By Krissi Khokhobashvili
When Kaitlin Bennett got behind the wheel of her car after having drinks with a friend in 2012, she didn’t know her decision would have devastating effects.
Speeding and running a red light, she crashed into a vehicle carrying five teenagers. A few were ejected and suffered major injuries. Bennett woke up in county jail, where she began her life as a prisoner.
Today, as an inmate at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), Bennett is sharing the lessons she learned with youth, using herself as an example to stop them from making the same bad decision.
“Saying ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t fix anything,” Bennett shared. “Giving back is the only thing that helps lessen my shame and guilt. If I can help one person, that’s the only thing that matters to me.”
Bennett, who also gives back by serving as a firefighter at CCWF, was recruited by Fire Chief C. Diaz to speak to local high schoolers as part of the Every 15 Minutes program. Schools throughout the country take part in two-day events that include a graphic reenactment of a drunk-driving crash, including a memorial for the students “killed” in the accident.
“I’m asking all of you for the next hour to open your eyes very wide,” urged James Enochs’ High School Principal Deborah Rowe, speaking to a gym full of seniors assembled for the somber presentation. “Consider how the choices that you make each and every day impact the lives of others so very greatly.”
“The shame and guilt eat her alive and consume her when she closes her eyes”
The day of the mock crash, students were pulled out of class at 15-minute intervals, their empty desks an illustration of the shocking statistic that every 15 minutes, someone is killed or seriously injured in an alcohol-related incident. Then, the students were called out to the field to witness the gruesome crash reenactment, complete with first responders from throughout the community who volunteered their time to show the students just what happens during such an event. Agencies participating included the California Highway Patrol, Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department, Modesto Police Department, Modesto Fire, American Medical Response ambulance and Memorial Medical Center.
“If you’re a first responder for any period of time, you’ve been to many crashes just like this,” said CHP Officer Eric Parsons. “Most of the people you saw out there working that crash do this on a regular basis, unfortunately.”
During the memorial at Enochs High School in Modesto, a guest speaker – Bennett – stood at the podium, dressed in street clothes and looking, for all intents and purposes, like a professional young woman. As she spoke, she shared a story about a woman she once knew who had a hard childhood but maintained a positive outlook as she moved into an adulthood that included marriage and raising two great kids. By building walls and stuffing her feelings down a bottle, she was able to power through the challenges of a father who abandoned her, a husband on deployment and relationships ending. She put on a happy face, provided for her family and drank to numb the pain.
“Deciding to go out with a friend one night to have a few drinks turned out to be one of her biggest regrets in life,” Bennett told the students. “She remembers waking up on the concrete floor of a cell, disoriented, confused. She was being charged with a felony DUI with great bodily injury. She made a careless, foolish, thoughtless decision to drink and drive.”
The students listened with rapt attention as Bennett recounted the injuries the teen in the other car suffered, and how scared they must have been, lying on the roadway, screaming for help.
“She did this,” Bennett said. “She caused this damage. She hurt and forever changed these people’s lives and their families. The irreparable damage she has caused to a multitude of innocent lives creates in her a personal prison from which she will not be pardoned.”
The gym was silent as Bennett stepped to the side of the podium and removed her jeans and sweater to reveal a bright orange jumpsuit with “CDCR inmate” stamped on the leg. Before being handcuffed and led out of the gym by an officer, she revealed she was the driver, and is serving an eight-year prison sentence for DUI with great bodily injury.
Penny Johnson, whose son Kalief was one of the “living dead” at the ceremony, made a point to speak with Bennett after the memorial to thank her for sharing her story.
“Everyone else’s story was pretend,” Johnson said. “When she got up there, hers was for real. She’s living it every day because of a bad decision. It really hit home, and I think some students will probably realize this could really happen.”
CCWF Fire Chief C. Diaz, who supervises Bennett, said CCWF has a 250-square-mile mutual aid response area, and that almost daily his crew responds to some type of vehicle accident. While not all are alcohol-related, he said, even one is too many. That’s why he supports Every 15 Minutes, even though there is a lot of effort and coordination involved.
“To be a part of it and see the impact the speaker makes – I’ll do every single one the warden lets me do,” he said. “All we need to do is stop one. Just one.”
The effort is fully supported by CCWF and Warden Deborah K. Johnson.
“The involvement in this event serves two purposes,” Warden Johnson said. “First, it allows the inmates an opportunity to make amends to the victims or their families and second, and most importantly, it saves a life. CCWF will continue to support the community by participating in this effort.”
The intended message came through loud and clear to student Brooke Bettencourt, who was led into the gym handcuffed and in a county jail uniform. She had taken on the role of the driver for Every 15 Minutes, which included being field-tested for sobriety at the scene, arrested and actually transported to the county jail. Taking part in the crash, she said, was so realistic she forgot she was acting. Watching from the audience, Bennett nodded knowingly as Bettencourt recounted the intense shame and guilt she felt realizing the destruction she had caused.
“Those tears that came down my face, the screams I was screaming, were real,” she said. “I just want everyone to understand how real it is – this could happen to anyone. It’s so easy to take the life of someone. It’s even easier to just not get behind the wheel.”