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Posts Tagged ‘prison’

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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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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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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Imagine some of the great names in academia, law, medicine and journalism. . . and one ex-felon, me. Chancellor Professor of Law Michele Goodwin of University of California/Irvine realized that there is much conversation about men in prison but none about women. Yet women are the backbone of our families and communities. As a force of nature, she determined to do something about it; thus bringing together experts in the field to shine a light on the issue.

IMG_3207Dr. Ervin Chemerinsky, Dean of the Law School and well known author and constitutional scholar, Pamela Alexander, Minnesota judge who sacrificed her career for her integrity, Jack Cole, founder of LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and Dr. Carl Hart, IMG_3223author of a “must read” book, High Price, and professor at Columbia all shared the stage. Additionally, Victoria Law,  author of Resistance Behind Bars, the struggles of incarcerated women,  ACLU attorney Nusrat Jahan Choudhury, an expert on debtor’s prison (Yes, we have them), and Dr. David Rosen who has his MD and his law degree both from Harvard and works in both law and health, along with Dr. Claire Coles, an expert in pediatric psychiatry and behavior sciences brought their brilliance to the table. Also, Dr George Woods, a neuropsychiatrist who serves this year as president of the International Academy of Law and Health, as well as serving as a leading expert witness in critical death penalty cases, and Linda Pence, recognized as “one of the best lawyers in America,”  known for her dedication in defending BeiBei Shuai to a successful conclusion rounded out the group. And then there was me, the only Ex at the table. Imagine how deeply honored I felt.

IMG_3230IMG_3232These were the people Professor Goodwin brought together for her summit. Since you couldn’t be there, here is the link to the entire event. My keynote is first. The afternoon is well divided up into panels. That makes it easy to watch in spurts. I hope you learn as much as I did by listening to these great warriors and incredible leaders. Women & Mass Incarceration They are real world changers and they inspired me.

It was also the first time I’ve seen the ocean in fourteen years. There is something magical about an ocean breeze that can blow the grayness of grief away

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Jodi Arias is all over the news. You can’t escape her. Finally after over seven years, she has been sentenced to life without parole. Because I lived there for seven years, everyone is asking me what it’s like there. So here’s a snapshot.

She has already been driven out to Perryville Prison in Goodyear, AZ. On the trip, she was escorted by ADC officers who belly chained, handcuffed and shackled her. Scratching her nose would require a yoga pose. The white van with no markings looks normal from the outside; inside all the windows are covered with heavy black wire mesh and the front and rear seats are divided by a bullet proof plexiglass window. It’s a lonely, isolated ride. If you passed it, you’d never notice it.

Upon arrival at the prison, she will go through a process called R & A. Stands for Reception & Assessment. Sounds like a hotel, doesn’t it? It’s Not. She will be in a cell alone. She will be weighed, measured and photographed. She will see the staff doctor for medical questions and a pap smear. She will see a clinician who will ask her questions about her mental state. She might see the dentist. She will be given an AIMES test to measure her knowledge of language skills, reading comprehension, and math.  She will be issued her orange uniforms of t-shirts, pants, baseball cap, bras, and panties, all used.

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She now has prison number #281129 that will follow her for LIFE. She has an inmate data page  that you can visit on the department of corrections website. https://corrections.az.gov/public-resources/inmate-datasearch.

Here is her ADC picture that will also follow her for Life.

Her cell is 6 ft by 11 ft. The walls are cream cinderblock and the steel is battleship grey, all hard corners and angles. The mattress is thin, lumpy plastic. The pillow is big and very, very, very firm. There is no softness anywhere.

She will be locked down 23 hours a day. On days that she is allowed to shower, she will be escorted. Her recreation will be in a chain link wire cage. She will be alone.

If she behaves and follows the rules, eventually these conditions will change, very, very slowly. Progress in prison is sluggish. She has entered her own living hell, knowing she will never leave that prison.

When I entered Perryville, I knew I’d eventually get out. It gave me a spark of hope, hope that is priceless to every inmate and every human being. Jodi will have no spark. She does have family who will visit her, but the visits will be non-contact visits; no hugging allowed. No human touch.

Everyone has an opinion about her sentence. Sort of like the baby bear’s porridge: too hard, too soft, just right. As a former inmate, I think death is the easy, peaceful way out. Inmates have a saying, “The worst day of freedom is better than the best day in prison.” Jodi will never have the best and worst days of freedom; nor will Travis. Both of their lives ended seven years ago.  All the families have suffered and will continue to experience the pain of this terrible loss. Now is the time to leave them all alone. Curiosity should die here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year.

