Finishing School

Brittany Pollard has been locked up since she was 13. Now nearly 18 and housed at TDCJ's Hilltop Unit in Gatesville, Pollard expects to taste freedom soon.
Mark Graham

There is no way to put it delicately: One day, Brittany Pollard found out that she--a distant relative--had once been a he.

And for many reasons, it was one revelation too many.

Pollard, fresh out of a psychiatric hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown at 13, had learned that the relative was born a man. Suddenly, she says, everything seemed clear, at least to a teen-age mind: the years of alleged abuse--which the relative vehemently denies--the self-hatred, the feelings of abandonment. "Everything just kind of rushed in on me," Pollard says. "I was just kind of, 'Hey, all this time this stuff is happening to me, she was really a man.'"

She acted on impulse, she says, as she had so many times in her 13 years--when she skipped school, got high, ran away or stole candy from the corner store. She got a gun and put it in her back pocket. She sneaked in a back door and walked into the relative's bedroom one night. She flipped on the light.

"I hate you, you gay bitch!" she sneered.

She aimed low. She pulled the trigger.

Then she watched her reaction.

"I wanted to see that hurt," Pollard explains. "I wanted to see that hurt in her eyes that she used to see in me all the time when...she used to do me dirty. I wanted to see that in her."

The relative, shot in the pelvis, stood in horrified silence. But Pollard says she recognized it, for the first time: the hurt.

Everyone always asks the same nosy questions, even here in prison where you'd figure folks have heard everything. They have, until Brittany Pollard, now 17 and housed at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Hilltop Unit in Gatesville, tells her story. She will be getting out of prison soon, and clearly, she is weary of rehashing the lurid details. She knows her case is unique.

Parts of it are hard to believe, and there's a small trace of pain in Pollard's eyes when she spots the stunned look. She shrugs her shoulders. "It's true," she says quietly.

Pollard is sitting in a prison staff office, where she's been left alone to talk. Though she was a hellion at 13, when she was convicted of aggravated assault in connection with the shooting, given an eight-year determinate sentence and shipped to the Texas Youth Commission, she's caused no problems in adult prison. She tells her story while a huge shaking fan blows some of the sweat off dank prison walls. It is August, and few places in the aging Hilltop Unit are air-conditioned.

Her case, it turns out, is unusual in several ways. She was the first young woman to be transferred at 16 from the Texas Youth Commission to TDCJ under a 1996 law allowing such transfers when the youth was given a determinate sentence. Like Edwin Debrow Jr., who is profiled in the accompanying story, "Boy in the Big House," Pollard was written up for dozens of incidents of misconduct at TYC--148, to be exact. Her behavior led TYC to pronounce its efforts to rehabilitate her a failure and recommend the transfer to adult prison.

Pollard is also the youngest graduate of TDCJ's Youthful Offender Program for women. She successfully completed it in November and, until recently, served as a mentor for the second class of young women.

Prison, she says, is a "distant cousin of hell." But home was hell itself. "I know I was wrong," Pollard says about her crime. "I know I broke the law. But at the time, I was 13. I just felt like it was either me or her. I couldn't take it anymore.

"I want to get out," she says, "but when I first went to TYC I thought like some people who they call institutionalized. No one can beat me while I'm in here. I get three meals every day. I know I'm going to have clean clothes every day. You know what I'm saying? A lot of people think like that because some people came from a home like I came from."

It proved extremely difficult to confirm the more bizarre aspects of Pollard's story. Her mother, Desiree Pollard of Lawton, Oklahoma, whom Brittany says told her about the relative's secret, refused to answer any questions and abruptly hung up during a phone call with the Dallas Observer. Neither of Pollard's former attorneys returned phone calls from the Observer, and the state district judge who presided over Pollard's case, Cheryl Lee-Shannon, declined to comment.

Pollard's victim calls Brittany a habitual liar. "As far as abuse taking place in this home, that has not happened," the woman says, adding that she was cleared of the allegations by Child Protective Services. "That is just Brittany talking. This is a thing with Brittany trying to get the guilt and pressure off of her.  

"She has taken me through holy hell," the woman says. "I am still the victim."

