For Joyce Dixson-Haskett, life had hit a fork in the road. A decision needed to be made; either her life would end or she had to KILL her trafficker. She’d just been released from the hospital after receiving a brutal beating. She knew it was only a matter of time before a “date” would lead to something worse than a 13-day hospital stay. If a “John” didn’t end her life, her trafficker might.
Joyce took to the streets, “So I get a gun. Sadly enough, you can get, you can get one anywhere. So I got a gun, took it back to the house here to in an upstairs bathroom that he didn’t use.” Once Joyce got her weapon back to the house, she hid it away so her trafficker wouldn’t find it. Her freedom was now only a trigger pull away, but it wasn’t that easy. How could it be?
She worried, but not for the reasons you might think, “I was afraid, but I wasn’t afraid because of, I dunno what the common fears would be. I was afraid of things like, what if the gun doesn’t go off? What if he sees it? I’m trying to live here." She waited for the right moment, when it was just the two of them, “came downstairs, (he was) stretched out on the sofa. I stood up, looked at him and shot him once.”
Joyce stood over him, watching life leave his body, she felt a release. She didn’t feel sad, “I thought something was wrong with me because I didn’t go to pieces or I didn’t lose my mind or anything like that. I just felt safe.” She was numb to the human emotions that you’d expect one to have in a situation like this.
She packed up her things and decided to disappear, realizing later that if she’d allowed herself to think about the crime, really think about it, things could have been different, "if you think about the consequences long enough, if, if I had thought that I’d be going to prison for a year, for 17 years or for life, you know, maybe I wouldn’t have done it, but then maybe I would’ve been dead too.” After two weeks she turned herself in and would have a trial, “It was hard. I was hurt because they made him the innocent victim. They made me the cold blooded killer and I was conflicted because I wasn’t a killer, but I killed, I wasn’t a murderer, but I murdered. I thought about it. It was premeditated. And I didn’t think about it in terms of, Oh, I’m just trying to commit premeditated murder. I was just trying to live. And it is a bad feeling to know that you took somebody else’s life. But at the same time, I do not apologize for living.”
Joyce would be convicted of 1st degree murder and sentenced to a natural life sentence, meaning she would die in jail. It was a crushing verdict, but not a surprising one.
She eased into prison life, trying to find her identity within those walls. She would later admit that she did things while incarcerated she wasn’t proud of. One month became two, then five and so on. Years started to pass and her spirit weakened, “one particular Sunday the prison ministry came and there was this little old lady, she was about 85 by 85 year old black lady. No filter at all. And so, you know, when you’re 85 years old, you figured, look, I’ve lived through enough to say whatever I want to say. So she’s in the prison and she looks at me and she says, come here baby. And I walked over to her and my good girl voice, I said, yes ma’am. She said, how much time you doing? I said, I’m doing natural life. She said, natural life. I said, yes, ma’am. That woman looked at me and said, as long as there’s breath in your body, there is hope and your hope is in Jesus, and it wasn’t what she said. It was the way she said it with authority, like she knew what she was talking about. And just like that day when I was seven and I didn’t want to stay at the carnival, I didn’t want to stay at the church service anymore. I went back to my room, I fell down on my face, in my own snot and my own tears. I said, God, if I die in this prison, it’s okay. She just saved me. If I die right here, Oh God. It’s okay if you just saved me because I had nothing left. No faith, no hope, no strength, no energy.”
But Joyce would find she had more left in the tank than she could have imagined. Her trafficker who had her under his thumb for nearly four years was dead. She lost her freedom. She lost a lot, but while in prison she gained some perspective and whole lot of knowledge. She became what was known as, a “jailhouse lawyer.” She would appeal her case in the Michigan court of appeals, she’d win, only to have the state and federal courts overturn the appeals. That happened over and over again, five times to be exact.
