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Posts Tagged ‘criminal justice’

Finally, we’re at the end of the story. Or is it really the beginning.

How did I get an invitation to the White House, me, a former inmate? How did they hear about me? Let me ask another question. How many of you write actual letters? Not the electronic kind, I mean the kind that go in real envelopes and require a stamp? Not cards. Not bills. Real letters.

I love letters and every year since I got out prison, I’ve written a letter to the President asking him to visit a prison, telling him important that would be for both inmates and staff. I also told him about Gina’s Team, the organization I co-founded with Gina’s parents and our work in the Arizona women’s prison. I wrote for my own entertainment. I never expected anyone to actually read them. I did get a couple of polite responses, letters I considered boiler plate, but hey, they were from the White House.

In May, 2015, I wrote my annual letter and mailed it without a thought.  On January 3rd, 2016, I got a call from the White House inviting me to be a guest of the First Lady in her box at the President’s final State of the Union address. I was sworn to secrecy until the WH announced the list of guests and when they did, my phone didn’t stop wringing. It seems there are journalist all over the world who watch for that list.

A week later I was at the White House. I had a press liaison to help me navigate the press interviews. I had that meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch! Imagine me, a former prisoner, meeting with Mrs. Lynch. Yes, it was a little surreal.

That night, before the address, the twenty-three guests and our plus-ones attended that lovely reception at the WH.  There, while a Marine played show tunes on an magnificent antique piano, White House staffers mingled with a diverse group of guests from the president of Microsoft to a twelve year old boy who started a program feeding healthy food to the homeless.  It was magical.

While at the reception, three young people approached me. “Ms. Allen, we’re from the Office of Presidential Correspondence and we wanted to meet you. You wrote one of our favorite letters.”

They read my letter! Later I learned that, considering the volume of mail the President gets a week, I won the White House Letter Lottery. My letter made it through all the sorting, the volunteers, the staff and finally to the office of Elizabeth Olson, the Director of the Office of Presidential Correspondence. She selects the final ten letters the President reads every day.

Anatomy: How President Obama Gets His Mail

My letter wasn’t just about me, it was representative of all the voiceless, faceless women and men behind bars. The men President Obama visited with in prison were also representative of those same women and men forgotten inside our prisons.

My journey to prison gave me a passion and a purpose I never expected. I’m living that purpose now and my letter reflected that. Do you have a passion? Write letters, to the President, the Governor, your legislators, the head of companies, hospitals and, most important, the people you love. Real letters on heavy cream paper. And don’t give up. Remember Shawshank Redemption? Andy’s letters built a prison library. Letters have power and give you a voice. Who knows, you might be invited to the White House for the price of a stamp.

PS. This really was the beginning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

While we chatted and watched the President make his way to the podium, everyone was clapping and smiling, while those close to the center aisle were maneuvering to shake his hand. It was very collegial and they seemed like they actually liked each other. It looked. . . hopeful.

Then the President started talking and it was hard to ignore the conduct of the Congress. As much as we hear how divided our congress is, when you are looking down at it physically and symbolically, it’s stunning. There’s an invisible line right down the middle of that historic, important chamber.

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

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

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

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

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Did I mention it was a frantic week? The normal meetings that begin a new year were coupled with those daily logistical calls from ID Unknown. Now I looked forward to them.  I admit, it was fun to say, “I’ve got to take this; it’s the White House.” They wanted a bio and a headshot. Sure I can do a bio for the WH. I’m a writer. Full disclosure, waste of time. They took mine and then wrote one that was infinitely better.

I also got calls from  Wanda, a very professional and understanding woman with another government agency, about travel arrangements. It’s a five hour flight to Washington from Phoenix plus the time difference. Dianne and I  would leave on Monday morning and return to Phoenix Wednesday night. They would arrange hotel, transfers, etc. And to answer your question, no, we did not travel first class.

