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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 2015-07-03 at 11.33.31 AMThe invitations are individual works of art: small, appliquéd American flags of red, white, and blue. The picnic tables are set in the shade of the tree and decorated with flowers of mauve, pink and yellow. The guests are fashionably dressed in varying shades of the year’s hottest color, orange. It sounds trés chic, but the flags are made of construction paper and glue, the metal tables are under the lone tree on the gray prison yard and the orange is the ugly uniform of an inmate.

A party in prison? Yes, they happen, mostly for birthdays, and this one is for three of us. Melissa, Candace, and me…all July babies. Because we all have different friends, not all the guests know each other so I decide on a game, my old favorite, ‘Get Acquainted Bingo’. I’ve painstakingly drawn twenty bingo cards with grids and have my precious colored pencils ready to distribute to each guest. The object of the game is to get each square signed by a different person until the entire sheet is signed…a Bingo blackout. It forces you to circulate and talk to everyone. The squares are tailored to your guest list.

I’m frankly a bit nervous as I distribute the cards and give instructions. After all, this is prison. Will these women be too “cool” for a silly game? I’ve successfully played this from Phoenix to Portugal with ages from 8 to 80, but this is a totally different audience. As they look at the cards, there is complete silence; I hold my breath. Suddenly in unison, they jump up and start darting around getting the coveted signatures. It’s working! They are talking and laughing…actually mixing, just like in real life. Finally, we hear “Bingo!” The proud winner is Lisa, a darling young woman who has served fourteen years of a sixteen-year sentence. She wins a bottle of DOM Perryville; a very young vintage of Ginger Ale that Candace has decorated with a Champagne label.

Time for the appetizers. Potluck is a tradition in prison. Everyone brings a dish to show off her culinary skills…a huge challenge here. Inmates are allowed to buy a very limited array of food items from the ‘company store.’ Almost everything available is junk. Lots of chips and candy, but only three items of protein…peanut butter, tuna and beans. These make up the bulk of our menus. What can you do with junk food? The creations are amazingly delicious and ultra high in carbs and calories.

Val’s hors d’oeuvres are a hit. She made cheesy tuna roll-ups…tuna, mayonnaise, cheese and jalapenos rolled up in tortillas cut into bite size pieces using our cutting tool, the edge of our very small plastic mirror. No knives allowed. Val even made a serving tray by painting and decorating the bottom of the box that brownies come in, lining it with a chic magazine ad. Not exactly hygienic, but certainly pretty. The roll-ups are served with a tasty sauce made from squeeze cheese, mayonnaise and powdered milk. No seasoning allowed, but somehow inmates find a way.

Candace made a yummy sour cream and onion cheese dip. Take a bag of Sour Cream and Onion Potato Chips and crush them to a fine powder by keeping them in the bag and using a water bottle to crush. The bag is also your mixing bowl. Add three packages of squeeze cheese, milk and jalapeno juice to taste. Consistency should be creamy. Serve in a bowl with chips or crackers.

For the main course, the tables are filled with our beautiful prison ‘china’…white plastic bowls filled with various delicacies. We’re only allowed one small bowl so ‘cooking’ is a challenge. Most inmates actually have two bowls, but the second one is contraband so on quarterly “shakes”, the Correctional Officers routinely throw it away. Then for twenty-five cents, everyone buys a new one. It gives the company store more business and inmates then have two bowls for the next three months. It’s a prison game. Everyone plays.

The highlights of the main course are euphemistically called “Pasta with Tuna” and “Sour Cream Chicken”. (Recipes included). Do not consider making these unless you are rail thin, have ridiculously low cholesterol and just love junk food, because it is indeed junk food.

After we’ve eaten much more than our stomachs are used to, desserts are forthcoming. First, we are tempted by delicious chocolate cake made with candy bars. I made chocolate mint truffles, lots of work and well worth it…easy to serve and bite size. I, too, decorated a brownie box for serving. In an ugly place, we appreciate the efforts to make things pretty.

Finally, comes the piéce de résistance…Melissa’s lemon birthday cake, star shaped and decorated with stars. Melissa was sick the week before the party. For a few precious days she got meals in her room when dessert was lemon pudding. She carefully saved it for icing and filling. The cake itself was a mix of Vanilla Zingers and Dunkin’ Sticks layered with the lemon filling. She carefully worked it into the shape of a star , then iced it all with a mixture of pudding, milk and lemon drops melted in hot water. The extra stars were made by rolling Star Bursts flat with a water bottle (yes, it takes forever) and then using our special mirror cutting tool to cut the star shapes. The effort’s intense and they look fantastic, shiny, colorful and sparkly. It is the most beautiful cake I’ve seen in prison, and we dub Melissa the Martha Stewart of Perryville.

SEA Perryville (1)Of course, no birthday party would be complete without singing and presents. The singing is enthusiastic and the presents very special…all handmade with love. Except for mine. I have a “Hair” milestone. The girls give me rollers and mascara this year. Last year, I had lost all of my hair and eye lashes to chemotherapy and was painfully bald. This year I have hair to roll!

