The Yorker by Dexter Filkins
August 31, 2020
Betty Riddle grew up in Sarasota, Florida, in a segregated neighborhood that people back in the nineteen-sixties called Black Bottom. She was raised by her mother, Idella, in a wooden house on Central Avenue. When she was twelve, Idella was murdered—“killed by a woman over a man,” Riddle recalled—and so she moved in with her aunt. Riddle learned early how to fight. When she was fifteen years old and seven months pregnant, she stabbed a taunting rival in the eye with a hooked knife.
In 1975, Riddle was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, and given three years’ probation. After she had her baby, a daughter named Leola, she turned to drugs, especially crack cocaine. “I saw crack in everything,” she said. “Whatever I could sell, I sold.” She had another baby by another man, but mostly forgot about her children, resorting to robbery and prostitution to pay for crack. Riddle was in and out of prison, for drugs and for theft; she had two more babies by two more men. “Every boyfriend I ever had was a drug dealer,” she said. In 2002, she was sentenced to a fifth term—ten years this time, for selling cocaine.
In the Gadsden Correctional Facility, in northern Florida, Riddle started listening to radio sermons by a pastor with a soothing voice. At first, the sermons were just a curiosity, something other inmates listened to, but after a time the pastor’s gentle prodding made her examine herself. “I was watching my kids have kids and visit me in prison,” she remembered. One day, while Riddle was writing a letter to her children, the pastor came on the radio with a new message. “God doesn’t change who you are,” he said. “He changes what you have become.” The words startled Riddle. “I put my pen down and said, Damn, that’s me. I was a good person, I used to be a leader, and I’ve become a drug addict. I’m tired of hurting my kids.”