Then there were things like getting my twenty five year old winter coat cleaned. Not much need for coats in Phoenix so it’s in really good shape. It’s freezing in DC so time to get it out. Then just to complicate things, I was nauseated all week with occasional vomiting. You know how it is when you throw up and then feel better? I never felt better, so I just chalked it off to nerves. But why? I’d served seven years in prison. Why would I be nervous about the WH? All this nausea was annoying. I wanted to enjoy this, not feel sick.

When the WH made the official announcement on Saturday, (First Lady’s guest at SOTU) the phone started ringing and my email jumped exponentially. The WH had warned me that this would be fifteen minutes of fame and to be prepared, not only for the media requests and congratulatory wishes but the negative, “Who do you think you are?” comments. Ex-prisoners get a lot of that.

First there was the WH exclusive with BuzzFeed.  Then I did some local interviews, trying to look fresh and excited (which I was) while trying not to look sick and nauseous (which I also was). The AZ Republic made me sound and look excited without the nausea. AZ Central Story And Channel 12, the local NBC affiliate did a twenty-five minute interview that was edited down to about sixty seconds. (That’s quite a talent.)

Finally it was time to pack and try to sleep. I hadn’t slept all week so why start now? The only time I’m actually good with a list is when I travel so I kept checking things off and when it was time to leave for the airport I was actually ready.

Dianne and I flew out on Monday morning and the excitement started at the airport. As we were checking in, I noticed a group of our Arizona Republican legislators standing together waiting for the flight. I told Dianne we should go over and introduce ourselves. After all, we were all going to the same place, sort of.

Hi, I’m Sue Ellen Allen and I’m … before I could finish, Congressman Matt Salmon piped in. “I recognize you from the paper. You’re going to SOTU.” He added that he was good friends with Judge Cecil Ash who has been a strong supporter of Gina’s Team since the beginning. It was a nice start to our journey.

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Dianne and I took the requisite selfie and posted it on FB. I can’t remember posting anything else that week; it’s a blur. Full disclosure, it takes me about 8 minutes to write a Tweet because I was an English major and I loath bad punctuation. I just cannot write R for ARE. Likewise I’m always editing my FB posts for spelling and punctuation. Instagram would not be instant with me.

In DC, we were met at the airport as promised and taken to the Sofitel, attractive, French, close to the WH, lovely room with a view and great French food. We went down for dinner our first night but I was still nauseous so I chose a very simple crepe. It was delicious but didn’t sit well on my stomach and when we went upstairs, I made it to the bathroom just in time. I love French food; this is worrisome. What is wrong with me?

The next morning I was still queasy so we decided to have room service. Oatmeal sounded best  and I think along with the oatmeal I ingested a lot of adrenalin because that kept me going all day.

The WH is big on logistics. I got a schedule for everything. First, a meeting with my press representative from the White House press office. An interview with AP and NBC on the WH lawn. Later, a meeting with the Attorney General, Loretta Lynch. (But I’m an ex-felon.) The next day, a meeting with Senior Presidential Advisor Valerie Jarrett’s team. I got a color coded map and directions and somehow still managed to be late. I HATE TO BE LATE. But even in DC, taxi cab drivers aren’t used to passengers telling them to take them to the east gate of the WH. And you can’t just drive up there. You have to be dropped off at strategic locations and walk. And yes, it was freezing.

After gasping our way across Lafayette Square in the bone-chilling wind, Dianne and I arrived at the WH press gate late. One doesn’t just waltz in to the WH. There are several layers of security to pass, all manned by serious looking and very attractive young men in fantastic shape. I wouldn’t want to cross them. Finally we walked up the WH driveway past a row of green awning press sections where the media hangs out. They call it Pebble Beach. Inside, the waiting room for the press office is appropriately decorated in 19th century American motif and has another attractive young man to check us. This was coupled with serious looking Marines, there especially because the President was in residence that day.

Each of the twenty-three guests invited to sit in the First Lady’s box had been assigned a press IMG_3916representative. I was most fortunate to have Hannah, another very attractive woman who looked young but had incredible media experience. (Why are they all so young and good looking? Probably because I’m seventy! Everybody’s young and attractive.) Hannah took me out to “Pebble Beach” for a quick interview with a very nice man from Associated Press and then another with a lovely woman from NBC. It was all a blur and I haven’t a clue what I actually said. Hannah didn’t seem to think I’d disgraced myself.

