Ready? Steady? Fight.

If there is something in this world that you believe in, something that you are passionate about, do you put your all into defending it? Today’s spotlight subject has spent her life championing those who have been stripped of their voice. From before she could even stand up herself, she has been standing up for others. A warrior fighting for those who have lost the hope to hope. A Jewish jail lady. The head of our alternative sentencing department. Carrie Newman. 

The country outskirts of St. Louis. The tail-end of the hippie renaissance. We have a young Carrie, uncomfortable in her own skin—looking for any way out. Her days were spent feeling like she was watching herself, disassociated from her body and spirit. Carrie’s family life was incredibly difficult. Her mom suffered from mental health issues that manifested into, to put it delicately, ferociously stern parenting. The house reverberated with the screaming of a woman who sought perfection.  Her mother was a child in England during the London bombing of World War II. That trauma carried over and would impact the way she dealt with all of her children. None of this made Carrie’s adolescence a breeze. With an overly aggressive mother and the feeling of being outside of her own body, Carrie fought every day to find her own voice. Nothing eased that suffering. That is…until she found substances. 

Despite being too young to truly enjoy the peace and love era of the sixties, Carrie still gravitated towards that lifestyle. I don’t know if I am the first person to ever introduce the idea of the hippy movement to you, but if I am, let me tell you… marijuana was involved. Suddenly that chronically unhappy twelve-year-old girl was transformed into a jovial twelve-year-old girl who was happy smoking chronic. On the other end of the substance spectrum, Carrie found alcohol. “Alcohol made me…” (this is where Carrie took her first deep breath of the spotlight interview). With all of this, came a fight in her. A rebellious nature. She found causes she was passionate about (e.g. save the whale, anti-war, etc.). “I wanted to rebel against what was happening in my home, but I also romanticized this idea of being a rebel at large. Saving the world, anti-war.” Twelve years of age, and in her words she “never drank like a lady.” Carrie gravitated towards the people who were engaging in the same behavior as she was—only exacerbating her wild tendencies. 

Carrie turns seventeen and of course, is convinced that she is a full-fledged adult. So, she dropped out of school and jumped in a van with a guy in a band, and made her way to New York City. She got a job as a bartender by eighteen. I don’t know if I am the first person to ever introduce the idea of the New York bartender in the eighties to you, but if I am, let me tell you…cocaine was involved. She was getting tiped in drugs and she was loving it. “Whatever they gave me, I took. I even ate the worm in a mezcal bottle once,” she boasts with both pride and shame. Even in her drunken stupor, she still found causes to fight for. While most of us would sit in the bar looking for who may go home with us, Carrie was a barstool activist. She was certain that with a drink in her hand and powder in her nose, she could tear down the Berlin Wall and solve world hunger. At some point during her galavanting around The Big Apple is when the reality of her lifestyle started to weigh on her. “I started to realize I was killing myself.” 

To keep with the pattern, Carrie got in a van with a guy in a band and left New York. The plan was to drive through Canada, stop in LA, and come back to New York. The idea was to help her clean up her act. Throughout the whole road trip, she thought she was clean and sober because she was only smoking weed and drinking beer. Canada sober. Once she got to LA, she got jobs in restaurants and started doing harder drugs than ever before.

1991. A grimy bathroom. Carrie is sitting in a bathtub freebasing cocaine with one of the lesser-known Little Rascals when she starts to have a seizure. Truthfully, she doesn’t know what exactly happened to her. All she remembers is that she came to and the Little Rascal was still sitting there getting high. She knew she almost died and this terrified her. So, she went to her first twelve-step meeting. “I heard, ‘blah blah blah GOD blah blah GOD’ and I said, ‘Fuck this.’”

During the Rodney King riots, when the whole city was shut down, she stayed with a group of guys who were doing speed. By this point, Carrie had gone back to being Canada sober (which henceforth was named California sober). The first time they offered her speed, she said “No.” The second time they offered her speed, she said “No, thank you.” The third time they offered her speed, she said, “Yes, please.” This kicked off the next four years of terror. “I went from having a home to being homeless, no vehicle, no job, eating out of garbage cans, ninety pounds, and eleven arrests with four felony convictions.” That last arrest would be what brought her to us.

Once she was in jail for her final arrest, a day after her belly button birthday, she decided to get sober…for real this time. Every week, Carrie would be visited by Jewish social workers from JCPS (Jewish Committee for Personal Service), the precursor for Beit T’Shuvah. Her anti-religious nature urged her to push these people away. One day, in desperation, she had a moment. She had a dark night of the soul. With nothing left, Carrie turned to the one thing she never thought she would for relief—God…and God delivered. On one of their visits, they mentioned a women’s program that had just opened at a treatment center they were affiliated with. A few weeks later, she walked into court and there was an angry man screaming at the judge on her behalf. This was a pre-ordained Rabbi Mark. Her attorney took her outside the courtroom and begged her not to take the deal that Rabbi Mark had laid out. For some reason, Carrie’s instincts said otherwise and she took it. Soon after, the gates were opening and she was on her way to Lake Street (Beit T’Shuvah’s original campus that was really just a rickety old house.)

Here, Carrie was a cowgirl in the Wild West of old Beit T’Shuvah. When she got there, she found out that there was no women’s program at all. They built it around her and another girl who came in at the same time. “As soon as I walked up the steps I knew it was going to be magic.” That ended up being more than true. She found a boy who she didn’t have to get into a van and run away with…because he was also a resident. Outside of Rabbi Mark and Harriet, Carrie and Scott are Beit T’Shuvah’s first couple. They attended couples counseling with Harriet and eventually became the first couple to ever be sanctioned.

When she was a resident, she was assigned to be a “resident house monitor,” which was basically a PF before there were PFs. “They were putting me on this path and I didn’t even know it.” After graduating the program, Carrie came back to volunteer and help with rowdy girls in the house. Eventually, she was offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Rabbi Mark asked her if she would like to do jail work, but with the stipulation that Carrie went back to college. They called it, “the devil’s deal.” She accepted and was knighted a Jewish jail lady. Carrie was talking to people who committed the most heinous crimes you can imagine, but still, she says, “I would walk out and think, ‘I just saw the spark in that person’s soul.’”

The organization BTS partnered with for its jail program was separating and Carrie was offered the option to stay with them or to develop the BTS Alternative Sentencing Department. Obviously, she chose to build something here. That was twenty-six years ago. 

Carrie Newman is Beit T’Shuvah’s longest-standing employee. For the last twenty-six years, Carrie has dedicated herself to saving the lives of those trapped behind bars…with no signs of stopping.“There are guys I have been talking to for twenty years who are waiting for me when they get out. I can’t leave them hanging.” Her altruistic nature makes her perfect for the job she has and the department she has built. Carrie is a fighter. There are hundreds of people who are living beautiful productive lives today because of the work she does. She fought for them and, any day of the week, she would fight for you. Why? Because she believes in her cause. She believes in people. “I hated everything and everybody when I got here. It is like Harriet did a trick to get me to like other people.”

If you have learned anything from Carrie’s remarkable story, I hope it is to fight for what you believe in. To stand up for yourself and others. To lend a hand to those in need. Carrie puts her efforts into saving the lives of incarcerated individuals looking for redemption. What are you going to put your passion towards? What is your purpose? Whose rights will you defend?

Ready? Steady? Fight.

Spotlight on Carrie Newman by Jesse Solomon

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