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Tiffany Brown is one of our newest volunteers and a talented writer. I’m so happy to share her impression our out 5th Annual Teddy Bear’s Parade. For us, it’s a trued day of Christmas spirit. Thank you, Tiffany. SEA

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Teddy Bears and Tears: My First Trip to Mingus Mountain Academy.

As a “nice white lady,” I’m going to give you the straight skinny. We are a nation of racists. Oh, it’s not like it was in the dark ages when I was growing up. I was born in 1945 into a town divided by a railroad track, the symbolic line in every Southern town, that kept black and white families from mixing, beyond the colored help who made sure the white families were comfortable in our world of make-believe.

Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 10.41.56 PMThose White and Colored water fountains and restrooms were everywhere, but I never gave them a thought. After all, I was young and white with all the privilege that conveyed. Then when I was three, we left Texas for a remote part of Venezuela that you could not find on a map. My father was an engineer, there to help build an oil refinery. We lived in a walled and gated, even luxurious, housing compound for the ‘white foreigners.’ Of course, there was native help to make sure we were comfortable in another gated land of make-believe.

I grew up moving every two years; back and forth across the Atlantic and into the Caribbean. In every country I took for granted the privilege that went with my color and I never gave it a thought. The AHA moment finally came at the University of Texas in Austin where I gained an awareness of racial stereotype and discrimination. By then, the White and Colored water fountains and restrooms had disappeared, and I still hadn’t given them a thought. It never occurred to me how a human being would feel being defined by a sign, nor why it was necessary.

Then I joined a group of do-gooders, some of the first ‘cross-over teachers’ in Texas. My father, newly retired, was furious. I had humiliated the family. He would have to quit his clubs and leave town. I ignored the empty threat because I was naïvely determined to change the world.

Every day I drove across the railroad tracks, that symbolic crossing into another world. We were a handful of brand new, green as grass white teachers forced on the older, much more experienced black teachers. They welcomed us with dignity and respect; the students with skepticism and hostility. Gradually, we made peace and grew together in respect and affection. There were no White and Colored bathrooms or water fountains. There was only a crumbling building with very few supplies, compared to the new white high school across town. If I had been black during that time, I would have been out fiercely protesting. Instead, I went home every day to my nice white world of comfort and privilege and didn’t change anything.

Fast-forward thirty-five years. I left teaching and joined the business world. I worked my way up the corporate ladder to a vice-presidency, the only woman on the team. Then at age 57, I entered prison for securities fraud; once again another world, only this time the line was a real one of nasty, twisted razor wire. Finally, I was in an environment that led me to the next AHA moment.

I was no longer a woman with a name; I was an inmate with a number; I was an ‘offender.’ There was even a policy. I would no long be called Ms. Allen or even Sue Ellen. I would only be Allen, inmate Allen, or my prison number. Respect and courtesy were left on the other side of the wire.

There was something else that contributed to the AHA moment. There were Staff and Offender restrooms and water fountains, just to remind us that we weren’t people anymore. When I first saw them, I felt sick and dirty, dirty and untouchable. I remembered the White and Colored signs of my youth and I was ashamed, ashamed of my blindness and privilege.

Now I’m ashamed again. The Little Rock Nine walked the gauntlet in 1957. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous speech in 1963. The Selma March was in 1965. We have our first black president yet we are still murdering and incarcerating young black men at an alarming rate. Racism is alive and well, even though it is much more subtle.

I’m ashamed but I’m also thankful. I’m thankful that my prison journey woke me up. I will never know what it’s like to grow up black in America and all that entails. I only know what it’s like to be diminished, denigrated and humiliated. I know what it’s like to have a label that makes me feel dirty, a label (inmate, offender, ex-con, ex-felon) that will never go away. We don’t do our time, get out and rebuild our lives. The barriers are huge, whatever your color and background. Society has created the gift that keeps on giving. Ironically it’s like the old Colored and White signs, only now it’s Normal Person and Offender. Since 40% of inmates are Black, it’s just a redesign of those old signs.

Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 10.48.46 PMNow that you know I’ve been in prison and I’m really an ‘offender,’ you may dispute the ‘nice white lady’ label I gave myself at the beginning of this, but please don’t dispute that we are a nation of racists. Whether you are subtle or ‘in-your-face,’ all of us can have a tiny or large piece of fear in our hearts, the fear that is the foundation of racism. At the risk of sounding cheesy, examine the rest of your heart. Seek the peace, courage and love that also reside there. Seek ways to diminish the fear. Seek the hope. I believe we can do it. I believe in US.

