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Archive for August, 2010

Seven Year Pregnancy

Has anyone out there written a book? Neither had I until now. I’ve already told you I’m a voracious reader and would rather be in Barnes and Nobel than Neiman Marcus. However, as a new author, I realize I have been disrespectful to some books. I have casually picked them up and put them down with nary a glance. Front cover didn’t compel me. Back cover was disinteresting. Color wasn’t to my liking. Tiny little criticisms like a thousand knife pricks bleeding all over the author’s heart.

That’s what I think now, with my memoir hitting the shelves in September— now that I’ve sweated over every word, every comma, every sentence. Now that I’ve agonized over the back cover and those humbling endorsements. Now that I’ve suffered over the controversy of the front cover. Writing a book is not easy. When authors equate it to giving birth, they aren’t kidding. There’s the lengthy pregnancy. (Mine was seven years.) Then there is the delivery that entails all those critical details of the baby’s layette… I mean, cover. Finally, there is the raising of the child; in other words, the marketing and sales. After all this, will anyone buy it?

I’m particularly interested in that part. Not because I will be rolling in dough, but because all of my proceeds go to pay restitution to the investors of my former company. People invested in me and they lost that investment. I like the idea of payback. I also like the idea of starting a conversation in this country about who and why we incarcerate and for how long. Recently, after 13 years behind bars for trying to break into a church kitchen to find something to eat, a man who became an example of California’s three-strikes law was ordered freed from prison. Gregory Taylor’s sentence was amended by Superior Court Judge Peter Espinoza to eight years already served and the 47-year-old, who was sentenced in 1997 to 25 years to life, will soon be free.

When California passed the three-strikes law, I don’t think anyone thought about the cost to tax payers, never mind the cost to people like Gregory Taylor. California estimates the cost to incarcerate an inmate at $47,000 annually. Multiply that by 13 and Mr. Taylor’s incarceration cost taxpayers $611,000. Are you SERIOUS? On whose economic balance sheet does that make any sense whatsoever? Obviously, this is not about the crime. This is about the big business of locking people up and feeding the infrastructure that supports the prison industrial complex. Why have we come to that in America?

My book, my baby, The Slumber Party from Hell, is a snapshot into the world of a woman’s prison. It is not like the movies and the book is not an autobiography. It’s not about the crime. It’s about how I found my passion in the midst of humiliation, abuse, and loneliness. It’s about a gift. It’s about celebrating life because, despite the odds, I am alive. and I am so grateful.

What’s your celebration story?

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Recently GINA’s Team participated in two significant events. I blogged about the reentry forum in my last post. The second event was a trip up to Prescott Valley for our monthly program at Mingus Mountain Academy, a level one juvenile facility for girls 12 to 18. Think of your younger sister and then imagine her as abused or an addict or sold into sex trafficking. These young girls have had unbelievably difficult lives. They are fortunate enough to be at Mingus for a chance to rebuild and start over.

Superwoman and GINA’s Team volunteer, Leah Heathcoat, plans a monthly program for the girls. It is always related to the creative side of the brain through art, poetry, drama, or creative writing. We’ve watched the girls blossom under these creative outlets. Their creativity coupled with an enthusiasm to rebuild shattered lives humbles us.

It’s the start of a new semester at ASU and GINA’s Team has new interns. Marissa has jumped in great enthusiasm and participated in both the Reentry Forum and the trip to Mingus. I asked Marissa to write her observations about what she saw through the two days of new experiences and her observations stunned me. At eighteen, she is our youngest intern. However, her keen insight and depth give her a maturity beyond her years. I asked her if I could share her work and with her approval, here it is.

“Last week, I began my internship with GINA’s Team, diving in with no idea what to expect. To say that those two days were a whirlwind of new ideas and experiences would be an understatement. As a biology major, I’m not usually exposed to the ‘human’ side of things, public policy, or the flaws and successes of the criminal justice system.

