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  1. The sound of silence
  2. Soft cats and dogs
  3. Sofas with pillows
  4. Fresh juice 
  5. Real milk
  6. Fruits and veggies 
  7. All the colors of the rainbow, not just orange and grey
  8. An endless supply of Charmin that NEVER runs out
  9. Swimming pools
  10. Bubble baths
  11. Singing in the shower
  12. Barefoot days
  13. A heavenly mattress
  14. Crystal glasses
  15. Proper knives and forks 
  16. Movies in a real theater
  17. Long walks in lovely places
  18. Surfing the net
  19. The Art Museum
  20. The Library
  21. Dresses & earrings
  22. Perfume
  23. Feeling pretty
  24. The scent of flowers in a shop
  25. Dancing all by myselfScreen Shot 2019-11-28 at 10.44.19 AM

 

 

Who Is Safe?

One night in winter, our cell was clammy and freezing and we had on every piece of clothing we could arrange to keep us warm. All lightweight cotton so it didn’t help much.

While we shivered, I grumbled about living with our teeth constantly chattering. My cellmate agreed, but said, “I’m glad I’m here. I’m safe here, My husband and my son can’t hurt me.”

She went on to stun me with some of the instances of their abuse of her, much too graphic to share here. No, she didn’t kill them or even hurt them. She did their bidding and she was in prison.  They were free. The world is full of victims, both inside prison and out. 

Screen Shot 2019-11-17 at 2.22.31 PM.png

 

“… according to a 2016 study published by the Vera Institute of Justice, 86 percent of women in jail are survivors of sexual violence, and 77 percent are survivors of intimate partner violence.”

This abuse has been going on for millennium. It takes courage to speak out. Thanks to all who do, especially my friend Linda King, founder of Help Fix the Hurt. Their work is incredibly important.

https://www.helpfixthehurt.org

“There is no agency that collects official data on the number of survivors incarcerated for defending themselves and no national statistics that track the rate of this criminalization. But according to a 2016 study published by the Vera Institute of Justice, 86 percent of women in jail are survivors of sexual violence, and 77 percent are survivors of intimate partner violence.”

https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/8/23/20828367/cyntoia-brown-sexual-domestic-abuse-prison-pipeline

Homelessness

Note: Chris DiRusso is a founding member of Formerly Incarcerated College Graduate Network and a recent graduate of Boston College. His determination is astonishing and his story, inspiring.

One of the biggest things that holds many of us back is being released with limited or nonexistent support system and nowhere to go. Homelessness can derail our hopes and dreams and suck the life out of plans.

Those that come home can find unity in our little network and an emotional support system that is here 24/7.

I don’t post as often so many of the new members may not know who I am. I am one of the cofounders and a current board member until January when my board term expires.

I think about you all everyday and am excited by the things many of you have accomplished after getting your degrees and overcoming the challenges that constantly get the way, as we try to navigate back into the world.

Homelessness is on the rise and more and more college students are being affected and this includes us. I battled homelessness when I came home for 22 months; I was living on the streets and sometimes in a shelter, which I believe are worse than any prison or jail where I have served time.

It also took 16 months to find a job, which I kept for two years. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Homelessness can be a returning citizen’s worst nightmare and I am grateful that many of us had the support we needed and did not have to experience not having a home at all.

Here in Boston, there was little hope, at the time, that I would find housing without an income or a job that paid more than a couple dollars above minimum wage. My barriers did not help either; it is hard to get any government support while having felonies and I found a new barrier that I did not know existed at the time – “Fulltime Student.” I was repeatedly turned down for services and I thought it was because I was going to a private school (Boston University) because my friend Kelley was getting services (minor CORI and attending public school Umass), but after reading, I had found out that fulltime student status is not entitled to services and some states restrict even food stamps.

Because I kept hitting road blocks due to what I later learned about my fulltime status, I decided that I was on my own. And I have struggled ever since. Some of it has to do with my CORI, some has to do with income, and some has to do with bad luck.

I am coming up to my six year anniversary of being released. I have seen friends with support make it with what seemed like magical ease, and I had had friends that came home and now own houses and the like. Succeeding is more than possible and we got this, believe me we got this. Some of us just take a longer journey, but what is borne out of such trials and tribulations will make us appreciate what we have all the more.

