Alma Maseda, 25, is reflected in a mirror in her North Miami home with a book she uses to write her poetry. Maseda will read some of her poems at a literary event on Saturday. Maseda was imprisoned for ten years for the murder of her grandmother and since her release has concentrated on her poetry and school. EMILY MICHOT / MIAMI HERALD STAFF

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Never forget what it was like to be caged in that forest of lustful, hopeless confusion and rage.

In her dark poetry, Alma Rosa Maseda explores the jagged emotions of her troubled teen years, a creeping sense of loneliness and isolation — and a burst of seemingly inexplicable violence.

Just some of the details of her past — drugs, gangs, mental illness — would weave a complex, painful narrative. But Maseda’s life plumbed depths few young women ever reach.

Just six months months ago, she was released from Homestead Correctional Institution after doing nearly 10 years. For murdering her grandmother in North Miami.

Prison is filled with broken souls. It strips away the societal mask and leaves the anarchist bare, showing the pure hearts of those who shouldn’t be there, as well as the dark hearts of those to whom justice was fair.

On Saturday, Maseda will join a small group of well-known writers invited to read at a literary brunch at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Coconut Grove — including, ironically, a retired Miami-Dade Circuit judge who now writes murder mysteries.

In her poetry and in person, Maseda does not shy away from her past, nor downplay her culpability in the slaying of her 72-year-old grandmother and namesake. But Maseda, who in addition to writing is studying to be a barber, hopes others will benefit from the story of a broken girl who came of age behind bars.

“My poetry is very personal and it’s very raw,” Maseda said. “Some people, I don’t know how they’re going to take it, but for those people out there who need it, I hope they get whatever it is that they’re searching for.”

Maseda, now 25, lives today in the same North Miami house where she grew up with her father and grandmother, Alma Rosales Maseda. She was 16 when she was arrested.

Slender, her hair cropped short, Maseda could still easily pass for a high school student were it not for a quiet, steely demeanor and weary eyes.

Her mother, who had been addicted to drugs, abandoned the family when she was a small child. While her father worked, she and her grandmother cared for a great-grandmother stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, who later died.

Maseda says she adored her grandmother — “ La luz de mis ojos. The light of my eyes,” she said.

The elder Maseda took her on trips to the toy store, played her Disney movies on the old living room TV and cooked her favorite Cuban dish, saffron-flavored rice with chicken.

Happy memories, oh how you used to smile, stolen by the thief within barbed wire. Too painful to remember, now that you exist alone in a patch of briar.

But as a teenager, Maseda became more withdrawn, even cutting and burning herself. Doctors diagnosed her with bipolar disorder and manic depression.

She began taking the anti-depressant Wellbutrin, which her defense team said could have spurred aggressive behavior. Maseda was kicked out the Lincoln Marti private high school. She enrolled in a school for at-risk children but wound up joining a gang there, bent on embracing a “thug life.”

“I was a ticking time bomb,” Maseda said.

At home, the family also began was falling apart. Her grandmother wallowed in depression, she said, then turned angry when Maseda told her she was bi-sexual. “My house felt like it had a black cloud hanging over it for years,” she said.

The night of the murder haunts Maseda, though she says many details remain murky — along with the reason she did it. Her mind, she says, simply snapped.

She had smoked pot at school early that day, then took a Xanax, the first time she ever took the powerful painkiller. She became so incoherent that her father had to pick her up from school.

Maseda slept it off. That night, her father went out for dinner. Maseda ate with her grandmother, then took her Wellbutrin. Her grandmother took to a rocking chair to watch Wheel of Fortune.

“I even remember the time: 10:35 p.m. But I felt like I was in a dream,” Maseda said. “I had a profound sense of detachment to reality that night.”

Maseda went into to her father’s closet to get his pistol. Hiding it in a stack of mail, Maseda knelt down next to her abuela and embraced her one last time. “I love you,” she whispered.

“No you don’t,” she recalls her grandmother replying.

The words tore at Maseda. In a split second, as though still in a dream, the teenager lifted the gun and shot her grandmother once in the head. Maseda remembers her grandmother looking at peace, a trickle of blood dripping from her nose.

Panic instantly set in. Maseda called the police, but not before turning the gun on herself.

