Category Archives: prison

Lunch With A Friend

I saw him before he saw me, sitting at an outside table at a strip mall restaurant, wearing sunglasses and drinking a beer.  I stuck my hand through my open sunroof as I parked my car and waved enthusiastically.  He stood up to welcome me and we gave each other a warm hug.  Less than a year ago, this innocent gesture, let alone calling him by his first name, would have gotten me fired from my job.

For two years I worked as a life skills instructor at 4 different reentry programs, the in-between step between prison and the “real” world.  I worked with men and women, some who had served relatively short stints behind bars in county jails and some much longer, up to 20 years in federal prisons.  I truly liked and respected the vast majority but there were a handful who the thought of never seeing again truly broke my heart.  Bob, (not his real name) was one of those.

Bob was a man who from the get go was someone who I immediately wondered “What the hell did HE do to be here?”  He dressed in khakis and nice polo shirts.   He was a computer whiz, sat with the men and women who had been incarcerated for so long that they had never had e-mail let alone used the internet to search for a job.  He had ENDLESS amounts of patience with them, never getting visibly frustrated.  He never judged, complained, or bad-mouthed staff.  He was resigned and humbled about doing whatever it was he had to do to get through his time there.

Before I learned his crime I learned that he was a pioneer of the computer boom traveling around the country to teach companies how to use the most famous and recognizable software of the time.  I later learned that he was making more than I ever have while in his mid-twenties  (he’s now in his late forties).

I eventually  learned that his was a white(ish) collar crime.  He served 5 years in a minimum(ish) security prison doing what was expected of him.  To come out and have to start all over again, making an hourly pittance, humbled him completely.   He’s grateful to HAVE a job, one that no matter how junior, allows him to use the skills that he worked so hard to develop.

Sitting across from him at lunch, having drinks and lunch was so normal, so natural.  We talked about a recent relationship of his that had trickled to an end.  We laughed about one of the other residents who happened to be his best friend in prison, one he still sees, and one who I miss terribly.  He asked me about my husband’s new job, we talked about his mother and all the typical things that two friends, having lunch, talk about.

I remember very early on in my job my boss saying to me “These people are not your friends.”  While employed there I did adhere to the professional boundaries that were expected of me but I’m only human.  These people, and by my calculation I interacted pretty closely with at least a thousand of them over two years, were funny, intelligent, compassionate, curious and resigned to the fact that they would have to start over again.  They made me laugh out loud, made me cry, made me evaluate my own view of the world, tested my personal ethical code and in general made me feel alive.   In my opinion, those are all the qualities I could possibly dream of in a friend.

A couple of months ago I asked Bob to write me a reference that I could use in a job search in the future.  What he wrote was touching and meaningful beyond words.  This is the last sentence:

“While I was working with Ms. Saks I didn’t just succeed with employment and integration back into society. I also met a wonderful woman I am proud to call my friend.”

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The Crumble of My Life

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The above is a summary of my life, all 50 years of it,  on a 22 x 27 piece of poster board.  It’s not one of those “inspiration boards,” used in team-building or ice breaker exercises.  In many ways, it’s the opposite–the sort of “anti-inspiration” board not seen and replicated on sites like Pinterest.

I work as part of a team that leads a 14-week employment program for homeless adults, most with serious addiction issues and criminal pasts.  The goal is that by the time the students graduate, they will be employed and ready to start rebuilding their lives with pride and a great sense of accomplishment.

Each class starts with 14 students, 7 men and 7 women, as young as 21 and as old as 65. The first couple of weeks are spent on self-reflection and group interaction, and culminates in the creation and presentation of something called a “Life Map.”

I had heard a lot about this project during my first week of work and had the opportunity to see some completed ones on the walls of the classrooms where the students had moved on to the next phase of the curriculum.  The images and words, clipped from magazines or written out in pen or marker, were very similar– syringes, bottles of alcohol, prison bars, and words like “loser,” “sex,” “hope,” and “God.”  As soon as I learned that all staff have to create their own, and then present them to a class, I was compiling my own, isolating themes and images that I would share.

