Donna Stites: wanting to be seen as somebody
A drug dealer, a prostitute, a murderer — that’s how many people view 46-year-old Donna Stites. Donna has been in prison for murder since 1984. Today, her world is inside the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis.
However, there are people like Providence Associate Companion Priscilla Hutton who see beyond these negative descriptions. She sees a person who has made giant strides to overcome a great many bad decisions in order to find peace in her God and in herself.
Born to Darrell and Jan Stites in Deanefield, Ky., Donna was the youngest of three children. Shortly after her birth her parents separated and she was left with a neighbor. From there she bounced around to various extended family members. She then lived a few years with her father and stepmother before moving in with her mother and stepfather at the age of 11.
Moving in with her mother proved to be the beginning of her downward spiral into a life of drugs, crime and prostitution. Her mother introduced her to drugs and by the age of 12 she was “shooting up” and selling them.
“I was pretty much a street person. I was hustling out on the street. I was doing any and all type of crimes,” said Donna.
The little time she was in high school was mainly spent at Reitz Memorial High School, Evansville, Ind. By the age of 15, Donna, her court-ordered psychiatrist and school personnel knew she was going to quit. “To alleviate all the trouble, they just excused me from school,” continued Donna.
Donna landed in prison a few years later for burglary and theft. During her probation, she returned to Evansville where she and her drug-dealing boyfriend robbed another drug dealer and murdered him.
“My mother found out about it [the murder] and she asked me if I would kill my stepfather,” said Donna, indicating that her mother had discovered that her husband was having an extramarital affair with a friend’s wife. “In all honesty, I did not think it was going to happen. I thought that we were just going to string her along long enough for her to get over it,” continued Donna, who has a release date of 2026.
Unbeknownst to Donna, her mother and Donna’s boyfriend were having an affair and plotted behind Donna’s back to murder Donna’s stepfather themselves. “I was not present when my stepfather was killed,” maintained Donna. “I said that I did it because I tried to cover up for my mother.”
The authorities eventually arrested Jan and she received a 110-year prison sentence for her role in the murder. She was also imprisoned at the Indiana Women’s Prison.
It took Donna a decade in prison to realize she needed to radically change. And change she did. She set some goals. Among them were to end all her drug and smoking addictions, go back to school and reconcile with her mother. “I haven’t done any type of drugs for about 15 years now,” proudly stated Donna.
With Providence on her side, Donna took the GED with no preparatory classes and passed it on her first try. Ball State University offered classes in the prison. With the assistance of grants, Donna began work on her bachelor’s degree in 1994. “I was so angry that I had wasted all those years because it amazed me how much I liked learning,” said Donna, who earned a degree in general studies and minors in history, speech communication, anthropology and educational psychology.
Her life took another turn for the better when she began attending Catholic Bible studies. In 2001, she became a Catholic. “It’s where I feel at home,” said Donna.
From 2003 to 2007, Donna resided at the Rockville (Ind.) Correctional Facility for Women. It was there that her path crossed that of Priscilla Hutton, a Providence Associate from Paris, Ill. While Donna was in the infirmary due to low blood sugar she was approached by the chaplain and asked if she wanted a Catholic minister of record. Donna said she did, and Priscilla began a long and sometimes very difficult journey with Donna.
“She’s affected every part of my life,” said Donna, referring to Priscilla. “She’s hit the friend department; she’s hit the mother department; she’s hit the spiritual guide department. She’s been my rock. Priscilla is not only just a good person, she’s also a psychologist. So she’s allowed me to open up; I hold nothing back with her. And that is the greatest gift you can give anybody — to just be yourself,” continued Donna.
In 2006, Priscilla was starting the process to become a Providence Associate. As she went through her year of preparation before her commitment in November 2007, she shared her journey with Donna.
“She made me a part of it,” said Donna, who was transferred back to Indianapolis in May 2007. “When I asked her if there was any possible way that I could do it [become an associate], she was like, ‘Why, I don’t know. I’ll have to ask.’”
Ask she did and approval she received. For the past year Donna and Priscilla have been meeting and discussing the Spiritual Integration Units, readings that help candidate-associates understand more about Providence spirituality, the Congregation and their own faith. Part of their time together included walking with Donna’s mother as she was dying from lung cancer.
At Jan’s death, Priscilla stood right beside Donna. And when the time came to scatter Jan’s ashes, Priscilla had a small service at her home. Attending were Sisters Rita Clare Gerardot and Catherine Livers, who have ministered in prisons for many years.
Donna, with a great deal of gratitude, spoke about her relationship with the Sisters of Providence. “It’s not like I’m an ideal associate from most people’s point of view, but you’ve made me feel like that. When I see you look at me you see me — you don’t see a prisoner. When Sister Catherine and Sister Rita Clare come here they aren’t looking at me like a prisoner, somebody here for murder. They’re looking at me like somebody that is trying to do better, wanting to do better. What more could you ask? I couldn’t ask for any more than that. I just want to be seen as somebody, just anybody, not Donna Stites the murderer.”
(Reprinted from the winter 2009 issue of HOPE)