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Ex-inmate to speak at women's conference

When Donna Hubbard last spent time in Lexington, she didn't get to see many horse farms or rolling hills, nor did she sip any Kentucky bourbon or a mint julep.

She was confined behind the barbed and razor wire fences of the Lexington Federal Correctional Institute, now the Federal Medical Center, on Leestown Road, serving two 12-year sentences concurrently.

"I had been in and out of jail seven times before that," Hubbard said. "I had been shot at and stabbed. Had I not gone to prison, I would be dead. It was a mercy station."

In more than one way.

In 1991, four years into her sentence, Hubbard, pregnant by an inmate, gave birth to a daughter. Because her extended family was sharing the responsibilities for rearing her other five children, Hubbard tried to get someone in Lexington to watch over her newborn by writing letters to area churches.

Mary Brown, a member of Lima Drive Seventh Day Adventist Church, stepped up.

For several months, five hours a day, five days a week, Brown brought Hubbard's baby to the prison so mother and daughter could bond and so Hubbard could breast feed the baby.

"Yes, that was me," Brown said when I found her, still living in Lexington and a member of the same church. "I did it for love."

Hubbard, who will be the keynote speaker at the 15th Annual Black Women's Conference at the University of Kentucky, hopes to reunite with Brown during her return to Lexington next week. Hubbard said she is bringing her daughter, now 18, along as well.

It will be the completion of circuitous events in Hubbard's life that have made her whole.

The theme of this year's conference is "Cruel and Unusual Punishment: Black Women in the Correctional System," and Hubbard is more than qualified to address that topic, as are far too many other black women.

According to a Pew Public Safety Performance Project entitled "One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008," one in every 279 black women is incarcerated compared with one in every 1,064 white women and one in every 658 Hispanics. For ages 35 to 39, one in every 100 black women are in jail or prison, a number unmatched by any other group.

Adult women over all are the fastest growing incarcerated group. It was an unlikely group for Hubbard to join.

Born into a middle-class family in Atlanta, Hubbard was valedictorian of her high school in 1972, graduating a semester early at age 17. While still in high school, she got married and soon after gave birth to her first child. She was divorced at 18.

Over the next decade and more, Hubbard's life took an increasingly steep downward slide. Drugs, prostitution, homelessness and gang violence became more important than her love of family. There would be periods of clarity and then easy returns to her self-destructive patterns.

"I came from a very affluent family," Hubbard said. "But I started looking for love in all the wrong places. I thought if he didn't beat me, he didn't love me. I thought if he had sex with me, then he loved me. When I didn't have anyone else around, I abused myself. That's where the drugs came in."

As a result of those actions, Hubbard said she was labeled a convict and negligent mother. "That was what I did. It was not who I was."

It was during one of her sober periods that she received an internship with a Minnesota television station. She accepted an assignment to go undercover to report on gang activities, a life she already knew.

It was like the attraction of a moth to a flame.

She started using drugs again and participating in the gang. She was arrested along with several other members, convicted of conspiracy to manufacture and distribute more than 50 grams of crack cocaine and of aiding and abetting the possession of 10 grams of cocaine with intent to manufacture. She received 12 years for each offense and was sent to FCI in Lexington.

"I had gotten myself so far out there, I thought God couldn't help me," Hubbard said. "I didn't have a mentor or role model.

"My mother was a phenomenal woman, but I couldn't hear her," she continued. "It had to be someone who had sat in the muck and mire that I was in."

She used her time to take classes and to lead Bible studies.

"I surrendered to God but my soul was crying out for more," she said.

The missing piece, Hubbard said, was holiness, a life that is pleasing to God.

She met Margaret Reynolds, a former back-up singer for K.C. and the Sunshine Band, serving a 10-year sentence for conspiracy and distribution of cocaine. During her incarceration, Reynolds became an evangelist, and Hubbard was the first woman she mentored.

"Mother Margaret came into my life when I didn't have any leverage," Hubbard said. "She made me believe I could have better if I did better."

It was then Hubbard began to understand that accountability, commitment and consistency could rescue her from low self-esteem, a lack of self-respect, and no self-confidence.

In 1991, she was transferred to Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia and paroled in 1992 after serving six years of her sentence. Raised a Muslim, Hubbard became a Christian minister in prison.

She returned to Atlanta, where she established the Woman at the Well Transition Center in 1994. The residential center provided support services for women released from prison and women with HIV/AIDS.

Today she is pastor and founder of Temple of Glory Church of God in Jonesboro, Ga., and she is a flight attendant for Shuttle America.

Hubbard will speak twice in Lexington for the black women's conference, which is sponsored by UK's African American Studies and Research Program.

Her key message: change starts from within.

"Some people don't have a choice of where they grew up or their nationality," Hubbard said. "But the things that they do have power to choose is what dictates their destiny."

Even if young people have the best intentions, their associations can bring them down.

"You don't have to be garbage, but if you stand in garbage, you're going to stink in a minute," she said.

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