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The Last Door on the Left
What do you take to prison? Beverly Monroe had no idea. But her attorney had given her a list of some basic items she was supposed to bring—white underwear, rubber-soled shoes—and during the weekend before she was scheduled to surrender, in addition to setting aside money to pay her estimated taxes and signing papers giving her daughter Katie power of attorney, she packed. Each of her three children wanted her to have something personal of theirs to take with her. Her younger daughter, Shannon, gave her a blue thermal Patagonia she’d gotten for Christmas. Katie had Beverly take her plaid flannel L. L. Bean pajamas. Gavin, her oldest child and only son, bought her a necklace, which she wasn’t sure she would be allowed to keep.
Beverly also packed some of their old socks and a yellow tennis sweater that had been Shannon’s in the seventh grade. She added writing paper, her German dictionary, her French phrase book, and a few of her favorite books, including Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence and a volume of poetry by Herman Hesse. Since she wasn’t supposed to bring a suitcase, they put everything in a small cardboard box.
On November 9, 1992, exactly one week after she had been convicted of murdering Roger de la Burde, her children drove her up to the Powhatan County sheriff’s office. The day was dry but cold. They took Beverly’s dark blue Mercury Sable, following the Midlothian Turnpike west out of Richmond’s suburbs and up to Route 13, a looping, narrow-shouldered road that ran through rolling fields past the Mennonite church and the local farm bureau office before reaching the village.
Greg Neal, the Powhatan investigator who had first interviewed Beverly back when everyone thought Roger’s death was a suicide, waited for her in the sheriff’s office. Neal seemed unwilling to look Beverly in the eye, she thought. He turned her over to one of the uniformed deputies, Tommy Broughton. Carrying her small cardboard box, she followed Broughton and a female secretary out into the parking lot and climbed into the back of an unmarked Chevrolet Caprice. A rack on the dashboard held a shotgun.
Broughton headed up to Maidens Road, which wound north through stubbled cornfields and stands of pine. Beverly’s children followed close behind in her Mercury. Every minute or so, Beverly looked back and waved to them through the rear window. Throughout the trip, the secretary kept up a stream of polite conversation about the accomplishments of their respective children, as if they were at a church social.
They reached the slender bridge that crossed the James River. Beverly looked out at the dark green water. It was low at this time of the year, the muddy banks below the tree line exposed. Roger’s estate, Windsor Farm, was three miles downriver, invisible beyond a bend.
Just outside Goochland, a small town on the north bank of the James, Brougton turned onto River Road West. Beverly saw the store where Roger had bought the fiberglass canoe he had used only once. Broughton pulled into the Virginia Correctional Center for Women, a cluster of old brick buildings with slate roofs and white casement windows set among magnolia and pecan trees. It was surprisingly pastoral. There was neither a wall nor a fence. Black Angus grazed in a pasture across the road. They passed a guard booth and stopped at an administration building. Beverly looked back at her children. The guard had halted them at the booth. They waved. She waved back and then followed Deputy Broughton inside.
The prison’s intake room was noisy and chaotic. Guards in navy blue uniforms were bantering with other guards behind a counter as they passed heavy keys back and forth and signed clipboards. One of the women on the jury that had convicted Beverly worked somewhere back there. Beverly put her box on the floor. The guards ignored her and Deputy Broughton. After a few minutes, a door opened and a heavyset African-American woman, wearing a white jumpsuit with gold buttons, beckoned Beverly into her office.
The woman brusquely introduced herself as Ms.Wendy Hobbs, the warden. There was also a big man wearing mirrored sunglasses in the office. He sat watching Beverly in silence. The warden didn’t introduce him. Instead, she launched into what seemed to be a prepared speech. Don’t think that you’re going to be treated any differently, she told Beverly, just because your case has had all this publicity and you’ve had a privileged existence. Here, you’re nobody special. Here, you’re not different. No one is going to cater to you. You’re a prisoner and you’ll be treated the same as all the other prisoners. Don’t expect anything else.
Beverly just stood there and listened. She knew Warden Hobbs was making a point of cutting her down to size, and she said nothing. There wasn’t any response she could think to make.
When the speech was over, Warden Hobbs dismissed her. Two guards escorted her across the grounds and down a tree-lined slope to a low brick building. A barred door opened and then closed behind them with a horrible electric buzzing noise. The building smelled powerfully of Lysol. In a waiting room, two other guards looked through her belongings and put them in a plastic bag, which they kept.
They told her to strip, then searched her body, gave her a towel to wrap around herself, and led her down a hall to a laundry room. A shower stall with a mildewed plastic curtain was wedged between the industrial-size washers and dryers. There were roaches on the floor and walls. One of the guards squirted a glob of anti-lice soap into her hand and instructed her to wash herself with it.
Beverly Monroe was the sort of woman invariably described as petite—a word she hated. She seemed fragile, with her delicate bones and thin skin and startling hazel eyes, but she was actually strong and athletic. She skied and played tennis. She enjoyed hard labor—breaking soil with a mattock—and liked to think of herself as a woman who was up to almost any physical challenge.
But the water in the shower was so cold that it shocked her. With only the one thin towel, she couldn’t dry her hair. The guards gave her Katie’s flannel L. L. Bean pajamas to wear, then led her past another barred door, which opened and shut with the same horrible electric buzz, and down a quiet corridor. It had a low ceiling and brick walls painted white. On both sides of the corridor were doors with horizontal slots. Beverly saw the eyes of the people behind the doors watching her as she passed.
The guards stopped at the last door on the left, gestured for Beverly to enter, and locked the door behind her. She found herself in a small rectangular room. It had a metal clothes locker, a bunk bed with a plastic mattress and plastic pillow but no sheet or pillowcase, and, in a doorless nook, a toilet flushed by pulling a chain that hung from the tank suspended above it. There was one dim overhead bulb and a single begrimed casement window. The window was partially open, and the chilly November air poured through the gap. Beverly tried to close it, but the crank was broken.
Beverly sat down on the bunk bed. Time passed. She had no way of measuring how much—twenty minutes? forty? After a while, she got up and paced off the room’s measurements. It was two and a half feet from the bunk to the metal locker and twelve feet from the door to the window. She began to feel that the walls were closing in on her, literally moving inward. She thought she would have to hold them apart with her hands.
After dark, someone passed a bologna sandwich in a plastic bag through the food slot in the center of the door. Beverly had no appetite and didn’t even open the bag. She never ate bologna anyway. She lay down on the lower mattress and stared up at the crisscrossed wires holding the mattress above her.