Without question, my life is interesting and I wanted the students to know that.  I wanted them to know that I too have experienced trauma and tragedy but that I have managed to succeed and maintain a wonderful and incredibly happy, full and fun life.

Without going image by image and word by word here, my map has four pivotal dates, highlighted in yellow;  my date of birth, the day my mother was found dead, my daughter’s birthday and the day I married for the second time.   I presented a pretty happy childhood, the luxury of growing up so close to Manhattan where my father gave me access to wonderful cultural experiences.  I moved on through boarding school, college and landing in Boston, sprinkling the hard truths about my mother’s serious mental illness (and eventual suicide) and my parent’s divorce into the narrative and moved onto the present day.  The students were pretty stunned and surprised and incredibly gracious in their comments.  But, this isn’t really about me.  It’s about them, and their lives.

One by one, the students presented their maps, required to speak for at least 1/2 hour and not to go longer than one.  Many things struck me as each one bared their souls, flayed open to their deepest nerve. Most of them had lovely childhoods, much like mine, going on family vacations, eating together as a family each night, learning the value of an education and hard work.  A couple of them grew up vacationing in rented summer cottages in the mountains or on a lake, camping and fishing with their fathers, and laughing with their mothers.  And then, again, in most of these cases, a sudden switch in their narrative, in at least 4 out 5, the death of a parent while the students were still teenagers  lead to a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse.

I’m blessed not to have an addictive bone in my body.  I certainly would be hard-pressed not to fall to pieces if I had my coffee taken away, but drugs have always scared me.  I’ve smoked plenty of pot in my life, tried coke once, and as much as people say I would love it, would never dream of taking hallucinogens.  I tend to STOP drinking the second I feel a little tipsy and was able to quit smoking cold turkey.  So, when my mother died when I was only 21, I turned to other things like music, writing and friends without ever feeling the urge to numb the pain that I never seemed to experience.

The drug of choice in almost all of the students is heroin.  In some cases they started with other opiates like pain killers, but when they became too expensive switched over to the widely available and cheaper heroin.  Most swore they would never shoot-up.  Most ended up doing so, multiple times a day.  When the youngest in the class, a 21-yr old walked us through his timeline, he described this transition by pointing to a picture of a syringe and said, “This is where the crumble of my life began.”

In what will seem like an utterly selfish reaction to these presentations is my wondering and fear of what my 13-year old daughter would do if I died.   She has the addiction gene in her bloodline and it terrifies me to think of how missing me, how tragedy of any sort could trigger the similar reaction as these people have had.   She has shown me absolutely no reason whatsoever to have this fear, but she’s at the age where I tried pot for the first time and where a lot of my friends had started sneaking sips of booze from their parents liquor cabinets.  I naively believe that this isn’t happening in her middle school or that she is nowhere exposed to those temptations.  All I can do is pray that she’ll turn out okay, that she’ll make the right choices, and that her life will never crumble.

The Bucket List

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This past summer while searching for fresh ideas to use in the juvenile lockup where I lead a group, I flipped through a copy of “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” the kind of title I would normally stay away from, thinking it was faith-based or so overly cheerful that I would be unable to relate to its content and tone.  I was surprised to find that among the 1,560 bits of advice and wisdom there are some gems.  I would end each group by having each young man read 5 of their choosing in front of the other residents.   On the day the program closed due to lack of funding for youth programs, I gave them each a copy with a personal note jotted on the inside cover.

Among the snippets of wisdom, listed somewhere near “Plant a tree the day your child is born,” and “Have friends who own a truck,” this one struck an immediate chord with me:  “Make your bucket list and keep it in your wallet.”

Since May of this year, I have been incorporating this exercise with the groups of adult male and female felons I see both in jail and in their halfway house-reentry programs.   It’s become the kick-off to a 4-week goal-setting group that I’ve created and of everything I’ve done with them for the past year this has been, by far, the most fascinating.

