Words by Heather Kilby 

A strange man came into her home and dragged her out kicking and screaming. She was taken to a junkyard outside of town and raped. He then drove her to the countryside and left her in the middle of nowhere. She walked toward town for help, knocking on farm house doors until finally, on the edge of town, someone answered.

All just after her 12th birthday. This is when her life began to fall apart.

When 42-year-old felon Marilyn McCurry recalls her childhood, she remembers that horrific experience. The hospital rape kit. The court proceedings that would eventually convict the man who kidnapped her that night.  She remembers her following teenage years: riddled with jail time, drug abuse and two children before she turned 18.

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McCurry spends time with her boys, Tyler (left) and Dane Hopwood (right), before she was sentenced to prison. She said that this photo was taken at a time when “I was messed up. Look how skinny I was.” Photo provided by Marilyn McCurry.

Ten years ago, when McCurry was 32 she was sentenced to five years in federal prison for trafficking methamphetamine and heroin through the United States Postal Service. She spent the majority of her sentence in southern Illinois at the Greenville Federal Prison Camp away from her sons, ages 13 and 15, back home in Grinnell, Iowa. Because of the distance, she saw them only twice a year.  

Her children lived with her father and stepmother. To her, they were a godsend. They raised her boys the entire time she was behind bars.

“It was hard on the whole family. I missed out on most of their teenage years. It is something that I probably haven’t completely forgiven myself for,” McCurry says. Her hardest day was missing her oldest graduate from high school. It has been six years since her release from prison. The subject still lingers, and the time she was separated from her boys continues to spark emotions.

“Still, to this day, my youngest will sometimes look at me and say, ‘Mom, you’re here. You’re really here,’” McCurry says. “I think that he took it harder than anyone because he still brings up that he’s just glad that I’m here.” Her sons have chosen a life of success. Her youngest is a junior at the University of Iowa and her oldest son will graduate from Drake University Law School in May. She is certain her mistakes motivated him to become a lawyer.

“Whenever I was in trouble, I put my life in my lawyer’s hands. He was very instrumental in helping me and to this day is still a very good friend,” McCurry says. “[My son] also sees that I went away to prison and I came back and I was better. I think that he wants to be out there helping people.”

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McCurry poses for a photo in a prison courtyard to pass the time. McCurry says taking photos was “something to do. It was the only time we really had an excuse to do our hair and makeup. We would pay for the pictures from our commissary and take them on the weekends.” Photo provided by Marilyn McCurry.

While in prison, choosing her friends wisely helped her maintain a positive mindset. “You didn’t hang out with the people that were going to get out and do the same thing again,” she says. “I tried to hang out with the people that truly felt sorry for what they did or see the mistakes they made and were doing things while they were in prison to better their lives.” McCurry still has a handful of friendships that originated in prison.

A welding apprenticeship, Bible studies and yoga were also crucial in helping McCurry pass her time behind bars. McCurry spent more than 6,000 hours completing the welding apprenticeship program. With her certificate in hand, she was able to leave prison confident that she’d land a job on her own. “I didn’t have to depend on a man or drugs to support me or any of those old ways,” McCurry says.

But she would soon find out that employers weren’t so fond of her troubled past, with or without her certificate. “When I got out, I applied at several places. I was filling out an application and a lady in the front office noticed that I put down that I had been incarcerated. She snatched up my application and said, ‘We don’t hire your kind of people here.’ Those were her exact words,” McCurry says.

The harsh judgments that brought tears to her eyes that day would continue from other employers as she searched for a welding job. To eventually leave the halfway house, she had to be employed full-time. She was willing to settle for a less-desirable job in order to finally be home in Grinnell with her kids. “It was really hard. The first job that I got was cleaning rooms at a hotel. It wasn’t even in the profession I wanted,” McCurry says. She eventually would land a job welding truck accessories on third shift at DeeZee in Des Moines. “I’m still very grateful that they gave me the chance. They treated me very good. A wonderful company to work for.”

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Dane, Marylin and Tyler spend quality time together in an outside visiting area. Visits eventually only occurred twice a year because of the distance from their home to the prison. Photo provided by Marilyn McCurry.

She is now the Reliability Lead at Jeld-Wen Window Division, a window and door manufacturer in her hometown, where she said she has the opportunity to weld from time to time.

Courtney Greene, communications coordinator for Iowa Workforce Development, says there are some important initiatives that the center is working on with various partner organizations to address the issue of offender reentry. “Ninety-three percent of offenders currently behind bars will be eligible for release,” Greene says. “The best indicator for success for these Iowans in reducing recidivism, according to Iowa Workforce Development, is employment. They must have training and opportunity. And the other key component is a welcoming work environment with employers who will give them a chance.”

Finding employment was not the only barrier to overcome for McCurry after her release. Transitioning from life in prison back into a life in society was a struggle. She sees a need for more efficient programs that assist women during this process.

“I don’t think that you can throw a whole bunch of time at people and make them stay in prison and make them better,” McCurry says. “Because honestly, most women I know who did 20, 30 years had a very hard time adjusting when they got out. If they even adjusted at all.”

According to the National Institute of Justice, within three years of release, about two-thirds of former prisoners were rearrested. And within five years of release, about three-quarters of former prisoners were rearrested. McCurry hasn’t had any relapses or run-ins with the law since she was discharged. “I have not ever felt like using drugs or being involved in drugs. I think the things that have prevented that is that I have a huge support system from my family and friends,” McCurry says. “My children. Just seeing how good they are doing. I would never want to put them through that again. I couldn’t even bear to do that.” Her ability to completely walk away from drug use is rare. About 95 percent of inmates return to alcohol and drug use after being released from prison, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

McCurry had to sever ties with people who were a negative influence to make her new lifestyle work. But keeping a sense of hope for her old friends — who still can’t break their bad habits — is important to her. “Several of my friends who haven’t changed their lives are still into drugs and stuff,” McCurry says. “I have had to completely remove myself from their lives and put myself at a distance, but I let them know that if they ever need anything and if they want to change, I am here to help with that.”

Despite the straight and narrow path McCurry now travels, prison is still present in her life. Her husband is currently behind bars. McCurry uses her new state of mind to encourage him to make the life changes she has. After all, she has walked in his shoes. “I am there supporting him and trying not to enable him or anything,” McCurry says. “I have complete faith that he can make the same turnaround that I did. I can relate to him. I can be the person who can help bring him through this.” He is scheduled to be released in December.

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Marylin and Kirk McCurry walk hand-in-hand along a gravel path in their hometown, Grinnell, Iowa. Photo provided by Marilyn McCurry.

McCurry’s dramatic life changes have been a crucial part in leaving her past behind. Most people she interacts with today have a hard time picturing her as she once was. “When people find out at work that I have been to prison, they’re kind of in disbelief. They can’t even imagine that I was there,” McCurry says. “I have to tell them that a completely different person went to prison than I am now.”

McCurry has spent the last six years putting the pieces of her life back together. Family and faith have been the backbone of her optimism. “My biggest coping mechanism was God. I always believed in God, but I never depended on him,” says McCurry. “I always thought horrible things were always going to happen to me no matter what.”

“I am not just a prisoner, but I accept that I was a prisoner because if I hadn’t done that time, I would probably be dead,” McCurry says. “Prison saved my life.”

McCurry has a bright future full of quality time with her family to look forward to — one where her past does not define who she is.