d found in the fridge.
When she was five, her mother left. “She told me she was going shopping and never came back. I remember finding presents in a hall closet that she’d wrapped for Christmas, but it was summer. Daddy was so sad and emotional, then he got really sick. I think he had hepatitis. Aunt Cindy came and brought stews for me to feed him and I rolled joints for him so he could get better.”
About a year later, she explains now, Celeste’s mother sent her sister’s husband to kidnap her and bring her to Texas. “I was traumatized by the fact that Daddy didn’t know where I was and that he would be worried about me. It was so bizarre. I felt like a squatter living with my mother and her new husband and child. Sometimes Mother would sleep late and forget to pick me up from school.”
She found solace with her grandparents. “Their house became my safe space. My grandmother and I would stay up on Saturday nights, sneaking into the kitchen and having a bowl of vanilla ice cream with a pinwheel. We would lay in bed and she would tell me all about her childhood and her life in the 1930s.”
But in her teen years, that comfort slipped away as Celeste began to feel more insecure and fragile, culminating in a terrible event. At age 15, she was raped by the brother of a boy she knew.
“When I was raped and became pregnant and was forced to give the child up for adoption, my life turned a corner forever. I cannot describe the hole that was left by giving that child away at 16. That is the last little sense of home that I can recall. When my daddy died two years later I no longer had any sense of fear or future. Everything that could have ever gone wrong, already had.”
From then on, drug addiction ruled Celeste’s life. She bounced in and out of relationships, none of them healthy. She began having run-ins with the law starting at age 21, including several arrests and convictions for drug offenses. Finally, she ended up on prison. She served six years of a 25-year sentence, then was given 20 years of probation.
Celeste maintained the sobriety she’d achieved in prison and filled her life with creating and selling art, something that had always sustained her. But eventually, her demons led Celeste to an abusive boyfriend and then a husband who lured her into the notorious House of Yahweh cult. There, she was subjected to traumatic abuse and control, and the marriage fell apart.
Soon after, so did her sobriety, and Celeste turned to drugs to deal with depression and extremely low self-esteem. “When I was little,” she reflects now, “I rode to Sunday school with my grandmother and great grandmother and our church was downtown. My grandmother told me to look at the people on the street there, like zombies early in the morning, trying to find their way. She said that if I didn’t listen to her and follow the plans they had for my life, I could end up there, as I had tainted blood, a family history of addiction and alcohol and craziness.” Again in the grips of addiction, Celeste ended up selling drugs on those very streets.
Eventually she was arrested for her role in a drug conspiracy. Celeste pled guilty to a one-count indictment of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance (methamphetamine). Because of her prior offenses, Judge John McBryde sentenced her to 360 months – 30 years.
Worth noting is that during her sentencing trial, one of the pieces of evidence was a drawing Celeste made to illustrate an important part of her defense, to make certain facts clear. But the artistic quality of it made such an impression that Judge McBryde complimented Celeste on it, shortly after he handed down her brutal sentence. Then, turning to her lawyer, he said, “She may want to take it with her and put it in her cell.” The sentencing transcript notes that he then laughed – betraying a disturbing lack of compassion.
When Celeste entered prison she felt as if her life were over. “I realized that she had deep-rooted thinking errors. How could I not, after having so many years sober, having had such a good and positive life — having thrown it all away?” Indeed, prior to her relapse in 2014, Celeste volunteered in her community, worked with a nonprofit, and had special permission from her parole office to enter into the Hilltop Women’s State Prison to teach women to use art and painting and to “heal their past wounds through creativity.” Realizing she had thrown away a beautiful and productive life, she was devastated.
But she didn’t stay down for long. She convinced prison administrators to let her enter the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP), and there she blossomed, gaining structure and important insight. She graduated with honors and the following year, she taught newcomers and served as a conflict mediator. RDAP generally gives a person a year off their sentence; because of the gun enhancement in Celeste’s case, she wasn’t eligible. (Her ex-boyfriend, part of the same conspiracy, was arrested with a gun she’d never seen, months after they separated.)
With the skills Celeste learned in RDAP, she now teaches classes in the education department. She manages to live peacefully in prison, where healthy boundaries are essential for survival.
An especially bright note: Early on in her incarceration, the son she’d given up for adoption reached out to her. “I never in my life to imagined this would happen. It’s been a rollercoaster of emotion — so much joy but with an undertone of pain. I have a son, a granddaughter, and a real reason to celebrate. But unless I’m given a second chance, I will only know them through telephone and letters.”
When she describes her life in prison Celeste uses phrases like, “the blessings never end” and “I am so fortunate.” Her positive attitude, given all she has been through and all the prison times she’s facing, is miraculous. But the hard truth remains that her official release date is 2041. She will be in her 70s when she is free – unless she is given a second chance. She has been denied compassionate release, and now her only hope is clemency or retroactive sentencing reform.
Like many women in prison, Celeste has turned her life around after decades of chaos. Instead of more than 20 years more behind bars, doesn’t it make sense for her to get a second look – and a second chance?
By Celeste Blair
As I walk through
concrete and steel
rubbing shoulders with those
un-allowed to feel
I try to seek out a bit
to no avail.
I try to find something
a cozy place to sit
I find only concrete and steel
So I forget about my own
put on different glasses
to get a different
Now I see a social study
Have you ever wondered
where the awkward, quirky, anxious
unique, outside-the-box girls
The mothers of the children
acting up in school
crossing the street
They are here with me
at the cold, steel pay phone
raising their children
in 15 min., long-distance
They are here,
at 4 o’clock mail call
hoping for pictures
proof that someone
is giving their children
a little comfort
and a cozy place to sit.
You can help FAMM fight for second chances in our criminal justice system, for Celeste and so many others. Join us now.
Name: Celeste Blair
Sentence: 360 months (30 years)
Offense: conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance, in violation of 21 U.S.C.846, 841(a)(1)(B)
Priors: possession of a controlled substance; aggravated delivery of a controlled substance; delivery of a controlled substance; reckless driving; attempted theft
Year sentenced: 2015
Age at sentencing: 45
Projected release date: 2041