At the 22 month mark and being at my job for six months, I felt confident renting a room by the week, so I did. I could not have guests over at all, which limited social interactions but it worked. After six months a friend told me about a room where he lived; the room was 200 square feet compared to the ninety I had and in a much better neighborhood, as far as commute, stores and the like, so I moved. It was a couple weeks before I graduated with my bachelors in English.

Two days after Christmas the landlord asked me to move for in my opinion for no good reason but offered two months free rent so I did not fight it, but it had to do with my CORI. I started stressing because finding even a room with a CORI can take months. Here in Massachusetts landlords can disqualify you for your record, and they use your credit score. yes even for rooms.

It was stressful because that following January I started grad school. When moving time came I had yet to find a place but I lost my job due to letting stress hinder my progress. I was homeless again and remained homeless for 20 more months. Ag last I rented a full apartment with the aid of a grad plus loan from the government and freelance work. I took on a roommate, but the place was a dive and the gas bill cost me $500 per month, which ate into my reserves that I had built up. My lease was only for six months. I was fine with that and the lady said that is what the landlord does. Unfortunately my struggle wasn’t over–and it wasn’t the $500 dollar monthly gas bill either. In January of this year, I found out the landlord was selling the building and the new landlords would need to gut the building due to the numerous violations. It’s a pretty building now and expensive.

I checked the laws and talked with a few advocates and there was nothing I could do because I was given a written notice from the new landlords that my lease would not be renewed. They gave me more than the required advance warning. I had no money and I was graduating this year, so I had no more extra money to help move.

Yes, I became homeless for the third time in almost six years. And after about 2000 applications in my industry, I remain homeless. I make money but not enough and to add insult to injury, I was unable to maintain my bills and my credit is now too low and has charge offs, which will affect my chances of getting a place. I found that for us, at least here in mass, having great credit, especially a perfect payment score helped ease landlords apprehensions.

If anyone is suffering because they are experiencing homelessness, please reach out to me or someone you know. This last stint has made me aware of how important selfcare is and how it can affect us in ways that make no sense. I got a client to ghostwrite his novels in his series. I did that job but stressed the whole time about paying my bills. He gave me something else to prepare for and I stressed it out of existence.

Now I am trying to mend something that if I practiced selfcare would not be an issue. I self-sabotaged a decent income potential because I let stress of my bills and homelessness get in the way. Reach out to someone that you know, Share here. We got you. I got you. Emotional support is all most of us can offer but a job offer or lead could be a post away.

Please, if you need someone to talk to because you are experiencing homelessness, especially if your going to school, reach out to me or someone you trust. I am sharing this in hopes that if anyone is experiencing homelessness, they will know that they are not alone.

If you’re going to school and wonder if it is even possible to graduate while experiencing homelessness, I did twice. Reach out to me and I can tell you how I managed. The short answer though is this:  because of this group and the emotional support system I needed that included  Mrs. Obama—mostly for emotional support, but some monetary. It was the emotional support that kept me pushing forward.

I wish you the best. You got this!

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My late husband had a love affair with airplanes and learned to fly when he was nine years old. April 15 is the 5th anniversary of his death and I’m posting the first chapter of his unpublished book in his memory. He wrote this in prison and every month I would get a chapter about the summer that changed his life forever. This is the first plane he flew.Screen Shot 2012-10-07 at 12.37.14 PM

Chapter I

It was the beginning of summer and the first day out of school. It was the start of the first flirtation of my life. It was the summer of 1944 and I was nine years old.

Ever since school began, from the school windows and the school yard at recess, I’d watch the bright colored aircraft flying in the distance. They flew low across the fields of tomatoes and corn spraying the newly emerging crops. I’d convinced myself that as soon as school was over, I was going to see a real airplane up close and maybe even touch it.

I had been building model airplanes since I was six and there was not a vacant space to hang another plane from my ceiling. I’d watched the crop dusters flying their patterns over the field for as long as I could remember and now was the time for my promised adventure for the summer.

