Tammy Marie Linn sat in Sacramento County Jail for months, waiting to go to prison. All the bad things she’d done finally caught up with her – grand theft auto, receiving stolen property, using and selling drugs, child endangerment, and fraud.
She was 28 years old, the mother of three young children, destitute, illiterate, and facing nearly 10 years behind bars.
Then she asked for a Bible.
“They brought me an easy-to-read Holy Bible, and I sat in my cell every day practicing reading, sounding out the words,” she says. “I was clean, and my brain was awake, and eventually I understood the words, and eventually I read the whole Bible. I read the New Testament a second time, and then I asked for GED classes.”
She passed the high school equivalency exam while in prison and celebrated at a graduation party hosted by the warden.
“It was the proudest I’d ever been in my life,” Linn says.
That memory will be eclipsed Sunday, May 19, when she graduates from Sacramento State with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Linn, 42, is due to walk across the Golden 1 Center stage during 8 a.m. Commencement ceremonies for the College of Social Sciences & Interdisciplinary Studies.
The moment she’s congratulated by Sac State President Robert S. Nelsen – one of her biggest champions – will mark the happy apex of a life that set her up to fail from the beginning.
“Tammy has never been a victim, although she’s been victimized,” says Nelsen, whose plea to then-Gov. Jerry Brown played a role in Linn’s being granted a full pardon in December 2018. Nelsen later hosted a reception in her honor at the historic Julia Morgan House.
“She is a champion for others, and being a part of Project Rebound and Guardian Scholars on our campus shows that,” Nelsen adds. “A lot of people you meet are trying to turn their life around. She’s trying to move forward, and that makes her exceptional.”
Her life has never been easy.
Linn was 2 when her teenaged father punished her by wrapping a metal coat hanger around her neck and leaving her in a closet. He was arrested and hanged himself in jail that night.
She rarely attended school, never after seventh grade, leaving her unable to read and write. She started dealing drugs at age 14. She was physically and sexually abused as far back as she can remember. She spent most of her young life running away from group homes and psych hospitals. She drank and used drugs. She once stole a puppy from someone’s yard. Along the way, she found solace in the arms of men who took advantage of her.
Linn beams when she talks about the joy brought to her by her four young grandchildren.
She lives in subsidized housing, in a tiny apartment, and on $900 monthly Supplemental Security Income. The financial limitations don’t stop her from helping the homeless who congregate in downtown Sacramento.
She sometime asks friends to supplement the bags of food, socks, and blankets she regularly delivers to the homeless. She once bought a new jacket for a man whose coat had been stolen. She charged $600 to her credit card to keep an elderly woman in housing for a few more days.
“I know what it’s like to have nothing,” Linn says. “I remember living in campgrounds, pregnant and crying because I was so hungry. I remember going into police stations to ask for food.”
Her long-ago hunger pangs evolved into an insatiable hunger for learning.
She will graduate from Sacramento State with a 3.46 GPA and hopes to continue her studies by earning a master’s degree in public policy, social work, pre-law, or psychology – if she can get financial assistance.
“The day I started to teach myself to read lit a fire inside of me for education,” she says. “Something happened that day, and it has not been extinguished yet. I just want to learn more and more and more.”
After serving a combined 17 months in Sacramento County Jail and the California Rehabilitation Center, a prison for recovering drug addicts in Norco, Linn was paroled back to Sacramento, her hometown. Her first stop was Promise House, a mandatory residential treatment center for women.
“That’s where I finally understood that my crimes had hurt other people. That’s where I started to get it,” Linn says. “And after six months at Promise House, they send you out on the streets to find a job. I told them, ‘I’m not going to work. I want to go to school.’ ”
She enrolled at American River College in Summer 2008, and took two classes each semester, while also raising her children and caring for her ailing grandparents.
“I learned really how to read and write and do math, because what I taught myself wasn’t adequate,” she says. “I took advantage of every program the school had to offer. I went to every tutoring session and every reading and writing program. And I made it through with A’s and B’s.”
She feared she’d have to leave school when her federal financial aid ran out in 2017. That’s when the campus programs that support students like her – Project Rebound and Guardian Scholars – stepped up with small scholarships and some opportunities.
She’s made quite an impression in a short time.
“Tammy has a heart of gold and is the meaning of a true fighter,” says Susan Kischmischian, coordinator of the Guardian Scholars program for former foster youth. “She’s had the short end of the stick in life and made huge sacrifices in order to survive. She will be able to help so many people and will fight like a lion in the process.”
Andrew Winn, director of Project Rebound, Sac State’s program for formerly incarcerated students, echoed those sentiments: “Tammy has worked hard on overcoming her barriers and is always willing to share her wisdom with other students following her footsteps.”
Through her connections in Project Rebound, Linn landed an internship as a caseworker in Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg's office, where she leaned on her own experiences to help vulnerable people address issues associated with homelessness, affordable housing, and mental health.
And through Guardian Scholars, she connected with San Francisco-based John Burton Advocates for Youth for help with paying for her textbooks. After Burton, a longtime California political figure, met Linn, he joined Sac State’s president in advocating for her full pardon.
“Despite her troubling lived experiences and the resulting crimes committed in the past, Ms. Linn has truly turned her life around,” Burton told then-Gov. Brown. “While she cannot undo her wrongdoings, she has continued to show dedication and diligence in self-improvement and helping those around her.” – Dixie Reid