I’ve had a 22-year old black man just wrapping-up a two-year sentence for drug distribution share that he’s always wanted to learn how to ride a unicycle.  I’ve had a 50-year old white woman tell the group that her biggest wish is to fly a kite with her now adult children.  A middle-aged Latino man who has lost all contact with his children dreams of bringing them all back together for a family portrait.  Perhaps the most agonizing for me was having connected rather strongly with an initially very reticent 25-yr old man from South Boston who just yearned to “be normal,” which to him meant getting married, having children, and eating dinner together every night.  The day after he shared this, he had a near fatal heroin overdose in his room and after being hospitalized for three days, was sent back to jail.

As I’m handing out index cards and pencils I tell them that nothing is too small or too big.  I use my two most extreme as examples, the first being “Eat a giant turkey leg,” (I always clarify by referring to those huge drumsticks you can get at county fairs and say that I want to walk around eating it like everyone else and not just bring it home and eat it at my dining room table) and the more far-fetched, “Own an apartment in NYC and a house in England.”  I give them about 7 minutes to brainstorm without holding back and then I ask them to share, which they almost always do.

To be fair, to level the playing field, I always share mine with them (It’s become a bit weakened and faded by the constant folding and refolding.) I tell them that I keep it with me, as suggested by the way the advice from the book is written, so that I can refer to it and cross things off once I’ve accomplished them. I read it in the exact order as it appears above and until about three months ago, when a young man said that he always wanted to visit his grandmother’s grave, my list ended at “House in England.”  Interesting where and how our personal light bulbs are lit.  My mother has been dead for almost 28 years and I had never visited her grave.

Soon after adding it, I read my list to a group of men who had just begun the 4-week workshop.  I blew through it pretty quickly and a young man said,  “Whoa.  Wait a minute.  How long ago did your mother die?”  When I told him he asked, “What are you afraid of?”  Every week these people astound me for moments just like this.  The rest of the group joined the questioning and urged me to do it.  I don’t think they trusted my eagerness to do it probably picking up on the hesitancy in my promise to do so.   So, when I made a concrete plan to go to Long Island where she happens to be buried, I promised them that I would go.  This past Thursday night at my last group before I left, one of the guys asked how I was feeling and if I was ready.  He then made me pinkie-swear that I wouldn’t back out.  It was that mutual tugging of our little fingers, that bond that I know as a parent you NEVER break, that guaranteed that I would make it.

I have indeed been afraid and I have been lazy.  Afraid of finding an overgrown jumble of thorns and tumbleweed around her grave and afraid of finding an empty headstone.  (In the Jewish tradition when someone visits a grave, we leave a rock on the headstone to signify that someone has been there.)   I have been to Long Island, less than 15 miles from the cemetery endless amounts of times since she’s died and I’ve always come up with excuses not to go.  Shame on me.

My brother and uncle explained what to do once I got to the cemetery–to check in at the front office, tell them who I was there to “visit” and they would give me a map of where to find my mother.  During the drive there, my husband at the wheel and my 12-year old daughter in the back, I found myself looking as the miles ticked down on the GPS, my heart racing as we got closer.  I pictured myself falling to me knees, crumbling in a mass of sobs and snot, and, on the flip side, not having any reaction at all.  I asked my husband and daughter if it would be okay for them to stay in the car while I found her grave and that I would wave them over when I was finished reacting in whatever way I did.

I got out of the car and scanned the headstones, knowing hers would be pretty close to where we were.  I slowed down when I spotted her last name, my last name.  The first thing I noticed was a weird little sketch under her name (again, I think it’s Jewish tradition to just have the last name on the headstone and the full name on the footstone in front) which looked like an abstract cup of coffee with steam coming off of it.  I actually laughed a little because besides in the morning, my mother had a cup of coffee every day at 3:00.  I’m sure whoever chose this design didn’t pick up on this.

Seeing  her full name, her dates of birth and death, and then her life roles listed, “Mother, Daughter, Sister, Grandmother,” on the footstone did it to me.  I bent down to wipe off the puddle of water that had formed from the rain and stared at those words and those dates.  I cried quickly, neatly and quietly before calling over my husband and daughter.  My husband came up behind me and put his arms around me, asking if I was okay.  I was okay.  I don’t think I felt any particular sense of closure (I wasn’t really looking for that) but I had made a promise, to myself and a handful of people who have become a strangely wonderful and influential part of my life.  I can’t wait to see them this week to tell them that I did it, to hear their cheers and receive their high-fives.

