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Archive for the ‘Criminal Justice’ Category

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. 

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“… 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

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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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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.

 

 

 

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Big News In Arizona. We’ve had a Presidential Pardon. It made international headlines and gave me a very bad dream. This Pardon brought back memories I can never forget.

On July 19, 2002, I entered my first jail, in Maricopa County, Arizona. I was a well-educated fifty-seven years old woman suddenly face to face with another world. I was afraid; I was shocked; I was very, very sad.

I was also very sick. In February I’d been diagnosed with stage 3B breast cancer and told my survival odds weren’t great. I’d already had six sessions of chemotherapy, with all the accompanied nausea. I wanted to curl up in a fetal position with a cozy blanket, soft pillows and crackers. Instead I got handcuffs, a thin plastic mattress, sickening food and vomiting.

The first time they handcuff you is a shock. Some guards make them so tight they cut into your flesh at every move. Shackles are worse. They serve their purpose; they restrict your steps and are heavy and cruel on bare ankles. The holding cells are filthy, and there are only hard concrete benches and one open toilet. At some odd hour, they bring baloney sandwiches, but no trash bag so everyone just piles the trash in a corner for the mice. Thirty-two women are crammed into an 8×12 tank. It’s desperately hot. There is no more room to sit or move so some women just stand, looking dazed. The theory is that this inhumane treatment will inspire people not to come back. It doesn’t work. It just succeeds in dehumanizing them so they have no dignity or hope left.

I was kept there for twenty hours, waiting to be processed. The noise, the heat, the smell, the meanness of the guards all contributed to a feeling of fear and despair. I didn’t know such a place could exist in the United States of America —  the beacon of civilization for the rest of the world. I didn’t want to believe that a human being could create this hell and others were willing to work in it.

Finally, we newbies were moved out to Estrella, the woman’s jail. There our clothes were taken, we were strip searched and given uniforms of black and white stripes. Then we were escorted to the dorms. I could feel the heat all the way down
the hall. When we walked through the door at the end, it felt like Dante’s Inferno. One hundred seventy-eight women in racks of bunks three tiers high.

Eight showers that didn’t drain and eight toilets, all without doors. One sheet, one thin blanket, no pillow allowed. One uniform, one bra, one pair of panties, one pair of socks. Anything else is contraband. Anything else is country club.

Everyone sweats and smells and struggles to stay clean. The evaporative coolers had been broken for two months. Mid-July and 115º outside, but no repairs in sight. Of course, office air conditioning was fixed quickly, and the offices were freezing.

The lights were kept low to ease the heat. Too dark to read, my only respite. Time felt upside down. The meals added to that. Two meals a day, always the same. Breakfast at mid-morning, always a sack with baloney, six slices of white bread, two slices of fake cheese, one old orange and crackers. In the late afternoon, 
dinner of unrecognizable mix and smell served on a brown tray. The windows were small and very high so there is no feeling of time.. Meals are irregular and time is twisted.

It felt like a 21st century concentration camp and, because of the heat, we were living in the ovens. Everyone in black and white stripes. Everything done to denigrate, debilitate and demoralize. It’s big business designed to create a revolving door of job security. Most inmates are poor. No one cares.  Once behind those walls, you become a distant memory to the world.

The first night in the dorm, one of my neighbors literally vomited her insides out all night long, completely ignored by the guards. Heroin withdrawal. I’d never heard such suffering and agony. How could anyone survive that?  It was my first exposure to drugs and I was horrified for her. But despite my inexperience with drugs, and with a huge age difference, the kindness of these drug-addicted women overwhelmed me.

These young women shared their meager possessions with a generosity unseen in the world I’d known. I was profoundly sad and frightened and they embraced and comforted me.

“Don’t worry. You’ll be safe. We respect our elders.”

I was there six months. The time was filled with sleeplessness, constant shaking, incessant noise, terror, the men in black and tears. I’m ashamed to say I cried enough to float the damned place away. Yet It’s Still There.  Add to that, nine indescribably rough trips to both court and the hospital, each one twenty-four hours of agony and exhaustion.

In the middle of this, I had my mastectomy. They told me I was the first woman to ever have a mastectomy while there. The medical staff didn’t really know what to do with me so they mostly did nothing. I’ve been a patient with cancer and an inmate with cancer. There is an ocean of difference between the two. The feelings of despair and loneliness were overwhelming until the women rallied around me. In that wretched, cruel, unfeeling place, these women comforted me and surrounded me with love. Society saw them as addicts, thieves, prostitutes and murderers. I saw them as victims of incredible violence, too often raped and beaten by  fathers, uncles, brothers, boyfriends, husbands and pimps. One woman told me she was glad she was there. She felt safe. Her husband and her son couldn’t touch her there or beat her up. At first, I thought she was an anomaly but she wasn’t. There were so many like her.