As I was waiting for camera set up, Rachel Maddow IMG_3910walked by from MSNBC. Oh my goodness. I’m a huge fan and my late husband David adored her. He never missed a show. So instead of saying something intelligent to her, I gushed over what a big fan David was. She reminded me that she was a big proponent of criminal justice reform and had a background in the issue. It was my entrée to a longer conversation but I was star struck. Rachel, if you read this, can we have coffee and talk about prison? …

Stay tuned for Part 3

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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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Pale Pink Ribbon 2It’s October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The world of pink –  ribbons, t-shirts, give aways and things to buy. We race for the cure. We stand up to cancer. We support our loved ones battling or surviving the disease. We hear stories of women who have taken the journey, but there is one population we never mention, women with breast cancer behind bars.

Can you imagine the feel of shackles on your ankles? Hard, cold steel that does just what it’s supposed to do. It cuts into your ankles and restricts your movements to baby steps. Even when you are very careful, you wind up with blisters or ankles rubbed raw. And the weight alone drags you down.

Now imagine handcuffs. They too are designed to restrict but they can chaff and cut, especially if the guard who cuffs you is having a bad day. His bad day becomes yours, but your blisters are yours alone.

It’s two o’clock in the morning and the halls of the jail are bustling with guards dragging chains while inmates stand restlessly against the cinderblock walls. Dirty cream walls, faded black and white stripes, clanging, clashing cuffs and shackles. All that plus the commotion of fifty female inmates and ten khaki clad jail guards prepping us for the trip to court.

I’m not going to court; I’m going the the hospital to have my breast cut off. It’s time. I’ve had the poison. Now it’s the slashing. Then it’s the burning. Poison, slash, burn. That’s what they call chemotherapy, mastectomy, radiation. Poison, slash, burn.

I’ve been cuffed and shackled since two AM. I’m exhausted and freezing. The old morgue where they keep us for several hours is like an ice rink. Despite the cold, there are those tiny little roaches everywhere. They add to the despair.

Finally, when everyone else has been called to court and I am alone with my fears, I hear my name, “ALLEN. MOVE IT OUT! Followed by armed guards, I shuffle out to the jail van, jangling as I shuffle. The backs of those vans are cages, not designed for safety. There is a metal bench, but no seat belts, so I lurch each time we turn a corner. I cannot balance myself because of the cuffs and shackles and sometimes I crash to the floor. I’m bruised and shaken to my core.

Finally we arrive at the hospital. I shuffle into another holding cell and wait several more hours, still alone and very afraid. I’m crushed with a feeling of shame that I’m now much less than human. Four hours later I’m escorted to the OR. There the cuffs are removed, a gown is thrown at me and eventually I’m lead to the operating table.  Still shackled, I climb upon the table and they begin the very painful search for my very small veins. At last, as I begin to go under, the shackles come off. The guards will stay in the corner to watch as my breast comes off.

Five hours later I wake up in the jail ward, bandaged and sore but alive and still alone. On this particular journey, no one touches me except the surgeons with their knives and the nurses with their needles. I ask for a pastor or a priest, someone to pray with me, but no one comes.

When I finally return to the jail, the women surround me with love. At the darkest time in my life, the drug addicts, the prostitutes and the thieves looked after me and I will NEVER FORGET THEM. It is nineteen days before the medical department sees me to clean up my incision, take out the stitches and see if I’m healing.

This is the way all women experience breast cancer in prison. There is no comfort or solace. They go alone, they suffer alone, they return to their prison alone. Some might think that they deserve it, but I don’t think anyone deserves that kind of horrific treatment. It is devastating and demeaning to all of us as human beings.

It’s a dreadful journey inside or out, but there are many ways to take it. It’s one thing for Robin Roberts, Christina Applegate, Cynthia Nixon or Sheryl Crow to face cancer. They have the very best doctors, loving family and friends to surround them, and the entire world to care. They are deemed heroes by the press.