Despite the fences, we can still see the sky turn all the gorgeous sunset hues of the Arizona desert. The sky mellows our party talk to past birthdays in prison and out. Melissa’s 28 years old; Candace is 40;  I hit 59. The hardest milestone is Candace’s. Turning 40 in prison is not exactly reason to celebrate. She’s due for release in three weeks and fears starting over with nothing. But I know that with her energy and drive, she’ll be on top again in the blink of an eye. Melissa fears she is loosing her youth and the best years of her life, but she is beautiful with a perfect figure and excellent mind. I know her best years are in front of her.

From the prospective of our ages, our fears are different. I’ve lost everything and am essentially homeless. I fear being a bag lady, sleeping under a bridge somewhere, but then I stop, knowing that’s ridiculous. I am blessed with a brain, energy, enthusiasm, friends, and faith. I know I will not be under a bridge.

Screen Shot 2015-07-03 at 11.35.42 AMIt’s a wonderful day to celebrate and practice the little niceties of life. We’re so isolated, in such an ugly place, but we use our creative energy to produce a pretty party to share with friends. It’s the closest thing to normal possible behind the razor wire. It lifts our spirits and brings laughter into our lives. No matter where you are or what your circumstance, we are all creative spirits with much to contribute and share. Sharing that creativity and joy will give meaning to your life…inside or out.

Believe it or not, Recipes that are Absolutely Delicious and Completely Bad for You

Sour Cream &Onion Chicken

2 Bowls

Small amount of milk (pilfered from somewhere)

2 pouches of chicken in gravy (mostly gravy)

1 bag Sour Cream & Onion Potato Chips (finely crushing chips in the bag using a water bottle)

Grilled potatoes pilfered from breakfast

Chopped Jalapeños

1. Boil 1 cup of water with heating coil. Pour into bowl, and immerse pouch of chicken & gravy. Heat up about 3 minutes.

2.Pour ½ bag crushed chips in 2nd bowl. Add warm chicken and mix well.

3.Add some potatoes and keep mixing. Add chopped jalapeños to taste and some milk to smooth consistency.

4.Repeat with the 2nd pouch.

5.When it’s all mixed well, combine the bowls. Then wash out empty bowl and line with Saran Wrap. Add all the mixture to this bowl, pressing tightly to make a mound.

6.Turn out on a serving box you’ve decorated with pretty magazine ads and covered with Saran Wrap you’ve pilfered from somewhere. Decorate the mound with 2 whole ships and surround it with crackers. Alternatively, you can roll it up in tortillas and serve.

Pasta with Tuna

1 Ramen Vegetable Noodle Soup                                                  1 Tuna pouch

½ bag Sour Cream Chips (crush chips by using a water bottle)

1 ½ Squeeze Cheese Packets                                                        3 Mayonnaise Packs

Whole or Chopped Jalapeños (to taste)                                       Salt & Pepper (pilfered from D.R.)

1. Boil water and add to soup to cover pasta. Let sit until all the water is absorbed with the pasta.

2. In a bowl, mix well Tuna, ½ cheese pack, 3 mayonnaise packs, salt & pepper.

3. In another bowl, mix crushed chips with one pack cheese and a little hot water. Mix so it looks like cheese chunks. Then mix it all together with the tuna.

4. Add Jalapeños to taste. Serve with crackers.

Chocolate Mint Truffles

6 Brownies, mashed in a bowl

4 Dunkin Sticks, well crushed in a bowl

6 Peppermints, finely crushed

2 pats of butter with melted cocoa to taste. (You have to sneak the butter out of the kitchen. If caught, it’s a major ticket for stealing off of your own tray).

1. Mix brownies in a bowl to a consistency of fudge.

2. Mix Dunkin Sticks to a doughy texture in another bowl.

3. Combine and add melted butter. Texture should be like fudge.

4. Add cocoa to taste.

5. To crush peppermints, throw them, wrapped in paper, very hard on the floor. Roll crushed bits with a water bottle to crush more. Take out the big bits and eat them! Then add the crushed bits to the truffle mix and mix well. Roll out truffles to the size of a small cherry tomato. Sprinkle with cocoa powder.

6. Chill and serve on a brownie box you’ve painted and then layered with pretty magazine paper, covered with cling film (also pilfered from someone’s sack lunch.)

 

Happy Birthday, July Babies

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Many people are alone on New Year’s Eve. Some feel lonely; some are comfortable. New Year’s was always special for my husband and me; just the two of us remembering the past and looking forward to the future. David died in April; this is my first holiday season without him. Christmas was spent in silent retreat in Sedona, thanks to a most generous friend. It has heavenly to have such silence after a noisy and challenging year. I was alone but not lonely.

