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Archive for the ‘Prison’ Category

  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

 

 

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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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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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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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Our last day. I had a meeting back at the WH and we wanted to take advantage of this chance to see something special in DC (besides the WH). This time I knew where I was going and traced my steps, feeling so cool. Interesting to note, the Marine Guards were not at the West Wing entrance today. That meant the President was not in residence. This time I was going from the West Wing to the Executive Offices right next door. But before we went to his office, my new friend Elias took me to the White House mess for some saltine crackers and tea. I was still nauseated and sort of embarrassed, but everyone was very solicitous. I’m definitely seeing my doctor when I get home.

IMG_4062After so many years in the desert, it was a joy to see these beautiful old office buildings with interesting tile floors, carved moldings around doors and windows  and lovely paneling. I’ve always loved this part of our country for it’s history, architecture and green landscape. I miss trees and grass.

After my meeting I dashed back to the hotel to check out. It was Dianne’s first trip to Washington so we had to see as much as possible in just a few hours. I chose the Museum of Natural History, one of the most
representative museums in DC.
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It was the right choice; she loved it from the enormous tusked elephant in the rotunda to the breathtaking stones in the gem and rock collection. The biggest disappointment was that the HOPE diamond was out for two weeks for some changes in the display area. Never mind, the other jewels were pretty spectacular.

I didn’t feel great all day but I just ignored the nausea and kept focused on all the fascinating displays at the museum, magnificent gems, awe inspiring minerals, incredible skeletons of every animal imaginable. Look at this; oh look at that! You could spend a week  there and always see something new.IMG_4077 IMG_4081 IMG_4090

 

 

 

 

 

 

We had a great time wandering around every floor. There is so much to see in our nation’s capitol and we only had a few hours but we made the most of it. Then it was on to the airport for our 5 pm flight to Phoenix.

Waiting at the airport, the nausea got worse. This was not good. Suddenly, I threw the magazines out of the plastic shopping bag, the vomiting started and I just couldn’t stop. Again that natural reaction is to be embarrassed. I couldn’t help vomiting but I kept apologizing. Why do we all do that?

Finally I asked for the EMTs and it wasn’t long before the ambulance raced over the tarmac. Oh my goodness, talk about an attention getter. Look at the pathetic vomiting sick woman. And poor Dianne was doing her best to comfort me, all the while feeling helpless.

The EMTs did the usual tests and assured me that my vitals were ok. I could travel if I felt I could manage. Stoic as ever, I was determined to make the trip so they left, lights swirling, for other emergencies. A little later, ready to board, the vomiting was back ; I knew I’d never make the flight. Back came the EMTs and off we went to the Virginia Hospital Center, that I later discovered has more awards than you can count and is a partner with Mayo Clinic. What a blessing.

In the ambulance, the EMT gave me an IV of Phenergan to stop the vomiting. It’s supposed to have a calming effect. Turns out I’m allergic to it and for almost five hours I couldn’t stop my body from moving, jerking, twisting, writhing. It was a IMG_4135terrifying feeling. They couldn’t give me an MRI or an ultrasound because I couldn’t lie still. Dianne said it was awful to watch and I could hear her crying in the background, feeling even more helpless. I wanted to cry too. In my stupor I remember thinking, Oh my goodness, I invited her to have a good time and now we’re in the ER of some strange hospital. I’m so sorry.

Finally I was out for the count and don’t remember anything else, but it was a long IMG_4134night for Dianne. The next morning I learned I’d had emergency gall bladder surgery. The surgeon couldn’t understand why I hadn’t been in terrible pain. All I’d felt was nauseous. He said after all his years of experience,
I had the biggest gall stone he’d ever seen, 5 cm. He even took a picture of it and sent it to me. It sort of reminded me of some of the minerals we’d seen at the museum. The good news was, I hadn’t thrown up in the White House.

When I felt more alert, I insisted that Dianne take the next flight home. There was nothing she could do. I would probably sleep for the next couple of days and neither of us had any luggage. It was already in Phoenix with her heart meds. She had to go home but her mothering/nursing instincts had kicked in and she didn’t want to leave. Finally common sense prevailed  and reluctantly she made the morning flight. And I went back to sleep.

IMG_4118Two days later I decided I could make the flight (that darned stoic attitude is NUTS) and the WH arranged my travel back to Phoenix. They were so nice, worried about my condition and eager to help in any way they could. Nothing to do except watch me sleep until Saturday afternoon when I caught that same flight from the same gate. I was wheeled to the front door by the nicest nurses on the planet and I was on my way to the airport.