Next up is that pesky 5K.  After I do that, I will be rewarding myself with the biggest turkey leg I can find.

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Inmates As Human Beings: When The Media Gets it Right

I just finished watching the very moving Netflix series, “Orange Is The New Black,” based on a book by a woman serving a 15-month sentence for a crime she committed at the request of her very alluring female lover.  I know from the work I do with female inmates, that the fictionally named Litchfied House of Correction is based on an actual prison in Connecticut where the majority of “my” women served time.

After doing a marathon binge-like watching of the show, I was very curious to ask the women I work with if the writers had gotten it right–if some of the joy and disturbing elements of being incarcerated were accurate.  My women don’t have access to Netflix so I asked them some questions about the amount of sex between the inmates themselves, sex with the officers, joyful birthday and holiday celebrations and the freedom to roam around the grounds without constant supervision.  They confirmed that it seems as if the writers had captured the reality.

Most of the women said that their sentences and prison time weren’t so bad, but that it’s the multitude of restrictions  in the reentry program where I see them once a week that are worse.  In my position I have to remain somewhat neutral but I listen and try to understand what they mean.

People who don’t work in this field have a hard time sympathizing with the male and female felons I work with.  I think they generally feel as if they brought this on themselves and deserve what they have coming to them.  They don’t have the opportunity to get to know the people, the humans behind the crimes.

“Orange is The New Black” does a magnificent job of humanizing the inmates in the show. The writers transcend the drab, beige prison uniforms by allowing the narrative to slip away to the back story of at least one character each episode. We see the vulnerabilities, the mistakes, the addictions and the normalcy of these women before they landed in prison.  I have been moved to tears by each one.

In my work, I see women in two settings–one group in jail and the other in the aforementioned reentry program, an actual 5-story converted brownstone.  In jail, I stand in front of a new group of women every two weeks. They are all in their uniforms, drab colored and the same.  They are faces for the first few minutes all somewhat similar to the 1,500 or so I’ve already seen before them.  They are interchangeable.   As we go through my 50-minute workshop, they become much more than faces.  They are women who became addicted to painkillers in middle-age.  They are women who have shot heroin with their parents in their teens.  They are women with Master’s Degrees and they are mothers.

In the grand parlor where I sit on couches with the released women, women on the threshold of going back to their lives, they are in their “street” clothes.  I see their unique style, some in maxi-dresses, some in cutoffs, some in business attire after coming back from work.  I see them.  I see who they were before their sentencing.

Since watching “Orange is The New Black,” I have had these quick shadow glimpses of these women in their prison uniforms –quick flashes of them moving around to visit the other inmates or sitting in the prison cafeteria telling jokes.  I see them dancing in front of boom boxes with the drawstring of their pants flopping around, showing their moves and teaching the older inmates how to line dance.  I see them in a setting that none of them ever wanted to be in making the best of the situation.  Then, like in a movie, those images evaporate and get sucked back into their current selves.

Many of them know each other from their time in prison. They laugh, they joke, they talk about this guard and that lunch lady.  They’ve seen pictures of each other’s children and met each other’s families during visiting hours.  They cheer each other on and feel happy when their time is up and they can walk out the door of the halfway house for the last time.  They become Facebook friends.

In my position I am not allowed to keep in touch with the inmates once they leave.  It is probably the hardest part of my job.  In some cases I’ve spent nine months, a day a week with these women and I know I’ll never see them again.  I’m not even allowed to hug them goodbye after they’ve opened up their hearts and fears to me.  I see them in my mind picking up their children and spinning them around in the air.  I see them dancing in their living rooms.  I see them transcending their time as prisoners and starting all over again as the individuals they are, and it makes me smile.

“Good night—you Princes of Maine, you Kings of New England!”

For about a year, I have been working with a range of offenders from juveniles not yet aged-out of the system, to “hard core” felons with very long bids under their belts (“bid” = time served).

I’ve grown to love the five disparate and distinct groups I work with in very different ways.  They all make me laugh and have all made me cry.  It continues to be the best experience I have ever had.