Now it’s New Year’s Eve. It’s cold (for Phoenix) and raining and I’m fine. Tonight I’m curling up with old movies. Later I’m going to  write my intentions for 2015, keeping in mind the words of Walt Whitman, “Every moment of light and darkness is a miracle.” Not easy to remember when darkness is swirling around you. I should have it tattooed somewhere. Or not:)

How lovely to be free to have these choice. I remember New Year’s Eve in prison. Dark. Lonely. Drab. But inmates always try to make the best of things. This is an excerpt from my book, The Slumber Party from Hell about that time.

December 31, 2004For all our years together, David and I always celebrated New Year’s Eve at home. No loud parties, no big crowds, no kissing strangers at midnight. We had  tradition. I always decorated with colorful New Year’s paraphernalia, noisemakers and silly hats, crystal bowls full of streamers and confetti, and bright balloons around the room. There was even tradition in what we wore. David wore his favorite black turtleneck sweater and I wore my favorite ancient black sequined skirt that thankfully had an elastic waistband. I loved that skirt; it aged with me. 

While I decorated the table, David carefully planned the music: Frank Sinatra, Glen Miller, João Gilberto, Linda Ronstadt, and hits of the 60’s. He laid the logs in the fireplace while I prepped the salad, the vegetables, and the dessert. Then I took a nap because otherwise I would not have made it to midnight. 

About 8:30, we’d meet in the living room for cocktails and a dance. It was our night to focus completely on each other. We danced and talked through dinner. David always grilled steaks and we enjoyed our simple but delicious meal.

 At eleven, we’d get out pens and paper. We each wrote down the bad things that happened the previous year and then our goals and dreams for the coming year. This is a Brazilian tradition, but theirs is more dramatic. Brazilians place their lists in very small boats. Imagine a boat for Barbie. Screen Shot 2014-12-31 at 7.57.21 PMThey decorate them with flowers and candy or tiny gifts. Then, dressed in white, they go down to the beaches like Copacabana and Ipanema and at midnight launch their boats into the ocean as offerings to the goddess of the sea. If your boat sails out successfully, the goddess accepts your offering and it will be a good year. If, however, your boat comes crashing in on a wave, the goddess isn’t pleased, and your future won’t be so great.

 David and I never made it to Rio for New Year’s, but I decided we’d take the best of it and make it  part of our tradition. We wrote our lists and made a tiny boat out of a milk carton, decorating it with bougainvillea from the garden and little votive candles. We lived right by the canal and at midnight, we’d walk over and launch our little boat, watching it bob merrily down the dark water. I just knew eventually our fragile boats would make it to the sea.

 Now I am at Perryville, surrounded by concrete and gravel, miles from water, wondering how in the world to celebrate New Year’s Eve. I decide to invite four young friends to meet at the picnic table at 6:30 with pen and paper. Stacy thoughtfully makes hot cocoa for us. It is very cold and they are curious.

 “Close your eyes and imagine we’re in Rio de Janeiro.” I tell them. “It’s summer. It’s New Year’s Eve. We’re all dressed in white, happy to be together.”

 As I describe the events of a Brazilian New Year’s, I can see that I’ve captured their imaginations. I encourage them to think about 2004 and write down the bad stuff that we want to get rid of. Everyone agrees it is a short list; prison and separation from loved ones. Next we write our goals and dreams for 2005. Each of these four ladies will be released within the next six months so this is actually an important exercise. Writing goals will help them visualize and focus. I tell them to think carefully about how they see their lives. What’s important to them now? All is quiet as they labor over their papers in the very dim light of the yard.

 As I watch them, I’m pleased and a little relieved. I was afraid they might think this was corny, but they embrace it seriously. It’s a good time to set their goals. And they want to share. We go around the table, listening and encouraging each other. When we are done, we join hands as I pray over our little group of friends and our precious dreams; that God will look favorably on them when they leave prison and will bless them on their journey.

 It’s late and we’re frozen, but no one wants to leave. It is a significant moment in our time here, to always treasure.

 “But what about our papers and the ocean, Sue Ellen? What are we going to do?”

 In prison we have to be creative. When we go inside for count, I figure we will just have to tear up our papers and sprinkle the little bits into the toilet. It’s water and surely one flush will eventually make it to the sea. Laughingly, we agree this is a great idea. Yes, it’s prison, it’s ugly, it’s cold and awful, but imagination is a wonderful thing….inside and out. 

In 2009, after seven years apart,  David and I were free to share our tradition again. We shared five lovely celebrations, five more years of precious memories.

Everyone has a story. If you have a New Year’s Eve story to share, I would love to hear it.

Meanwhile, my prayer for all of you is a joyful, peaceful, loving, and fulfilling 2014. And if you are alone, may you never be lonely.

Happy New Year.