“She shot herself, claiming that a robber had broken into the house and shot her,” recalled her defense lawyer, Lorna Owens.

From there, it all gets fuzzy. But Maseda remembers her dog in the middle of the street staring as the paramedics drove her away in the ambulance.

Maseda soon confessed to North Miami police detectives. Had she gone to trial, Owens would have used an insanity defense, with the claim that the Wellbutrin had contributed to her bizarre behavior.

Instead, Maseda’s father — shattered but forgiving and not wanting to lose his daughter — blessed a plea deal of 10 years behind bars. She entered prison a scared girl.

It’s a place where your personal space is reduced to the top bunk in your cell. Sometimes you’re unlucky and don’t even have a room to escape the hell. You can’t cry because of preying eyes. Chaos reigns to distract from pain.

Not much of a student before prison, Maseda soon began to devour books, everything from the Bible to Anne Rice vampire novels. She also found friendship and eventually love with Diedre Hunt, who is serving a life term for murder.

Hunt urged Maseda to enroll in Art Spring, a creative arts program for inmates at Homestead Correctional.

“Alma was very quiet, very shy, very uncomfortable,” said Leslie Neal, the program’s longtime director. “As she was participating, she slowly came out of her shell.”

Maseda soon penned poems with names like “Lost Innocent,” “Beautiful Misery” and “Magician.”

When she was released in November, she was overwhelmed with emotion when she walked back into the home where the shooting had happened.

But soon, Maseda called Owens. They agreed to have breakfast.

“She said, ‘I have something to show you.’ When she read her poetry to me, the hair on the back of my hand stood up,” Owens said. “They were dark. I found it troubling, but not in a bad way because it’s her story. It didn’t bother me. It was intriguing.”

Owens runs the Footprints Foundation, which works to empower at-risk women. She asked Maseda to read her poetry at Saturday’s literary brunch, which features Patricia Schultz, author of the best-selling1,000 Places to See Before You Die.

Also speaking: retired Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Barbara Levenson, who did not preside over Maseda’s case and now writes mystery novels.

One of the poems Maseda will read is called simply “Penitentiary.”

I’ve loved the best. I’ve befriended the worst. I’ve lost myself as well as found, what I’m made of upon this ground.

“This poem was definitely a cathartic experience. It showed me what I went through. It’s like the blood running through your veins,” Maseda said. “You don’t know what it looks like until you actually cut yourself and spill it on a page.”

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My activism in Africa began with a single news report and has taken me halfway across the world.

Traditional birth attendants in the Congo. Photo by Marcia Narine

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— Lorna Owens



It started when I watched a TV new segment, an Anderson Cooper piece examining the War on Women. It was a searing exploration of how rape is used in the Congo as a weapon of terror. The report touched me deeply, flooding me with anger and tears — and a resolve to do something.

The very night, I started my research. In the days ahead, I reached out to experts, like Dr. Julia VanRooyen, a Fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and her husband Michael, who does a great deal of work at the Panzi Hospital in the eastern Congo.

I also connected with Kaleba Kasongo, a Congolese woman who, in turn, referred me to Dr. Sylvia Gleason. Originally from Ohio, “Dr. Sylvia,” introduced me to four Congolese doctors doing humanitarian work in their own country.

I began sending money to those on the ground who are laboring in the violence-ravaged country of 71 million.. But I wanted to do more. And that’s how I found myself boarding a 23-hour flight to Africa. My traveling companion was my friend Marcia Narine. We were joined a day or so later by Kasongo, who would be our organizer and translator.

As we prepared to land at Kigali airport in the neighboring country of Rwanda, I became anxious and excited. This was a language and culture I knew nothing about.

After a quick check through customs we found Father Pascal, our host for the night. Then, a lovely supper of goat before retiring to my room and resting up for the trip into the Congo.

The border of the eastern Congo is sheer chaos. People beg for money; they offer to carry your bags for a fee. Bike taxis jostle for passengers. There are soldiers with guns everywhere. The magnitude of what I had gotten myself into was beginning to settle in.

Our driver, Virginia, whisked us away through the chaos along dusty, bumpy streets covered with lava and gray ash, remnants of the Nyiragongo volcano that devastated the area in 2002.

