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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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In the last month, many people have died or, as in the case of the Malaysian airline, disappeared without a trace. Millions are suffering, aching, grieving or in pain. Right now  I’m one of those people.

On March 13, the VA found a tumor on my beloved husband David’s brain. The same day they sent him immediately to Barrows in Phoenix, one of the best in the world, where he had brain surgery on March 17. The news: malignant, stage 4 and metastasized to lungs and pancreas or from his lungs to his brain. They weren’t sure. Anyway, it’s spread and “grim” to quote the doctors.

On March 25 he came home and on March 27, the VA assigned him to Hospice of the Valley, our choice. Their initial visit yesterday started the process. There are different opinions of “days, weeks, months” depending on the doctor. Of course I heard the same 12 years ago. when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Only God knows and we live in hope, that most priceless of emotions.

David is in good and peaceful spirits.  He said when he came in the door of our home, he was overcome with joy and peace and it shows in his quiet strength.

He’s always had that quiet strength while I feel as though I’ve been thrown headfirst off several cliffs simultaneously. There are not enough words to tell all of you who have rallied how grateful I am, beginning with our brother and sisters in orange who have been there every step of this unbelievably unexpected journey to help hold me up when my knees felt like buckling. I’m grateful for the strength God gave me. I’m not a marathoner but I do know how to put one foot in front of the other and fight for those I love, like David and those behind bars.

I’m so grateful we are together. Although I continue to live in gratitude,  I’m just a bit wobbly right now. Gina’s Team’s incredible group of volunteers has circled the wagons and rallied to bring food and hugs in equal measure.  David says he isn’t ready to “leave” yet and I’m certainly not. More than anyone on the planet, David KNOWS ME. We have been on an incredible journey for 27 years. We have shared prison and the passion of Gina’s Team and the loss of everything but each other. There is great comfort in not having to explain anything to the person who KNOWS you. Despite my thoughtlessness, my over-the-top passion and determination, all my weaknesses and insecurities too numerous to mention, David loves me. I consider THAT a great gift and miracle.

His biggest, strongest wish is for us to continue our focus and work with Gina’s Team. As a matter of fact, he says it’s the most important thing. Something happened to him in the hospital that confirmed that with great clarity. I’ll write about that later.

We do have a special request to everyone all over the planet. The common question to both of us and to everyone else going through something like this is “How are you doing?” There just isn’t an answer to this. You ask because you care, but there is no answer. Perhaps you could skip the question and say, “I just called to say I love you.” Hey, isn’t that a song?  Laughter, music, and prayers, surely the BEST medicine. We are most most grateful  to ALL of you and for laughter and music and prayers.

We are also grateful if you add to those prayers, all those others in pain and grief, behind bars or in hospitals or homeless under a bush. No one’s pain is unique. When we remember that, it’s truly a blessing.

And while I’m at it, here’s another request. Instead of a card for David, would you consider making a donation to Gina’s Team? It’s easy to go to www.ginasteam.org and push a button. If you donate the cost of a card, it will make a difference in the life of someone behind bars or free and struggling to change their life. Imagine, the cost of a card can make a difference. YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

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Children's message

Children’s message

The United Universalist Church in Surprise is a very warm and open congregation with a strong social conscious. They just spent the month of January focused on the prison issue including the cost and conditions of prison. After they read my book , The Slumber Party From Hell, they honored me by inviting me to speak recently. Besides the sermon, I gave the message to the children. Now that’s a real challenge. How to talk to children about prison?  Sesame Street has the answer.  http://www.sesamestreet.org/parents/topicsandactivities/toolkits/incarceration

You may not know one in twenty eight children has a parent in prison so I felt this message was important. This is what I said:

“Any one here like Sesame Street? Recently Sesame Street got a new character to go with Cookie Monster, Big Bird and Elmo. That’s pretty exciting for Sesame Street. 

And it’s a pretty interesting character. His name is Alex. He has an orange face,  green nose and  really fantastic blue hair. He also feels sad and lonely and he doesn’t like to talk about why. 

Alex on Sesame Street

Alex on Sesame Street

Why is Alex sad and lonely? He’s sad because the other muppets want to do something with their dads and he can’t. His Dad isn’t there. When his friends ask where he is, he said he doesn’t want to talk about it. He doesn’t want to talk about it because his dad is in prison. 

Then one of the human friends says she understands because when she was little, her father was in prison too. That really surprised him. He was relieved to hear someone else had the same experience. It made him feel less strange and alone.