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Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 11.48.40 AM On a day when the temperature has been about 112° for many days, put on your heaviest polyester pants and t-shirt, go out in your garage with a very small fan and spend the day.  Have lunch there, soup (yes, soup) and a baloney sandwich.  Sweep, mop and clean.  Watch a tiny T.V.  Read.  Try to nap on a plastic cot.  Eat a lukewarm dinner.  Spend the night.  This is Arizona prison in the summer.

Summer lasts nearly four months, 1440 minutes a day of sheer, unrelenting, blast furnace heat.  The small bit of grass on the field chokes and turns brown.  The few precious trees are gasping and pitiful.  Looking forlorn, the birds wander into the community showers to drink the stagnant water pooling on the hot concrete.

Prison yards are very spread out.  We walk everywhere, blocks and blocks between buildings.  No shade.  The offices and classrooms are air-conditioned, but that’s it.  Evaporative coolers slog away to cool the cells and cafeterias.  They work until the temperature hits 90°.  After that, the cells become concrete coffins of heat.  There is no relief.

One summer, when the temperature had been 117° for days, there were nineteen heat related seizures in one morning, and there is more heat exhaustion than I can count.  It all ends up costing money in medical attention.  One way or another, the tax payer pays.

My first prison summer was horrific.  The previous director had retired the year before, leaving a final gift to the population.  He had every inmates’ fans removed.  In Arizona, that would be cruel under normal conditions, but I was going through radiation and my chest had third degree burns, blistered, raw, and bleeding. Christine, my partner in cancer treatment, was worse than I was.  We were both suffering from searing pain exacerbated by the heat.  Christine’s father actually called the prison, offering a couple of fans for medical use as a humanitarian gesture.  Request denied.

In the middle of June, Gina was so sick, the heat adding to her misery.  Finally, Gina’s excrutiating death opened some eyes.  We had a town meeting to vent our frustrations and the new director came.  Very little changed in Medical after that meeting, despite the promises.  However, the new director did approve fans.  It was August by then and the heat lay over the prison like a shroud.  We were elated over the new ruling, but it took nine months for prison officials  to source an acceptable clear plastic fan to sells us.  Thankfully, they materialized in April, just in time for the next summer’s heat.  The small plastic fan successfully pushes the hot air around, and if you keep your t-shirt damp, it feels almost cool.

The five summers I spent on Santa Cruz before moving to Piestewa were torture.  Each year, I passed out from the heat.  Once, an officer found me unconscious on the floor of my room.  Twice, I collapsed on the yard on the searing concrete, and once I was sweeping and I just fell out over the threshold.  See, besides the heat, the pill I take to keep the cancer at bay, causes hot flashes as a side effect.  Sitting in a concrete coffin of heat with hot flashes is a different kind of torture.

Let’s get back to your garage.  What can you do in your stifling garage to relieve the heat?  You can’t go to the fridge for an ice cold coke.  You can buy a ten-pound bag of ice for $2.24, about a day’s salary if you are lucky enough to make 30¢ an hour.  For another $1.35, you can buy a very small, thin Styrofoam cooler to keep the ice in.  The ice melts in a few hours, but meanwhile, you can have the luxury of  ice cold water. You can also wet down your shirt and head.  You can wear a wet washcloth around your neck.  You can fill an old hair spray bottle with water and spray yourself continuously, sort of like the misters at an outdoor café.  That’s pretty much it.  Even the showers are scalding.  Maintenance refuses to go to the ‘trouble’ of turning the hot water off in the summer.  No relief there.  No relief anywhere.

My friend Krissy was new to prison the summer the water and power went off.  The entire yard was locked down for three days.  No water, no showers, no flushing, no evaporator coolers in the 6’x11’ concrete coffin.  Staff delivered inmate meals with one eight-ounce styrofoam cup of water that was gratefully gulped.  Krissy tried to stay as still as possible, but she and her bunky poured sweat, constantly using their washcloths to wipe the sweat off.  She said she will never forget the feeling of desperation, locked in that suffocating cell, or the rancid stink of that washcloth.

What’s the purpose of prison? Punishment is higher on the list than rehabilitation and America’s prisons are designed to punish.  Many people think that inmates don’t deserve more than two or three cups of water a day and a rancid washcloth. What does that teach?  It certainly doesn’t teach a person to be kind or considerate.  It does, however, teach inmates that they are worthless, disposable human beings.

Before prison, I was a confident woman.  Prison ate away at my confidence and  I realized then just how much prison had affected me.  It is a daily Chinese water torture of denigration, and if I was affected so dramatically, imagine what it does to others lacking confidence.

In the end, it boils down to humanity.  Is this who we really are?  Are we a nation that prefers to punish in such draconian ways?  Are we really teaching people a lesson?  I learned that what we are doing is treating people so badly that they become bitter, angry and mean, completely unprepared for a life of civility and respect.

