Imprisoned for drug smuggling, former sailor puts her life back together
NAPLES, Italy — For five years, Felicia Wyche ached for just one moment to be alone.
To cry with no one watching.
To exercise in the prison gym without the prying eyes of a video camera.
To sleep in a room not shared by at least nine other convicts.
Then, when six months ago she got that wish, she couldn’t stand the solitude.
“It just didn’t feel right to not have someone watching. Isn’t that strange? Sometimes, I’d have to go outside just to be with other people, to not be alone.”
Former Petty Officer 2nd Class Felicia Wyche, 37, is home in the States, and out of the Navy after losing 12 years of her life in the hard-nosed Italian penal system, which included serving five years in Rebibbia, a maximum security prison for women in Rome.
Her adult life started in 1991 with lofty ambitions of embarking on a naval career that would let her travel the world and earn a college education in the process.
Fifteen years later, she has been administratively separated from the Navy, has no college degree, and a criminal record in Italy.
She says she’s a better woman for it.
“In spite of it all, I feel increasingly blessed,” the soft-spoken woman said during a recent interview. “I’m stronger. I discovered I have a family who supported me no matter what.”
Debt leads to trouble
After a tour on the destroyer tender USS Yosemite, Wyche, an interior communications electrician, transferred to Naples, Italy, in 1993.
She moved without her husband, also in the military, who remained in Jacksonville, Fla. She declined to talk details, but said the couple landed in debt and she thought she had found a way out in the downtown streets of Naples.
“I met this Tanzanian man, and he offered a possible way to make a lot of money if I’d travel between Istanbul and Italy with drugs. As an American, I felt like I’d fall under the radar.”
She make the trip three times, earning $10,000 each time.
It was so easy at first, she said. She’d pick up a piece of luggage in Istanbul, fly to Naples with it, and hand it off to someone else. She knew she was ferrying drugs, but never knew exactly what.
Curiosity never got the better of her, she said. She didn’t peek inside. “It could have been Cocoa Puffs in the bag for all I knew.”
Italian police arrested Wyche in March 1995 and charged her with conspiracy and smuggling cocaine and heroin. Her fate was in limbo for years as her case worked its way through the sluggish and overburdened Italian court system.
In June 1999, she got her day in court and was convicted and sentenced to 11 years in prison. She appealed, and in 2001, Italy’s high court upheld the conviction, but reduced her sentence to eight years ... to be served in the dungeon-like walls of Rebibbia.
Reality reaches home
“The hardest thing that day was seeing the look on my mother’s face when they took me away.”
Somehow, however, it still didn’t seem real. She figured there’d still be some way for her to get out of it.
Until the cell doors closed.
With her on the inside.
No way out.
Wyche was assigned to a cellblock with women who’d been convicted of crimes associated with the Mafia, with women connected to Italy’s famed Red Brigade, a militant leftist group that reportedly kidnapped and killed one of Italy’s prime ministers in the late 1970s and terrorized governmental leaders.
She didn’t belong, she thought. What had she done, really? Ferried a couple of suitcases with drugs, she rationalized.
Then she saw her first addict.
“From that dark place, from that prison, I saw the impact of my part. I saw the suffering. Before that, I didn’t realize the seriousness of what I’d done. I can’t describe for you the tremendous guilt I felt. To see that, and to think that somehow I’d done something to contribute to it. The consequences of my actions, they’re something I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life.”
Throughout Wyche’s incarceration, the Navy provided both legal counsel and aid — and for Wyche, the most important of services — monthly visits.
“I’m grateful for the monthly visits. It made me feel I wasn’t abandoned. In Rebibbia, if no one comes to visit, you don’t have value. No one keeps that watchful eye” on the system.
Adjusting to freedom
In 2001, Rome’s high court gave her a break by reducing the prison term. In May of this year, Italy’s parliament handed out another when it passed a law to ease Italy’s overcrowded prisons. People convicted of some nonviolent crimes had three years of their sentences forgiven.
After five years of watching other women come and go, it finally was Wyche’s turn to leave.
And she had a friend waiting on the outside.
Every day while in prison, Maria Ponce de Leon, a volunteer from the organization Caritas di Roma, tutored Wyche in the Italian language and customs.
“We quickly became friends,” said Ponce de Leon, fluent in both English and Italian. “She was open and honest and sensitive, in spite of the desperate place where I found her.”
After her release from Rebibbia, Wyche transferred to a halfway house run by Caritas, and eventually worked her way up to being the in-house director. The Rev. Sandro Spriano, who runs the prison outreach program for Caritas, was struck by Wyche’s desire to make a good life for herself despite her past, he said.
Oh, the things she missed, the things she took for granted, Wyche said during the interview.
“I was struck by how beautiful the moon is.
“I missed choosing my own clothes, buying [music] CDs.
“I missed being able to spend time with people you like.”
Shortly after being released, a friend took Wyche shopping at a Carrefour, a French-owned chain of supermarkets.
“That was too much. I was used to one kind of deodorant, one kind of shampoo. One kind of toothpaste. I couldn’t handle it,” she said with panic in her voice. “I learned how little we actually need to get by.”
She learned to appreciate simplicity.
“Like a washing machine,” she said. “You put clothes in, and they come out clean. How wonderful. For so long, we had to wash clothes by hand, sometimes in freezing water. My hands were always so chapped.”
And now, anytime she wants to, she can open a door.
“One of the most traumatic things for me was when someone closed the door, you couldn’t open it. There is nothing more humbling than being locked in a room, being isolated. … Essentially, living in a cage.”
But she’s paid her dues.
Now, no one watches.
If she cries, she cries alone.