I wonder how they would handle the isolation and the incredibly hostile indifference that inmates face.  The lack of information, attention and care. I’m lucky. I have been both a patient with cancer and an inmate with cancer. There is a world of difference. I was diagnosed before I went inside. I’d already had six sessions of chemo. I went inside with a bald head, my medical records and a high profile identity. I think that’s the reason I got treatment. Gina, my young cellmate, didn’t have that advantage and she died a painful death, not of breast cancer but of myeloid leukemia. There are many, many others who have died of cancer and medical neglect. They fought so bravely though pain, fear, neglect, hostility, exhaustion and isolation.

Ask yourself how you would handle this kind of journey? These women are mothers, wives, and daughters, many in prison for addiction or low level drug crimes.When they should be healing, they are worn out fighting for treatment, constantly reminded that nobody cares, nobody cares, nobody cares.

In 2013, 296,980 American women were diagnosed with breast cancer and nearly 40,000 died of it. Everyone who battles this disease is a hero. It is harder than you can ever imagine. I am free now and miraculously still alive, but there are thousands I’ve left behind in jails and prisons all over the world, alone and afraid with their cancer.

Everyone deserves a prayer, but please send a special one to all those invisible women who face this journey alone. No one should be alone with cancer.

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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

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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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Today friends took us to see Silver Lining Playbook, what we all expected to be a romantic comedy and cheery holiday afternoon. It is not. It is a painful look in the window of a family suffering from the raw consequences of bi-polar disorder and all that entails. The romance comes from the happy ending. We are supposed to walk away satisfied and feeling good, like everything is OK.

I didn’t know what bi-polar disorder was until I went to prison. Suddenly I was surrounded by so many women suffering, and I do mean suffering, from this disease. The mood swings were dramatic and the meds were not exactly balanced. When the women were on a high, they felt that they were fine and didn’t need meds. When they were on a low (and the low is really low), they were too angry to even consider meds. I have never seen so much pain. It was like their skin hurt. I felt if you touched them, they might scream in agony, like a horrific burn. The medical department is over-run with this and terribly understaffed. No one is getting appropriate and timely treatment, thus the meds are not properly regulated or adjusted. It’s a desperate and sad situation.

The film brought it all back to me. There is a scene where the lead characters (who are brilliant, by the way), are discussing all the meds they’ve been on. I know that conversation; I heard it a lot in both jail and prison. So many meds; so much pain. They listed them all and then came to Klonopin. They rolled their eyes and agreed that could make you comatose.

In the darkness of the theater, my stomach suddenly turned over and I gasped inwardly. Klonopin. It all came back to me. When I was in jail facing a mastectomy, alone and terrified, I could not sleep and I was exhausted, emotionally and physically. Loud noises made me jump out of my skin and what is jail without clanging and banging? I shook all the time. Bringing a cup to my lips sometimes took both hands. The doctor prescribed Klonopin for me. I had no idea what it was. Nor did I know that it was highly addictive. I just took it and then mercifully slept. When I was awake, there seemed to be a sort of fuzzy haze over the black and white stripes of my environment. I was still afraid and still shook but I didn’t seem to care as much.

Finally, I had my surgery and mourned my new, lopsided self. I went back to court a few times, and eventually was sent to prison, all the while dealing with the emotional distress through the fog of Klonopin.   In prison, when the nurse practitioner saw me, she was disinterested in my recent surgery and the Klonopin. They don’t prescribe that in prison. I had no idea why until later when my sisters in orange sighed and told me how addictive it is. At the time,  I had no idea what was happening to me. Suddenly, I couldn’t sleep. I thought it was the cold, tiny cell and one inch plastic mattress on its steel foundation.  I wrapped my t-shirt around my head and kept on all my clothes under the cotton jacket. Still, I shivered. I didn’t want to lie down or stand up. I tossed and turned. My skin hurt. I was short of breath and my heart felt like it was beating out of my chest. I had no idea what was wrong with me and medical wouldn’t see me. The agony lasted about three weeks, then slowly, very slowly I began to recover. It can take months for it to completely leave your system and after chemo and surgery, my system was very fragile.

