ROANE COUNTY - Sonya Ashford started selling crack to try to give her three children the life she never had.
“I felt like I was being the mother to my kids that my momma wasn’t to me," she said.
Her daughter Jayana remembers how life changed when the family had a sudden influx of money.
“Momma was like, 'What y’all want to do? We can do anything. You want a Jacuzzi?'" she said. "And Bryson (her brother) would be like, 'Yeah let’s get a Jacuzzi.' And then Momma would find somewhere.
"We just didn't know how she did it."
Sonya said she looked out for clients, which she believes separated her from other drug dealers.
“The children of some of the people that I sold drugs to, I would give them my number. If you’re ever scared or if there’s ever something wrong you call me, and several times, I would get those calls," Sonya said. "Momma’s laying here, she’s got a needle in her arm. Momma won’t wake up. They would come and stay with me a lot of times, I’d go get them, and I’d validate what I was doing."
After four years of selling drugs, the consequences of Sonya's drug-dealing lifestyle caught up with her. Before authorities caught Sonya, her partners were torturing a client over stolen money.
"They beat him, tied him to a chair, duct taped his mouth, split the duct tape to a razor, made me go up and get the person that lives there’s crack pipe," Sonya said. "They stuck it in his mouth, took the drugs out of their own pack, struck a lighter to it and made him inhale."
When her partners took a nap and left Sonya on guard with a weapon she could not use, the client got loose.
“The police (saw) this guy running down the street with no clothes on," Sonya said. "He led them back to the place, and here I am with these folks and got arrested."
Sonya pleaded guilty to charges of aggravated kidnapping and possession of Schedule II narcotics. She went to prison in 2001, leaving her three children with their grandmother.
“I told my children before I left. I made some mistakes and terrible mistakes," Sonya said. "I’m sorry I have to leave, but once I get there I’m going to do everything I can to be a better mother to you, and to apply myself and come out doing things a whole lot better."
Sonya spent most of her time and prison commissary on her children, serving as a mother behind bars. She sent her children bible verses and informative articles in the mail. She also entered a collegiate prison program and earned 36 college credits with a 3.66 GPA.
Outside, her children struggled without their mother.
“(In) first grade, I remember and I went in the room crying and my teacher came up to me and said, 'Jayana what’s wrong?' And I said, 'I miss my mom.'" Jayana said. "She’s like, 'What happened to your mom?' and I said, 'She went away.' She said, 'Well, is she coming back?' I said, 'I don’t know.'"
She and her two brothers, Bryson and Javare, balanced school, childhood and a sick grandmother at home.
“Nine years old, getting her out of bed, taking her to the bathroom, cleaning her, getting her back," Jayana said. "(I remember) almost getting kicked out of school. Nineteen days I was absent and everybody was like, 'Why are you always late to school?'
"I was like 'You just don’t understand. I have to take care of my grandmother.'”
While it made life harder for her and her children, Sonya said prison was the best thing that happened to her.
“I remember myself praying God just take it all away…make it better. I guess the answer to my prayer was being incarcerated because incarceration changed my life,” Sonya said.
Now a free woman, Sonya works as a manager at a local peer support center using her past to help others.
“They walk into the door because this is a safe place for them," she said. "This is a place where they can be themselves without any judgment whatsoever."
She tells her story and helps others struggling with mental issues or addiction to turn their lives in a positive direction.
“When you don’t have hope, you really don’t care," she said. "When you don’t care, things start going downhill. So, if I can instill that hope and keep them moving on and pressing forward to be the best person they know they can be, I’m going to do that.”
Sonya's children, shaped by a troubled childhood and learning from their mother's example, are now all leading lives she is proud of.
Bryson is pursuing a degree in child psychology. Jayana is still in high school. She hopes to go to college and open her own dance studio one day. Javare, the youngest of the three, is a dedicated student-athlete.
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