With Mothers in Prison, Roommates Support Each Other

By Matt Hudson

The last time Sara Palagi called her mother, a federal agent answered the phone. He said her mother was in jail.

In an instant, Palagi questioned all the things her mother had ever taught her. The woman who encouraged her to join choir and play sports was suddenly a very different person.

“It’s weird to think that you can know someone for 19 years as your mom, and then all of a sudden you have no idea who they really are,” Palagi said.

That was four years ago. Since then there have been numerous letters and phone calls from the Montana Women’s Prison, where her mother, Tina Palagi, is serving a 25-year sentence for elderly exploitation. Sara doesn’t want to call back, and has blocked the prison’s number from her phone. She hasn’t planned a visit. She wrote two letters to her mother, but neither has made it to the mailbox.

It’s been hard for Palagi, now 23, to cut ties with her mother, but she said other relationships in her life are stronger now. Especially with her roommate, Kelsey O’Keefe, 24, who has dealt with the absence of her mother for most of her life.

O’Keefe hasn’t talked to her mother in a year. Their relationship is detached, consisting of rare visits and a few phone calls on holidays from odd numbers. O’Keefe’s mother battles a drug addiction and has been in and out of jail throughout her daughter’s life.

Fears of her mother’s unpredictable moods are some of O’Keefe’s earliest memories. They have tried to patch their relationship, but it’s a tough foundation to build on. O’Keefe said there has never really been a relationship, but she still can’t shut her mother out completely.

“Part of me wants to think that no matter what, like if she’s getting in trouble and being crazy, that she is my mother, and at some point I have to respect that,” O’Keefe said. “But she’s my mom and she’s never been there for me or my brother.”

That issue weighs on both O’Keefe and Palagi’s consciences. They aren’t ready to forgive, but can’t bring themselves to completely sever ties. The two share a meaningful bond in the wake of family situations that can leave people emotionally isolated. They are motherly toward each other in a way, and lend an understanding ear during hard times.

“It’s easy to talk and know that you’re not being judged by it,” O’Keefe said. “It is kind of a relief.”

They have both seen their family names in the paper connected to a crime they were never involved in. They avert their eyes and speak strategically when somebody asks them what their parents do. The trials have affected them, but they haven’t defined them.

“It’s sad that you say you don’t want to end up like your mom,” Palagi said. “And I think about that a lot too, but that just shows who I want to be, and who I don’t want to be.”