Tag 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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In Prison, Not On Mars

   manwatchingfireworks

And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

–Francis Scott Key

Last month on the eve of July 4th there was one of the most dramatic lightning storms I’ve ever seen.  Because my bedroom air conditioner was on, I didn’t hear anything from outside, but my cellphone, programmed to issue weather alerts, was beeping and vibrating every few seconds, warning of the advancing storm.

I love watching storms, the drama and instincts and power of nature.  My husband, who just happens to be a (jaded) meteorologist, wasn’t interested in expending the energy to wake up and watch with me, so I ran around the house alone, from window to window, upstairs, downstairs, to take it all in.  I saw the neighbors across the street and those with an adjoining backyard also watching from their windows, rooms darkened, lights off.

The effect was like cartoon superheroes throwing bolts of lightning at each other shouting “Wham!  Pow!”  The storm stayed in one place for a while, hovering over my backyard seemingly just for me.

As I was watching, in the comfort of my home, ratty nightgown and crazy hair, my thoughts went to the men and women I work with, the former inmates recently released to halfway houses scattered around Boston.  I was hoping that they were experiencing the thrill of the storm, and had seen the fireworks, albeit from a still semi-state of incarceration.

The following morning I couldn’t wait to ask the first group of men I would see how it felt for them to see and hear the dramatic combination of fireworks, thunder and lightning.  I was fully expecting profound and breathless answers and couldn’t wait to probe and discuss the feeling of exhilaration they must have all experienced.  What I got was a plunging letdown, a deflation of my romanticized version of their newly found freedom.

“Did all of you see that amazing lightning last night?” I asked the group of 7 or so men.

“Nah, I didn’t bother to get out of bed”

“Well, did you see the fireworks from here?  I mean, it has to have been a long time since you’ve seen fireworks.”  I was fishing, desperate to be validated for thinking about them the night before.

“They’re just fireworks.”

Nothing.

The next night I went to the federal halfway house where the guys have served much longer sentences, some as long as 20 years.  They tend, on the whole, to be much more candid and less reticent about expressing themselves.   With the same exuberance I showed with the first group I asked the same questions about the fireworks and storm.

“We was in prison, not on Mars,” one of the guys said to me, with a teeny tiny bit of defensiveness.  “We had windows in our cells.”

I didn’t want to press the issue and point out that there are large windows without bars and many different vantage points in their 5-story building that they are able to access with a greater amount of freedom than what they were used to.  I let it go.

I think it’s very common for the layperson to assume that being released from prison is like bursting through the finish line of a long race, hands in the air in triumph.  I have learned in the 2-years that I’ve been doing this work that there are many nuances to the idea of “freedom.”  When they are in our programs they are still very accountable, in a way, even more so, than they were behind bars.  Men have had panic attacks on the subway, on the busy streets of a city they don’t necessarily know and sometimes have left the house and not come back, choosing the very good possibility of being caught and returned to custody.

Yesterday I met with a lovely man of about 40 who had just served ten years for a drug crime.  He was immaculately dressed in pressed chinos and a colored Polo shirt and as we were talking about looking for work and starting over, he actually teared up and had to stop.

“I’m scared,” he said.  “On the day I left prison all the guys were cheering me on, wishing me luck, and all I could think about was how scared I was.”

I don’t ever feed these men and women platitudes.  I sit, I listen, and my heart breaks.  There are many happy endings for the men and women I serve, where they embrace freedom and opportunity, securing jobs within a week of being released, creating a new world where one may have not existed before.  There is relief in their faces, but there is humility too.  Freedom is not always the answer to one’s happiness and safety, and it doesn’t necessarily come with grand fanfare and a welcoming committee.  This is one of many topics I now know to tread lightly, without presumption.  Just another one of the many valuable lessons I’ve learned.

My Two Minutes and Nine Seconds of Fame

Image

Last week as I was walking down my sweet little New England town’s main street I saw two teenagers whispering to each other and pointing at me.  Finally, one nudged the other who sheepishly approached me.

“Aren’t you the woman who had a hot flash at the Jay Z concert?”

“Yeah,” I said humbly.  “That was me.”

“Can we take a picture with you?”

“Ich.  I just got out of the gym and I’m all sweaty, but sure.”

They flagged down a stranger who was happy to snap a few pics with the girl’s smartphones.  They giggled and squealed and within seconds I was on their Instagram and facebook pages.

“Thanks so much!” they said as they skipped to their larger group of friends waiting on the corner.

…So, that never happened.  But it could have.

Two weeks ago, on a Thursday night when I was flopped on the couch in front of the tv (essentially, where I am every night) I got an e-mail that said this in the subject:

“Timely Media Request-HuffPost Live.”

I looked at it and would have deleted it as spam if it hadn’t had an actual woman’s name as the sender. Here’s what the body of the e-mail said:

Hi Gayle,

I hope this message finds you well. I wanted to let you know that the Huffington Post’s video news network, HuffPost Live (live.huffingtonpost.com) will be doing a segment tomorrow (8/14/13) at 6:30pm PT/ 9:30pm ET about being middle-aged and how it means something different to everyone.