I learned other things in prison.  I learned that everyone wants love, but many in prison have never had it…from parents, friends or partners.  Prison is full of horror stories, but the worst was about the girl on my yard whose name I never knew, and she had a nickname too awful to repeat.  She had been abused by all the boys and men in her family and repeatedly raped by her father.  At twelve, she became pregnant with her father’s child and at thirteen, gave birth to her son who was also her brother.  She was never still, always acting out and frequently in trouble.  She was desperate for love and attention, but had to idea how to get it.  Of course, she was in prison.  The abusive men were free.

I also learned that Jesus, Jackie De Shannon, and John Lennon were right…all we need is love.  Of course, that’s simplistic and we have made it complicated.  We have become a nation of fear and anger.  We’d rather flex our muscles than flex our hearts.  Love seems to always have conditions.

We know what we need to do, we’re just not doing it.  Be kind.  Be considerate.  Be respectful.  Stop judging and being petty.  Open your hearts.  Think…Is this the best person I can be?  You know it’s true and you know it works…inside and out.  

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 The Slumber Party From Hell

Screen Shot 2014-07-06 at 10.36.35 AM

Chapter 11

The Birthday Party

July 04. The invitations are individual works of art: small, appliquéd American flags of red, white, and blue. The picnic tables are set in the shade of the tree and decorated with flowers of mauve, pink and yellow. The guests are fashionably dressed in varying shades of the year’s hottest color, orange. It sounds trés chic, but the flags are made of construction paper and glue, the metal tables are under the lone tree on the gray prison yard and the orange is the ugly uniform of an inmate.

A party in prison? Yes, they happen, mostly for birthdays, and this one is for three of us. Melissa, Candace, and me…all July babies. Because we all have different friends, not all the guests know each other so I decide on a game, my old favorite, ‘Get Acquainted Bingo’. I have painstakingly drawn twenty bingo cards with grids (recreated below) and have my precious colored pencils ready to distribute to each guest. The object of the game is to get each square signed by a different person until the entire sheet is signed…a Bingo blackout. It forces you to circulate and talk to everyone. The descriptions should be tailored to your guest list.

I am frankly a bit nervous as I distribute the cards and give instructions. After all, this is prison. Will these women be too “cool” for a silly game? I have successfully played this from Phoenix to Portugal with ages from 8 to 80, but this is a totally different audience. As they look at the cards, there is complete silence while I hold my breath. Suddenly, almost in unison, they jump up and start darting around getting the coveted signatures. It’s working! They are talking and laughing…actually mixing, just like in real life. Finally, we hear “Bingo!” The proud winner is Lisa, a darling young woman who has served fourteen years of a sixteen-year sentence. She wins a bottle of DOM Perryville; a very young vintage of Ginger Ale that Candace has decorated with a Champagne label.

Time for the appetizers. Potluck is a tradition in prison. Everyone brings a dish to show off her culinary skills…a huge challenge here. Inmates are allowed to buy a very limited array of food items from the ‘company store.’ Almost everything available is junk. Lots of chips and candy, but only three items of protein…peanut butter, tuna and beans. These make up the bulk of our menus. What can you do with junk food? The creations are amazingly good, but ultra high in carbs and calories.

Val’s hors d’oeuvres are a hit. She made cheesy tuna roll-ups…tuna, mayonnaise, cheese and jalapenos rolled up in tortillas. She cut them into bite size pieces using our cutting tool, the edge of our very small plastic mirror. No knives allowed. Val even made a serving tray by painting and decorating the bottom of the box that brownies come in, lining it with a pretty magazine ad. Not exactly hygienic, but certainly pretty. The roll-ups are served with a tasty sauce made from squeeze cheese, mayonnaise and powdered milk. No seasoning allowed, but somehow inmates find a way.

Candace made a yummy sour cream and onion cheese dip. Take a bag of Sour Cream and Onion Potato Chips and crush them to a fine texture (Keep them in the bag and use a water bottle). Using the bag as your mixing bowl, add three packages of squeeze cheese, milk and jalapeño juice to taste. Consistency should be creamy. Serve in a bowl with tortillas or crackers. Don’t ask about the calories.

For the main course, the tables are filled with our beautiful prison ‘china’…white plastic bowls filled with various delicacies. We’re only allowed one small bowl so ‘cooking’ is a challenge. Most of inmates actually have two bowls, but the second one is contraband and on quarterly “shakes”, the Correctional Officers routinely throw it away. So then everyone buys a new one for twenty-five cents. It gives the company store more business and inmates then have two bowls for the next three months. It’s a prison game everyone plays.

The highlights of the main course are euphemistically called “Pasta with Tuna” and “Sour Cream Chicken”. (Recipes included). Do not consider making these unless you are rail thin, have ridiculously low cholesterol and just love junk food, because it is indeed junk food.

After we’ve eaten much more than our stomachs are used to, desserts are forthcoming. First, we are tempted by chocolate cake made with candy bars. I made chocolate mint truffles, lots of work, but well worth it…easy to serve and bite size. I, too, decorated a brownie box for serving. In an ugly place, we appreciate the efforts to make things pretty.