*http://www.thefountainartscenter.org

 

Sue Ellen Allen:

Ruth Jacobs does incredible work in the UK. I’m honored to be posted on her site today. We need to continue to raise awareness about conditions of confinement. Battling cancer inside is truly a nightmare and too many never receive treatment. I was one of the lucky ones. I lived. My cellmate died.

Originally posted on Ruth Jacobs:

Guest post by Sue Allen

Photo credit: USAG Vicenza, Flickr

Photo credit: USAG Vicenza, Flickr

It’s October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The world is pink. We race for the cure. We stand up to cancer. We support our loved ones battling or surviving the disease, but there is one population we never mention: women with breast cancer behind bars.

Imagine the feel of shackles on your ankles. Hard, cold steel does just what it’s supposed to do. It cuts into your ankles and restricts your movements to baby steps. Even when you are very careful, you wind up with blisters or ankles rubbed raw. The weight alone drags you down.

Now imagine handcuffs. They too are designed to restrict and they can chaff and cut, especially if the guard who cuffs you is having a bad day. His bad day becomes yours.

It’s two o’clock in the morning and the halls of the jail are…

View original 1,046 more words

Originally posted on Prison Reform Movement's Weblog:

By Jessica Pishko

Nonviolent female prisoners. Image courtesy of Last Gasp

In 2011, under mounting pressure to decrease the prison population, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) created the Alternative Custody Program (ACP). It’s a program designed to forge a path for low-level female inmates to return home (under electronic surveillance), care for their children, and reintegrate into their communities. The policy is currently the subject of a lawsuit claiming that it discriminates on the basis of sex, but in theory, it seems like a prison authority might have finally gotten something right.

That’s what Cynthia thought when she appeared before the panel (called an Institution Classification Committee in CDCR lingo) after applying for ACP. After getting her paperwork straightened out and applying three times, she was told she was denied. She needed a teeth cleaning before her application could be processed.

Another woman was denied because of a…

View original 1,164 more words

Pale Pink Ribbon 2It’s October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The world of pink –  ribbons, t-shirts, give aways and things to buy. We race for the cure. We stand up to cancer. We support our loved ones battling or surviving the disease. We hear stories of women who have taken the journey, but there is one population we never mention, women with breast cancer behind bars.

Can you imagine the feel of shackles on your ankles? Hard, cold steel that does just what it’s supposed to do. It cuts into your ankles and restricts your movements to baby steps. Even when you are very careful, you wind up with blisters or ankles rubbed raw. And the weight alone drags you down.

Now imagine handcuffs. They too are designed to restrict but they can chaff and cut, especially if the guard who cuffs you is having a bad day. His bad day becomes yours, but your blisters are yours alone.

It’s two o’clock in the morning and the halls of the jail are bustling with guards dragging chains while inmates stand restlessly against the cinderblock walls. Dirty cream walls, faded black and white stripes, clanging, clashing cuffs and shackles. All that plus the commotion of fifty female inmates and ten khaki clad jail guards prepping us for the trip to court.

I’m not going to court; I’m going the the hospital to have my breast cut off. It’s time. I’ve had the poison. Now it’s the slashing. Then it’s the burning. Poison, slash, burn. That’s what they call chemotherapy, mastectomy, radiation. Poison, slash, burn.

I’ve been cuffed and shackled since two AM. I’m exhausted and freezing. The old morgue where they keep us for several hours is like an ice rink. Despite the cold, there are those tiny little roaches everywhere. They add to the despair.

Finally, when everyone else has been called to court and I am alone with my fears, I hear my name, “ALLEN. MOVE IT OUT! Followed by armed guards, I shuffle out to the jail van, jangling as I shuffle. The backs of those vans are cages, not designed for safety. There is a metal bench, but no seat belts, so I lurch each time we turn a corner. I cannot balance myself because of the cuffs and shackles and sometimes I crash to the floor. I’m bruised and shaken to my core.

Finally we arrive at the hospital. I shuffle into another holding cell and wait several more hours, still alone and very afraid. I’m crushed with a feeling of shame that I’m now much less than human. Four hours later I’m escorted to the OR. There the cuffs are removed, a gown is thrown at me and eventually I’m lead to the operating table.  Still shackled, I climb upon the table and they begin the very painful search for my very small veins. At last, as I begin to go under, the shackles come off. The guards will stay in the corner to watch as my breast comes off.

Five hours later I wake up in the jail ward, bandaged and sore but alive and still alone. On this particular journey, no one touches me except the surgeons with their knives and the nurses with their needles. I ask for a pastor or a priest, someone to pray with me, but no one comes.

When I finally return to the jail, the women surround me with love. At the darkest time in my life, the drug addicts, the prostitutes and the thieves looked after me and I will NEVER FORGET THEM. It is nineteen days before the medical department sees me to clean up my incision, take out the stitches and see if I’m healing.