My grandparents wouldn’t miss me during the day because I always left after breakfast to play games on the beach or ball-field. I told myself that I could just get on my bike – ride across the causeway bridge and I’d be at the airfield. Then I could watch the planes take off and land and do whatever it was they do when they were on the ground. I was finally going to be close to a real airplane.

I thought it would take forever for the night to pass. I couldn’t go to sleep and I lay in bed looking at all of my airplanes, thinking how great it would be to fly one of them.

Finally morning came. I put on my dunagrees, shirt and tennis shoes, and dashed down the steps for breakfast. I guess I was early because my grandparents weren’t up yet and the sun was just breaking over the ocean.

I went outside to make sure my bicycle was all ready for the trip. I couldn’t take a chance that a tire might be flat or worse yet, that my friend Joey hadn’t brought it back after borrowing it last night.

There it was – all ready for me to start the most exciting day of my life.

I heard my grandmother in the kitchen fixing breakfast so I ran back inside. My excitement must have shown as she asked me why I was in such a hurry to eat. I just said it was the first full day out of school and I wanted to ride to the end of the boardwalk and watch the crab boats go out to sea. It wasn’t exactly a fib because I did have to go that way to get to the causeway bridge.

As soon as I finished breakfast, I kissed my grandmother goodbye and ran out the door to my bike. As luck would have it, I did watch the boats go out as I waited for the drawbridge to come down afte they all passed under it. I didn’t know there were that many boats in our little fishing harbor.

Finally, the last boat passed and the bridge slowly lowered itself back into place. There were only four cars going off the island, so I started crossing the bridge as soon as the gate went up, before any cars could start their engines.

It was a short bridge and I was across and on my way to the airfield before any cars came by. It was a small place and I was hoping there was no one in the cars who knew me and might wonder where I was going. No one blew a horn, so I was safe and on my way.

As I rode on to the dirt road that led to the airfield, a bright red two wing plane flew right over my head. I almost went into the ditch watching it go by. It was so low that I could see the pilot’s head sticking out of the cockpit. I just sat there and watched as it disappeared over the fields and dreamt that someday I would be sitting there like that pilot was.

I rode on down the road until I came to the hangers where several airplanes were out in front. There were men doing things like putting gas in one plane and checking the tires on another. Others were putting liquid in tanks under the wings. I later found out this was liquid spray for the fields. All the planes were used to spray crops.

I sat there on my bicycle and watched in wonder. These were real airplanes and here I was only a short distance from them. I could smell the gasoline and the funny smelling liquid spray. I could feel the excitement of flying although I had never even touched a real airplane. I knew then that this was something I had to do. I just didn’t know how I was going to go about it.

Finally, I worked up enough nerve to get off my bike and take a few steps toward the first plane. It was only about thirty feet away and it looked much larger than I’d thought they’d be. Just then a dog came up to me from inside the hanger. As I knelt down and rubbed its head, one of the men came out of the hangar, saw me and came over. He asked me who I was and what I was doing there. I told him where I lived, that my father was a pilot in the war and I just wanted to look at the planes.

Instead of making me leave, he asked me if I’d like to help him carry some tools to his (really his own) plane. He was a real pilot. I was the happiest boy in the world. I was going to get to go right up to a real airplane and maybe even touch it. I could not believe my adventure was turning out so well.

The pilot’s name was Hank and that’s what he told me to call him. We picked up some tools and rags, walked right out to that big shiny yellow airplane and stopped by its side. Hank asked me if I would like to help him clean up some dirt that had gotten on the bottom of the lower wing and under the body of the plane. WOULD I? I could hardly believe that I was going to help clean a real airplane.

He gave me some rags and a bucket of water and showed me how to wipe the fabric gently so as not to damage the material. I spent the next hour in a dream world kneeling under the wings and the body of the plane. I wiped every speck of dirt I could find at least twice. Finally, I went up to Hank who was on the wing doing something to the wires between the wings. I told him I was finished. I felt like I had just done the most important job in the world.

Hank asked me if I’d ever seen inside of a cockpit and I could not get NO out fast enough. My heart was beating so fast I could hardly speak. He helped me up on the wing and showed me where to step so as not to hurt the fabric. He took me over to the cockpit and helped me to look inside. It was a whole new world that I had pictured in my dreams for as long as I had known what an airplane was. I’d seen cockpits in the small model planes I had built, but here it was – a real cockpit in a real plane and I was standing looking into it.

