The story below was written by a participant of the ATHENA Leading from Within program, an ATHENA program designed to empower women who are incarcerated to be powerful leaders and reduce the rate of recidivism in the prison system. To learn more about this program watch the PBS highlight here.
You may wonder at the title of this presentation? I’m sure you are curious. ….
But let me ask you a question? How many times, honestly, have you thought about the people in prison? I’m not talking about the Jodie Arias’, sensationalized on television. I’m talking about women and children. Yes, I said children. These little ones are in prison right now, because of substance abuse issues.
I used to be just like many of you. I was raised by both my biological parents, in a very correct Southern Baptist household. My dad was a real estate broker, and taught Sunday school. My mother was a stay at home mom, who baked cupcakes for my classmates when it was my birthday. I had two little brothers and a dog named Nibby.
Life had promise.
In eighth grade, I was even voted most likely to succeed. I married a fellow I’d met in Sunday school when I was 9 years old. We had 2 children, owned a martial arts supply store, and I had enrolled in night school. I was studying Real Estate. I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps.
Sounds good, right?
Fast forward 20 years……..I’m being kicked awake. My face is stuck to the concrete floor from drool. It’s freezing cold, and it smells like urine. Women are screaming. Some are crying. They’re fighting over the collect telephones, cussing out their boyfriend’s, their pimp’s and their lawyers.
It hits me slowly….that I’m back in the infamous Maricopa county jail. Actually, it hits me about the same time as the withdrawals. And the panic….My first thought…..NO DOPE! My second thought…..No DOPE.
I didn’t think about the charges, or my children. I didn’t think about my dog, or if I should get a good lawyer. The only phone number I knew by heart was my drug dealers. Actually….. The only single thought that kept screaming through my head was, OH MY GOD NO DOPE!
How does something like this happen? How does a nice girl like me…. end up in a place like this?
I was raped.
Of course I wasn’t perfect. My marriage had gone sour and I was seeing a man. He was nice to me. He told me I was beautiful. I thought he was wonderful.
Until he wasn’t!
I can’t explain the control he had over me. I don’t know why I did the things he forced me to do? He was a monster, but I couldn’t see it. I was afraid for my children, so I sent them to live with family, instead of packing my bags and running like hell.
And that’s how I found myself in the wrong place, with a man I didn’t know. He slipped me a “Mickey.” When I regained consciousness, it didn’t take long for me to figure out what happened. It wasn’t good.
I called somebody I knew. I asked them to bring me some pain pills and a change of clothes.
They brought heroin instead.
I was desperate. I just wanted it to go away. …….to be honest, I just wanted to go away.
!0 seconds later, and I kid you not, it was only 10 seconds…….I got my wish. I went away. Let me say that again. I went away.
I wasn’t in pain, because I wasn’t there. I wasn’t afraid, because I wasn’t there.
That man - he wasn’t just a rapist, he was a thief and a murderer; he stole my hope, and he took my life….for twenty years!
Then somebody just like you, gave it back to me. I don’t tell you my story so you’ll feel sorry for me.
As a matter of fact, telling my story rates right up there with public speaking or being buried alive. It’s not what I would’ve chosen for myself if I had been given an option.
But I wasn’t.
Looking through the eyes of hope, I saw other women in prison. They’d been robbed as well.
Like I had been, they just waited for the day that gate, covered in razor-wire, would open so they could get out.....and use again.
When you have no hope, you don’t think about what could be. It just is.
When you have no hope, you don’t think about what used to be. You just are.
In 2012, thirty-seven inmates died in Arizona Prisons, nineteen of them from suicide. This is 60% higher than the national average. These deaths were needless and could have been prevented…..
But they had no hope.
This doesn’t include the children that take their own lives. I overheard someone say that juvenile facilities are where they put “the bad kids.” It made me so mad; I just wanted to scream at them…….There is no such thing as bad kids - just babies, who have had their hope taken away. Stole by a neighbor, or a friend of the family…..or in the case of 12 year old “Jessica,“ by her mother.
At three years old, “Jessica’s” mother, the prostitute and heroin addict, decided to pimp her daughter out to her john, so she could have the money to buy her dope. Little ‘Jessica’ didn’t put up much of a fight. When she was six she was harder to control. So her mom gave her, her first taste of heroin.
