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Categories: celebrant musings

Memories of Prison

I just finished reading Orange is the New Black.  My memories of five years working in the women’s prison came flooding back as I read. I want to share a few thoughts.

If only we each had several lives to do all the work that needs to be done…. I taught parenting classes and we had evening classes and then a Friday lab from 1 – 6 where the inmate’s children came in. Planning activities for 25 women and their children ages 6 weeks to 16 for five hours was a huge job, but I loved it. I saw moms united with their children after many years of separation. I saw children thrilled to spend time with their moms and aunts. I watched women of color cluster safely within their own group, but others brave enough to move out toward others. I saw women practicing their communication skills and sometimes asking for help.

Several take-aways were:

  • Rich folks don’t go to prison. (for the most part) They hire attorneys.
  • All women love their children. Most were eager to be better moms.
  • Many came from incredibly deprived homes and hadn’t a clue how to parent.
  • Others knew more, but made mistakes not only parenting, but in life.
  • Some took the heat for the mistakes of the men in their lives.
  • Friendships flourished.
  • My classes were about 1/3 white, 1/3 African-American, and 1/3 Latina, not representative of the demographics in Arizona.
  • Some in my classes were bad-asses, but most weren’t. Some I wanted to take home. The ones who were surly or disruptive were also fearful underneath and sometimes mentally ill.
  • It’s true that child abusers are considered scum.
  • Drugs figured in most of the detentions.
  • Grandmothers hold up the world. (but sometimes were the source of the generational problems)
  • Mental health help is non-existent. One psychiatrist for 400 women.
  • Health care was uneven and precarious.
  • The women were petrified of re-entry into society.
  • A few highly educated white women were in my classes. Though I couldn’t ask, I usually learned that they were guilty of financial crimes.

When that door clangs behind you, even though you know YOU get to leave, your spirit nosedives. I left the first class and went to a pay phone across the street and called our daughter Sonia. I was crying. She asked what was wrong and I said I was crying because I could come home to her and I just left 25 women who couldn’t. She was a good listener even though she thought I was deranged. Later she and her brother Colby loved to tell anyone who called that they would take a message cause “their mom was in prison”.

A young woman named Amelia was one of the unforgettable students. She was obviously bright and had educated herself by reading voraciously. She told me about waking up in drug houses as a child, using the bathroom amidst needles and drug paraphernalia, never knowing where she’d be living next. Amelia created a needlepoint for me that says “You have touched so many lives.” I wasn’t supposed to accept any gifts, but she hid it in my bag of art materials and it’s hanging in my house. From her I learned that the most important thing I could do as an instructor was honor each woman by respecting and listening to her, by treating her as a valuable human being. It wasn’t the material, but rather the interaction, that was important.

Another young woman whose name I’ve forgotten told me of being in the backseat of a car while her mother was having sex in the front seat. The guy left to go steal cigarettes and shots were fired and she jumped out the window and ran and never saw her mother again. And WHY was she in prison?!

Once I made a mistake by asking them to tell me the stories they were told about their birth, expecting some feel-good answers. Some of the answers were horrid. “The day you were born was the worst day of my life.” “Everything turned worse after you came along.” “You’re just like your dad and he was a Loser!” I never made that mistake again.

One activity that worked well I used repeatedly. I created booklets for each of them and wrote on the front “I am grateful…” and asked them to keep a Gratitude Journal for two weeks. They were to write something for which they were grateful and then simply write “thank you”. It repeatedly was a success because when they HAD to write something, they were looking for it. I kept one, too, and we shared them.

We also sang a LOT! I had a set of affirmation ovals which we used and some of them we sang. We sang folk songs and camp songs and lullabies and their songs—and then we sang them with the children. It was a favorite activity.

Some of the guards were scary even to me. The rules changed all the time and I was clearly a target of their scorn. I finally decided that some of them were just a few lucky breaks ahead of their inmates. They came from the same socio-economic strata and they were jealous of the course I taught. I was often yelled at and demeaned. Once the women were in the large room of the lab, though, the guards rarely interrupted or interfered in any way.

I’m sure that some of the guards are compassionate and professional. They all work in a hierarchical system set up to de-humanize and demean. Some of their attitudes could be caused by the system, low pay, lack of respect, and fear.

All pregnant women were sent to my prison no matter the level of their crime. When the child was born, the mom was given 15 minutes to hold her baby, but then it was taken away. They didn’t want the baby to bond with the mom. And WHO does this help???? That baby is innocent and deserves every chance possible in this life.

Some prisons in New York have the mom and children living together in group homes. The moms go out to work while others under supervision care for the kids. The moms eat with their children and put them to bed, again with help and hints from instructors. This sounds ideal to me.

Some of the women did learn trades such as carpentry and being an electrician, and believed they might be employable after prison. For several years my boss had them work together to build a playhouse for a local charity auction and they were so excited about their projects. I understand that the funding for all of this was removed several years ago.

I’m no expert, but I’m sympathetic with these women, who had so few of the support systems present in my own life, beginning with a loving home. I wished I could do more for them. I still do.