Hank said, “How would you like to sit in it for a minute to see how it feels?” I’m not sure what I said, but the next thing I knew, I was sitting on the seat looking at the dials in front of me and the stick was right there for me to touch. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Hank told me what each of the few dials were for and what they told him. Then he told me how to move the stick and what each position made the plane do. I was a little short to see outside the plane, but that didn’t matter to me. All I wanted to see was the cockpit all around me.

Finally Hank said he had to get ready to go so he helped me out of the cockpit and off of the wing. He asked me if I’d like to help him again sometime and he’d tell me more about flying. I said “Oh yes, I’ll help you all summer if you like.”

He said that would be great. This was the busy time of the year and there was quite a bit of work and flying to do. Now that I knew how to clean the dirt off the plane, that could be my first job each day I was there.

I walked over to the hangar and stood by my bike as Hank started the engine and taxied the plane into position for take-off. As he took off, the plane passed right over my head and I could see Hank waving to me as he flew away. I watched until I could no longer see him in the sky and then I climbed on my bike. I headed home knowing that I would be back and I would someday be a pilot.

End of Chapter 1

This is the plane he flew in the Air Force. He was so happy up in the air.Screen Shot 2012-10-04 at 10.08.47 PM

March 18, 2009 to March 18, 2019
TODAY is the day I complete ten years of Probation.

Ten years is a good time for a review. What have I being doing since 2009? Well, first I’ve been reporting monthly to a probation officer. At first we had to submit a urinalysis  or “pee in a cup” every month even though we weren’t in prison for addiction. We also had to provide a monthly summary of our expenses and our income as well as a copy of our bank statement and a money order to the Clerk of the Court for restitution. Whenever I’ve travelled out of state, I had to ask for a travel permit. There has not been nor will there ever be privacy in my life. Actually in this age of media overload, if you think you have a secret, Google is not your friend. 

That’s not all I’ve been doing. I realized that our lives had been changed forever. We would never go back to the life we had. The prison experience was unforgettable. I wanted passionately to impact the world of criminal justice reform and David wanted to support my work. In the first two years I co-founded GINA’S Team, established a program at Perryville Prison to begin a bimonthly Speaker Series and find sponsors for the Toastmasters Club. This lead to the  GAT (Gina’s ATHENA Team) Leadership Class three times a year and a monthly book club for GAT graduates.  The Speaker Series included outstanding leaders like Rep. Kirsten Sinema (Now a Senator), Rep. Cecil Ash (now a judge), and Olympic Gold Medalist Misty Hyman. We started a monthly Speaker Series for the juvenile girls at Mingus Mountain Academy and helped amass over 2,000 books to begin their library.  We partnered with ASU to begin an internship program and became a community partner with the ASU Art Museum for “It’s Not Just Black & White” about prison reform. Volunteers showed up to start creative writing classes and civics classes as well as a Welcome Back program. Putting this together was like juggling cats into a marching band, but somehow we had a marching band of very cool cats.

One of the most significant achievements was getting approval for our 501(c)3.  We got a lot of help to cut though the intimidating legalese of that hefty application process and I breathed a sigh of relief when that approval arrived.

I published my memoir of my prison journey, The Slumber Party From Hell, and started speaking to a myriad of audiences, including Ignite and TEDx, with the goal of bringing the audience into my prison cell to hear my voice and share my emotions. To humanize the women I met and see them through my eyes. To shine a light into the darkness and to educate people about our wretched system. 

January 31, 2010
David and I renewed our wedding vows on the anniversary of our wedding in Acapulco so long ago. When David was released from prison, I hadn’t seen him in over seven years and I almost didn’t recognize him. He trembled badly on his left side. His gait was off, he had no balance, his speech was slurred, and he couldn’t even open a jar. At the prison when he went to Medical, they said it was nothing. “You’re just old.” Actually, it was Parkinson’s Disease. No proper diagnosis or treatment forthcoming.