We’d love for you to join us to give your opinion and talk about your experiences. It’s very easy to join — all that is needed webcam (desktop, laptop, iPad, 4G phone — like an iPhone) and a pair of earphones. We would bring you in via Google Hangout, which is similar to Skype. The conversation will last approximately 25 minutes, will be moderated by our host Nancy Redd in Los Angeles and include members of the public.

Please let me know if you would be interested. Thank you.

I stared at it and reread it at first to myself and then out loud to my husband to see if it was actually the coolest fucking invitation I had ever received. I read Huffington Post all day and knew that it had a new live programming channel. I was stunned. Apparently, the producer (who happens to be 24-years old) Googled bloggers who write about middle age and mine was the first to pop-up. I ambushed her with questions, had an actual Skype sound check and was told that I’d be on a panel with a couple of other people. I had less than 24 hours to get it together for my groundbreaking debut.

I spread the word via facebook and e-mail and my friends who are also HuffPost regulars were as impressed as I was. I called a college professor friend of mine and asked if it was as a big a deal as I thought it was. She confirmed that indeed, it was. I adore her because she is never one to blow smoke just to make me happy.

I had a full day of work to get through (my last workshop with inmates in New Hampshire ended less than two hours before I was supposed to be Skyped into the virtual “green room,” with the other panelists). I rushed through my hour commute home and tried to gather my thoughts, making mental notes of the key points I wanted to be sure to get in.

Once home, I put on some makeup and a top that showed off my shoulders, and had a friend advise me, via Skype, how to set decorate the room I’d be doing the broadcast from. It was fabulous. I was fabulous. I had already downed one glass of wine and had another off camera. I was good to go. The producer told us we were about to go live and there I was, in split screen, with two other women, being introduced by an overly-perky hostess.

The other two women were chosen to bring a different point-of-view to the topic of being middle-aged. One of them, with a sleeping cat on a crocheted blanked behind her the entire time, didn’t believe that we actually age. The other, I’m thinking in her early sixties, well, I kind of don’t remember what she said except something about wearing comfortable shoes and riding a bike for the first time in ten years.

I managed to get two substantial chunks of air-time, one in which I happened mention, among other things, that I had had a hot flash at the Justin Timberlake/Jay Z concert days before. It was an anecdote that fit in with the main point I was trying to make about the changes my body is going through. The second chunk was much more substantive, about how I changed my career at 45, following a passion I didn’t even know I had, and entering a second marriage that is truly perfect. I talked about how my work with inmates involves telling them that it’s never too late to have a second chapter.

The 25-minute broadcast went REALLY fast and my main objective had been from the beginning to drive traffic to my blog. The hostess had a screen shot of it and there was the title of a post about aging captioned under my name. At the same time I was answering very complimentary phone calls and facebook posts, I was constantly refreshing the stats on my blog and looking at the referral sources. Although there were more hits than usual, it was a bit of a disappointment.

The next morning, when everything was feeling anti-climactic, a friend of mine uncovered this link on facebook before I did (Click on the link and see the title of the sound byte.):

http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/archive/segment/woman-had-hot-flash-at-jay-z-concert/520c564d78c90a636a0001d0

At first I laughed out loud, and then, well, I was a bit uncertain about how I felt. I waited and waited to become the butt of facebook and internet jokes. I honestly feared being laughed at by strangers if by some chance, it went viral. I understood why it was a headline that would draw people in, but, it belittled a bit, the whole point of the on-air discussion.

As it sunk in, I was more than able to laugh at it and the absurdity of the whole thing. It’s funny. I wanted Jay Z’s “people” to get a hold of it and interview me. My dear friend Laura sent the link of the entire broadcast to the local paper and the editor called me, impressed that a resident in our town of 30,000 people was recognized by “Huffington Post” and had a reporter call to interview me. The interviewer was great, but I stressed the point that I didn’t want to just be the woman who had that infamous hot flash. I wanted people to know that my blog contained much more including posts about my mother’s suicide (interestingly watered down in the article by saying “her mother’s death” as opposed to that scary word, suicide), my work with inmates, and many other things. She did a wonderful job of covering those points but couldn’t resist this:

http://www.wickedlocal.com/melrose/newsnow/x511619092/Melrose-blogger-featured-on-Huffington-Post

(The first paragraph appeared as the online teaser.)

In any event, the whole thing was a fantastic and rather short-lived high. I think the time has passed for something, some bigger breakthrough to come of it, but that’s okay. I have to not give up on that one big break, that one person who reads my work and bumps me to the next level. I haven’t lost patience, quite yet, and will continue to be the poster child of what it means to fully embrace the changes that I have made in my life, despite the hot flashes that temporarily stop me in my tracks.

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.