About two weeks ago a lack of funding has resulted in the imminent closing of our juvenile residence.  According to my very rough calculation, I have had about 400 young men of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds pass through my group in less than a year.  Of those, about half came and went frequently, often gone for a couple of months to less than a week,  and then re-offended to find themselves right back where they started.  Most of the offenses are pretty minor in comparison to adult crimes–stealing cars, being out past their imposed curfews–but, they still get hauled in, often shuffled around to other programs or thrown right back into their communities.

When I heard the program was closing my thoughts went immediately to some of the AMAZING and incredibly loyal staff who will suddenly be without jobs at the end of this month.  Some of them will be folded into other existing programs but the others have a scary uncertainty looming ahead.  I’ve watched them, with tough love and compassion, make those boys relax into their very temporary home.  They lay down the law when they have to, and will sit and play cards with them during the hours of free time between dinner and lights out.  It’s during those times that I see the staff bring out the boy in those hardened young men.

These kids have dreams like everyone else.  They want to be rappers and record producers, athletes and small business owners.  They want to work with horses and become pilots.   They want the ability to apologize to their parents or grandparents or whoever they feel they’ve let down.  Others, in their own words say “I don’t give a fuck.”  But, they do.

The youngest ones, the 15 and 16-yr olds with dimples and smiles a mile wide are the most hopeful.  They haven’t yet been beaten down by those never ending loops of bad choices and circumstances and I’d like them to believe that they don’t have to be.  Others are so calloused and at this point rather indifferent towards there own lives, that you know they’ll never get out of the system that they feel has been unjust.

I don’t know why I’ve been surprised, since many peers of mine from an early age have certainly been abusers of one sort or another, but some of these kids, mostly white from upper middle class backgrounds, are, without question, alcoholics.  (Again, why the hell should this surprise me since my best friend, a quintessential WASP from Maine is a crystal meth addict.)  It’s my perspective that has changed–I’m a 48-yr old woman who is supposed to be TEACHING them something.  What in the world do I know about being a 16 year old alcoholic that they haven’t figured out for themselves?

The bottom line is that in 3 weeks I will most-likely never see any of these boys again.  I will miss the ones who are often combative and the ones who take the confidence-boosting exercises I give them and put them in their pockets to look at later.  I will miss the one who volunteered to read Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and came up with his own rather astounding analysis.  The thing I’ll miss the most however, is watching the woefully underpaid staff and the way they wear their hearts on their sleeves so that the boys can feel that love, love that most likely will feel elusive to them along their uncertain paths.

“Good night You Princes of Maine,
You Kings Of New England”–John Irving, The Cider House Rules