Kudos to the VA for an accurate diagnosis. He responded well to the medication and the trembling became minimal. His balance and his gait came back and he worked hard to stay healthy because he wanted to take care of me while I went through a second mastectomy and the long process of reconstruction. The implant  on the side of the radiated skin was rejected by a dangerous staph infection.  Rushed to surgery, the implant was removed and I was watched like a hawk for danger signs. Four months later we tried again, this time using tissue and muscle from my latissimus dorsi.  We held our collective breaths while I healed. This time it took and this time David was with me every step of the way. 

Only one problem, he kept complaining of back pain and dealt with it unsuccessfully through stretching and yoga. The VA did lots of X-rays of his back. Nothing showed up, but his pain was visible.

March 1, 2014
We’d been out five years when one Saturday David said, “I think we need to go to the ER. I’m having trouble breathing.” In 24 years, he’d never said that. Terrified, we rushed off, and in just a few days, we learned he had a rare form of brain cancer. He was transferred to Barrows. The surgeon removed his brain tumor. His back pain stopped immediately, but the cancer was all over his body. Standing in the hall discussing treatment with the oncologist, considering my experience with cancer, I asked, “Are we talking months or years?”  His answer, “No, days or weeks.” My knees buckled. I had to tell my husband he was dying.

I slept on it, wondering what I could say. The next day when I told him, he looked at me peacefully and all he said was, “OK.”  We went home and Hospice came. Five weeks from his surgery, my Darling David passed on. He’s always with me in spirit, but loosing my husband numbed my body, my heart, and my soul. Just like everything else, a direct experience raises your empathy in uncountable ways.

OK, this was the five year marker. New role. Widow. Ugh.  Everything alone. Home alone. Meals alone. Sleeping alone. Conversation alone. I wanted to lie under the bed in the dark. I wanted to watch old movies, 1936 old. I wanted to scream and cry and die, but I didn’t. Remember, “this too shall pass.” Not easily, not well, not clearly. Slowly, painfully, harshly. Life went on and so did I.  Thank goodness for Purpose.

November 2015
Invited to speak at Operation Reform, a conference in Florida about criminal justice reform, I had an AHA moment.  A lot of nonprofits talked about their outstanding prison programs. However, none of these programs touched more than 10% of the prison population, usually much less. Nowhere in any corrections facility was there programing for everyone. There is no vested interest in corrections staff  increasing the number of programs or available seats in each class. Job security does not encourage successful programming.

Our programs at GINA’s Team saw outstanding results, but we only touched about 200 women a year of the 4,200 women housed at Perryville Prison. We were trying to empty the ocean with a slotted spoon.

Nothing was changing significantly. We needed changes in our laws and in our culture. We needed a paradigm shift. How can we do that? How can we create a cultural shift in our society? With a shared vision, collaboration, a passion, determination and never giving up.

January 3, 2016
The unthinkable happened. Sunday night, waiting for Downton Abbey, the phone rang. ID unknown. I don’t answer ID unknown. Ignored it. Rang again. Ignored. Rang again. Finally, voice mail. Said it was the White House calling! Sure it was. 

Actually, it sure was. It was an invitation to be a guest of the First Lady in her box at President Obama’s  final State of the Union Address the next week representing criminal justice reform. I was Very Cool. . .

“Seriously? You know I’m an ex-felon?” 

“Oh, yes m’am. We know all about you.”   

I’ll bet they do…

One week later, I was in Washington, D.C. I got to meet with Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Chief White House Advisor Valerie Jarrett. There was a lovely reception at the White House before the address. Then Mrs.Obama’s 23 invited guests were ushered into the motorcade and, with sirens blazing, rushed to the Capitol, just like a movie. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined this. It was not on my bucket list. Nor was emergency surgery the next day. I went from an incredible High to quite a Low in 24 hours.

Fortunately, that trip lead to more invitations to the Obama White House and the opportunity to meet like-minded people in our field. Among those was the team from #cut50. They recently lead the fight in Congress for the successful passing of the historic First Step Act, the first criminal justice reform in decades. For three years we’ve also collaborated on the National Day of Empathy and, thanks to them, I went back to the Trump White House for more action on justice reform.

