The following was submitted by a formerly incarcerated woman. We thank her for her honesty, generosity, and willingness to share her story.
I can say with confidence that going to prison was not on my bucket list.
The “why“of how I ended up in prison is not relevant to this article. What I learned there I believe can be instructive to those fortunate enough not to have gone “upstate.” Some of the observations listed below may be insights that one might experience just going through life normally (that is, without a stint in prison) but let’s just say some of those I learned in prison were far more…intense, because of my incarceration.
The mind, thankfully, has a way of helping us forget or at least enduring what would “normally” be horrifying circumstances. We’ve all heard that if a woman remembered the pain of childbirth, she would not go through it again. Like the pain of childbirth, many of the memories of the unpleasant prison experiences are blotted out in my mind. Most of these experiences are the humiliating routines that inmates are forced to endure, namely the delousing when you enter the system, the regular urine tests and strip searches all performed under the intimate scrutiny of corrections officers (COs), the dehumanizing and disrespectful treatment and interactions with non-inmates, and the abusive hierarchical prison inmate community structure that changes constantly based on the psychological issues of the inmates in your area at the time. So many of these negative events and treatments happen so frequently that your mind just goes on autopilot to get through them.
While the humiliating, dehumanizing and derogatory experiences you endure are the things you are pretty convinced you will never get over, the real pain, the never-to-end pain is the pain you caused to those you cared most about. The greatest sorrow of my life was that, as the result of my incarceration, my child was left without the love and support she needed. She was basically orphaned by my incarceration. This fact haunted me every day I was incarcerated. The sorrow of this still takes my breath away.
It is surprising, and disappointing, to discover who your real friends are.
My mother visited me almost every week when she was able; it was the greatest gift she gave me. Others, whom you may have helped, been there for, willingly sacrificed yourself for, or had spent countless hours as companions of… vaporized, or worse, turned on me – forgetting all the positive interactions built over years of “relationships.” The stigma of associating with a “criminal” proved to be a clarifying test of who really cared about you, who was a true friend, and who was a friend of convenience. Most didn’t care about the facts of my case, they simply were angry that I had exposed them to this underside of society. Most didn’t even care about making sure that my child was surviving this period.
As already noted, the mind, blessedly, forgets pain and unpleasantness. The pain of prison work – everyone works when in prison – can be significant. Work assignments are dispensed at the whim of those in authority and the severe physical stress and pain that may be encountered are not a consideration. The prison system mentality of punishment, diminishment and infliction of discomfort are alive and well in current day prison. Inmates dare not complain or ask for appropriate treatment, safety, or work tools, as to do so invites just the opposite reaction. My assignment included constant exposure to poison ivy, blisters from hand mowing acres of grass in sub-par prison issue boots, aching shoulders from carrying endless bags of garbage for blocks. And the smell – I am pretty sure I never took a deep breath for three years.
As mentioned above, in prison, you work. I am pretty sure that the older, black CO thought I, an older white woman, would crumble under the strain of working outside “on the grounds”. She was an example of someone who was gleeful when she was cruel. It turned out that my faith, specifically the rosary, was my salvation during the hours every day that I mowed. I would say the rosary non-stop as I mowed – heat, cold, rain, humiliation… I would remind myself that the situation I found myself in was nothing compared to what Jesus endured on His way to Cavalry. There is nothing that keeps you more hopeful than faith. Without faith in God, I would not have survived prison. Suicide is a real and constant issue in prison, and I fought the urge on many occasions. That would have been yet another harm against my child that I would have been responsible for. That would have been a slap at the lessons and love that Jesus had taught me and that was the foundation of my survival in prison.
People are capable of great cruelty and…great kindness even in the most cruel and inhuman of places. As a result, I found that I was stronger than I knew. You have to be for the alternative is much worse. Thankfully, I did not lose my work ethic just because I was in prison. I had always been a hard worker and oddly enough, working diligently at the mindless tasks assigned to me earned me a modicum of respect from the COs (at least from those who were not trying to manufacture a claim that I was doing something wrong for which they could further penalize me.)
The first facility where I and most other female convicts go to to be “processed” at the beginning of their “bid”, is arguably one of the most depressing places on earth. None-the-less there were occasional moments, when I was awestruck by the beauty of God’s creation. The sun glinting off the razor wire on a clear cloudless February sky was beautiful. At the second facility where I spent the majority of my “bid”, one could recognize remarkable beauty at night. While coming back from evening activities, the moon, again hanging in a cloudless sky, looked flawless. I hoped and prayed that my loved ones were looking at the same beautiful moon.
My reflections on Scripture and the loving perspectives of Jesus reminded me that beauty is always there to be found. Jesus was my constant companion and He carried me during my darkest times. As a result –my mantra became, “I survived my first facility, I can survive anything!” And that mantra continued after I was released when, case in point, I survived cancer, which was not diagnosed until after prison.
One of the highlights of my time in prison was when caring souls from outside the prison system would actually come into the prison to lead worship, share bible study, or guide an inmate crafts program. These moments reminded me of the normalcy that existed outside the walls and that there were good people, loving people, that existed in this world. They gave me hope, a reason to hang in there. I felt for these people because they had to enter this area of darkness, yet they did so joyfully. They were truly answering a call from Jesus as presented in Scripture. It was empowering to see this on their part and made a huge impact on the quality of my existence and my ability to focus forward while incarcerated.
Now that I am out of prison and trying to rebuild my life, I have new lessons to learn. Lessons like… your sentence is not up when the court ordered sentence is fulfilled, but rather that any sentence is really a life sentence of restrictions, conviction-imposed disabilities, and societal judgement at every turn. Employment, housing, and financial barriers are in place for formerly incarcerated individuals that are constant impediments to rebuilding a life where one can be a self-sufficient and contributing member of society. The transition from prison to civil society can be extremely difficult and current programs are insufficient to help most re-entering society.
Formerly incarcerated individuals need help, support and understanding to overcome a whole new set of challenges. I struggle with the choice to help these individuals, and fear the pain that getting closer to “that world” again would bring. I’m doing my best, and I listen for God’s guidance. To those that have helped me along this journey, thank you. To those considering helping others that are still experiencing these circumstances, please know that every act performed, large or small, to help someone through this part of their life, is worthwhile and appreciated. People have touched my life, made it better and I thank God for their presence in my life.