Glory Boy

Since my 30s I have had the unique and eye-opening opportunity of working with and mentoring underserved youth from the most rough and tumble neighborhoods in the country, ranging from the poorest areas of the Appalachians to South Central LA to Detroit.  The majority of them are right on the cusp of becoming career criminals or are clinging to the only positive role models they’ve had in their lives who have had the wherewithal and dedication to get them off the streets, giving them a different choice and options.
Many of the youth I have met have made the very tough decision to leave the gangs who had become their surrogate nuclear families, to finish high school, learn a trade, start families of their own, and in turn have mentored those who are exactly where they were.
Most recently I have worked in a juvenile lockup for boys not yet aged-out of the system.  They come and go very quickly, some being held overnight until the court decides where they need to be placed, others for a month or two until they are released back to their communities and the temptations of the streets that have become their comfort zone.  Just like the women I work with in prison, there is something about the energy of the streets that has gotten into their systems that restores them to who they believe are their true selves.  When the boys and the women come back within weeks, or months, I just sigh and ask them, rather rhetorically, what the hell happened.
I lead a weekly group in the boy’s lockup.  It’s pretty informal—we sit in comfortable chairs in the common area of the residence and the staff charged with keeping things under control participate too. They are amazing at tough love with these kids and the boys know that they care and want nothing more for them to succeed.  Too often though, these kids go in and out constantly, the same ones over and over.  It becomes home.  A place of safety.
A few weeks ago a boy who had been in my group over the summer was back.    A light-skinned Latino with the rather unlikely combination of braces and tattoos, “R” sprawled on a chair all smiles and light.  I know the community he comes from, the poorest in the state, and that gang membership and all that comes with it is what has led to a long string of fairly serious charges.  I know that he has watched his friends get shot, incarcerated and killed.  I know that he is terrified of going back there.  He has told staff that he never thought he’d make it to his 18th birthday which is just a few weeks away.
Despite all this, he is extremely proud and loyal to his city.  I’ve worked where he lives and know the sense of community that is juxtaposed with urban poverty and crime.  Somehow the group of eight boys and 4 staff started talking about what they would want to be remembered for and what they would name their memoirs.  When it was “R”s turn, this is what he said:
“I would want to go back to my neighborhood and be proud.  I want to bring happiness to the streets.  I want to protect my little sister.  I’d want to be a superhero.   I’d call myself ‘Glory Boy.’”
Some of the guys laughed but I silently marveled at the beauty of “R” and the vision he has created for himself.
He is being released, again, in a few weeks.  I want to shadow him and protect him and scoop him up when he’s at that all-too-familiar precipice.  I want to take him away and put him in the Witness Protection Program where he can be relocated and be Glory Boy on a tree-lined street with no guns or drugs or none of those who feel that he has betrayed stalking him in parking lots or bodegas.  I want him to walk hand-in-hand with his little sister in the morning on the way to school.   What I don’t want is to ever see him again, locked up with state-issued flip flops with an ankle bracelet charging during class.  Most critically, I don’t want to see him in an open-casket.

How A Nice Jewish Girl Became A Badass

Not many people can lay claim to being kicked-out of pre-school like I can.  I remember the day well, sticking my hand up one of those machines that dispense milk, the ones with the plastic udders snipped at the ends.  My mother was called and told not to bring me back.  Ever.
A year later I pushed a neighbor into a thorn bush and tied him up with kite string.  According to facebook he is now the manager of a multi-million dollar hedge fund, clearly revenge for what a 7-yr old girl did to make him look like a pussy at the bus stop 40 years ago.
During my years of working in non-profits I spent a lot of time with “at-risk” individuals of all ages.  I worked on behalf of homeless women and former gang members, but I never expected that I would find myself working with incarcerated convicts.
For the first few weeks as a volunteer creative writing instructor with female inmates I had handouts, made them write and read from a book that I thought they could relate to. I was so not badass. Some were receptive, others just thought I was wasting their time.  Soon, I ditched the handouts, the readings and a pen hasn’t been used in my workshop in at least a year.  Now it’s very free-form  and those who start out staring out the window and roll their eyes, eventually become engaged in the conversation.  I have NO problem yelling at them to “STOP TALKING!” which gets the attention of the officer looking down on the class.  If they act up they know they can go to “the hole,” so generally once is enough.
I’ve recently started working with male offenders ranging from 14 to over 60.  The nature of their crimes are all different and what I instruct them in depends on what type of pre-release situation they are in.  When people ask me what I do I feel totally badass.  Usually people ask if I’m afraid or they ask my husband if he gets worried.  He’s used to it by now, and no, I’ve never been afraid.
People have become really used to the natural high or the incredible heartbreak I feel every week after spending an hour with “my ladies.”  It runs a close second to being on top of my Tempurpedic mattress as my happy place.  Now, after I finish my weekly classes with the men, I’ll call my husband and say things like, “I love my felons,” or “I love my juvenile delinquents!”  It’s that same feeling I’ve gotten from working with their female counterparts for the past two years.
People always told me that working with the men is much easier than working with the women.  The men certainly respect me a bit more, sit rapt with attention and call me “teach.”  Some are a bit more impenetrable than the women and there is one in particular that I am desperate to break through to just to see a teeny glimmer of vulnerability that I KNOW has to be in there somewhere.  The men tease me a bit and have their inside jokes that I am not privy to (the women always teach me new jargon) but I feel more attuned to the women, the playing field being more level.