Finally, comes the piéce de résistance…Melissa’s lemon birthday cake, star shaped and decorated with stars. Melissa was sick the week before the party and for a few precious days she got meals in her room when dessert was lemon pudding. She carefully saved it for icing and filling. The cake itself was a mix of Vanilla Zingers and Dunkin’ Sticks layered with the lemon filling. She carefully worked it into the shape of a star, then iced it all with a mixture of pudding, milk and lemon drops melted in hot water. The extra stars were made by rolling Star Bursts flat with a water bottle (yes, it takes forever) and then using our special mirror cutting tool to cut the star shapes. The effort is intense, but they really look fantastic, shiny, colorful and sparkly. It is the most beautiful cake I’ve seen in prison, and we dub Melissa the Martha Stewart of Perryville.

Of course, no birthday party would be complete without singing and presents. The singing is enthusiastic and the presents very special…all handmade with love. Except for mine. I have a very special milestone. The girls give me rollers and mascara this year. Last year, I had lost all of my hair and eye lashes to chemotherapy and was painfully bald. This year I have hair to roll. I am thankful.

As the sky turns all the gorgeous sunset hues of the Arizona desert (despite the razor wire fences, we can still see the sky), the party talk mellows to past birthdays in prison and out. Melissa turned 28 years old; Candace is 40 and I hit 59. The hardest milestone is Candace’s. Turning 40 in prison is not exactly reason to celebrate. She is due for release in three weeks and fears starting over with nothing. But I knew that with her energy and drive, she’ll be on top again in the blink of an eye. Melissa fears she is loosing her youth and the best years of her life, but she is beautiful with a perfect figure and excellent mind. I know her best years are in front of her.

From the prospective of our ages, our fears are different. Because I’ve lost everything and am essentially homeless, I fear being a bag lady, sleeping under a bridge somewhere, but then I stop, knowing that’s ridiculous. I am blessed with a brain, energy, enthusiasm, friends, faith and David. I know I will not be under a bridge.

It is a wonderful day to celebrate and practice the little niceties of life. We are isolated in such an ugly place, but we used our creative energy to produce a pretty party to share with our friends. It’s the closest thing to normal possible behind the razor wire. It lifted our spirits and brought laughter into our lives. No matter where you are or what your circumstance, remember that you are a creative spirit with much to contribute and share. Sharing that creativity and joy will give meaning to your life…inside or out.

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BELIEVE IT OR NOT

Recipes that are Actually Delicious and Completely BAD for You

 Sour Cream & Onion Chicken

2 Bowls (small plastic ones, the only ones we are allowed)

Small amount of milk (pilfered from somewhere)

2 pouches of chicken in gravy (mostly gravy)

1 bag Sour Cream & Onion Potato Chips (finely crushing chips in the bag using a water bottle)

Grilled potatoes pilfered from breakfast

Chopped Jalapeños

Boil 1 cup of water with heating coil. Pour into bowl, and immerse pouch of chicken & gravy. Heat up about 3 minutes.

Pour ½ bag crushed chips in 2nd bowl. Add warm chicken and mix well.

Add some potatoes and keep mixing. Add chopped jalapeños to taste and some milk to smooth consistency.

Repeat with the 2nd pouch.

When it’s all mixed well, combine the bowls. Then wash out empty bowl and line with Saran Wrap. Add all the mixture to this bowl, pressing tightly to make a mound.

Turn out on a serving box you’ve decorated with pretty magazine ads and covered with Saran Wrap you’ve pilfered from somewhere. Decorate the mound with 2 whole ships and surround it with crackers.

Alternatively, you can roll it up in tortillas and serve.

 Pasta with Tuna

1 Ramen Vegetable Noodle Soup                                                  1 Tuna pouch

½ bag Sour Cream Chips (crush chips by using a water bottle)

1 ½ Squeeze Cheese Packets                                                        3 Mayonnaise Packs

Whole or Chopped Jalapeños (to taste)                                       Salt & Pepper (pilfered from D.R.)

Boil water and add to soup to cover pasta. Let sit until all the water is absorbed with the pasta.

In a bowl, mix well Tuna, ½ cheese pack, 3 mayonnaise packs, salt & pepper.

In another bowl, mix crushed chips with one pack cheese and a little hot water. Mix so it looks like cheese chunks. Then mix it all together with the tuna.

Add Jalapeños to taste. Serve with crackers.

 Chocolate Mint Truffles

6 Brownies, mashed in a bowl

4 Dunkin Sticks, well crushed in a bowl

6 Peppermints, finely crushed

2 pats of butter with melted cocoa to taste. (You have to sneak the butter out of the kitchen. If caught, it’s a major ticket for stealing off of your own tray).

Mix brownies in a bowl to a consistency of fudge.

Mix Dunkin Sticks to a doughy texture in another bowl.

Combine and add melted butter. Texture should be like fudge.

Add cocoa to taste.