I can never forget those women whom society shuns and ignores. I can never forget that place. When THE PARDON was announced, all those memories flooded back, as vivid as if it was yesterday. Ironically, I remember that time more clearly than the morning my beloved husband died. The noise, the clanging doors, the jingle of chains, the terror of the men in black, the intimidation, cruelty and horror of the place all came flooding back.

It was created with pride by “the toughest sheriff in the country.”  Not only did this man and his crew terrorize our Latino population, violating a court order in doing so, his lack of basic human decency caused the death of too many inmates and racked up millions of dollars in law suits paid for by tax payers who didn’t seem to mind and continued to vote for him. . .until they didn’t. And now we are here, looking at a man found guilty of only a criminal misdemeanor, only that. So many crimes against humanity, heart-breaking and unconscionable. Yet they cannot be attributed only to him; the staff, the guards, the voters are also culpable. There is blood on the hands of everyone who cheered him on. And now he has been pardoned.

I thought I would feel more, more pain and more outrage. Instead I feel nothing except a great sadness for all the people who have experienced his hell. But I won’t let his cruelty destroy my hopeful heart. There is no hope for him and people like him. There is, however, hope for our world if passionate, clear-minded people pay attention, speak out and work for change. “Enough is Enough.” Enough denigration, humiliation, cruelty and lack of accountability.  Our country is better than that. We are better than that.

To those who read this and feel the need to attack me and defend the sheriff, first remember America is the Incarceration Nation. One in three Americans now has a criminal record. We incarcerate more people than Russia or China! It’s easier than you imagine. Our jails and prisons are indeed over-populated with minorities, but that is changing with the opioid crisis. We are criminalizing everything and you could be next. Then suddenly you’re inside in black and white stripes, and you are horrified, outraged and very empathetic. Funny how that works.

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screen-shot-2017-02-13-at-11-27-36-pmWhere were you fifteen years ago, Valentine’s Day 2002? Some of my young friends weren’t even born yet. Some of  my sisters and brothers in orange were inside. Some of you were celebrating Valentine’s Day and some of you were lamenting the lack of cards, chocolate and flowers.

I was sitting in a doctor’s office hearing the words, “You’ve got  stage 3B breast cancer.” What? No, that can’t be right. I’ve never smoked. No one in my family has had cancer. I eat my veggies and exercise. And what the hell, it’s Valentine’s Day. Seriously??

But it was right and none of that other stuff mattered. I was tapped on the breast by Breast cancer behind the wiresthe cancer demon and began a journey I never expected. Curiously, it almost paralleled with my prison journey. If I hadn’t been diagnosed on Valentine’s Day and started chemo and had my medical records, I wouldn’t be alive today because most of my treatment including my mastectomy was behind prison walls.

Although “they” told me I probably wouldn’t live five years, fifteen years later, here I am. Christine died; Gina died; Paula died; too many died; even David died, but I’m still here. Often I wonder why. And then I look at the book by my bed, The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu.

I first checked this book from the library, but after one chapter I knew I had to own it so I rushed to Costco where it sits amongst the latest book bargains, hot off the press. You might not notice it, but Pay Attention. Forget the best selling novels screen-shot-2017-02-13-at-11-32-38-pmand take this one instead.

It’s divided into three sections:

I    The Nature of True Joy

II   The Obstacles of Joy

III  The Eight Pillars of Joy

This book will open your eyes to the difference between joy and happiness. It will open your eyes to the incredible power and joy of LIFE, despite suffering and sorrow.

You’ve heard me say it a million times, “Everyone has a story.” Mostly those stories are about pain and suffering. You’ve also heard me say that there is great power in your willingness to be vulnerable and share your story with others.

The Book of Joy distills the power of our grief, pain and suffering and gives meaning to our stories.  I’m not going to give you a book report. Nope, you have to buy it  and keep it by the bed with a marker to highlight the meaningful parts. And then put a journal with it to write your own story so you’ll know why you’re here and what you’re meant to do.

What’s your story? Have you figured out your purpose? If you haven’t, no worries. I didn’t “get” mine until I walked into prison at fifty-seven years old. (Slow learner.) Judy Pearson calls finding your purpose your 2nd Act. 