April 2016
ReInventing ReEntry, a new nonprofit, was born. It was time to stop trying to empty the ocean with a slotted spoon. It was time to focus on criminal justice reform.

At that time, I was introduced to a life changing experience, a Reentry Simulation designed by some very savvy people in the justice arena. It was being conducted for government officials to educate them about the obstacles the formerly incarcerated face. The power and authenticity of the experience to create a paradigm shift excited me and immediately I wanted to bring it to the general public. In two years, I’ve facilitated the simulation around the country, including Columbia Univerity, University of California Irvine, Slack, DKB Foundation, Friends Seminary, and others. None of this was on my bucket list either.

March 23, 2017
After a bone-marrow biopsy, I was diagnosed with Myloid Displastic Syndrome. They don’t know what causes it, but they think it’s from all that chemo and radiation I had 17 years ago to kill my breast cancer. Great. It’s a cancer of the blood. There’s no cure except a bone-marrow transplant. Not on my bucket list. Right now my hematologist calls me a “watch and wait” patient. My platelets are low and I get tired, but big deal. People can live quite a while with this and I intend to, mainly because I have too much to do. Enthusiasm, purpose and that hopeful heart give me the energy to keep moving. Do I think about death? Sure, but I think more about Purpose and Chocolate.

May 2015
One final Big Deal in these last ten years. I wrote a letter to President Obama basically asking him to visit a prison. Additionally, as a child of the 60’s, I was watching overt racism rearing its ugly head again. Horrified, I shared my thoughts on racism in America, too. Pretty cheeky, huh, sharing my thoughts on racism with President Obama? But it was all for my own entertainment. I never expected anyone would read it. 

I later learned my letter was what triggered the invitation to the State of the Union Address. I was told The President gets about 15,000 letters, emails, faxes, phone calls a week. From those, the OPC (Office of Presidential Correspondence) chooses ten representative letters for his briefing folder for him to read at the end  of every day. Not the best; not the worst. Simply the voices of America speaking to the President. One day your letter was one of the chosen ones.”

Oh my goodness, I won the White House letter lottery. That letter changed the trajectory of my life and gave me more of a national platform, leading to more invitations from both the Obama and the Trump White House, using that platform to make a difference. It also lead to the inclusion of my letter in To Obama: With Love, Joy, Anger, and Hope, a fascinating book by Jeanne Marie Laskas about all those letters to the president. 

Remember, I’ve always said getting out of prison is like being shot out of a cannon into a brick wall. When I got out, my wall was padded. I went to live with friends in North Scottsdale in a gated community on a golf course. I know what you’re thinking. I went from one gated community to another gated community. What a difference a gate can make. 

Of course, they introduced me to their Scottsdale friends and I knew I had to tell the truth about where I’d been. “Hi, I’m Sue Ellen Allen and I just got out of prison.” Everyone had the same reaction. Big frozen smile. One eyebrow would go up. Slight look of confusion and panic.  They had no idea what to say and I had no idea what I wanted them to say. 

Then one day, while getting gas at a QT, a homeless man asked me for some spare change. It’s a tough way to make a living and now I was counting my pennies so I said, “Oh Sir, I’m so sorry. I just got out of prison and I. . .  Before I could finish, the homeless man threw up his hands and said “Lady, congratulations, Welcome Back!” No one else had said that to me, but the homeless man got it. He gave me a gift that day. He welcomed me back.

Being welcomed into the community is a critical part of reentry. It begins with awareness and empathy. Now I travel the country taking the Reentry Simulation into universities, corporations, churches, chambers of commerce, foundations, other nonprofits. Our goal is to raise awareness, empathy, and outrage about this incredibly punitive system. And it works. Wherever we conduct the simulation, participants describe their emotions: “Helpless. Frustrated. Angry. Defeated. Vulnerable. Furious. Failure. Unwanted. Unwelcome.”

How can we fix this? It can’t be fixed.  It must be Reinvented and we should not expect those who created the system to reinvent it. For the BEST reinvention, we need the BEST minds in business, technology, justice, health care, and  academia, to come together with the formerly incarcerated (or as I like go call us, the Alumni of the system) to look for solutions outside the traditional box, instead of “checking the box” on any and every application, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”  That’s on applications for jobs, housing, volunteer positions. It’s the highest brick wall we face.  

