Katrina Robertson turned tricks on the streets of Nashville for more than 20 years, contracting HIV along the way. But on Monday, Robertson boasted a healthy glow as she addressed a crowd of about 100 women incarcerated at the Mark H. Luttrell Correctional Center at Shelby Farms.
"You are beautiful. You are worthy," the 42-year-old Robertson told the women. Several women in the audience quietly said "thank you."
Robertson and several others from Nashville's Magdalene program, a nonprofit residential treatment program to help prostitutes turn their lives around, visited the women's prison this week as part of the "Find Your Way Home" national prison tour.
At each stop, former prostitutes share their stories and pass out free copies of Find Your Way Home, a book of stories compiled by women from the Magdalene program.
"We're going on this tour to spread the word about the communal aspect of recovery for women," said Magdalene founder Becca Stevens.
As part of the program, women with a history of prostitution can live at one of Magdalene's six residential houses for free. For the next two years, they use the 12-step recovery program to overcome alcohol and drug addiction. When they're able to work, the women may find outside jobs or take a position at Thistle Farms, Magdalene's bath and body-care company.
"We make soy candles and all-natural bath and body products using high-quality essential oils," Stevens said. "In fact, we just got our products into the Whole Foods store in Memphis."
After graduating from Magdalene's program in 2007, Robertson took a position as national sales manager for Thistle Farms. It's a far cry from the street life she once lived.
"Cocaine was my pimp. I worked strictly to buy drugs. I wouldn't eat, wouldn't sleep," Robertson said. "I saw a friend of mine get shot and killed in the same hotel room that I was in. The streets are very, very dangerous. It's do or die."
Robertson was able to stay clean long enough to have a baby when she was 22, but resumed her life on the streets soon after her daughter was born. Robertson's mother raised the baby, but these days, she is back in her 19-year-old daughter's life.
"When I left Magdalene, they helped me build my own house from the ground up," Robertson said. "I got married five months ago. It's amazing."
On Monday's prison visit in Memphis, she hoped to inspire women to use their time behind bars as a chance for a fresh start.
"[Prison time] doesn't have to be a bad situation. This could be a new beginning," Robertson told the women. "Make liars of those people that say you'll be back."