Judy is a breast cancer survivor with an incredible story and a clear vision to make a difference in the world of cancer. She founded A 2nd Act to do just that. A 2nd Act: Survivorship Takes the Stage is a live, curated stage performance, featuring a cast of eight women survivors of ALL types of cancers, local to the city in which the show is being held. Professionally produced, each woman has auditioned for a slot to share her own story of how she’s using her post-diagnosis gifts of time and experience for the greater good.

I’m deeply honored to have been chosen to be part of the Phoenix cast for 2017 and Sunday we had our first table reading. At that table, The Book of Joy came to life. All of the women there realized the power of their stories while they were going through their suffering and from their pain, they have manifested extraordinary 2nd Acts. Their courage is humbling and inspiring.

The Phoenix event on Sunday, March 12th. I hope you will visit the website to get the details. If you know anyone who has battled cancer or if you have, I urge you to attend this event and bring your friends. You will laugh, cry, be outraged delighted and you may see yourself in one of the stories. Here’s the link to the site: https://a2ndact.org/the-2nd-act/

Meanwhile, back to Valentine’s Day. Maybe you have a marvelous date tonight. Maybe you’re sad because you’re alone. Consider this. In doctor’s offices all over the world women and men and children are hearing the words, “You’ve got cancer.” In a heart-beat, their lives are changed forever.

Here’s your chance for a really special Valentine’s Day. Instead of feeling blue, why not take some flowers to a senior center or a hospital or the VA? Why not invite your mother to dinner? Think outside the box and get creative. What wonderful thing can you do to brighten someone else’s Valentine’s Day? Who knows, it might feel so good it will become your 2nd Act!

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As we were escorted through the corridors and elevators by our security hosts, I expected us to get our coats and head back to our vans. Instead, we lined up in another long hall. I thought we were going to take a group photo. That would be nice. While we waited, I started to chat with those aroundScreen Shot 2016-04-08 at 11.34.12 PM me. (Imagine that hall lined with guests and men talking into their sleeves.)

Right next to  me was surely the most compelling and yet controversial guest in the box, Rafaai Hamo, PhD, a Syrian refugee. Dr. Hamo lost seven members of his family including his wife and a daughter in a bombing in Syria, creating a family of refugees. A two year journey of grave hardship brought Dr. Hamo, his son and three daughters to America in December to make a new home. http://mashable.com/2016/01/10/state-of-the-union-guest-humans-of-new-york-syrian-scientist/#1SHGi9wi4Gqt  He was a lovely and very kind man. I was honored to meet him.

With him was his translator and Brandon Stanton, the well-known creator of Humans of New York http://www.humansofnewyork.com. Brandon had done a national story on Dr. Hamo and was accompanying him on this very unexpected part of his journey. We chatted quite a while because Brandon was leaving later that night to drive all night to start visiting New York prisons and prisoners. Naturally, I was fascinated. His compelling words and photographs can be found all over the internet http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amos-irwin/what-humans-of-new-york-g_b_9253134.html

It seemed like we stood there about an hour.  Finally I said, “This is a long time to just take a group picture.” Everyone started laughing. “Is that what you think?”  Turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. We were waiting to meet the President and have a picture taken with him. Oh my goodness. Nobody told me that! It was definitely worth the wait.

The President had worked a very long day, prepared for and given a one hour speech and then met at least fifty people and smiled for photographs. And he was charming and looked great. What did I say to him? I thanked him for visiting a prison and told him how important that meeting was to those inside. I said I wished Mrs. Obama would visit a women’s prison too. He said visiting a prison had been an honor. My honor was representing all the women and men behind bars. Imagine, an ex-prisoner meeting the President of the United States. I never envisioned that in my prison cell!

It was late when we got back to the WH and our guests were waiting. Dianne gave me the straight skinny on watching the address in the First Family’s Theater. Those big red chairs were very cushy; they had popcorn and drinks; some people were just as messy as when they went to the movies at home. Yikes! Oh, and it was a totally bi-partisan group, some D’s and some R’s, so there was a lot of chat.

Then our pumpkin carriages, er, I mean our WH vans gathered us up and suddenly we were back at the Sofitel saying Good Night. It was the end of a magical adventure, but not the end of the story. . .