Did you know one in three Americans now has a criminal record.* Did you know every year, over 1.2 million students drop out of high school in the United States. That’s one every 26 seconds – or 7,000 a day in America.* 

Until lately, most of our national prison population have been people of color, but the opioid crisis is leading to more white people being arrested for crimes related to drugs. At every speech I give, people come to me afterwards to tell me about their son, brother, sister, mother, father, friend…in prison. Our Criminal Justice System is touching everyone.

In prison I learned everything I could about the system because I knew my journey was going to take me in a new direction, criminal justice reform. Prisons are successfully designed to be out of sight, out of mind so the hideous system isn’t visible until it touches you, and for seven years, I was directly touched. Then ten years ago, I walked out the prison gates into freedom and a life of advocacy for criminal justice reform. 

Life is a journey and in a lifetime, we have many journeys. I’ve had incredible ones and, at the end of this ten year probation journey, it’s a good time to take stock. What about you? What have you been doing for the past ten years? Is it time for you to take stock…inside or out?

*The Sentencing Project https://www.sentencingproject.org/
 *DO Something.   DOSomething.org

 

 

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Recently at the White House, we had the privilege of listening to Hannah Jackson introduce the Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence. What’s unusual about that? Hannah is fourteen years old and the daughter of a formerly incarcerated father. Her courageous and articulate words inspired the entire East Room of the White House and
IMG_0249should inspire the country to support our need for prison reform.  Thank you, Hannah.

Here is the link to Hannah’s speech on c-span as well as the text below. https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4730399/saint-hilary-8th-grader-hannah-jackson

Good morning,

Thank you. It is an honor to be here today. Words cannot express how grateful I am to see everyone here today talking about a topic that is so close to my heart.

I used to have a dream – that I was with my dad – but we were surrounded by metal fences and metal tables. It wasn’t until I was 9 years old and my mom told me he had been in prison that I realized this wasn’t a dream, it was a childhood memory.

It turns out I’m not the only one with memories of having to visit a mom or a dad in prison. There are 10 million other kids in America who grew up with a mom or dad behind bars.

All these kids want, is to come home from school, eat a snack and talk about their day – to have their mom or dad at their ballgame – or hear them read a bedtime story and feel their kiss good night.

Incarceration has many negative impacts for children and families. And it often kicks off a vicious cycle. Children who grow up with parent behind bars are 6 times more likely to be incarcerated as adults. Children whose parents suffer from addiction are 8 times more likely to become addicted to drugs or alcohol themselves. You’re also much more likely to grow up in poverty.

It makes you wonder – how can we ever break this cycle?

As a kid, it is very confusing to watch grown-ups fighting over politics, instead of helping people and solving these problems. And that is exactly why it is so meaningful that we are all here today – to start focusing on the solutions. So we can break these cycles – people can get the help they need – and kids can be reunited with their moms and dads.

To continue that conversation, it is my honor to introduce to the stage –

The Vice President of the United States Mike Pence.

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This is Hannah listening to the President after Mike Pence spoke.

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 This is Hannah’s look-alike mother, Jessica Jackson Sloan, who has her own remarkable story. Jessica is co-founder with Van Jones of #cut50.  She is sharing the stage with another outstanding woman, Topeka Sam, the founder and ED of The Ladies of Hope Ministries. thelohm.org. They’re listening to Jared Kushner speak of the need for prison reform, a cause Jared supports passionately.  FYI, this is a bi-partisan effort that many people have been working on through the previous and current administrations. It is a cause we should all support as Americans and human beings. Don’t tell me we should only work with our own party. Let’s be grownups and work together.

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January 2016, I was privileged to  be a guest of Mrs. Obama in her box at the President’s final State of the Union address. While we watched the President make his way to the podium, everyone was clapping and smiling, while those close to the center aisle were maneuvering to shake his hand. It was very collegial and they seemed like they actually liked each other. It looked. . . hopeful.Screen Shot 2017-11-12 at 8.05.34 PM.png

Then the President started talking and I couldn’t ignore the conduct of the Congress. We hear our congress is divided but when you are looking down at it physically and symbolically, it’s stunning. There’s an invisible line right down the middle of that historic, important chamber.

