Karen's Story


When Karen was a child, her family moved from place to place often. She was born on a marine base near San Diego, California, the second eldest of six children. She calls herself a “military brat”. Life changed when she was eight and her father finally left the military. The family moved to Eugene, Oregon.

Although they were now settled in one place, things were far from easy. Karen’s mother had an alcohol addiction. She and Karen’s father were violent toward one another and the police were frequent visitors to their home. Karen’s dad worked when he could but still she and her siblings didn’t look as nice at school as they might have because their mother wasn’t coping well. Calls were made about the children to DHS by concerned teachers. Eventually, when Karen was 11, she and her siblings were taken into care.

Life in care was no easier. Karen was attacked by her foster mother and was sent to a girls’ home. After six months there, she was able to go back and live with her parents. Her brothers and sisters also joined them.

Even though they were now back together, Karen’s mother had started drinking again. When Karen was 13, her siblings went back into foster care. But DHS let Karen stay with her mother. She became her mother’s “party buddy”, drinking and smoking weed.



“Brian”* was the man who introduced Karen to heroin. He came to live with her and her mother after the latter felt bad that he was homeless. At 13 or 14 years old, she left home and went to live with Brian and his father, sometimes in a van, sometimes on the street.

Her first arrest came when she was 16, for running away from DHS. Karen was put into Rosemont in Portland, Oregon, a residential school for girls. She stayed there for a year, receiving counseling, schooling, and opportunities to take part in groups. Three months before her 18th birthday, Karen left Rosemont. There was no plan in place for what she would do next and no support available. After a short time in a foster home where her brother was, she left to be with Brian again.



Brian went to jail, but soon after, Karen met “Steven”*. He became the father of her eldest child, a boy. Karen was deeply addicted and didn’t know what to do. She placed her son for adoption, figuring it was his best chance. Her son doesn’t know about his birth mother. Steven, the birth father, is also currently incarcerated.

Karen traveled around the United States for a couple of years, going as far east as Illinois. She returned to Oregon at 20. A conviction for theft by receiving followed along with other driving-related charges for an earlier incident when she was riding around on a stolen bike someone gave her. The conviction resulted in a sentence of probation with mandatory drug treatment.

Karen spent 18 months on probation. During all this time, her addiction continued. She became pregnant again and was still using heroin. She wanted to go to a methadone clinic to get help. She hadn’t been checking in with her probation officer because of transportation issues. They started removing her financial supports and wouldn’t help her with the methadone clinic. Karen remembers this as the moment when, if things had been different and she’d been able to get connected with the clinic, she could have avoided going to prison.

One day after their daughter was born, Karen and Brian, her daughter’s father, were arrested on outstanding warrants. She had three visits with her daughter before she agreed to place her for adoption. With her addiction continuing she felt it was for the best. Although she had outstanding warrants, she hadn’t had any new arrests in a couple of years.



After ten days in jail, Karen was back on the streets again and looking for drugs. She went straight to the Saturday Market in Eugene because she knew she’d find them there. After losing her daughter, she just wanted to be numb.

That day, she met someone new. A man named “Aaron”* who had something to teach her. She went with him the next day and they burglarized their first home together. Karen followed Aaron’s lead because she’d never done it before. She wouldn’t have thought about it if he hadn’t led the way.

Over the next six months, however, Karen became an experienced burglar. She and Aaron burglarized ten homes together, doing it whenever they needed drugs. Finally, they got caught when they were leaving a house in a Neighborhood Watch area. The Lane County jail happened to be very crowded at the time, so Karen ended up being booked and released many times because there was no room.

Every time she got released, Karen burglarized a home to get drugs. She wished she could be inside for a long time to get help to detox. In the end, she even longed for prison. She felt like she was “on a suicide mission” after she lost her children. Part of her didn’t care if she died, but she also hoped to be locked up for a while so she could get clean.



Karen didn’t die, but her half-hope that she would be “held for a long time” was fulfilled. She was arraigned on two counts of Burglary I and two of Theft II. She pled guilty to the charges and was sentenced under Measure 57 to 28 months, to be served at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility. Although her prior criminal history didn’t include property crime, she was sentenced as a repeat offender based on the multiple convictions in this same case.

A few months later, while in prison for those crimes, she was charged with eight counts of Burglary I, eight of Theft I, and one of being a Felon in Possession of a Firearm. The prosecutor told Karen she could get 23 years. The first plea offer was 15 years. She eventually pled guilty to all charges and was sentenced to three 36-month consecutive sentences to run consecutively to the 28-month sentence she already had.

At the latest, Karen will be released in 2024, but with “good time” and other programs, her release date is projected to be March 2021.



Karen has had time to think about what she did and feel sorry for it. She says she tries not to minimize it, knowing that she hurt a lot of people. She wishes her victims knew that she wasn’t personally targeting them.

Karen feels like her sentence is too long and it’s as though “Oregon cares more about its property than people”. She knows women in Coffee Creek who were convicted for crimes where people were hurt or children were involved who are serving a lot less time than her. She thinks a four-to-five-year sentence would make sense. She feels she needs incarceration to get clean and get out of the lifestyle. She has been in for about four years and says it’s been good for her to learn, to take classes, and get her GED. Soon, though, she will have done all the programs available on medium unit.

The problem according to Karen is that she is serving “too much time” to be able to get access to programs that would help her, such as programs for behavioral issues. She isn’t eligible until the last six months of her sentence. Some of the programs she’s been through have been good, but they’re not available enough. Karen also can’t get one-on-one counseling. She has been trying to get it for a long time. She feels like everyone in prison needs counseling. She wants to understand why she uses and how to cope with difficult situations without drugs, how to work through the trauma, and what to do instead of using. Karen believes helping people in prison understand that committing crime is a choice and part of a mindset is important. She believes people need help to change that way of thinking.

Karen has been through residential drug treatment four times, twice as an adult. Brian is her downfall. She goes back to him and starts using again.

Karen has been keeping a journal and writing poetry. But, it’s different from having someone to talk to directly who can give you feedback. She’s worried about getting institutionalized. She’s seen how women can get so used to Coffee Creek that the outside is too overwhelming and they want to be back inside.

She recently learned that she has some Sioux Nation heritage. She isn’t an enrolled member of the tribe, but she found out her grandmother was one quarter or more Sioux.

Karen’s plan so far for her release is to go to Sponsors, a re-entry program in Eugene. She also has a “grandma and grandpa”, a couple who stopped to help her when she was pregnant and flying a sign by the side of the road. They visit her regularly and will help her when she gets out.

*Name changed to protect privacy.