The first event was a forum on re-entry, which I had little to no knowledge about before I went. Needless to say, I was completely overwhelmed, but so incredibly enlightened about how severely this issue affects everyone of us, even more so the community of south Phoenix. Seeing the passion of some of the audience members that were brave enough (or fed-up enough with the way things were being run) made me realize how far we still have to come with the criminal justice system, and that this forum was definitely a step in the right direction. Also, how much a single voice in the community can make an impact. In a country where voter participation hasn’t exactly been noteworthy, it’s amazing to see how one voice in the room actually did make a difference. Raul Monreal, a director of South Mountain Community College, where the forum was held, spoke up about education being one of the best ways to reduce the crime rate and the likelihood of ex-felons returning to their previous life. He was upset that there were no educators on the panel that night, and that education had not been mentioned once.

Following this, another woman stood up to share her success at going back to school at 52 years old. She was frustrated that her sons, both in trouble with the law, were having a hard time going back to school and finding jobs. She feared how easy it would be to slip back into a life of crime, only now they would be tried as adults with more serious consequences. What most of my peers and even myself, hadn’t taken time to think about was that people like these boys weren’t bad people; they just might not have been able to seize an opportunity to be educated or go into the workforce as easily as in middle-class America. There was a lot to comprehend that night, but what stood out was what started with the dean speaking up about education. He sparked a wave of audience members speaking up for themselves, turning one voice into many, and giving them all a chance to speak up.

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”- John F Kennedy

Also at the forum that night was Franz Beasley who was able to turn his own life around and spread hope in a vivacious, confident attitude. You would have never imagined this man, dressed in a professional suit and radiating so much positive energy, had ever been in prison. But he was, and he had taken the steps to impact society with his success. He had risen above his environment and was standing in front of that crowd, giving everyone in the room hope that if they reached out to help, change was possible. If they were struggling, it was completely within their reach to rise above their mistakes and make a change within themselves, and continue that positive change through their community. His whole attitude and demeanor reminded me of the quote ”Because you are alive, everything is possible”- Thich Nhat Hanh

The following day, a group of five from GINA’s team drove up to Prescott for a day at Mingus Mountain Academy. I had heard a few things about what it would be like, that the girls would be happy to see everyone, that it would be inspirational, the usual bits and pieces you expect to hear from someone running the program. And as much as these things were true, I feel like I may have gotten something different out of the experience than most. As the youngest by a long shot, I wasn’t quite sure what to do to help so I wouldn’t just be in the way. I put on a smile and tried to jump on little things like unloading the car or untangling a cord.

Once we entered the gym and started getting situated, Sue Ellen took a few of us to meet with three girls who gave us a tour of the grounds and told us a little bit about what their daily life is like. All three of them (who were specially selected to provide the tour) were calm, but carried a sparkle in their eye of not mischief like you would think, being at a girls ‘detention’ facility, but a sparkle in their eye that they were turning their life around, and wanted to share it with us. It was a sparkle of complete gratitude for everything they were given in life. These girls didn’t take anything for granted, things that people in the ‘privileged middle-class America’ wouldn’t stop to be thankful for one minute of their life. All the while, during the time they were giving the tour, I couldn’t help thinking back to a letter a girl from the academy had written the team that I had read on the way up.

The girl who had written to the team had found herself a victim of sex trafficking after running away from home. On December 27, 2007, her world fell apart and on December 28, she turned herself into the police to escape a death threat. The same day I was celebrating my 16th birthday, with cake and balloons, and one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten: a tiny photo album with a picture from everyone at the party saying why we were friends. That day I received something to look back on to know I’ll always be loved. At exactly the same time, this girl was turning herself in for prostitution, the word ‘love’ most likely belonging only in fairy tales for her, and not a real life emotion. These girls’ pasts were anything but a silver platter of perfection.

These were the girls at Mingus. They had come from such hard backgrounds, but the ones I came in contact with had such a direction and dedication to get better and take advantage of all that life has to offer. They hung on every word of the presentation that day, and although they are still struggling with their lives, what it had been, what it was, and what it would be, they were normal teenage girls, just happy to simply be alive.
During the presentation, Vicki, an artist who draws portraits of survivors of abuse, explained to the girls the different types of abuse. This they all seemed to know very well. Then she asked the question, “So, what is an example of a person who has survived abuse?” Immediately, girls in the crowd were giving answers, but all of them the same, one word answer, the one word traveling throughout the gym in different voices, bouncing off the walls and coming back. The one word? “Me.”