It was much later when I learned this was drug withdrawal. It was awful. I also learned it is extremely dangerous to stop Klonopin cold turkey. It is a drug that should be tapered off, accompanied by medical supervision. Along with the painful withdrawal, it can cause seizures. At the time, I thought it was the cancer and I was probably dying. The surgeons said my margins weren’t clean and things didn’t look too good. I was sick, I was afraid, and death actually sounded like a great relief.

Everything I experienced was brought back to me in this film. But my story was truly minor compared to the other stories about the mental illness that many of these women battled every day and continue to deal with. This is one of the enormous issues connected with America as an Incarceration Nation. People who need mental health treatment are instead sent to prison. Health care budgets continue to be cut and so we bundle people off behind the wires and walls. Out of sight, out of mind.

In Silver Lining Playbook, Pat is lucky. He serves eight months in a mental health facility instead of years in prison. And he somehow manages to take his meds, find love, win a bet for his dad, and live happily ever after. If only it were so simple. It’s not. As we walked out into the sunlight, I wondered how someone diagnosed with bi-polar disorder would feel watching this film. I can’t imagine. This is a provocative  story, brilliantly acted and getting lots of buzz. It brought up painful memories and emotions in me that I felt compelled to share.

In sharing it, I hope you will consider how America is dealing with our community of people who struggle with mental health issues of all types. We must be more compassionate and less judgmental. It is not easy. I have a very courageous friend named Mary Lou Brncik who works tirelessly in this arena. Her organization is David’s Hope. I urge you to visit her site and LIKE her page,  http://www.davidshopeaz.org  Periodically she holds important Town Hall meetings to bring awareness to these issues. You owe it to yourself and your community to get on her mailing list and attend. We are all in this together.

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You probably don’t think much of prison or prisoners. Can’t blame you. It’s not a happy thought. However, Fareed Zakaria recently wrote a column for TIME magazine called America – Incarceration Nation inspired by Rev Pat Robertson.  It has compelling stats on what it is costing us to incarcerate at a number far, far greater than our European cousins. He writes:

“The U.S. has 760 prisoners per 100,000 citizens. That’s not just many more than in most other developed countries but seven to 10 times as many. Japan has 63 per 100,000, Germany has 90, France has 96, South Korea has 97, and ­Britain—with a rate among the ­highest—has 153. Even developing countries that are well-known for their crime problems have a third of U.S. numbers. Mexico has 208 prisoners per 100,000 citizens, and Brazil has 242. As Robertson pointed out on his TV show, The 700 Club, “We here in America make up 5% of the world’s population but we make up 25% of the [world’s] jailed prisoners.”

I urge you to click on this link and read his column completely.  http://www.fareedzakaria.com/home/Articles/Entries/2012/3/25_Incarceration_Nation.html

It will give you lots to talk about at dinner.

  • Why do we incarcerate so many more people per capita?
  • What would happen if marijuana was legalized?
  • Who has the highest crime rate?
  • Why do we rank so low in education compared to other countries? “Scores from the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment to be released Tuesday show 15-year-old students in the U.S. performing about average in reading and science, and below average in math. Out of 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math.”
  • What has education got to do with incarceration?

The cost of these numbers is high, not only in currency, but in human lives and ultimately in our society as a whole. The solution is not  “Soft on Crime” or “Tough on Crime.” We should be seeking ways to be “Smart on Crime.” It begins with the conversation and an increased awareness of the issues. I’m not telling you what to think; I’m asking you to think about the issue, perhaps for the first time.

Our organization, Gina’s Team, has a tag line: “Education, not incarceration, is the cheapest form of crime prevention.” We bring educational programs behind the wires in Arizona to impact lives and help prepare them for release.

Perhaps you don’t know anyone behind the wires. You can still make a difference. If you have children or grandchildren, do all you can to encourage them to stay in school, improve their reading skills, set goals. This great gift that will also contribute to safer communities, save tax dollars, and make a positive difference. “Education, not incarceration.” That’s the key…inside and out.

 

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