A Texas Youth Commission report filed with the Dallas County juvenile court states simply that "Brittany shot her [relative] in the pelvic area after learning that her victim was a transsexual," and goes on to say that the relative "has an alleged history of physical, emotional and sexual perpetration against Brittany..." The document, however, compiled when Brittany was 16, also notes that she has a "tendency to exaggerate" when talking about her history of earlier, unreported criminal offenses and that she had frequently been disciplined at TYC for "behaviors such as lying, assault, disrupting the program, manipulating staff, and refusing to comply..." Another report prepared by the Dallas County Juvenile Department, apparently based on interviews with Pollard, her victim and others, says that Pollard "recently found out that [the relative] was born a man and she has had problems dealing with it."

One point on which everyone agrees is that Pollard didn't get off to a good start in life, and she never came to terms with it.

When she was 3 days old, her mother gave her up. The relative says the mother was on welfare and in an abusive relationship and couldn't handle another child; she already had three little ones at home.

None of those rationalizations cut it with Brittany. "To me it sounded like a bullshit excuse," Pollard says, "because I didn't understand how you could keep three kids, but you having all these so-called problems."

She lived with that stigma as an adolescent, knowing that the other kids somehow passed muster with Mom, but when Brittany came along, that was one too many. She ended up in the Dallas home of some relatives.

Her mother never sent birthday cards, she says, never called. Brittany grew envious of her older siblings, whom she'd see occasionally. "I used to feel jealous and stuff, because I'm the baby girl," she says. "In most families, the baby girl is the spoiled one; they're the ones that get everything."

The relative gives that a different spin. "She resented the fact that she was not being raised by her natural mother," she says. "She felt like she should have had a Cinderella life."

As for her father, well, there isn't much to say. Brittany never knew him, a man named Russell Adams, according to court records. She bumped into him one day on the street in Lawton, Oklahoma. "Me and my sister was just walking down the street one day, and I seen this crackhead, and she was like, 'Girl, that's your daddy.'"

"You're my baby girl," he said.

"No, I ain't your baby girl," Brittany shot back.

She never saw him again.

In Dallas, Brittany says she had a roof over her head, but that's about it. While she says she was always the smartest kid in her class, a participant in the district's talented and gifted program, "I didn't feel loved at home," she says, "so I just wanted to run the streets." She ended up in a gang--as she sees it, the repository of unloved children. The court records pick up there with an incredible chronicle of mayhem: "Brittany reports an unverified and...somewhat questionable history of both minor and more serious offenses, including assault, theft, selling drugs, abusing drugs, murder and arson. She describes gang-related activity that led to close-range and drive-by murders. She reports a history of association with a Dallas chapter of the Crips gang and claims she can never withdraw her membership. She also acknowledges a significant history of alcohol, marijuana, and prescription drug usage, beginning at the age of 4."

Nonetheless, Pollard says and court records affirm, she had a clean record until the night in 1997 when she shot the relative in the company of two gang buddies.

After the shooting, Pollard did what young offenders often do: get on with life as though nothing has happened. Realistic thoughts of consequences fail to penetrate the adolescent time warp.

Brittany rode the bus, hung out at Redbird Mall and the West End and kicked it with friends in an apartment, where she says she was ultimately caught a few days after the crime. "At 13, you don't really have no concept of the law, except Cops," she explains. "You know what I'm saying? Cartoons and things like that where people get arrested and go to jail, but like two days later they be out."

In Brittany's mind, the relative would simply go to the hospital, get patched up and carry on. Instead, cops showed up at her friend's door, guns drawn for a 13-year-old girl gangbanger considered armed and dangerous.  

Charged with aggravated assault, Pollard accepted a plea bargain. Reality kicked in "when that judge hit that thang down and said, 'Eight years TYC,'" Pollard says. "I was clicking, like, 'Brittany, you messed up.'"

The Texas Youth Commission's dismal report on Brittany Pollard makes a strong case for booting the teen-ager to adult prison. The report, a summation of nearly three years at an assortment of TYC facilities around the state, is dead serious, but it's hard to stifle a laugh at times while reading the niggling documentation of adolescent stupidity. Like the time Brittany was assigned a project involving a red pen. Pollard, a Crip, didn't want anything to do with a red hue, the color of her rival gang, the Bloods. "Brittany refused to use or touch the red pen," the TYC report says. "Instead, she obtained a piece of tissue and picked up the red pen with the piece of tissue." Pollard, it seems, reveled in her gang membership and played it to the hilt, spelling words in gangsta style--"bacc" instead of "back," for example. When she was supposed to be learning resocialization skills, she was more inclined to snooze or raise her hand to proclaim that "this is boring" or "this is stupid."

