The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I was a wealthy suburban woman. Then I went to federal prison for bank fraud.

Rashmi Airan in a recent photo (Amada Egan)
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The alarm buzzes and my eyes open. I peer into the sea of other bunk beds around me — 180 women also convicted of a crime. It’s 5 a.m. and time for count. A guard walks past my cubical, which is 6 feet by 9 feet and surrounded by shoulder-height walls. This is where I have been living for the past few months with my “bunkie.”

I spend a few minutes writing down my thoughts. On this morning, I recognized my fear of the uncertainty that lies ahead and ask for spiritual protection and strength.

By 5:30 a.m., I have changed from gray sweatpants and sweatshirt into oversized men’s basketball shorts and a cotton T-shirt. Before heading out for my morning run, I take a few moments to send an email to Kyler and Maya, my children.

I am 350 miles away from where they live, and have been for the five months I’ve been locked up in Coleman Correctional Complex in central Florida. They are nine and 10 years old. It’s been rough for my kids to be without their mom. My parents live across the street from them in their suburban South Florida neighborhood, so they have their father and their grandparents with them daily. And, for that, I am grateful.

At 5:45, I head toward the track. As I walk in the dark, the crater in my stomach feels heavy. My mind flashes to the childhood me, a little Indian girl who wore pigtails, strove for my parents’ approval and always focused on getting the best grades. How did that person wind up in a women’s federal prison?

I look up at the light poles that line the track and I check for bats. They circle one of the light poles, so I run extra fast around that curve. As I loop the track, it feels like thick cotton is draped over my lungs. My mind is always questioning. How will I get through the day? I am so scared.

The fear began 15 months earlier. My parents, best friend and I were at a Hindu temple for Tuesday night worship. When my phone lit up, I stepped outside to take the call from my attorney.

Locked up for years as teens, they’ve returned home to D.C. hoping to make a difference

I could hear the defeat in his voice. My lawyers had been in a meeting with the prosecutor hoping to convince him to not file charges against me. It was not good news. I collapsed shaking and started to cry.

Two months later, my parents, husband, kids and I met with my friends and family to explain what happened. My father stood at the front of the room and told everyone I had just been charged with conspiracy and bank fraud in transactions that I executed for my client, a Miami developer. I had gotten caught up in shady real estate dealings during the housing boom of 2007-2008. My dad and I were crying; the rest of the room was silent. One of my uncles turned to me and said, “Beti (“daughter” in Hindi), you will one day understand that this is not happening to you, it’s happening for you.”

In that moment, I didn’t get it. I was mad and confused. As the days passed, I began to acknowledge what I had done, and what I had not done. I didn’t ask questions of the developer, his team or the realtors. I thought if I asked for help, I would be perceived as weak, imperfect. I didn’t listen to my gut, because I didn’t want to know the answers. I didn’t want to lose my biggest client. I had graduated with honors from Columbia Law School and opened my own law practice four years earlier. I wanted to continue providing for my children and sending them to the best schools, to live in a nice home in a fabulous Miami neighborhood and I wanted to keep up appearances.

My inner voice screamed “be careful,” “ask for a second opinion,” “are you sure this is okay?” Instead, I felt flattered and like I belonged in the big leagues. I convinced myself I was smart enough to do the right thing and I never considered I could be doing something wrong.

Essentially, the developer was selling his condos with this scheme: he gave buyers the equivalent of two years of mortgage payments as incentive to buy his condos, which violated the terms of his own developer loan. As the lawyer in the transactions, I failed to disclose this information to the banks providing loans to the buyers, thereby harming the banks and possibly encouraging buyers to take on more debt than they could afford, contributing to the Great Recession of the late 2000s.

Six months after the call at temple, and after hours spent poring over hundreds of thousands of documents, my attorney told me if I went to trial, I would lose. I could sit in prison for 20 years. He said, “Rashmi, you will miss it all. Your kids’ whole life.” He said he knew I didn’t go into this planning a crime, but that I should have asked more questions.

I did something wrong because I didn’t act. I was selfish. It was at that moment, I decided to own my mistake, my crime. It was also in that moment, I realized I was going to be a felon for the rest of my life.

I pleaded guilty in 2014, and I made a very conscious decision to be transparent. I had disgraced my family, my community, my friends and others. I had let everybody down. Every teacher who believed in me. Every boss who’d taught me. Every group I’d given my time to in the community.

One by one, I picked up the phone and began to call the people in my life I cared about — friends I’d known since elementary school, through college, law school, professional jobs and even community friends. I called my kids’ teachers and their friends’ parents. In each call, I told the whole story. Each person said they would support me unconditionally.

During my six months in prison, I did several jobs. Early on I was the trash girl. Every day, just before evening recall (when all inmates are required to be back in their housing unit), I pushed the two giant trash bins from the side of each housing building to the back of the complex. One by one, I removed the trash bags, threw them into the compactor, dug to the bottom for any garbage that fell out of the bags, and finally pushed the compactor button.

I teach writing in prison. During one class, things got real — even for me.

My other job was teaching my fellow inmates math, English and Spanish. I saw the eyes of one abuelita light up when she learned how to add fractions. Another friend passed the GRE. She claimed it was because I helped her with the math section.

In prison, I learned this very basic fact: I am human. Humans make mistakes. It’s through my mistakes and losing my freedom, I found the courage to be vulnerable and real. I shifted my definition of success from accolades, grades and status to creating authentic relationships and helping others. I’m no longer scared to show my true self. I’m raw all the time.

It’s been three and a half years since I left prison. Things are just getting back to normal. I drive carpool, work and watch my daughter’s volleyball and my son’s basketball games. My children were sad and scared for me, but they were always supportive. My husband was angry for a long time and we divorced when I came home, but we have settled into a positive and healthy friendship.

I have been open with my story and the lessons I have learned in the work I’ve chosen as a motivational speaker and consultant working with corporations, universities and law firms. It took a while for people to listen to me. My TEDx talk helped with the legitimacy, but there will always be naysayers. I am an ex con.

Financially, I am also struggling. My parents help me, and that is okay for now. Along with my children, they are at the top of my gratitude journal.

I want others to hear my cautionary tale, so they won’t make the same mistakes I made. I am working hard to be forgiven. And I am working even harder to forgive myself.

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