As published in Columbia Journalism

She treated convicted sex offenders as her way of helping people outside of the prison system

Norma Hilton

It’s not easy being a female nurse in a hospital that treats violent sexual predators, says Rebeka Baroi. During her first day, she and fellow nurses lined up for their orientation, one inmate called out: “Whore number one, whore number two, whore number three, whore number four!”

Baroi, 55, chuckled as she recalled the incident. “I was like, what?!”

Coalinga State Hospital is a large facility with nearly 1300 beds in central California, just south of Fresno. It’s pressed uncomfortably close to Pleasant Valley State Prison, most famous for housing one of the Menendez brothers and the man who was convicted of assassinating President Robert F. Kennedy. When it opened in 2005, it was the first state hospital to be built in over half a century.

The hospital treats patients sent through the court system under the 1996 Violent Sexual Predator Law in California. These people have been identified as a group of extremely dangerous incarcerated sexual predators who pose a real and high risk to the general public, if ever released from custody. In 2016, 73% of patients at Coalinga were sexually violent predators.

“It’s a totally different world,” Baroi said, thinking back to when some of her patients were convicted pedophiles and rapists. “I tried not to bring any of my experiences home. If you bring something home, you can’t lead a life — a normal life.” Her words were barely louder than a whisper. “Even now, I always want to keep my work and my home separate.”

She worked at Coalinga as a nurse for only four years. But Baroi said her experience there helped her work better as a registered nurse inspector at the Office of the Inspector General of California. She now spends three to four days once-a-month visiting prisons gathering information for operational reports, work that continued even in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, there are over 92,000 adult inmates in state prisons as of March 31, of 2021. Some of the prisons hold as many as 5,000 people.

Baroi has been working in state facilities for the last 12 years. But even the short stints in her professional life have been marred by tragedies. During her time in acute care in Fresno, her life was 12-hour shifts, day after day, night after night of nothing but detailed charts and aching soles. As a woman in her 40s, Baroi could only stomach two years of it.

A few months after she left, she said she heard a registered nurse had been so badly injured in an encounter with a patient that she had to be airlifted out of the facility.

She thinks of her career as a reminder that health professionals have to care for all people — even while they are serving sentences for horrible crimes. Baroi struggled with the notion. Some of the people she’s treated have been convicted of raping children as young as two.

She was shocked by the restrictions at the hospital. Patients would be shackled before being transported for care outside the hospital. And nurses were trained to be hyper-aware of their surroundings.

“You have to be so careful,” Baroi said, “because they can attack you anytime.”

The 2020 California Sex Offender Management Board report states there are almost 82,000 sex offenders in the community in California. Coalinga in Fresno county, where Baroi worked between 2009 and 2013, has about 2,600 registered active sex offenders — the fifth highest in California. Los Angeles county takes the top spot with nearly 15,000.

There’s been a slow and steady upward mobility in Baroi’s career. She moved from one state job to another — from the cardiac unit to risk management to adolescent care. The last 12 years have been sectioned neatly into four year segments.

“I came to America when I was 34 and I couldn’t do much with my old qualifications,” she said “I knew I had to do something. Otherwise you know, I’d be working for $10 an hour for the rest of my life.”

Baroi came to America in 2000. She had a master’s degree and experience from her time at the World Bank branch in Bangladesh. But because the U.S. does not accept most Bangladeshi degrees, she studied nursing at San Bernardino Valley College, a public community college in California. The first two years were spent on general education — English composition, statistics, sociology, anthropology and even a course on public speaking. She worked full-time as a nutrition clerk too.

But completing the second half of her bachelor’s degree at San Bernardino Valley College was grueling, and she had to quit her job to focus on school.

“My husband worked by himself and we had a hard time,” she said “We were living hand to mouth.”

She now lives in a small neighborhood equidistant from San Francisco and Sacramento, Baroi said, weaving in and out of Bangla and English with the ease of a bilingual American. After decades on the west coast, her s’s are distinct and her r’s don’t roll, save for one word or two like ‘actually’ where the phantom touch of a Bangladeshi accent still lingers. Her Facebook page shows pictures of her with her husband and her son, face adorned with large, tinted sunglasses and clad in candy cane red or the full spectrum of a fogbow rainbow.

Baroi is bursting with love for California — for the arid landscape, for the scorching heat, for the languid, lovely people. Santa Barbara is her favorite place. She and her husband, James Baroi, are united by a mutual love for the open road. Even during that first enervating year in America, what was meant to be a spontaneous getaway in their brand new, $14,700 alabaster white Toyota Corolla, turned into nearly a month-long cross-country trip.

“She’s a very spontaneous person,” he said.

Until the pandemic ossified their plans, Baroi and her husband toyed with the idea of driving to Vancouver. Maybe sometime after their Easter trip to Bangladesh, her husband said with a laid back, central valley intonation. Before California, she called the low-lying delta home. But it wasn’t meant to be.

“Between a cruise in the Caribbean and going home to Bangladesh, she’d pick going home every time,” he said.

Baroi was born on November 1, 1965 in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, to two teachers. Her grandfather, uncles and aunt were all physicians. They raised her Christian. She attended Immanuel Baptist Church in the city’s Dhanmondi area, now between Al Hera Mosque and Labaid Hospital’s Cardiac Centre.

The church was also where she met husband. They were married when she was 18 and he was 23 and had a child, her only child, at 19. For two years after, her life revolved around her son.

“I used to feel so bad because I couldn’t study. For me and my family, education was very important. But I kept thinking to myself, “Oh my God, what am I doing? I’m making babies now instead of going to school?!” she said. “I was young. All of my friends were at university and I’m just sitting home and raising my baby. You know, I was happy with my baby. But at the same time, I was feeling, like, guilty.”

At one point, there’s a gentle but urgent beeping on her end, indicating another call is coming in. She apologizes profusely after taking it — it was her husband, who’s been supportive of her throughout their lives together. Another source of support for Baroi has been her little sister, Ajanta.

Baroi speaks about her often, with a tenderness born from decades spent together. She tells me her sister is the only person who’s taken an interest in her job and asked her questions.

Generally, when she meets someone new in the Bangladeshi community they are uninterested in her current work. She thinks it’s because there’s so much stigma around talking about prisons and prisoners. But she doesn’t mind it.

Unlike her work at Coalinga that demanded constant hyper-vigilance, Baroi now works mostly from home. It can be tedious. Sometimes the medical inspection reports take five months to complete. But she’s grateful for it.

“Frankly speaking, no one asks me anything about my job,” she said so matter-of-factly, it’s easy to picture the shrug on the other end of the phone call. “But I feel blessed to have this job.”