The report concludes, among other things, that Pollard was a drama queen. "Brittany would like to be perceived by others as extremely psychologically disturbed," it says.

Even Brittany brushes off the silliness--costly silliness, that is, interspersed with episodes of violence, including two assaults on fellow inmates--from her days at TYC. "When I first entered TYC, I was mad at the whole world," she says. "I never really had nobody to tell me, 'You can't do this, and you can't do that.' I was like, 'I can't do what?'

"I was one of the youngest people there," she adds. "Anything that got cronk, I wanted to be a part of."

TYC doesn't appear to have had any problem convincing a Dallas County judge that Pollard needed the additional structure of adult prison. And there she went, six months after her 16th birthday.

Today, it's impossible to reconcile that TYC report with the young woman who looks you right in the eye, searching for a hint of sympathy before she lays out her life's struggles and pain. Her soft brown eyes tear up several times during a lengthy interview, especially when she talks about her uncertain future.

Alice Tippit, director of TDCJ's Youthful Offender Program, says Pollard has an outstanding record since her transfer. "She's doing wonderful," Tippit says. What happened? Ask Brittany, and she'll say she simply grew up. "I quit being mad at the world. I adjusted," she says. "You need to pick and choose your battles; that's what one of my teachers here said. At the time it was like I was fighting a brick wall. The whole time, people were trying to tell me something to do. I was like, 'I ain't going to hear that. You're just trying to hate on me.' All the time they used to tell me, 'Brittany, the way you're thinking right now, it's not going to help you.'"

As part of the Youthful Offender Program, Brittany and the other girls would dissect their crimes on a blackboard, diagramming the wayward deeds and thought processes that led them to violence. The use of drugs, the fits of anger, the heedlessness about consequences. Tippit shepherded them with motherly care through classes such as the "ABCs of Resocialization" and groups covering substance abuse and other issues. "We call her mother," Pollard says. "If she sees that you're trying to help yourself, she'll do whatever she can to try to help you.

"Oh, Ms. Tippit loves me," she adds. "She has come up here on Saturdays, and you don't clock in and get a paycheck, and stays from 9 a.m. till 4 or 5 in the afternoon, letting us draw posters and stuff like that."

Another positive influence was a Christian married couple, Charlie and Mary Alice Wise, who, as volunteers, taught a class on spirituality. The Wises can see the bright lights of Hilltop from their home, and they bonded like grandparents with Brittany and the other young women in Tippit's program. "They're all hurting, every one of them, and we hurt with them, to tell you the truth," Mary Alice Wise says. "What we know, and what we want them to know, is that there is hope."

Brittany, she says, "is a very precious little girl. I just sent her an Easter card."  

In November 2001, Pollard graduated in the Youthful Offender Program's first class of women. At the ceremony, the handful of girls did their hair up and donned crisp prison whites. Tippit handed out certificates, and the girls nibbled on cake and punch along with their families, who'd come out for the occasion.

All except one girl, who was alone. The Wises stepped in, serving as Brittany's family.

No one ever forgets Brittany Pollard, Alice Tippit says. She is "different and unusual," and Tippit worries about her as she prepares for freedom and the halfway house where she'll likely be placed in a few months. "She's been locked up since she was 13," Tippit says. "She's an adult all by herself at 17 years old."

A young woman with no home.

Tippit will always remember Brittany, the girl who told her, "I'll always be your poster child."

Even if she's inclined to forget, there are reminders all over the state. It's Brittany who put the star on the enormous Texas flags produced in Hilltop's flag factory that one finds flying over cemeteries, state buildings and such. Brittany is proud of that star, which she stenciled onto the fabric. She explains her delicate craft.

"Let me tell you, the Texas star is not symmetrical," she says. "It is not. I'm dyslexic, right, and sometimes I draw the star backwards. And if you turn it any other way, it either looks like the devil's horns, or 'star man,' or something.

"It's really important," she adds, "because if I mess up, the whole flag is messed up."

Right now, she says, a flag is flapping somewhere over a state cemetery with devil's horns instead of a star.

Brittany was there.

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