Prison can be pretty scary to children. Do you think you might know someone who has a parent in prison? I’m asking because 1 in 28 children has a parent in prison. That is a lot. So it’s possible there are some kids in your class who may feel sad because they have a mom or dad in prison. That’s hard. It’s a huge challenge for a kid. 

When you have a challenge and feel sad, you might feel like you’re all alone and no one understands. That’s hard too.  

So what can you do? Can you do anything? Yes, you can. You can be sympathetic. It’s a pretty big word but I’m  sure you understand it. If you see someone feeling sad and lonely, you can be sympathetic. You can understand. You can be nice to them. Don’t tease them. Don’t be mean. Be nice. 

At Gina’s Team, we have an important message, so important we put it on a bracelet. 

Been there. Done that. Now how can I help?  Helping others is really an important message and that’s what Jesus was talking about in the reading today  (Matt 25: 34-40). I’m going to give each of you a bracelet to remind you that YOU can help. Not just about the prison thing but about anything. YOU can help by being kind to people who are sad and feel lonely.

I promise, it won’t only make them feel better; it will make you feel better too.”

Remember that startling statistic?  One in 28 children has a parent in prison. That is so huge that Sesame Street felt it was important to  add Alex to this characters. However, it’s still controversial so Alex is not on the actual show; he is on the website at the link I’ve provided above. On that site, there are games and stories for children,  for the parent who is free and for care-givers like grandparents. Perhaps you are one of those parents or children. If so, you aren’t on an easy journey.  I personally know many of the women who are serving time. They miss their children dreadfully. If you are amongst that group of children or care-givers, I urge you to visit the website where I hope you will find some support  there.

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I love books. I was an English major at university and I believe a love of reading is the magic key that opens the doors of possibility for anyone and everyone. This year Gina’s Team was allowed to start three book clubs based on an idea called Changing Lives Through Literacy, started in Lowell, MA, many years ago.

It look several miracles to get it started. Miracle #1, convince the prison to allow it. Miracle #2, find volunteers who want to facilitate the meetings. Miracle #3, find the right amount of books for each yard. Miracle #4, convince the women it was a good idea. Thanks to Jeanne Robinson, president of our board, who took up the responsibility to make it happen. Thanks to Jessica’s Operation Orange and Penguin Books who donated books in multiple copies for the clubs.

The clubs started in February. Now we have dedicated volunteers who trek out to PV to keep the energy and momentum going for these women inside. I’m particularly grateful to Sara Dobie a talented writer, who just blogged about her experience. She has summed up the emotions and fears of every volunteer when they enter prison for the first time. Fear, trepidation and then elation. Thanks, Sara, for making a difference.

http://saradobie.wordpress.com/2012/06/13/my-time-in-prison/

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Renee Morgan Brooks  is one of those rare and special human beings that brings light into any room when she enters. In her remarkable life, she has been many wonderful things, but mostly she has impacted the lives of others, inspiring them to greater things. Now she has made it official. She has graduated from ministerial school and is on the path to helping even more people in ways we cannot even imagine now.

It was Renee who invited Gina’s Team to Mingus Mountain Academy for the first time in February 2010 to celebrate Black History Month. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship with Mingus where we regularly present a motivational program  of guest speakers for the girls there.  Gina’s Team will always be grateful to Renee for including us on that initial trip.

Renee and I have been friends for over 20 years. I love her  both as a human being and an earthly angel. Many times we have laughed and cried together and now we celebrate her latest success in what I know will be more to come. Congratulations, my darling friend.

If you don’t know her or haven’t heard her perform, here is Renee with her compelling rendition of The Little Drummer Boy. I know it’s not December, but go with her while she takes you to the manger. It is one of the most powerful renditions I have ever heard. And while you are on Youtube,  look at her other performances. She is simply wonderful.

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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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My mother instilled in me a love of books and writing when I was tiny. Mother said reading was the key to unlock a world of opportunities, dreams and imagination. My friend Isadora feels as I do. For nearly three years she has tirelessly trekked to Perryville prison for Gina’s Team to teach creative writing in eight week sessions.  She is making a tremendous difference in the lives of these women and we are incredibly grateful that she joined our  Team.

Here is the link to her most recent blog about her latest class. It is a powerful and compelling emotion to see the changes in these women.  You are giving them tools for life as well as hope. Thanks, Isadora.

Strong Women Blog
(more…)

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