The Urban Dictionary defines “badass” as “An ultra-cool motherfucker.” My 11-yr old daughter would take issue with that as she’s at that age where everything I do embarrasses her.  I bet, though,  when I’m not around and someone asks what her mother is like, she would totally describe me as “an ultra-cool motherfucker,” and nothing could make me more proud.

The Questions Inmates Ask

As part my workshop with female inmates I ask the women to think of one question they would ask everyone they meet.  I often set-up the exercise by saying that they could pretend that they might not ever see the person again—having time with them at a bus stop, stuck on a train, whatever, so that it is most likely that they would get honest answers out of a stranger who would simply walk back into their own anonymous life.
I have gotten many fascinating answers during the years I’ve been doing this. Some recent standouts have been, “How do you cope?”  “Are you happy?” “What one decision would you change if you had the chance?”
As often happens, they ask these questions of me, curious about this white, middle-aged woman standing in front of them for 45-minutes a week.  Usually by that point they’re quite comfortable with me sensing that I don’t sit in judgment of them and that I’m genuinely interested in everything they choose to share.  This week I was asked, “Do you believe in God?”  I hesitated before answering, and said that that was a really tricky question for me.  One woman said, “It’s a yes or no question.  Either you do or you don’t.”  Others came to my defense understanding that it might not be so black and white.
“Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior?” a woman wearing a plastic prison- issued rosary beads and cross necklace asked me, as if this would definitively answer the question. 
“Oh my God, hell no,” I think I may have answered, my filter apparently taking a nap.  This got a few chuckles from the ladies.  “I’m Jewish,” I added, which led to some sounds of understanding from the women.  It’s sort of a stock answer I give, because quite frankly, no, I don’t believe in God and the deflection seems to make sense to others. “It’s not that simple for me.”   I have found that a lot of women of all ages, races and ethnicities have a tremendous belief that God, whoever that is to them, will get them through their sentences and whatever comes next.  It’s hard to know if they entered prison with their beliefs or if they were formed behind bars.
I am often asked if I am or ever was an addict.  I would say that 75% of the women I see are.  I usually point to the coffee I have with me as the only thing I can say I’m “addicted” to. (They are often not too happy that I’m up there enjoying my drive-through iced latte while they haven’t had time to have their instant yet.) I always share, when the subject comes up, that my best friend is a crystal meth addict and that to the best of my ability I understand the struggle he and other addicts face.  I emphasize that I couldn’t possibly ever know what it’s like, that I live the flipside of the issue.  I have read the piece below about my best friend’s struggle which always leads to some very poignant conversation:
After reading it last week, a woman raised her hand and asked me this:
“Have you ever been curious to try heroin or meth just to see what it’s like?”
I paused and thought about how to answer.  I’ve seen enough documentaries and heard first-hand accounts about how heroin, for example, is like taking your best orgasm and multiplying it by 1,000 or that pain, physical and emotional, instantly disappears.  I’ve heard that meth makes you feel like Superman for days on end.  I’ve heard that your first hit is never your last.
“I’d be curious about how something may feel that good, but no, I’ve never been tempted to try them.   Plus, I need my sleep.  I couldn’t stand being up for 4 days in a row.”  They laughed at this. 
My answer was an honest one.  They have asked me things that I will not answer but somehow this didn’t seem to cross that line.  In many ways, it levels the playing field between us.  They never seem to stand in judgment of me and wonder how I could possibly understand them, and vice versa.  I always say to people that at the core of it all they are women, just like I am, who have made different choices and undoubtedly been dealt the cruelest hands imaginable.  We all turn to things to help us cope, whether it’s drugs, religion, food, shopping, whatever.  I have insurmountable credit card debt and they have track marks up and down their bodies.  They are different “blemishes,” different “blights,”  but they are the results and reminders of the choices we’ve made.

