NEW ALBANY – Former addict Lisa Livingston walked out of the Rockville Correctional Facility an extremely grateful woman Wednesday night.
“I just got out like 15 minutes ago, and I still can’t believe it,” she told the News and Tribune by phone. “I’m just overwhelmed with gratitude, and I am just kind of in shock that I actually got to walk out the gate because it’s nothing short of a miracle.”
That’s because this time last month, Livingston — who is the founder of a local women's recovery center — had no idea she’d be a free woman anytime within the next 15 years or more.
She was only nine months into serving a 30-year prison sentence for a five-year-old criminal case in which she pleaded guilty to five felonies, including the dealing and possession of drugs and the ingredients to make them, as well as an additional charge for being a habitual offender.
However, on Dec. 28, the Indiana Supreme Court revised Livingston's original sentence to a mandatory 23 years, with “whatever time remains be served in community corrections.”
In a 3-1 decision, the High Court's opinion superseded Orange County Circuit Court Judge Steve Owen’s original March 2018 sentencing.
Livingston's original sentence made headlines not only because of the success of her own recovery efforts, beginning in 2013 after her last arrest, but also for the work she had done to help other women in recovery. In 2017, Livingston founded BreakAway, a non-profit, residential facility for women in recovery from addiction.
The ruling was hailed as “a victory for everybody who has suffered with addiction” by Livingston's attorney, Jennifer Culotta.
Livingston's personal improvements, as well as her extensive efforts to help others better themselves, were cited by the Supreme Court.
As previously reported in the News and Tribune, the decision reads, in part:
“The evidence shows Livingston has committed no offenses since her arrest in August 2013 and has dedicated her time to becoming a productive member of her community and helping others who suffer from addiction."
The opinion’s narrative also noted:
“We acknowledge that placing a defendant in community corrections for such a lengthy period is highly unusual. But we believe it to be appropriate in these unique circumstances, which includes the willingness of Floyd County Community Corrections to supervise Livingston.”
Were Livingston to violate terms of her placement in community corrections, “then the trial court may revoke the placement.”
‘GOD KNOWS MY HEART’
Livingston said it was difficult at times to maintain a positive outlook in prison, as she faced such a long sentence; however, she clung to her faith in God and trusted He had her at the prison for a reason.
“One of the things I kept thinking over all this time is that God knows my heart,” she said. “He knows that my heart is pure, and my motives are pure.
“I had such a hard time when I first got incarcerated, and I was going through so many emotions. I kept thinking, ‘Why am I here? Who am I here to help? Show me who, God.’ And, it was kind of like I was going through all the emotions — I felt shock, fear, anger, and then finally acceptance.”
While she was struggling to grasp her new reality of life behind bars, Livingston chose to trust God. She even used her time in prison to grow stronger in her faith.
“One of the blessings of being there was that I got to sit down and really read the Bible and work on my relationship with Him,” she said. “He was my saving grace.”
In those introspective moments she spent alone with God, Livingston said she was finally able to find a peace that passed all understanding.
“I truly had acceptance, and I knew that God had me,” she said. “I knew that when it is time for me to be free, that’s when those doors would open for me — and they did.”
‘OK, GOD. YOU’VE GOT ALL OF ME NOW.’
The former inmate, though, didn’t sugar coat what she endured emotionally and mentally during her nine months of incarceration.
There were times, especially after she lost an appeal before receiving the Indiana Supreme Court’s ruling, when she felt her walk in faith tested.
“Once I lost that appeal, I will tell you that I remember standing there at the guard’s desk and I just broke down bawling. And, I hadn’t really cried through the whole thing. But, right then, I just broke down,” she said. “The devil was attacking me.”
Immediately after that, she tried to attend a church service held inside the prison, but was turned away because her name wasn’t on a list. Later, she desperately wanted to attend a prison ministry event, but that, too, was denied.
“I was so hurt when I didn’t get in it, and I cried about that,” she said. “I crumbled that paper up. I was like, ‘I’m done. I’m just done.’ But then I was like, ‘Lisa, go get that paper because you know it’s not God doing all this. It’s the devil attacking you.’”
That moment, she said, was her breakthrough.
“I said, ‘OK, God. You got all of me now. I’m yours,’” she recalled.
Livingston knew then that she could get through anything that came her way.
“You know what, I wasn’t worried a bit about the Supreme Court to be honest with you,” she said. “I didn’t think they were going to rule in my favor. I felt they would just do what the Appeals Court did. So, I never gave it another thought.”
‘HE DID IT’
Livingston said her partner, Robin McMillin, had come up to see her right before they learned of the Supreme Court’s decision.
She remembered feeling sad for Robin and their family because Lisa couldn’t be with them like she wanted to be. However, she still felt at peace with the situation and was prepared to serve out her sentence if that was what God asked of her.
“I knew if I kept my faith in God, I could go through any trials and tribulations that I am supposed to go through,” she said.
Soon after Livingston learned the prison gates would part for her.
“When I found out, I was like ‘Oh my gosh. He did it!’ Because God is over all judges. He has the final decision – and He came through for me. I am so grateful, and I am totally on fire!” she said with a laugh.
During prison worship services, Livingston met and encouraged other offenders serving lengthy drug-related sentences. She won't forget the ones who really want a second-chance life, she said.
While Livingston cannot have contact with them for a year, her program coordinator at BreakAway, Janice Barnett, can correspond with them.
“So many women there are getting on the BreakAway waiting list,” she said. "I told Janice to get ready to go because anybody I was there in church with that I know they are really trying to change their life…we are going to do what we can to help them.”
Livingston will be staying in BreakAway II housing — she must reside in Floyd County per her community corrections placement — and as she made her way back to New Albany on Wednesday, she seemed ready to resume her work helping others in recovery.
“There were times I felt like I fell short for everyone. I mean, you know, I was in prison. And, sometimes, you just get to feeling restless, irritable and discontent,” she said.
“Then I’d get up there and I’d start preaching. And those girls, they’d say, ‘You know Lisa, we wanted to hear that, we needed to hear that.’”
So, she is going to keep preaching her message of hope, healing and happiness through recovery to any and all who will listen.
“I am so indebted to God, and I have so much service work to do,” she said. “I can’t wait to get started and just help other people. God is just so good. He is SO good.”