Sue Ellen and President Obama

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In the dark with the swirling snow, I couldn’t tell you where we were or what door we entered, but the light in the hallway was shockingly bright and the hall was lined with men talking into their sleeves, watching everyone. No smiling. Very serious. Very efficient. Coats were hung, purses and cell phones left behind. No cameras allowed. (None of us were happy about that.) Efficiently we were taken by elevator to the upper floor that led to the viewers boxes and escorted to our seats. The First Lady’s box holds 24 seats. The rest of the large circular balcony holds more seats for others with invitations from their Congressional representatives. It was packed and buzzing in a rare “we’re expecting the President” manner.

The House chamber is divided down the middle, Republicans to the President’s left and Democrats to his right. As Congressional leaders made their way inside, we could look down, recognizing our own representatives plus those big names we see on the Sunday morning talk shows.  Kyrsten Sinema, one of our AZ Congresswomen who also serves on Gina’s Team’s  Leadership Council, saw me and waved from the floor. Was I really in the First Lady’s box or was I dreaming?

The Supreme Court justices entered, very solemn and dignified, dressed in their black court robes. They don’t smile, neither do they ever stand or applaud for anything the president says.  I think it’s some kind of protocol. The same with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in full uniform with all the glory of their decorations. No smiling, standing or applauding.

In our box, we were buzzing too. I was sitting next to Mark Luttrell, Republican Mayor of Shelby Country Tennessee (see, they are bipartisan) and a former BOP warden. Mark has a pretty progressive reputation in the world of corrections and I was picking his brain. Right in front of me was Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft. I talked to him about computer labs in prisons and he was very supportive of the idea although it horrifies traditionalist. Everyone in the box had a story and a vested interest in the President’s speech, but two of my favorites were Earl Smith and Edith Childs. They were just darling human beings. You can read about all of the guests on the WH blog:  https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2016/01/10/meet-guests-first-ladys-2016-state-union-box

When Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden entered the box, we knew it was time. Then the House sergeant at arms announced those eight famous words, “Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States.” The President entered the chamber and began the walk towards the podium  shaking hands all along the way.

In our box suddenly four white square padded cushions appeared and were passed down the four steps. It’s not a huge box and no space goes unoccupied. These are for staffers. Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 8.45.00 PMBelieve it or not, Valerie Jarrett, Special Advisor to the President, sat down on the step at the end of our aisle right next to Mark Luttrell which allowed us the opportunity to talk. Mrs. Jarrett is considered one of the most important people in the White House and there she was, sitting with perfect posture on a cushion in the aisle of our box. I asked her how she could define her time working in the White House. She smiled a lovely smile. “It’s the most important and exciting thing of my  entire life,” she paused, “except for the birth of my daughter. Nothing can compare to that.”

While we chatted and 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.

Then the President started talking and it was hard to ignore the conduct of the Congress. As much as we hear how divided our congress is, 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.

As he often does, the President started out with humor and then got down to the issues. https://www.whitehouse.gov/sotu (You can see the entire address here.)  He would say something and the right side of the chamber (Dems) would stand up and loudly applaud; the left side (Reps) of the chamber was silent.  When he asked these questions below they sounded like questions I’ve heard all my friends express, conservative or progressive, yet half the room cheered while the other half was looking at their email or Facebook.

  • First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy? (Applause & silence.)
  • Second, how do we make technology work for us, and not against us — especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change? (Applause & silence.)
  • Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman? (Applause & silence.)
  • And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst? (Applause & silence.)

Yes, I said Facebook. Remember I mentioned we all had to leave our phones behind? Not our representatives. They all had their cellphones and iPads;  we watched them from above as they checked email, caught up on Facebook or their social media of choice. Obviously I’m old school. My parents would have killed me (figuratively speaking), if I’d gone to hear a president speak (any president) and not minded my manners and paid attention. Here were our elected officials from our Senate and House of Representatives, and many were simply rude. Or maybe they weren’t. Maybe that’s OK in this world of technology, but I hope not. They say politics is an ugly business and it keeps getting worse. Does it have to be? Is this who we are as human beings, as Americans? Our elected officials are the role models for our children and I don’t think we’d let our children behave that way.

Never has an hour rushed by so quickly. The President’s final words were “Thank you, God bless you. God bless the United States of America” and it was over. We were already standing to applaud and as we stood, the cushions disappeared, the aisle cleared and our security detail was waiting for us. Mrs. Jarrett had slipped out, Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden then led the way for the rest of us. There were twenty three Americans in that box who will never forget that evening. And there was still more to come. . .Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 8.44.31 PM

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