To crush peppermints, throw them, wrapped in paper, very hard on the floor. Roll crushed bits with a water bottle to crush more. Take out the big bits and eat them! Then add the crushed bits to the truffle mix and mix well. Roll out truffles to the size of a small cherry tomato. Sprinkle with cocoa powder.

Chill and serve on a brownie box you’ve painted and then layered with pretty magazine paper, covered with cling film (also pilfered from someone’s sack lunch.)

 

GET ACQUAINTED BINGO

 

 

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Screen Shot 2013-05-15 at 8.03.25 AMToday, Angelina Jolie made public her decision to have a double preventive mastectomy and some people have dared criticize her. Good grief. Only someone who has been faced with that decision can possibly know the emotion involved. We’re all attached to our breasts. It’s part of nature, isn’t it. But if you have to decide between life or breasts, what’s the choice? Let’s see: do I choose my breasts or do I choose LIFE? Breasts or LIFE? LIFE or Breasts?

Two years ago I, too, faced that decision.  I’d already had one mastectomy. My oncologist and I decided it would be a good idea to remove the other one and have reconstruction. Having cancer on one breast was hard enough, especially under very harsh conditions in jail and prison. They call it “poison, slash, burn.” I’ve been poisoned, slashed, poisoned again, and burned (chemo, mastectomy, more chemo, and radiation). It’s a very hard journey for anyone, even someone who has the best doctors and all the comforts money can buy. Just the idea of doing it again is frightening.  Personally, it was not a hard decision. Between LIFE or a breast, I choose LIFE. I’m sure Angelina Jolie felt the same. If you feel compelled to make a judgment, wait until it’s your turn to make that same choice. I pray you never have to face that.

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When I was in prison, I was blessed to be the recipient of a very powerful newsletter called Freedom Inside, written and edited by Janine Cantin. It is a newsletter for prisoners based on the Conversations with God books. Later, upon my released, I was introduced to Janine by a mutual friend and asked to submit something for the newsletter. I wrote a few things that Janine kindly included. Then she asked if she could print Gina’s letter to a 15 year old friend. My dream and the dream of Gina’s parents is to have Gina’s letter read by every teenager in America and taken to heart, so I was delighted. For those of you who don’t know, Gina was my roommate in prison for a very brief and meaningful time. She was a beautiful, intelligent, curious, and delightful young woman who impacted my life in ways I could not imagine at the time.

This week the letters started trickling in. Six from New York, Wisconsin, California, Texas and Arizona. All from inmates who were somehow moved by Gina’s words. One man said, “I haven’t cried in five years, but Gina’s letter brought me to my knees.” Gina’s letter is in my book. It is also on the website. But those inmates letters made me realize I should reprint it here as well. Gina wrote that letter to the daughter of a friend of mine who had just turned 15. She wrote it from her heart and her words will never go out of date. I hope it will touch you, just as it has touched the hearts of others including the inmates who wrote from all the corners of this country.

Letter from Gina to a 15 year old friend.

Dear Friend,

I am writing to you to share my life story in hopes that it will help you in some way. I come from a good, Christian family who are working middle-class. I was never abused or neglected, unlike so many of the other girls here in prison. My parents worked hard and were very loving. Perhaps their only mistake was not enforcing real discipline upon me.

When I was 14, I had an older boyfriend. I got pregnant that year. I should have talked to my parents (or any other adult close to me) about what was going on in my life. They could have helped me and maybe I wouldn’t have gotten pregnant. Telling my parents that their baby was going to have a baby was frightening and shameful.

Once my son was born, I felt so out of place because I wasn’t a regular teenager any longer, nor was I an adult. I was 15 years old and I didn’t fit anywhere. I ended up marrying my boyfriend the next year, partly because I felt it was the right thing to do and partly because it was a way out of my parent’s house. The marriage didn’t last long because he wasn’t ready to grow up. I left him and found myself a single mom at 17. Unfortunately, I also found out I was pregnant again! Birth control, I discovered, isn’t foolproof.

I had an apartment and was working and I did manage to finish high school, but I couldn’t make enough to pay bills. I was too stubborn to go back to my parents’ house. I felt I had imposed on them enough. Besides, I was supposed to be a big girl, right? While my old friends went to parties and the prom and got ready for college, I had two babies to take care of. Those teenage years that I cheated myself out of can never be replaced. I’m just now realizing how important those years are to young people and how much of an impact it has had on me to have missed that experience.

Anyway, I was desperate to make it on my own. A “friend” suggested I could get a job as a dancer (stripper) to make enough money to live on. Finally I tried it and found it was degrading and yet exciting at the same time. The money was fast and easy. I got a big house, a new car, and did a lot of shopping! What I didn’t realize was the damage I was doing to my morals, my standards, my image, my self-esteem, not to mention the dangers of that environment. My intentions of going to college were forgotten. At this point, I was an 18 year-old single mother of two children whose future was being sacrificed by my chosen “career.”