Beauty Among Pain

A few weeks ago I watched a show about women who have babies while incarcerated.  This particular episode centered on a pilot program where inmates, based on their crimes and behavior have a chance to keep their babies with them in their cells and followed two women through their journey.  It was one of the most gut-wrenching things I have ever seen to the point where I had to avert my eyes to keep from crumbling.  As expected there was one happy ending and one devastating.
 I see a lot of pregnant women in the workshop I lead with inmates.  For most this is not their first pregnancy nor does the unborn baby have the same father as its siblings.  There is no joy in the mother’s eyes, no rubbing of the belly, no astonished look when the baby moves or kicks. The prison-issued uniform is the only set of maternity clothes they will wear.  
In the tv show, the audience is set-up to anticipate the ending of one woman’s story.  She has been incarerated for a violent crime and is taken to a hospital, in shackles, to deliver her baby.  She already knows that because of her crime, she will be unable to keep her baby with her in prison. She is unsure who the father is and won’t know until she can see what color his skin is.  
 She delivers her baby without much fanfare, noone clapping or cheering her on except for the female prison guard who has accompanied her (she had noone else in her life who had any interest in being there).  The baby boy is placed on her chest for a minute or two, his skin color still a bit murky, and taken away to be cleaned, measured and weighed while his mother is taken to her hospital room.
She is allowed 24 hours with him.  We see her bottle-feeding him, their eyes locked together in that way that mothers and their babies do. He is then  placed into the arms of an Amish woman whose family will foster him until his mother’s sentence is completed.   He is brought in for a visit a month later and she is very grateful to the family and seems resigned that they will, in fact, be the ones to raise him.  
Today in my class there was a woman whose baby is due in two weeks.  She prayed that he wouldn’t be delivered in the prison infirmary but in a nearby hospital.  Her fellow inmates soothed her as best they could and a woman in the front turned to her and askd, “Is it okay if I tell her,” (meaning me), “about his name?”  The pregnant woman nodded.
“She has an autistic son and he’s the one who picked out the name for the baby.”
One by one, the other women started to put their heads down to cry, one getting up to pass around a box of tissues.
“What’s his name going to be?” one asked.
“Christian.”  There were encouraging compliments on the choice.
” My son has never expressed any interest in the baby yet and said, ‘This is going to be a special baby.'”   
The mother doesn’t know how long her sentence will run, but the baby will be raised by her husband and undoubtedly loved by the brother who named him Christian.

Why Women in Prison Lose Their Dreams

One of the most gut-wrenching things I learned about a woman in the weekly workshop I teach in prison was that her mother shot her up with heroin for the FIRST time when she was 10-yrs old.  That was until today when I was told that a woman in my class was recently set on fire by her pimp.  I learned this about 2 hours ago.  There is a new hole in my heart left by the part that feels as if it was scooped away and dropped into the pit of my stomach.

Another woman shared that she set HERSELF on fire while smoking crack.  Others have been battered to a pulp.  Most have lost their children.  I’ve heard stories like this week after week after week and if I EVER become inured to them it will be the signal to stop.  That will never happen.

These women, at one time or another have lived their dreams that arose from their talents.  They have been on their high-school debate teams, restaurant owners, professional organizers, ice skaters and nurses.  They’ve been sober, parents, dance instructors and world travelers.  One or several missteps have broken some of them, crushing their spirit and the hope that they will ever be who they were meant to become.

Because of their criminal backgrounds and repeat felonies, one woman can never be the judge she wanted to be.  One will never be able to work with children, the one thing she knows she’s good at.  Others will go back to the way they ran their lives before they became incarcerated, turning tricks and forging checks to make the money they need to support a daily drug habit.  They admit that in no time in their lives did they dream of giving a guy a hand job for $20.

Today, a young woman asked if I knew how to interpret dreams.  I said that I could take a shot at it and here’s what she shared:

“In my dream which I have a lot, I’m at the methadone clinic and Jesus is standing right next to me.  He’s there to get his fix too.  He tells me that if I don’t stop using I will die and that God will never forgive me.  He says that if I do stop, there is a chance that my son will forgive me and that God will too.”

To the rest of us this seemed rather obvious.  One of the women responded by saying, “Yeah, it means stop fucking using!”  Point taken.

I’ve asked the women to write about their dreams and the steps they might take to achieve them and to next week share them with the class.   I can’t imagine what a woman who has been set on fire will say, but I just want to tell her so very badly that the world is okay and that there is room in it for people like her to succeed.  How in the world would she ever believe that that is the case?