Stephanie Taylor-Thompson – Freed From the Pit and Raised Up High 

Stephanie Thompson- cropped

Despite a hard upbringing and a very troubled life, the power of faith eventually turned Stephanie Taylor-Thompson around and set her on a path of helping others fight the same battles she did. (Photo provided by Designs by Dreana Photography, designsbydreanaphotography.mypixieset.com) 

By Steve Bertel 

Editor’s note: Information in the following article is comprised of an interview with Stephanie Taylor-Thompson, as well as from a YouTube video of a TED Talk written and presented by Taylor-Thompson. (See the YouTube link* to the video at the end of the article.) 

It was February 11, 2011. 

Mid-afternoon. And cold. Temperatures hovered near freezing. 

Yet another eastern Idaho storm had blanketed the ground with some six inches of snow. And the sidewalk Stephanie Taylor-Thompson trudged along was icy and wet and slushy. “I had no food. I had no home. I had no money. I had no car. And I had absolutely no one who I could count on,” she remembered. “I’ve been through a lot of scary things in my life but, by far, the scariest was the uncertainty I faced on that cold, four-mile walk …” 

The young woman was certainly not dressed for the harsh conditions, wearing only the clothes she had been assigned: a light T-shirt, jeans, socks (that had become drenched from all the slush), and sandals – actually, prison shower sandals she had worn while serving time at the Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center. 

Where she had just been released. 

Growing up in Idaho Falls, Stephanie’s life had not been easy. “While my childhood looked good on the outside – I had a home, I had plenty of food to eat, I had a nice school to go to – internally, it was a living nightmare,” she said. Both her parents struggled with depression, anxiety, and mental illness. Her father drank heavily; in fact, he spent years behind bars for the numerous DUIs he had racked up. Her mother had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and had nearly died. 

As far as having God in her life, well, He was barely a blip on her family’s radar. “My mom was a believer, but we never went to church,” Stephanie pointed out. Additionally, “I remember my father had an extremely contentious relationship with Christ. He had been raised LDS, but had left the church at a very young age.” 

Then, after being sexually abused by a family friend at age 12 – she reported the attack, but her abuser was never charged – she gravitated toward what she called “some pretty unhealthy relationships.” One relationship led to a man who was 18 years her senior; she was only 14 at the time, he was 32. “I was a very vulnerable young girl back then, very lost. Looking back, he had absolutely no business being around me,” she said. “But there was so much destruction going on in my family, I was really searching for a male role model. With him, for the first time in my life, I felt protected.” 

But she soon realized their “boyfriend/girlfriend” relationship had evolved into a dangerous and controlling situation, where he no longer allowed her to communicate with family and friends. In fact, it wasn’t long before he controlled every part of her life, to the point where he forced her to work as his drug “mule,” helping him to regularly transport illegal narcotics from California to Idaho. 

In addition to becoming addicted to both methamphetamine and cocaine, there were even times “I was sold against my will and [sexually assaulted by multiple men] to pay drug debts.” Realizing the toll it was taking on her, Stephanie tried to escape the lifestyle, especially after facing a number of drug trafficking charges. But her boyfriend – her “trafficker,” as she calls him today – wouldn’t hear of it. 

“It was one of the very few promises he made to me that came true,” she recalled. “He told me, ‘If you ever betray me or leave me, you are not going to survive’.” Defying that threat led to her being sexually assaulted – again – and stabbed multiple times by “people he sent.” As a result of the attack, she suffered a traumatic brain injury, “and my ability to have children was completely taken away.” She said she never recovered emotionally after that. “But when I recovered physically, I immediately went right back to drugs. I continued to use. I continued to get into trouble; in fact, by then, I had been in and out of jail more times that I can count,” she stated. 

At age 19, Stephanie was arrested for being involved with what at that time was the largest drug trafficking operation eastern Idaho law enforcement officials said they had ever seen. According to reports, a man who hauled vegetables throughout the country in his semi-truck was actually a major drug trafficker. In fact, authorities estimated he had brought more than $1 million of illegal narcotics into Idaho over a five-year period. After a long investigation, detectives arrested the man and all his known associates – including Stephanie. As a result, she faced a mandatory minimum prison sentence of ten years to life. 

In 2010, while on felony supervision in Idaho, Stephanie absconded to Montana, where the dark pit she was living in became even deeper. “I received another felony drug possession charge, and was given a ten-year prison sentence. Because of the circumstances, I was going to get charged federally but, by the grace of God, an officer advocated for my charges to stay at the state level. So I was extradited back to Idaho,” she explained. She was incarcerated at the Women’s Correctional Center south of Boise. “I can’t even articulate how angry of a person I was at that time.” 

Although she had been behind bars numerous times before, Stephanie’s anxiety and anger boiled over one day and she was involved in what she termed “a heated argument” with another inmate. Fortunately, prison staffers intervened, pulled the two apart, sat Stephanie down, and had a heart-to-heart talk with her. “At that point,” she admitted, “I was ready to throw in the towel. I told them, ‘Let me do my time here in Idaho. Then I’ll go back to Montana and do my ten years there.’ But they got me settled down and told me, ‘Look. Stop and think about what you’re doing. You’re not a bad person. Just because you’ve made mistakes in your life doesn’t mean you can’t have a future.’ Looking back, it was an amazing conversation. It really changed my whole outlook on life.” 