This is the way all women experience breast cancer in prison. There is no comfort or solace. They go alone, they suffer alone, they return to their prison alone. Some might think that they deserve it, but I don’t think anyone deserves that kind of horrific treatment. It is devastating and demeaning to all of us as human beings.

It’s a dreadful journey inside or out, but there are many ways to take it. It’s one thing for Robin Roberts, Christina Applegate, Cynthia Nixon or Sheryl Crow to face cancer. They have the very best doctors, loving family and friends to surround them, and the entire world to care. They are deemed heroes by the press.

I wonder how they would handle the isolation and the incredibly hostile indifference that inmates face.  The lack of information, attention and care. I’m lucky. I have been both a patient with cancer and an inmate with cancer. There is a world of difference. I was diagnosed before I went inside. I’d already had six sessions of chemo. I went inside with a bald head, my medical records and a high profile identity. I think that’s the reason I got treatment. Gina, my young cellmate, didn’t have that advantage and she died a painful death, not of breast cancer but of myeloid leukemia. There are many, many others who have died of cancer and medical neglect. They fought so bravely though pain, fear, neglect, hostility, exhaustion and isolation.

Ask yourself how you would handle this kind of journey? These women are mothers, wives, and daughters, many in prison for addiction or low level drug crimes.When they should be healing, they are worn out fighting for treatment, constantly reminded that nobody cares, nobody cares, nobody cares.

In 2013, 296,980 American women were diagnosed with breast cancer and nearly 40,000 died of it. Everyone who battles this disease is a hero. It is harder than you can ever imagine. I am free now and miraculously still alive, but there are thousands I’ve left behind in jails and prisons all over the world, alone and afraid with their cancer.

Everyone deserves a prayer, but please send a special one to all those invisible women who face this journey alone. No one should be alone with cancer.

No words needed

Close your eyes and listen. In the silence, can you hear the voices of your children, your partner, the people you most love? We’re so used to all those voices that sometimes we wish they would just BE QUIET. HUSH. Or even SHUT UP.

Now, close your eyes and think: what would it be like if they were forever silenced and you longed to hear their voices just once more. That’s what’s happened to me when David died. In this age of technology, with magical phones that create videos instantly, David and I never did that. We took pictures. That’s our generation. We took pictures but we never thought of the phone as a tool to make a movie, a small, intimate family love letter or greeting card to mark each year and have as a treasure forever.

How many seconds does it take to say, “I love you, Darling. I love our life and the way you make a garden grow and always hold my hand wherever we go anywhere. I appreciate the way you take care of the car and take out the garbage. I love your blue eyes and the way you dance. I love everything about you. Thank you for loving me.”  We could have both done that and now I would be playing it over and over. I have nothing with his voice on it, not one thing. I see his face in the pictures but I Miss His Voice.

Right Now, Today, use your magic phone to make a movie greeting card for each person you love. It’s a love letter, a gift, a magical memory. Do it once or do it every year at Thanksgiving or your birthday or Christmas and keep it safe. It may just be the best gift you ever give.

And in case you have any doubts at all about the power of this, watch this brief video. YOU have the power to make a huge difference in the life of someone you love. What could be better than that?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHv6vTKD6lg

 

Coffee

With apologies to all whom I did not understand. Let us not be defined by pain. Let us be redefined by love.   _Sue Ellen

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Before you died
You made sure I knew how to make the coffee.
You always made the coffee.
Everyone loved it.
It was delicious.

Yesterday I made the coffee.
This morning I looked forward to a cup.
I took the pitcher from the fridge
and watched as it slipped through my fingers
and smashed to the floor
into a million jagged shards.
Sticky coffee and shiny shards all over the floor.
Cleanedandcleanedandcleaned
Barefoot
Moppedandmoppedandmopped
Barefoot
Vacuumed for the last sparklysticky pieces
Barefoot

Suddenly I got it.

I hurt so bad
I wanted to step on a sharp shard
I wanted to slash my foot
I wanted to see the bright red blood
I wanted to feel the pain
I hurt so bad
I wanted anything to relieve the pain…
This worse than prison
worse than heartbreak
worse than loneliness
worse than anyanyany other pain.

I GOT IT.
The Cutting.

I know cutters.
They cut to relieve the pain.
I never understood but I do now.

SlashBleedRelease, SlashBleedRelease, SlashBleedRelease
That’s what they feel.
I GET IT.
ThePainThePainThePainThePainThePainThePain

Anything to relieve the pain.
Anything
Anything to relieve the pain…

May we all feel relief.
May we all feel hope.
May we all feel the compassion
of understanding.
May we be redefined by love.

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