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Posts Tagged ‘Gina’s Team’

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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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.

IMG_3892

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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