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As a “nice white lady,” I’m going to give you the straight skinny. We are a nation of racists. Oh, it’s not like it was in the dark ages when I was growing up. I was born in 1945 into a town divided by a railroad track, the symbolic line in every Southern town, that kept black and white families from mixing, beyond the colored help who made sure the white families were comfortable in our world of make-believe.

Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 10.41.56 PMThose White and Colored water fountains and restrooms were everywhere, but I never gave them a thought. After all, I was young and white with all the privilege that conveyed. Then when I was three, we left Texas for a remote part of Venezuela that you could not find on a map. My father was an engineer, there to help build an oil refinery. We lived in a walled and gated, even luxurious, housing compound for the ‘white foreigners.’ Of course, there was native help to make sure we were comfortable in another gated land of make-believe.

I grew up moving every two years; back and forth across the Atlantic and into the Caribbean. In every country I took for granted the privilege that went with my color and I never gave it a thought. The AHA moment finally came at the University of Texas in Austin where I gained an awareness of racial stereotype and discrimination. By then, the White and Colored water fountains and restrooms had disappeared, and I still hadn’t given them a thought. It never occurred to me how a human being would feel being defined by a sign, nor why it was necessary.

Then I joined a group of do-gooders, some of the first ‘cross-over teachers’ in Texas. My father, newly retired, was furious. I had humiliated the family. He would have to quit his clubs and leave town. I ignored the empty threat because I was naïvely determined to change the world.

Every day I drove across the railroad tracks, that symbolic crossing into another world. We were a handful of brand new, green as grass white teachers forced on the older, much more experienced black teachers. They welcomed us with dignity and respect; the students with skepticism and hostility. Gradually, we made peace and grew together in respect and affection. There were no White and Colored bathrooms or water fountains. There was only a crumbling building with very few supplies, compared to the new white high school across town. If I had been black during that time, I would have been out fiercely protesting. Instead, I went home every day to my nice white world of comfort and privilege and didn’t change anything.

Fast-forward thirty-five years. I left teaching and joined the business world. I worked my way up the corporate ladder to a vice-presidency, the only woman on the team. Then at age 57, I entered prison for securities fraud; once again another world, only this time the line was a real one of nasty, twisted razor wire. Finally, I was in an environment that led me to the next AHA moment.

I was no longer a woman with a name; I was an inmate with a number; I was an ‘offender.’ There was even a policy. I would no long be called Ms. Allen or even Sue Ellen. I would only be Allen, inmate Allen, or my prison number. Respect and courtesy were left on the other side of the wire.

There was something else that contributed to the AHA moment. There were Staff and Offender restrooms and water fountains, just to remind us that we weren’t people anymore. When I first saw them, I felt sick and dirty, dirty and untouchable. I remembered the White and Colored signs of my youth and I was ashamed, ashamed of my blindness and privilege.

Now I’m ashamed again. The Little Rock Nine walked the gauntlet in 1957. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous speech in 1963. The Selma March was in 1965. We have our first black president yet we are still murdering and incarcerating young black men at an alarming rate. Racism is alive and well, even though it is much more subtle.

I’m ashamed but I’m also thankful. I’m thankful that my prison journey woke me up. I will never know what it’s like to grow up black in America and all that entails. I only know what it’s like to be diminished, denigrated and humiliated. I know what it’s like to have a label that makes me feel dirty, a label (inmate, offender, ex-con, ex-felon) that will never go away. We don’t do our time, get out and rebuild our lives. The barriers are huge, whatever your color and background. Society has created the gift that keeps on giving. Ironically it’s like the old Colored and White signs, only now it’s Normal Person and Offender. Since 40% of inmates are Black, it’s just a redesign of those old signs.

Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 10.48.46 PMNow that you know I’ve been in prison and I’m really an ‘offender,’ you may dispute the ‘nice white lady’ label I gave myself at the beginning of this, but please don’t dispute that we are a nation of racists. Whether you are subtle or ‘in-your-face,’ all of us can have a tiny or large piece of fear in our hearts, the fear that is the foundation of racism. At the risk of sounding cheesy, examine the rest of your heart. Seek the peace, courage and love that also reside there. Seek ways to diminish the fear. Seek the hope. I believe we can do it. I believe in US.

*http://www.thefountainartscenter.org

 

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