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Archive for the ‘The White House’ Category

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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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.
IMG_4067
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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Included in the excitement of actually being interviewed on the WH driveway was my request to Hannah for some saltine crackers and tea bags. Still felt queasy but determined Not To Be Sick. Cannot throw up on the President or First Lady.

Dianne and I rushed back across the park in the still freezing wind for a taxi. Back to the hotel for rest and lunch. Poor Dianne. Instead of bright and cheerful, I was pathetic company and my lunch was crackers. Another cab, this time to the Department of Justice for our meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch. All the while I’m thinking, “This must be a mistake. They’re going to call and say, “Sorry, we meant the OTHER Sue Ellen Allen.” But they don’t call. They did mean me. Still pinching myself.

We’re dropped off at the huge, imposing Department of Justice Building (http://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/jmd/legacy/2014/06/3
IMG_39040/75RFKBuilding.pdf ) that covers an entire block and has over a million square feet of space. There were also imposing guards who told us we could not enter there. Walk around to the other side of the building. No begging or pleading allowed. After seven years in prison I’m familiar with that so we started the trudge. At mid-point, we were met by other guards who turned us back. We can’t go that way. But, But, But…Back we trudged and yes, we were freezing. We walked around again to the other side of this huge building and met even more guards who didn’t want us to pass. Finally after some radio conversation, we were allowed to go to another entrance where police cars were stacked up and barricades piled. We learned there’d been an unexpected demonstration and now we were finally allowed to enter. We were 25 minutes late for a meeting with the Attorney General!

But it wasn’t over. We entered a lobby with even more security. Much More. And a long line. We could be there a long time. I started to sweat when my phone rang. Help was on the way. The AG’s staffer magically appeared and we were whisked through all the security barriers, up the elevator and down long, impressive corridors in the million square feet of space. Finally we reached a lovely conference room with a table beautifully set for tea. We were a long way from prison.

Eight faces turned to greet us. Very late, very embarrassed. But Mrs. Lynch is not only brilliant and accomplished, she is charming and gracious and made us feel right at home in this incredible space where other brilliant people have IMG_3924gathered and history has been made. Besides her staff, there were two other SOTU guests, Mark Luttrell, Mayor of Shelby County, Tennessee, and Kathleen O’Toole, Police Chief, Seattle, Washington. Mayor Luttrell has a long history in criminal justice reform, including serving as a warden with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. And Chief O’Toole has been recognized for her innovative approach to community policing focused on transparency. The conversation centered on innovation and how to solve the enormous problems both communities and inmates face upon reentry. Dianne was able to tell Mrs. Lynch about Gina and how incarceration impacts families for years afterwards.

Because of our lateness, Chief O’Toole and Mayor Luttrell had to leave, but Mrs. Lynch and her staff stayed to hear our stories and Gina’s Team’s idea for IMG_3936reentry, a market driven, public/private sector program to involve the entire community. She also gave us a tour of her offices, built during the recession when they had access to incredible artists, sculptors and craftsmen who created an incredible space to represent justice in our country. I wish it was always balanced and fair but I know it’s not. And it’s a far cry from the way prisons look. Nevertheless, I was grateful to be there and impressed by the team I met. I’ve sat at many conference meetings IMG_3939where all the attendees from the CEO down were men except me. This was the first time that of the ten people at the table, only two were men, and that included Mayor Luttrell who was a guest. The energy felt different to me, more open, more aware, more hopeful, more compassionate.

Now we had a choice. Arizona Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema is on our Leadership Council and has supported our work since we started. She invited us to a reception to meet Vice President Joe Biden whom I would love to meet. I hate to miss anything but not this time. I was still queasy and I knew I needed my energy for later. We only had about two hours before we met the car downstairs so we skipped it. I hated that. Bless Dianne for being sympathetic.

