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Posts Tagged ‘The White House’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anatomy: How President Obama Gets His Mail

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

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

PS. This really was the beginning.

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Our last day. I had a meeting back at the WH and we wanted to take advantage of this chance to see something special in DC (besides the WH). This time I knew where I was going and traced my steps, feeling so cool. Interesting to note, the Marine Guards were not at the West Wing entrance today. That meant the President was not in residence. This time I was going from the West Wing to the Executive Offices right next door. But before we went to his office, my new friend Elias took me to the White House mess for some saltine crackers and tea. I was still nauseated and sort of embarrassed, but everyone was very solicitous. I’m definitely seeing my doctor when I get home.

IMG_4062After so many years in the desert, it was a joy to see these beautiful old office buildings with interesting tile floors, carved moldings around doors and windows  and lovely paneling. I’ve always loved this part of our country for it’s history, architecture and green landscape. I miss trees and grass.

After my meeting I dashed back to the hotel to check out. It was Dianne’s first trip to Washington so we had to see as much as possible in just a few hours. I chose the Museum of Natural History, one of the most
representative museums in DC.
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It was the right choice; she loved it from the enormous tusked elephant in the rotunda to the breathtaking stones in the gem and rock collection. The biggest disappointment was that the HOPE diamond was out for two weeks for some changes in the display area. Never mind, the other jewels were pretty spectacular.

I didn’t feel great all day but I just ignored the nausea and kept focused on all the fascinating displays at the museum, magnificent gems, awe inspiring minerals, incredible skeletons of every animal imaginable. Look at this; oh look at that! You could spend a week  there and always see something new.IMG_4077 IMG_4081 IMG_4090

 

 

 

 

 

 

We had a great time wandering around every floor. There is so much to see in our nation’s capitol and we only had a few hours but we made the most of it. Then it was on to the airport for our 5 pm flight to Phoenix.

Waiting at the airport, the nausea got worse. This was not good. Suddenly, I threw the magazines out of the plastic shopping bag, the vomiting started and I just couldn’t stop. Again that natural reaction is to be embarrassed. I couldn’t help vomiting but I kept apologizing. Why do we all do that?

Finally I asked for the EMTs and it wasn’t long before the ambulance raced over the tarmac. Oh my goodness, talk about an attention getter. Look at the pathetic vomiting sick woman. And poor Dianne was doing her best to comfort me, all the while feeling helpless.

The EMTs did the usual tests and assured me that my vitals were ok. I could travel if I felt I could manage. Stoic as ever, I was determined to make the trip so they left, lights swirling, for other emergencies. A little later, ready to board, the vomiting was back ; I knew I’d never make the flight. Back came the EMTs and off we went to the Virginia Hospital Center, that I later discovered has more awards than you can count and is a partner with Mayo Clinic. What a blessing.

In the ambulance, the EMT gave me an IV of Phenergan to stop the vomiting. It’s supposed to have a calming effect. Turns out I’m allergic to it and for almost five hours I couldn’t stop my body from moving, jerking, twisting, writhing. It was a IMG_4135terrifying feeling. They couldn’t give me an MRI or an ultrasound because I couldn’t lie still. Dianne said it was awful to watch and I could hear her crying in the background, feeling even more helpless. I wanted to cry too. In my stupor I remember thinking, Oh my goodness, I invited her to have a good time and now we’re in the ER of some strange hospital. I’m so sorry.

Finally I was out for the count and don’t remember anything else, but it was a long IMG_4134night for Dianne. The next morning I learned I’d had emergency gall bladder surgery. The surgeon couldn’t understand why I hadn’t been in terrible pain. All I’d felt was nauseous. He said after all his years of experience,
I had the biggest gall stone he’d ever seen, 5 cm. He even took a picture of it and sent it to me. It sort of reminded me of some of the minerals we’d seen at the museum. The good news was, I hadn’t thrown up in the White House.

When I felt more alert, I insisted that Dianne take the next flight home. There was nothing she could do. I would probably sleep for the next couple of days and neither of us had any luggage. It was already in Phoenix with her heart meds. She had to go home but her mothering/nursing instincts had kicked in and she didn’t want to leave. Finally common sense prevailed  and reluctantly she made the morning flight. And I went back to sleep.

IMG_4118Two days later I decided I could make the flight (that darned stoic attitude is NUTS) and the WH arranged my travel back to Phoenix. They were so nice, worried about my condition and eager to help in any way they could. Nothing to do except watch me sleep until Saturday afternoon when I caught that same flight from the same gate. I was wheeled to the front door by the nicest nurses on the planet and I was on my way to the airport.

That five hour flight seemed like ten. The lady next to me was traveling with her very anxious cat who was yowling at the top of his lungs. She kept apologizing, but I said not to worry. The cat sounded like I felt. When we took off, everyone including the cat settled down and I thought about the last week. Imagine, one day in the White House and the next in the hospital, an unforgettable ending to an unforgettable trip.

Now you’re probably wondering how all this happened. Why did the White House call me? I’ve saved that for the final episode next. . .

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for Part 3

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