Marissa continues to stun me with her keen observations and depth of feeling for what she is learning during her internship with GINA’ s Team. Recently, she made her first trip into the women’s prison. I urge you to go behind the wires with Marissa and view vicariously what she experienced there.
“Finally, I was excited. I had gotten over my random kicks of nerves and had been looking forward to my prison visit the whole week. It’s a strange thing when the highlight of your week is driving 45 minutes to the middle of nowhere and sitting in a sea of bright orange for a few hours, but at this point, I’ve accepted the fact that excitement in my world hasn’t been aimed at anything ‘normal’ in a while.
That night, all I knew was that Linda and John King were somehow involved in bringing a play about domestic violence to Perryville. I had no prior knowledge of the characters, the actors or the plot before I got into the van that evening. I started to learn more when we met the couple at Paradise Bakery for a little ‘pre-prison snack’. There is no way I would have imagined that these two people radiating strength and genuine smiles had gone through so much. Not only was their daughter a victim of domestic violence, but several of their other children had been lost to chance traumatic experiences, and the fact that they had kept going in light of all this made those smiles that much more incredible. There was no reason they had been singled out to go through so much pain, and it made me think about the low points in my own life. It makes you realize that those trivial moments were just that, trivial. An argument or little mistake that you thought were the end of the world, were really just little blips on the path to the person you are now. When you see the optimism in the Kings’ eyes, after all life has thrown at them, you’re given a perfect example of when things really do get that bad, there’s always going to be a reason to wake up in the morning, and something great to be thankful for in life.
Of course, over ‘snack-time’ there was the usual light hearted conversation ( a term that may or may not mean something different to me now that I’ve been involved in GINA’s Team, but I’d like to think it was a light conversation) to contrast my wild over-analyzing mind. ”What year are you in school? Oh you look so young. How many siblings do you have Kim? What about you Marissa? Is that Poppy seed?” I admit, there was a point I kind of spaced out and could hear one of my favorite songs on the radio playing in the background of the restaurant. Even then, I knew how foreshadowing it would be to the rest of the night. The lyrics played,
“He’s born to shimmer, he’s born to shine.
He’s born to radiate.
He’s born to live, He’s born to love,
but we’ll teach him how to hate…”
-Shawn Mullins, ‘Shimmer’
As we pulled up to the prison, I tried to make out all of the buildings and maybe remember some of the names. It was hard because it looked so different now that the sun was out and the rain clouds had left. Perryville was now less of a story-book dungeon, and more just of a wasteland on a dirt plot. Neither description I’m sure is very appealing, but neither is the concept of prison in general. I stuffed everything into my purse as we neared the gate, ID and water bottle ready to go, waiting at the van door like a horse waits for his pen to open in a race. Maybe not that extreme, but I was excited to go through security and get into the prison. Now I would be more aware of my surroundings instead of feeling like I was aimlessly swimming through new sounds and new pictures passing before my eyes. This time though, I watched the faces, sketched the picnic benches down in my mind, and took in the general atmosphere of the cafeteria, the atmosphere outside of myself. And as far as I could see there was no difference between the people underneath the orange and those under the brown, and those of us in bright pinks and blues. Apart from some decisions that differed between all of us to get us in those different colors, we were all living the same life, enjoyed chatting with a friend, eating the perfect dinner, and were now all waiting for the show start.
I was now used to just jumping into things that probably would have scared me half to death just three months before. Because of this, I sat down right next to an inmate, something I would have probably avoided at all costs before because of the misconceptions among my peers that all inmates will shank you for looking at them wrong. What surprised me more than anything was that she didn’t treat me like a ‘Blonde little white girl whose daddy pays for everything,’ but as another person waiting to be befriended. For someone who’s usually relatively shy, this was one of those moments that sent me spinning. If everyone approached strangers like this, how much further along would we be on a global standpoint? On a local standpoint? If people stopped dodging glances of someone they knew passing by and just said hi, how many more people would feel appreciated? If we reserved judgment until we knew someone, how many more best friends would we have? Moments of laugher would we share? How many more shoulders would we have to cry on when times got bad, or people to celebrate with when times were good? How many more doors could we open with just a smile? Maybe this is too much to get out of a small little encounter, but I’ve never exactly been known to under-think situations.
“Life is made up, not of great sacrifices or duties, but of little things in which smiles, and kindness, and small obligations, given habitually, are what win and preserve the heart and secure comfort. “ Sir H. Davy
So many things caught my attention even before the play had started that night. About 5 minutes away from the start of the show, one of the girls turned around and noticed the GINA’s team flyers lying by my feet, waiting to be passed out. She immediately asked for one, sparking me to start passing them out. I realized how hungry these women are for anything with color, with words, with a connection to anything outside the barbed wire they are fenced in.
And all of this before the show had started.
I was a little unreceptive in the beginning to the simplistic approach of the play, but over time it began to grow on me. I had blended into the audience, mixing my bright teal skirt with their state issued orange uniforms to form one laughing, attentive bunch of people listening to the story unfold. We were one single unit in my mind until the Kings’ started playing out the story once the physical violence happened. All of these women knew this part of the story inside and out and in each ‘Aw hell no.’ and F bomb dropped, I could hear them relating their life back to this girl’s story whom they had never met or heard about until that night. Later during the discussion/question portion, one women actually stood up and said that seeing this play touched her more than her own story, because she was never able to step back from her situation and see all the details played out like the King’s had done.
The slow realization that the person behind the black and teal was in a different place in life than those seated next to me was when the biggest impact of the play came. The man who murdered the King’s daughter was found innocent of murder, but guilty of aggravated assault. I could see everyone’s mind whirling but for all different reasons. I couldn’t put the two and two together. What did they think she died of other than his blows and forceful ingestion of cocaine? How could he only be found guilty of assault? That’s what caused her death! He received 10 years in prison for murder (whether or not he was found guilty, that’s essentially what it was). I could tell some of the girls were rendered speechless by this fact that he had committed murder and only received 10 years. I knew there was one inmate in Perryville that was in prison for 5 years for giving her abuser 5 stitches in self defense. As much math as I have taken, 5 years for 5 stitches and 10 years for murder. That would make 10 stitches equivalent to murder, to 23 blunt force trauma areas, to a life gone.
It doesn’t add up.
And as I walked away from the night instead of remembering how overwhelmed I was, I remembered faces, stories, and people. That behind the barbed wire fences and color differences, there were real human beings with stories and lives with more obstacles in them than I had ever experienced in my life. Three months ago, I didn’t think that taking this internship would lead me to the experiences I’ve walked into, where it has taken me, and how much more I appreciate a kind word or smile and life in general. The immense new understanding of my world is something that I could never fully express how grateful I am for. Everyone is a person with a story and there will always be a brighter tomorrow and reason to jump out of bed in the morning excited, not nervous, for what the day holds for you.
“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” –Edward Abbey”
Marissa is seeing the stories and understanding there power. If Marissa’s words have moved you, please leave a comment. I want to hear your story.
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