Finally we dressed; we checked each other out; it was time to go. White House, here we come…IMG_3982

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Part 1:
NEVER would I expect to say that; NOT a passing thought on my list of goals. But Sunday night, January 3rd at 7:33 my phone rang. ID unknown. I ignored it. They called again. Then again and left a message. “Ms. Allen, this is  XYZ at the White House calling. My number is blahblahblah. Would you please call me back at your earliest convenience?” Of course, like the movies, my first, second and third thoughts were, it’s a joke. So I Googled the White House and called the operator. After I identified myself, I asked her if this person and number indeed belonged to the White House, or the WH as they refer to it. “Yes, that is one of our staffers.” Oh my goodness. OH MY GOODNESS. I guess I’d better call back.

This nice young man (everyone is young to me) Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 11.01.26 AMfirst thanked me for my prison work. Nice, I thought, but get on with it. Why are you calling me? “I’m calling to invite you to be a guest of the First Lady in her box at the State of The Union address on January 12th.”

Yes, my entire life flashed before me. “Seriously? SERIOUSLY” He laughed, assuring me he was quite serious. “But you know I’m an ex-felon?” Again, he assured me they knew all about me. Yes, I guess they do.

He was actually politely waiting for me to accept and bring a guest, all at the WH’s expense. Yes, YES of course I’ll come and I’ll invite Gina’s mother Dianne as my Plus 1. We had a nice chat about our work at Gina’s Team and what President Obama would like to accomplish in criminal justice in his last year in office. He told me I was sworn to secrecy until the WH announced the list of guests. No Facebooking, Tweeting, etc. I agreed and then I calmly told him I had to go because Downton Abbey was starting and I couldn’t miss it. (Good grief, who hangs up on the WH?)  He assured me he was also a fan and hated to miss it but he had more calls to make. The best part of his job was making these calls.

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 11.06.08 AMI then calmly proceeded to watch the first episode of Downton  and then I called Dianne to invite her. After she stopped stammering, she proceeded to give me all the reasons why she couldn’t come with me. Hates to travel; nothing to wear; has a root canal scheduled for Monday and a mammogram on Tuesday; and of course, nothing to wear.

“Gosh, Dianne, let me see: White House – Root canal; White House – Mammogram. Which one sounds better?!  Are you kidding me???

Sheepishly she said she’d love to go with me and we started to giggle. It was going to be a great trip.

I spent the week ransacking my closet. What to wear to the WH and SOTU? I researched the previous SOTU pictures of the First Lady’s box and I got some history. This tradition actually started with Ronald Regan and has gained prominence as the media got hungrier. There are plenty of pictures of the guests. Mostly they are dressed in black, with the first ladies in some lovely color. OK, so I need to find color in my closet. Black slacks, of course. It’s cold in DC and I’m not dealing with a skirt. I started pulling jackets out. That’s pretty much my wardrobe, black slacks and colorful jackets, all designer labels from thrift stores. I try to keep the price tag under $15.

After lots of trying on, I settled on a turquoise silk Kasper jacket with black lapels. Yes, from a thrift shop. I thought the color was good and I planned to wear a special pin that would look good on that lapel.

Almost twenty-five years ago when I had a fashion jewelry company named for me, we were commissioned by the Congressional Club to designIMG_4169 a pin for First Lady Barbara Bush to commemorate A Thousand Points of Light, celebrating volunteerism in America. We were invited to Washington where we had a VIP tour of the White House; then we were special guests at the Congressional Club annual VIP luncheon honoring Mrs. Bush where she was presented with the pin I designed. Additionally, every guest received a smaller version to remember the day.

In a story as long and complicated as my life’s journey, a year later  we lost our company in a hostile take over, were indicted for securities fraud and my road turned into Perryville Prison in Goodyear, Arizona, where this story begins. I had gone from the White House to prison where I met Gina and so many others.

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 11.23.51 AMI served seven years, the longest and darkest of my life. On March 18, 2009 I walked freely back into the world, blessed to have the support of generous friends. My vision was Gina’s Team, an organization that would help the women I left behind and all the other women in prisons everywhere.  Gina’s parents and I co-founded it; started with nothing and built a prison program to remarkable success teaching leadership based on the ATHENA Leadership Model.

But honestly, we were also working on air and adrenalin. Prison work isn’t a popular cause so donations are always a challenge. I worked without salary and we had a devoted staffer who worked part time for minimum wage. We had enough work for a team of people and juggled as fast as we could. We were looking for ways to expand but couldn’t see how.  And then the White House called…

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