Category Archives: women

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.