By the time she was 12, her body and her mind had been through more in her young life than any of us will go through in several lifetimes.
The police found her on a street corner trying to turn a trick. She was in possession of $10.00 worth of heroin….
She is now a resident of Mingus Mountain Academy till she’s 18. Then they’ll put her back on the street, with a G.E.D. and a couple of certificates. What they will forget to give her before she leaves….is hope………..With no family, no connections, and nobody who gives a damn if she lives or dies, how long do you think it will take her to end up a resident of Perryville Prison?
Or the morgue?
I met “Jessica,” when I was invited to speak at Mingus, 2 weeks after I was released from prison.
I knew I’d connected with the girls - we had a lot in common. But as I looked out over the crowd, a chubby little redhead, with coke bottle glasses was crouched in the corner. She wasn’t listening. That’s because she wasn’t there. I knew that look, she had no hope. After the program, I made a beeline for “Jessica.” I had to catch her before she left. I had to know her story….She told me while the tears ran down her face. She wouldn’t look me in the eye. She was ashamed. While I held her, I told her; “you are so beautiful. I believe in you.” I promised I’d come back. I’m sure she’d heard that one before.
On my next visit, I was surprised by the reception I got. The girls had made bets that I wouldn’t be back. You see, about 75 % of them are heroin addicts. …...They know the score. They know the chances of me staying out of prison are very slim. Most of us don’t make it for more than a few months.
They stared at me in wonder. ……..you could see the wheels turning. They were thinking, if she can do it…...maybe, just maybe, there’s a microscopic chance that I can too.
What I realized at that moment was that I had just given them a tiny little piece of hope.
Her story is not unique. You’d be surprised. There are 40,000 inmates in AZ prisons, each and every one, a beautiful soul, without any hope, thrown away in the landfill of the hopelessly lost.
And we forget about them.
Once they are in “the system” it is a revolving door….a never ending cycle…because they have no hope.
Does this information make you uncomfortable?
You might say to yourself: that’s a shame; we should do something to help those children. But those children become the women who are incarcerated in Perryville Prison.
Hope is so easy to give…...and it’s free!
All you have to do is tell someone that you believe in them. Find out what makes them smile. What is their favorite color? Do they have talents that have never been developed? Do they like to sing, skate, dance, swim, or draw?
Inspire a dream: ask them this question: if you could do anything you wanted, and you knew you couldn’t fail, what would that be? And what would that LOOK like?
Help them see a future. Make them believe it’s possible. Tell them your story. It only takes a moment to make someone feel special.
Let me tell you about mail call in prison….
There are 390 women in a dorm. It looks like an airplane hanger from the outside; inside it’s broken into three sections. Each section has 130 women sharing the same space. Usually, everybody is doing their own thing; reading, writing, studying, sleeping. That’s just the way things ARE until around 3:30 in the afternoon. You can FEEL the tension building!
When the white US Postal Service bag is brought in, EVERYBODY rushes to the bay station where the Officer is sorting the mail.
MOST of the women don’t get mail. But they go anyway, only to slink back to their living space hoping nobody saw them make a fool out of themselves…. again.
The disappointment is tangible.
If you get mail, you live from one mail call to the next. That’s what keeps you going, knowing that somebody is thinking about you. That someone cares. If you don’t get mail, you grit your teeth and wait till the day you can get out and use again.
At least your drug dealer will be happy to see you.
When I was in prison, I was hoodwinked into going to a six week leadership program. I didn’t want to go, but that was the turning point in my life. The Gina’s Team volunteers REALLY cared about me, about us. They believed in me until I was able to believe in myself. They wrote to me. For the first time in two years I was getting mail! They made me feel special.
Little by little….they gave me back my hope.
But there are too many inmates without hope and not enough people willing to write to a woman in prison.
So I ask you again, when was the last time you thought about a woman or child in prison? It only takes a few minutes of your time.
Contact ginasteam.org, and we’ll assign you a pen-pal. There is nothing to buy, no contract to sign. You can write to more than one person if you have the time.
Everybody plays a part in saving a soul. Don’t wait till you have more free time because that one woman you could have connected to... may become the next statistic.
Help me change the way the outside world views Prisoners.
But more importantly, help me change the way prisoners see themselves.
Find YOUR “Jessica”
Because, what she’s really saying is, “Please...give me my hope back!”
From the Outside in.