Joyce was gaining experience and a reputation. She had other inmates looking for help following her all over the prison. She said she figured out a trick, “I became a paralegal and because I was a paralegal, I had access to the phones and I learned the importance of making friends with court clerks. Because they were the ones who, you know, took care of all the documents and scheduled hearings and knew what was going on.” Joyce’s primary focus was helping fellow inmates maintain relationships with their children. This was an issue that was close to Joyce’s heart, since she had two sons of her own, who did visit her regularly in prison.
Her work paid off. She got help and was able to make changes happen, after 11 years. Prisoners would be granted the chance to have an education and the opportunity to make money. They would also get access to the courts, “eventually a jailhouse lawyer found an issue with my case and I was able to get back to court.”
When she got her case back in front of a judge, she had a ton of support. See, Joyce had been busy behind bars. Not only was she becoming everyone’s go-to jailhouse lawyer, she was getting a world-class education, “I was one of three women selected to be a part of a pilot program for the university of Michigan. I’m just so happy to say that I’m the first woman to ever graduate from the university of Michigan while behind bars, go blue!” And part of Joyce’s support system were from Ann Arbor, “People from the University of Michigan were there for me. Teaching assistants were there for me. It was amazing, because you can’t get a TA to be anywhere they don’t have to be. But they were there. People from the School of Social Work saying if this woman is released, she’ll be in the Master’s Program in six weeks. It was just amazing.”
Her hard work and support would pay off, “after 17 years and a 120 days," Joyce was about to do the unthinkable. After a lawyer found evidence entered into her original trial, which should have been inadmissible, it happened, “I was freed after 17 years and got out of prison. Stood in the sunlight. Well no belly chains, no leg irons, no handcuffs, 17 years. I was free and I went right into the school of social work. University of Michigan, finished my masters. Everything else is history, haven’t looked back since.”
Once she got out, Joyce continued her education, receiving her masters degree from the University of Michigan. She’s now a clinical social worker and therapist with an office in Royal Oak. Joyce helps anyone and everyone, but is a huge voice and presence in the fight against human trafficking.
Her spirit is one that makes you feel warm when you’re near it. She has a way of making you want to be better. Her words seem honest and poignant. She is quick to tell you that she doesn’t regret what happened, “we’re right where we’re supposed to be until we get to that next place. So I, I hurt because of maybe the pain I caused other people I hurt because of the pain I caused my own children, maybe my own family. But if I regret then what I’m really saying is that I’m responsible for what happened to me. And what happened to me didn’t start at the place where I shot him. What happened to me started way back when I was seven, so, so I don’t regret doing what I did cause back then wasn’t my fault. And I don’t regret doing what I did because I wanted to live.”
She wanted to live. She wanted to be there for her kids and now she wants to help others. Joyce has championed the cause for so many and I asked her, "do you allow yourself to sit back and think, “I’m pretty proud of myself?” Joyce smiles, tilts her head a bit, " Yes I do because it fuels me. It fuels me forward, and I am not afraid. Now. I’m not afraid to be proud of me. I am not afraid to give myself permission to say, Joyce, good job, well done. I’m not afraid anymore. And that’s a huge proud of what goes along with the trafficking, the guilt, the shame. You don’t think you’re worthy enough to, to expect any good thing for yourself or give yourself accolades because of a good thing, because you’re not worthy, which is a huge reason for so much. I dunno so much. Self-defeat so much. Holding back, being stuck so much. Self punishment, self-inflicted pain, because people still don’t feel that they are worthy enough to enjoy something good or to have something good in their lives and they’ll sabotage it. They will sabotage themselves because they don’t think they’re good enough. This one, I was there. I’ve been there. I know what that feels like, but I’ve also learned how to overcome it. But yes, good job, Joyce."
If you’d like to learn more about Joyce and her efforts, you can find her on her Facebook page.
If you know of someone who might be affected by human trafficking, please contact the Human Trafficking hotline: 888.373.7888. You can also SMS Text 233733 (Text “HELP” or “INFO”)