When the action started, the President would say something and the left side of the chamber (Dems) would stand up and loudly applaud; the right side (Reps) of the chamber sat silently on their hands. While half the room cheered, the other half looked at their email, Facebook or Twitter. We had to leave our cellphones in the motorcade. That rule didn’t apply to our leaders. And now with the change in administrations, the Dems sit on their hands and the Reps cheer loudly. Seems it’s tradition. What kind of crazy tradition is that?

For a long time I’ve lamented the lack of grownups in Congress. The name calling is disgraceful and the lack of mutual respect is shameful. We wouldn’t allow our children to behave the way Congress does. Even if they agree with an issue and want to support it, they are scolded if they don’t follow the the Party Line, because they don’t want the other party to get a win! Shouldn’t this be about human beings, about our country, not about winning and losing?

I believe in bipartisanship and civility. I believe we should be working across the aisles and Getting Things Done. Instead Congress is stuck in the muck.

May 18, 2018 was the White House Summit on Prison Reform. Space is limited in the East Room so this included a very small group of 150. This is the second time I’ve been to the Trump White House and I’ve received a myriad of reactions:

 How exciting! Wow! Can I come too? Are you kidding? How could you go there? How could you work wth them? You shouldn’t go!

Guess what…I went. IMG_0221

Suddenly I’m in the position of supporting a bipartisan bill, The First Step Act, HR 5682. www.FirstStepAct.com and being criticized for it.  Van Jones, cofounder of #cut50, and Jared Kushner and their teams have been working tirelessly on this. It’s a complex dance of up and down the Hill and across those deceptively ordinary looking yet deeply historic aisles to craft a prison reform bill that will start the first domino of the many that must be knocked down. IMG_0231They are walking through mine fields and everyone is getting heat for it. I’m getting heat for showing up at the White House and participating.  So are my other sisters who’ve either lived behind the wires or had a loved one there.

 

(Photo: Columnist Rebecca Hagelin, Me in my camouflage jacket, Jared Kushner (Yes, he’s very tall), Pamela Winn of Restore Her and Amy Cando, CEO of CAN-DO Foundation.)

Van Jones admits he’s as liberal as they come, but in one IMG_0238of our first conversations he surprised me with a comment I’ve never forgotten. I was voicing criticism of one of our political leaders and Van said, “It’s a big playground, Sue Ellen, and we all need to learn to play together.”

In his very intelligent book, Beyond The Messy Truth, he observes, “To fix America, progressives and conservatives need a better relationship, grounded in mutual respect and deepened by working together on tough problems.” He’s serious and he didn’t pay me to say that:)) You should read it. (Photo: Pouring rain in front of the White House with Van Jones, bipartisan leader par excellence.)

 

The First Step Act is just that, a first step, applicable only to inmates in federal prisons. I’ve included a summary of the bill below, a link to the bill and a link to the Marshall Project for a bipartisan analysis.

https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/5682

https://www.themarshallproject.org/2018/05/22/is-the-first-step-act-real-reform

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To answer my critics, I support this bill because no bill will ever be perfect, we are the grown ups in the room and must find ways to work in a bipartisan fashion. Jared Kushner’s father served prison time and, unlike most families, Jared had the means to visit his father often. He met other inmates and their families and he was appalled at how the system operates. He didn’t have to assume leadership on this issue and he’s gotten a lot of flak for it, but he knows how necessary it is.

So YES, I support the extremely difficult work that Jared and Van and their incredible teams have done to get this far. If not for their shared vision, none of this would have happened and I wouldn’t have been in the East Room of the White House last week to attend the WH Prison Reform Summit. Kudos to all who had the courage to show up. We’ve passed the House; now we must pass the Senate, a more formidable task.

For a very long time, not one formerly incarcerated human being was ever invited to the table, therefore our ideas and experiences went unheard. That’s counter productive because WE are the prison experts. Finally we are being included and our voices are being heard. All I can say is, let’s build a bigger table. We need each of you to show your support for this bill, the human beings, the families and communities it touches. That means all of us.