It was during this same year that my now ex-husband got into a car accident because he was drinking and driving. It was devastating! He suffered massive head trauma. When I first saw him at the hospital, my knees buckled and I vomited.  His head looked broken and it was so swelled up. He had staples all over, holding him together. His eye socket bone was broken, his jaw was busted in several places and he was hooked up to so many machines. The doctors said he would most likely die within a few hours. Instead he survived, but for months he was in a coma. When he finally woke up, he didn’t recognize any of us. He couldn’t feed himself, couldn’t do anything. A full grown man in diapers. Over the next year, he learned how to do all those thing again, and one day I went to see him and he saw our baby daughter. There was recognition in his eyes. His memory came back more each day after that. Today he works full time, but he lives with his parents and probably always will. The girl who was in the car with him suffered a broken back and will never walk again. Such are the consequences of drinking and driving.

When I was 19, I met and married my second husband. Let warn you that people are not always what they appear to be. Anyway, for a short while our marriage was great. I quit dancing, got pregnant two more times and enjoyed life. Somewhere along the way, he and I started doing drugs. I used to think pot was no big deal, but the problem is that once you start smoking pot, you will surely find it acceptable to try other drugs. The very best advice I can give anyone is NEVER try dope. You’re not missing anything if you don’t ever get high. Trust me on this one! It starts out fun, but it will end up as pure misery. I got addicted like most people do. Being addicted to a drug is the most agonizing thing I’ve ever experienced. Addiction happens fast and it’s sneaky. You don’t even realize you’re addicted at first. I started doing more and more drugs. Eventually, I went back to dancing because supporting a habit is very expensive. Being an addict is like being in your own prison…the addiction keeps you prisoner. Drugs did not kill me, but they surely took my life. Addiction and criminal activity are a package deal.

To make the story of my crime a short one, let me just say I ended up on probation several times (it’s easier than you think to mess up) and I was in and out jail several times. Finally, I messed up for the last time and got sentenced to 3.5 years in prison. Custody of my first two children went to my first husband and his parents. My children from my second marriage are both now living with my parents. My second husband is still living the wrong kind of life and he can’t take care of our children, but I continue to pray for him. My children are now growing up without their mother and I am missing out on more than you can imagine. The children all complain about missing me and not a single hour goes by that I don’t ache to hold them.

Looking back, I realize that the choices I made at 14 affected the outcome of my entire life and the lives of my family. I didn’t realize it then, but the choices I made as young as 14 were vital ones. I was selfish not to see ahead of time that getting pregnant so young would affect that child’s life as well as mine. I was a good mother, but a lot of the time I felt as if I was just playing a role. Do you see what I mean? Until we’re full blown adults, we’re not equipped mentally or emotionally to handle having or raising a child. I think about all the babysitting and costs of the babies that were unfairly put on my parents, not to mention they are raising them altogether. Lesson: “The choices I make profoundly affect the lives of others.”

I didn’t have to teach myself how to become a drug addict, but teaching myself how not to be one is a long, hard process, one I may always battle. I am attending Rio Salado classes that are offered here at the prison. That’s the only good thing about this place. Most of the time I am locked in a small cell. There is no such thing as privacy. I wear the same uniform every day, eat the same nasty food, and the hours seem endless. My bed is a metal bunk with a worn out, skinny mattress. The guards are heartless, sometimes cruel, and so are most of the other female prisoners. I thank God for the few compassionate guards and for the few good friends I have.

I am isolated from the world and my family. I live life from behind a fence. The funny thing is, I feel free for the first time, free on the inside. Do you understand? I am one of the lucky ones who prison has affected in a positive way. I am stronger mentally, emotionally, and spiritually than I have ever been. This is rare though. Most of the girls here get caught up in prison life and never learn differently. And by the way, strip searches are as degrading and humiliating as the first time you have one, no matter how many you have.

I want to become a high school guidance counselor. I will have to finish earning my degree once I’m released from prison. Once again, I’ll be depending on my parents. My story and others like it don’t just happen to the poor, the abused, or the bad. It can happen to anyone. It’s all about choices. Please be careful to make the right ones, especially now at your young age.

I send this letter out with a prayer that touches you.

Sincerely,

Gina Panetta                                            

Gina was 25 years old when she passed away on June 19, 2003, from acute leukemia, less than one year before being released from prison. Her one wish was that her family and friends would find the hope and peace she had found through her faith. May God bless you on your life’s journey.

Gina’s former husband, JR, passed away on September 2, 2011, leaving their children without either parent. Thankfully, they are surrounded by loving grandparents and family.

We pray that this message causes young people to think deeply about their actions and the consequences that have a never ending impact on our loved ones. 

***********

In Gina’s memory, her parents and I founded Gina’s Team. We bring educational programs into our prisons and juvenile facilities because we know that “Education, not incarceration, is the cheapest form of crime prevention.”


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