Finally, we arrived at Maji Matulivu, a beautiful, heavily guarded guest house.

The next day, Dr Joseph Muyuma and Dr Alfred Mwenebatenda of Project Congo Alliance took us to see a little house they had converted into a hospital. Doctors there make less than $500 per month and often go without a salary.

And we got to meet Philomene. One of the joys of visiting the Congo was actually getting to meet the people we were trying to help. Philomene is a young girl who was gang-raped when she was 15 years old. She has a little daughter as a result of the rape. This is where our dollars had been going — $28 per month for their care. As we pulled up outside of her home, the whole village seem to descend upon us. Philomene ran and hugged me.

“Mama Lorna!” she called out. We hugged and cried.

We also we met with some traditional midwives; many are both untrained and illiterate.

They are afraid they might contract AIDS so they ask if we can provide them with gloves so they do not have to do deliveries with bare hands.

One woman told her story of being raped. All I could do was listen. I just could not find the words to tell her I was sorry. We learned women are gang-raped in their homes, or when they leave to collect firewood or fetch water. They are raped in public; they are raped in front of their families. The fact that they might be pregnant doesn’t matter. Age doesn’t matter. The youngest victim was a 3-year-old toddler; the oldest was a 90-year-old grandmother.

We also visited a refugee camp and clinic in Sha Sha. The clinic barely has any medicines, and many of the victims have died. All Souls Episcopal Church, Miami Beach, provided the clinic with a generator.

Our next stop was a three-hour boat trip to North Kivu to meet Dr. Philemon Kakisingi and Dr. Jeff Mibi from St Vincent Hospital. The hospital is overcrowded, with multiple patients often sharing a twin bed. There are over 150 women waiting to have reconstructive vaginal surgery as a result of the horrific gang-rapes.

The trip we took to see the mines in Shabunda will live with me forever. The rebels control the mines in this area. These mines are used in the cell phones and laptops that make our lives more convenient. Many question, in light of the rebels’ hold on the area, whether we shouldn’t be obtaining those minerals from someplace else.

The trip to Shadunda was different from all our other trips. We changed drivers. We needed someone who was born in the area and familiar with the dangers. We left at about 6 a.m., to get to the mines and back before dark.

At each village, we stopped and visited with the chief. We would always leave a small monetary gift for the village. It was a humanitarian gesture but it also allowed us access and safety. I knew we could easily be killed. Rebel soldiers were everywhere. They were young and they looked angry. The soldiers are not paid.

“They kill, they rape and they take our food,” the villagers told us.

Inch by inch we made our way up the mountains and as we finally turned a corner we saw something magical, hundreds of women in beautiful African dresses. Once they saw us they started singing and chanting. Neither love or suffering have only one language, I understood it all.

Suddenly we looked up and saw several trucks with UN soldiers. The UN commander wanted to speak with us. He wanted to know who we were. Why were we there? He made it clear he did not want any trouble. “We are peaceful people,” I told him calmly. “We are only here to help the women of the Congo.”

The women waited patiently for us. Once we rejoined them we understood the significance of our visit. At this very spot in 1998, 13 people were buried alive. We cried and we hugged; I promised the women we would tell their stories. I also promised them we would provide surgery for the women who have been raped, and to set up a midwifery training program so their women would no longer die in child birth.

On the way back, we encountered another horror. Lying on the ground like road kill were five bodies — the carnage of a massacre on the village the night before.

I wondered who they were and how long they were lying there. Would they have a decent burial?


The author is the founder and executive director of Footprints Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to saving women’s lives “one footprint at a time.” She is a former Miami-Dade prosecutor and a former registered nurse and midwife.

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We return to the Congo Oct. 1-12, to start our first training program for midwives. The curriculum is been developed by Dr Mary Jo O’Sullivan, Dr. Nahida Chakhtoura, and Jamile Munajj-Brown, a local midwife. Our goal is that in five years we can turn this program over to our Congolese partners.

We need help in raising the $50,000 needed to start the program. Donations can be sent to Footprints Foundation 4000 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Suite 470, Coral Gables, Fl. 33146 or online at We are also looking for doctors, nurses and psychologist to join our team

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