I learned more in two days than I ever had in an entire semester of classes, but there is always more to be learned. Being so young, I don’t have all the knowledge or political background as some of the other members of the team, but in just those two short days, I realized more about the criminal justice system than I ever though possible, how far the system has come, how far it has to go, and how little organizations like GINA’s team are making a difference, day by day, step by step, person by person, planting the seeds of hope to change lives.”

Marissa has written a powerful story of her experience. Everyone has a story and the ability to use it to impact lives. Marissa is leaning and growing so that her life story will contribute to a better world. I am so proud of her and all of our interns and volunteers who spend precious time in a cause that is not popular but impacts us all. You have a voice and amazing power. What’s your story and how are you using it?

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I just had an amazing week of unforgettable opportunities. First, I was invited to speak at the quarterly meeting of Maricopa County Adult Probation Managers and Supervisors. When they invited me, I learned I was the first ex-prisoner to ever speak to this group and there would be about 110 managers in the audience. I must admit my stomach churned a bit. Why would they ever want to hear my story? I was assured they did want to hear it and cautiously I accepted.

I approached the Court House meeting place with trepidation. It’s hot enough in July, but I felt even hotter, until I entered the room. They immediately did their best to welcome me and help me to feel at ease. As I told my story, they laughed in the right places and I even saw some tears. In prison, inmates tell horror stores about their P.O.’s (Probation Officers), but P.O.’s can tell horror stories too. Everyone has a point of view.

What I learned at their meeting was the incredible new efforts they are making to improve reentry and help every willing ex-prisoner to build a successful life. That’s why they listened to me. They are open now to hearing about the challenges we faced in prison and the difficulties we face on a daily basis to reintegrate. There are so many places we cannot live or work. There are an overwhelming number of licenses we cannot qualify for. In Arizona, you cannot be a mortician if you have a felony, even one DUI. Not sure what one has to do with the other. How do you rebuild your life if you are denied a job and a roof over your head? There are so many Americans unemployed (without the stigma of a felony) and the rejection wears at everyone. Sometimes, facing homelessness and unemployment, the ex-felon feels there is nowhere to go but back to their old life. The Probation Department is aware of each challenge and now they have been directed to listen and do their best to help. I wish every ex-prisoner could have experienced what I did last week. It gave me hope.

My second opportunity also addressed reentry. GINA’s Team was part of the first Reentry Forum held at South Mountain Community College this week. It’s the first ever, organized by a significant list of public safety officials who truly care about this ussue. The list includes the US Attorney’s Office, the AZ Department of Corrections, the Department of Adult Probation, the Phoenix Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Prisons as well as faith-based groups and service providers. Senator Leah Landrum Taylor was there both as a member of the government and a member of the community. They were all at South Mountain to meet the public and hear their stories. Nearly 200 people showed up to see what this was about. Some were looking for help for their newly released loved ones. Some were looking for help to prevent more crimes. It is a very complicated issue.

I was particularly inspired by Shawn Pearson of Open Table. She lives in the community and her home was recently robbed. She said she had a choice. She could see the situation as hopeless or she could work even harder to help those who are driven to commit the crimes. She decided to work even harder. Shawn Pearson walks her talk and is an amazing role model for all of us.

The most exciting part of the evening was seeing the community come together in the realization that they can make a difference. They have the power to help both their community and the ex-prisoners coming back. This forum is the first of many in other communities. We already have a date for the next one, on November 4th, again at South Mountain Community College. The conversation will continue.

No matter what the issue, we have the power to come together and make a difference. There’s a lot of talk about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, but no one succeeds alone. Successful people understand the power of networking and building a strong base of support. Communities can do the same. Instead of staying shut in your living room isolated from your neighbors, come out and join a coalition to build a strong base and help your neighbors. That is the only way we will succeed.

This is really about my motto: Been there. Done that. Now how can I help? Are you an ex-prisoner who has succeeded in your reentry? You are the perfect person to mentor someone just released. Are you a family that has dealt with the challenges of reentry? You looked forward to having your loved ones home; now why can’t they get jobs? You’re the perfect person to offer advice or resources to a new family faced with that challenge. Are you the victim of a crime? You can help other victims. Perhaps together you can help those men and women seeking to rebuild their lives by volunteering at a shelter or teaching reading.

Everyone of you has a story. That story is an open opportunity to help others, an opportunity to turn pain into power, frustration into triumph. What’s your story? How can you help?

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