That five hour flight seemed like ten. The lady next to me was traveling with her very anxious cat who was yowling at the top of his lungs. She kept apologizing, but I said not to worry. The cat sounded like I felt. When we took off, everyone including the cat settled down and I thought about the last week. Imagine, one day in the White House and the next in the hospital, an unforgettable ending to an unforgettable trip.

Now you’re probably wondering how all this happened. Why did the White House call me? I’ve saved that for the final episode next. . .

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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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Earlier that morning our meetings were in the West Wing of the White House, where the Oval Office IMG_3943is. This time we arrived at the East Wing. All of the First Lady’s guests arrived simultaneously, and of course, we had to clear security. I guess the only people who don’t have to go through the security process are the President and his family. Imagine, in Lincoln’s day anybody could just walked right in to see the president.

The WH is organized! Hosts to welcome us. Guides to lead us through the special tour. We entered near the Family Theater, established when FDR was President. Imagine the First Family trying to sneak out to the mall for a IMG_4044movie. The Secret Service would go crazy. This room serves a very practical purpose. The big overstuffed chairs are not only comfy, they are moveable so when there’s a big party like a state dinner, it’s magically transformed into a coat room.

We toured the Library, the Vermeil Room, the China Room (remember Michael Douglas called it the Dish Room when he was president:)), and the Diplomatic Room that has the most beautiful sunflower carpet. Since that was Gina’s favorite flower, Dianne and I thought that was a special omen.

IMG_3982When the time had come to go to the main floor, the wide marble stairs looked forbidding to me. Back in those familiar dark ages, I was a jogger, three miles a day for years. Now I’m paying the price with knees that cannot handle stairs easily. No worries. We were whisked behind some walls to the President’s private elevator (also there since FDR) and for that brief elevator ride, I thanked my painful knees for getting to see something very special. FYI, it’s quite small and only holds four people at a time.

The main floor is where the action is. There’s the Red Room, the Green Room and the Blue Room IMG_4006besides the Ballroom and the State Dining Room. Thanks to another first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, those rooms were decorated more in keeping with the period.

Each of these rooms is memorable, but the Blue Room has the distinction of facing out onto the famous balcony and the Washington Monument. The view is breathtaking, exactly like in the movies. Just as I walked over to the windows to look out, it started snowing. The flakes  swirling around in the perimeter lights of the White House made me feel like I was in a magical movie too.

As we wandered through these historic rooms, I heard the WH dogs barking in the distance and the sound of a piano playing favorite tunes by some of the great American composers. As we leIMG_4011ft the State IMG_4016Dining Room for the reception area, there was a magnificent antique piano being played by a very attractive Marine. And in the main hall was a delicious buffet of hors d’oeuvres with cocktails, all accented by magnificent flowers. Had I mentioned my nausea?  I looked over the gorgeous food and reluctantly ordered a ginger ale. My one time at the WH and I was too sick to enjoy it. PoohAndDoublePooh! Thank goodness, Dianne enjoyed it for both of us.

Nevertheless, the food was secondary to the people. We met Governors, Mayors and scientists. We met ordinary people just like us who were there because they represented something extraordinary. We met Mrs. Obama’s chief of staff, Tina Chen; imagine her responsibility.

We met Valerie Jarrett, the Senior Advisor to the President. Like Mrs. Chen, she was gracious and charming without a hint of ego and self-importance.  As we were chatting, we found ourselves being lined up for a photo shoot with Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden. Another Oh My Goodness moment. And yes, Mrs. Obama is beautiful and very, very tall. Dr. Biden is also lovely; she’s my height. Both of them had had very full days yet were gracious and generous with their time.

What did I say to Mrs. Obama? I asked her to visit a women’s prison. I told her how important her IMG_4021husband’s prison visit had been and how much it would mean to women inmates all over the country if she could make such a visit. I also told Mrs. Chen how significant that visit would be. So who knows? After all this, I definitely believe in miracles.

Finally, it was again time to divide our group. Our guests would be staying at the WH to watch the SOTU in the Family Theater. The twenty three guests of Mrs. Obama headed for our coats and the motorcade that would take us to the Capitol for President Obama’s last State of the Union Address. We needed those coats as the snow swirled IMG_4046around. It was freezing, but we didn’t have to wait long. The vans were waiting with security in place. With the police escort and sirens blaring, we headed out onto the road that took us directly to the Capitol. Yes, I admit it. Riding in a motorcade between the White House and the Nation’s Capitol was incredibly exciting and over much too soon. And then we were there. . .

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