Patricia B. McCray had always wanted to be a teacher. Today that dream has come true, but not as she had envisioned.
Along the way, she ended up in prison for forging checks and was accused of bank fraud. That’s where she met the pupils she was destined to guide--her sisters, her fellow inmates.
“I am a formerly incarcerated individual [rather than convicted felon],” McCray said. “That means that’s in the past and now I am moving forward to a successful life.”
Her time in prison inspired her to help people turn their life around, just as she did. After completing her time in prison, she founded Butterfly Life Journeys, an organization focused helping other succeed no matter what their circumstances are.
“They need support,” McCray said. “[Formerly incarcerated individuals] need someone that says ‘here is a place where you can stay, here are some bus passes’ or even a temporary job.”
Recently, she was named a 2017 Trailblazer honoree by the Oasis Center for Women and Girls, a non-profit focused on supporting women’s lives. She was awarded for her efforts in mentoring former inmates and other people who have faced difficulties in their lives.
“God has give us all the desire to succeed,” McCray said. “We have to identify it and know that it’s there, that we all have value.”
She also made it on the Tallahassee Democrat’s “25 Women You Need to Know.”
Today, she is assistant to the City Manager for the City of Tallahassee. She is a pillar of the community today and seeks to improve the life of her mentees.
Her hard work paid off, but she had to overcome the traumatic years that came before.
McCray grew up in Meigs, Ga, on the poor side of the tracks – often called the black side.
Even then, however, she was focused – in her early years – completely on school. Her father worked as a mechanic. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom.
McCray’s father was 60 and her mother 40 years old when she was born. Daddy was a mechanic, but sometimes, when he couldn’t find paid work, he bartered with neighbors, she said.
When she was 10, her father died. Her father couldn’t afford his diabetes medication and died from kidney failure.
“He didn't believe in taking his medicines, and partly because he couldn't afford them,” McCray said.
When she was 11, her momma died. Her momma died from “sheer heartbreak,” she said.
McCray and her younger brother moved to Washington, D.C. to live with their aunt and uncle. A country mouse in the big city is how she described herself.
She focused even more on her schoolwork to ease the pain of her parent’s deaths. “I dedicated my life to making my parents proud of me,” McCray said.
She finally graduated from high school with honors in 1976 and received a four-year scholarship to study at Florida A&M University, in Tallahassee.
She continued her higher education, dedicated to becoming the teacher she always dreamed of being.
But everything changed during her sophomore year. That’s when she met her future husband and ended up dropping out of college to marry him.
He was trouble and the relationship was unhappy from the beginning. The couple eventually had three children: two sons and a daughter.
The family moved back to Meigs where they rented a ramshackle home. Eventually McCray’s unhappiness and the turmoil of the marriage became too much for her to bear or, she felt, for her children to witness.
The thought of leaving him terrified her. But, with the help of a coworker, she finally made the decision to live a happier life. “She said ‘Patricia, I know what's happened to you,’” remembered McCray.
After a heart-to-heart, the two women came up with a plan for McCray to leave her husband.
“It took me some time to get to a point I could do this,” she said. “It took a lot of time to stop being scared.”
The plan was that when her husband left for work on the appointed day, McCray would walk to her mailbox, open it and then go back inside the house. That would be the signal her friend needed to drive in the moving truck and start loading.
It worked and McCray thought she and her three children were on the way to a better life.
However, without a husband, she was financially struggling. She had a job as a bookkeeper but wasn’t making enough to support her three children. Desperate to make ends meet, McCray began forging checks at her job.
On November of 1994, Tallahassee police came looking for McCray at her house. She was being accused of bank fraud and received a court date.
Shortly after that fateful knock, a letter in the mail came through. By that time, she had already quit her job, since she knew trouble was coming.
McCray’s court date happened a few months later, in July 1995, where she was arrested immediately after the trial. Hours before the trial, she dropped her children off at the park because her son had a baseball game.
That was the last day she saw her children until the end of her sentence.
“I became incarcerated that very day,” McCray said. “My lawyer was sure I would receive probation, but that wasn’t the case.”
One of the things she remembers distinctly is the sound of the prison gates closing behind her.
“That sound ... the sound of that door closing ... that’s the loss of freedom. The loss of your freedom,” McCray said.
After her trial, at which she received a 36 month sentence for the charges of bank fraud and check forgery, she was taken to Marianna Camp for Women in 1995 and then transferred to Tallahassee Federal Correctional prison in 1996, where she finished her time.
McCray slept in a solitary cell in Tallahassee, where she could only tell if it was day or night by a small skylight. She couldn’t see her children during visitation because they were underage.
Near the end of her sentence, her daughter finally turned 18 and visited McCray one time. She never went back because the visit upset her too much.
“It makes you feel that you’re not a human, that you’re just some animal and they don’t care how they treat you,” she said. “It takes some time to recover from that.”
One of the things that motivated during her long days at the prison was hearing the other incarcerated women singing “Amazing Grace” during their work shift.
McCray and the other incarcerated women had to clean their dorms daily and the group singing uplifted everyone’s spirits. The group ended up singing together through every cleaning shift.
She began calling her fellow inmates her “sisters.”
When she finally got out, she wanted to support both the women she left inside and the ones who’d gained their freedom but were struggling to make it outside the bars.
She struggled and lived on the streets for a few months, until a friend got her directed her to a job opportunity. She finally got a job with the City of Tallahassee about 10 months after her release. There, she felt respected.
One day, her coworker marveled at her skill. He told her she should be manager one day.
McCray blushed. “Really? You think so?” she said.
The simple act of planting the idea in her head gave her hope.
Online, she found a leadership academy offered through Tallahassee Community College that she decided to enter. She also found a mentor who helped her rebuild her self-esteem and confidence, after the rough years she expended locked inside.
She was finally able to talk about her experiences. “It wasn’t easy,” she remembered. “But I was finally talking about it.”
She wanted to give that guidance to others. She knew how much they needed help with transitioning from prison to society.
In 2014, she started going back into the prison to teach women inmates. Every week, she teaches a class of 300 women how to deal with this transition.
Through her organization Butterfly Life’s Journey and her mentoring inside the prison, McCray provides guidance to the community, as she likes to call it, and help those recovering from adversity.
Now, she sees her difficult life as the metamorphosis of a butterfly and know that others could see their life in this way, too.
McCray wears an electric blue blazer and her hair delicately reaches her shoulders. She also displays a bright butterfly pin on her left shoulder.
“I am a butterfly, sitting on the flower, waiting to take my wings and fly,” through the path of prison reform, McCray said.