Soon thereafter and, while still incarcerated, Stephanie met a woman named Kati Eckenrode, a volunteer services coordinator, who was teaching a Bible study/Celebrate Recovery class to a group of female inmates. After attending the first class, Stephanie said, “Everything in my life changed. Prior to that, I was depressed. I had zero self-worth. And I had PTSD to the point where even certain little noises would absolutely throw me over the edge.” 

She remembers well the class exercise that turned her life around. “Kati gave each of us a sheet of paper and told us to write down how we felt Christ saw us. It was obvious to me the other women in the class had attended Bible studies and knew the Word. But I had no idea what to write down. I didn’t know any Scripture. And I certainly did not feel like a daughter of Christ. 

 “So I didn’t write anything. Plus, I was not a person who had shared in class. Ever. When Kati saw my blank paper, she said ‘You need to rip that paper up. Everything you’re thinking right now is not true. Christ loves you. Everything you’ve done wrong has been forgiven. Christ died on the cross for your sins. Not just for a few of your sins. For all of them. You are worthy of His grace; you are worthy of His love.’ So I came back to her class again. And kept coming back. 

“One day, Kati helped me pray, not in a scripted way, but coming to Him very vulnerable and asking for my life to be restored through Him. In fact, that was the first time I had really, really genuinely prayed. Whenever I’d be arrested, I’d ‘pray,’ ‘Please God, don’t let this happen again.’ But it was always superficial. It wasn’t genuine. When I prayed with Kati, I was ready to turn my life over to God. I remember I cried harder than I had ever cried in my life.” 

The next day, Stephanie recalled, she felt “totally changed. It was surreal. I felt like a 1,000-pound weight had been lifted from my chest. I found a joy and peace in my life I had never felt before. Whenever any worry or anxiety came up, I would tell God, ‘You know, I’m going to turn this over to You’.” 

But her newfound faith did not come without challenges. 

Recovered from her addictions and ready to start life anew, she was released from prison on February 11, 2011, and ordered to immediately report to her parole officer. But with no transportation and no one to give her a ride, she had to walk the four long miles to her PO’s office. If she didn’t report in, she’d be returned to custody. 

So she trudged through the snow and slush and freezing temperatures with only the light prison clothes she had been assigned. And, she was facing another problem: her re-entry plan had crumbled away. The home she had arranged to move into suddenly was no longer available, given the area’s housing shortage. “I was terrified. I didn’t know what I was going to do. My feet were numb from the cold, but I kept walking. And I kept telling myself Philippians 4:13: ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’.” 

Eventually, she made it to her parole officer, who helped her find housing, get on her feet, and even helped her enroll in college. Her goal? “I saw what all the correctional professionals had done for me, and I told myself, ‘I want to do what they’re doing. I want to help people like they’ve helped me’.” 

Attending college, she progressed through classes to where she needed to apply for an internship program. But those in charge told her, “Look. When employers discover your background, you’re never going to get an internship. You have four felony convictions. Give up. Do something else with your life’.” 

“So I prayed to God about it,” she said. “I asked Him, ‘What on Earth do you want me to do with a criminology and sociology degree?’ And He told me very clearly, ‘I need you to work at the Department of Correction. I’m putting you there to help change things.’ I knew the one person who could make a decision on my internship was the director of the Idaho Department of Correction at that time, Kevin Kempf. So I drove all the way to Boise and waited outside his office until he came out. When I told him my story and what I wanted to do, he graciously agreed to help me. He’s an amazing man.” 

So, not only did Stephanie get her IDOC internship, she became a full-time IDOC employee – in fact, the first re-entry specialist for the state of Idaho – and ended up earning two degrees through Idaho State University: an AA in criminology and a BA with a sociology emphasis. She also became President of the National Honor Society’s local chapter. And she’s currently working toward her MSW (Master of Social Work) degree. 

Today, Stephanie’s résumé reflects her unending passion to help those in the criminal justice system with their community re-entry. She has served on numerous volunteer boards in the behavioral health, suicide prevention, addiction recovery, and anti-human trafficking fields, her work honored with a number of state and national awards. She was the keynote speaker at one of then-Governor “Butch” Otter’s Idaho Meth Project banquets. She has done numerous public speaking engagements, including a TED Talk and numerous media interviews … and is currently not only a four-state prison ministry manager for Prison Fellowship, but is founder and CEO of Empire Re-entry and Recovery Solutions, helping those formerly incarcerated re-enter society. She also volunteers her time helping human trafficking survivors and others across the country in the pardon process. 

As a result of her stellar work and dedication, in 2017, she received full pardons from both Idaho and Montana. 

And for years now, she and her husband have attended a Christian church on a regular basis. 

Looking back on her life, Stephanie said, “God has always been there for me, even when I didn’t realize it. Nothing happened in my life by coincidence. All the bad happened for a reason. God brought me through it, and has now given me the ability to help others – to His glory.” 

 

If you are interested in serving with Prison Fellowship, you can contact Stephanie at [email protected]. There are currently three Prison Fellowship programs in Idaho: at both the Idaho State Correctional Center and the South Boise Women’s Correctional Center in Kuna, and at the Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center in eastern Idaho. 

 

*www.ted.com/talks/stephanie_taylor_silva_post_prison_mentoring_breaking_chains_saving_lives 

 

Steve Bertel is a multi-award-winning professional radio, television, print media, and social media journalist, who retired after a 30-year broadcasting career. Now a busy freelance writer, he has written a book titled, “Dolphins of an Unjust Sea”, available on both Amazon and Kindle. Steve and his wife of 41 years live in Meridian, Idaho. He may be reached at [email protected]. 

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