Donna Stites is an Associate of the Sisters of Providence, a Catholic order devoted to justice and hands-on social ministry. Donna Stites has also been an inmate at the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis. In 1984, she was involved in two horrific murders. A year later she accepted two plea agreements, one for 50 years, the other for forty.
Donna doesn’t make excuses. She could argue that she never actually killed anybody; she just helped dispose of the bodies. But she knows that, morally and legally, that’s a distinction without much of a difference.
If Donna wanted to blame her crimes on a dysfunctional childhood she could make a strong case. She could blame her violent lifestyle on the hard drugs she was taking. She could point the finger at the mother who taught her how to shoot up at the tender age of twelve.
She doesn’t go there either.
Donna knows she has broken things she cannot fix; she has created deep pain she cannot assuage.
This isn’t a story about wrongful conviction; it’s a story about God, grace and redemption.
Donna Stites didn’t turn her life around in one glorious encounter with truth and light. The path to faith has been slow and treacherous. “It was like God quietly lifted me,” Donna explained when I talked to her a couple of days ago.
“I spent the first ten years in and out of lock [solitary],” Donna says. When I asked her if she was overwhelmed by the prospect of spending her entire life in prison she shook her head. “I was twenty-one so the reality of all that wasn’t there.” She continued to live on the inside the way she had lived on the outside. For the first year or so, thanks to a corrupt prison matron, Donna even had a ready supply of drugs.
Donna’s first step down redemption road had little overt connection with religion. Ball State University was offering college courses and Donna signed up. “I had started asking questions and was beginning to realize how wrong everything was,” she says. “By that time I had made a list of six goals, and one of them was to start to college. Only after my first semester did I realize, ‘I can do this.’ I dropped out of school at fifteen, and I had never gotten an A before on a report card in my life.”
Donna was deeply impressed by Dr. Randall Calhoun, one of the professors that came to the prison. “He was always ripping my work apart, and pointing out all my logical mistakes, misspellings and bad grammar. One day he took me aside and said, ‘Do you know why I’m so hard on you? Donna, you’re like a rose in a whiskey bottle, and it’s my job to pull you out. You’ve got so much potential.”
When I asked Donna if her intellectual and spiritual quests were related her eyes lit up. “Oh yes,” she said. “After I got educated my spiritual journey really started to speed up.”
Like many offenders, Donna Stites wasn’t on good terms with organized religion. Her mother left home when Donna was a young child, leaving behind a twenty-page Dear John letter about “needing to find myself”. “My dad couldn’t read,” Donna explains, “so he had to find someone to read him the letter.”
Donna’s father was a reformed alcoholic who took his children to a fire-and-brimsone Baptist Church. “It was the kind of church where you’re thinking, ‘I can never measure up to the standard; it’s hopeless'” Donna remembers. “I never felt attracted to my dad’s religion because the way he lived had almost nothing to do with what he believed. He was physically and emotionally abusive and I didn’t want anything to do with a religion that did that to a person.”
Donna’s first meaningful contact with prison religion came in 2000 when a Roman Catholic Bible study started bringing dogs to the prison. “That sounded pretty good,” Donna says, “Dogs have always made me happy. Then they had a group that was training assistance dogs and I liked the idea that I was helping other people by working with the dogs. But the big deal with the dogs was that they loved me and didn’t even know I was a prisoner.”
I asked Donna if she had ever had contact with wholesome, stable family life growing up. “Oh yeah,” she said. “My Aunt Mildred and Uncle Buddy. I stayed with them for just a little while when I was a little girl. If ever there was a spiritual spark in my life they were it. They took us to church and Sunday school and didn’t beat us up when we got back. If there was a seed down there waiting for water they were it.”
Donna’s life was changed forever when she met Priscilla Hutton, an educator and Catholic layperson from Paris, Illinois and an associate with the Sisters of Providence. Priscilla signed up to serve as “minister of record” for an inmate. Donna Stites turned out to be that inmate.
“Priscilla has been a lifesaver for me,” Donna says. “She can see right through me and loves me enough to tell me the truth. I can still remember telling her that when the people in here back me into a corner I’ve just got to fight back. I’ve just got to. And Priscilla said, ‘Donna, have you ever considered the option of walking out of that corner? Or, how about not getting into the corner in the first place?’ That changed my whole way of thinking because, no, I never had thought of just walking out of the corner. I didn’t know you could do that, but you can. So now, when I get all frantic about something, I know I can just pick up the phone and call Priscilla.”
I asked Donna if her personal transformation was more a new way of thinking or more about new relationships. “New relationships taught me how to think about God and life and my past,” Donna replied. “Roman Catholicism gave me a people, a family. We are a community. I feel very loved and a part of. I don’t want to mess up because I don’t want to be a bad reflection on the sisters. I believe what they believe in and I want to live that lifestyle. They are just absolutely brilliant. The perfect example of what any woman would want to be.”
I asked Donna how she lived out her new faith in the context of prison life. “I try to give fellow inmates an example of how to deal with things,” she said. “I try to talk to the young people about not spending their whole lives in and out of here. The conditions in here hinder people who might want to be rehabilitated. I don’t know how anybody could be helped under these conditions, and yet I was. I wish I could tell you what it is that would work here, but I really don’t know.”
Donna told me that if she was handed her freedom “the first thing I’d do would be to go to Holy Cross [a Catholic Church within walking distance] and I’d just sit there and give thanks.”
Donna’s future is far from certain. She is a brittle diabetic and her kidneys have virtually shut down. Recently, she has been receiving dialysis treatments three times a week. “I always knew it might come to that, and I dreaded it,” she told me. “But now that I have no choice, I find myself looking forward to the treatments. I just sit there for four hours, but I always enjoy it for some reason.”
Priscilla Hutton assures me that Donna’s color is much improved, there is a new sparkle in her eye and a new strength in her step. How long will that last? Nobody knows. Donna is taking it one day at a time.
Will Donna Stites ever re-enter the free world? (Has she ever been in the free world?) That issue is as uncertain as her physical prognosis. Like most legal stories, it’s complicated. I’ll tell you more about the crimes that put Donna in prison and the legal issues that may restore her freedom in another post.