By Andrea Lawful-Sanders
4.1.16: Global – (Lifestyle): I had always heard about life in prison through the accounts of others but never had I been on the grounds of a correctional facility, until this week. My visit to the voices behind bars was made possible because of the kindness of two organizations – The Elevation Project and Ardellas house – which are spearheaded by two dynamic women.
I didn’t know what to expect when I entered the prison complex armed with my security clearances and comforted by friends. Once inside, I observed everything around me: security was incredibly tight – one couldn’t enter or leave the premises without having their vehicles fully inspected.
A van used to load and transport prisoners, which had bars between our seats, escorted our group to the women’s area. When we entered the front doors, an additional security check was done. We had to relinquish our licenses and car keys before we were made to go through the first of three metal doors, which locked automatically behind us with a resounding clank – there was no way to leave; the basic rights and freedoms that I took for granted vanished with the click of a lock.
Roughly sixty women were escorted into a large area to take part in a panel discussion around their stories, challenges and triumphs. Once the discussion started, I soon realized I knew next to nothing about the penal system. I was stunned to learn that eighty-five percent of these women were incarcerated because of a man: either they sold drugs for a man; was abused by a man; fought for a man or stole for a man. Many of them had children on the outside and worried about losing their love to other relatives, or worse, their children were sent to places beyond their control.
Some of them spoke of drug addiction and wondered why they were punished – having time added to their sentences – instead of being treated. Then there were those who recalled tales of lawyers and public defenders who weren’t working vigorously on their defense, leaving them without an estimated wait time on when their cases would be heard.
As I sat there listening to this all unfold, I noticed there were no clocks or windows – I felt suspended in time without a watch. I gazed at the women and wondered what must be going through their heads on a daily basis. Do they feel guilty about family members hurt by their mistakes? How do they grapple with the dignities of life being stripped from them?
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One woman, age 36, has spent 17 years thus far behind bars. Her story left no room for us to judge: it’s easy to say what we wouldn’t do until we are faced with an untenable set of circumstances.
I almost made it out of the prison as just another impacted visitor when a few women from my group were asked to line up by age and stand directly across from the inmates in order to share stories.
I was paired with a 22 year-old named Bianca, who shared with me that she was locked up because she, with two little boys who were both under the age of four, sold drugs to make ends meet. As she spoke, I interrupted to ask when she last time had a mother’s hug. I embraced Bianca and could feel the relief seeping from her soul. Bianca and I discussed strategies that would make this her first and last visit to a prison.
I began struggling emotionally and kept it together until another woman began singing. I totally unraveled thinking about the possibilities within those walls that were differed and what it must take to see or find any level of goodness in these situations.
As I sat trying to compose myself, another inmate, Crystal was her name, walked right up to me and shared that she wasn’t quite sure what it was, but my spirit spoke to her and she knew there was something different about me. I looked in her eyes and listened as she shared with me that she was behind these walls for murder: she was being battered by her boyfriend and one day, while he was beating her, she stabbed him, unaware that she had punctured a main artery. Crystal is being sentenced today.
Crystal, not intending to kill, spoke of feeling remorseful and shameful. Her goal was just to stop being abused. Behind bars, she uses her time to forgive herself and mentor other inmates.
After thanking them for sharing, we turned in our badges and were escorted out the prison, one steel door at a time. I walked away from this experience a much different person: I find more gratitude in the smallest things, like the freedom to walk outside, use a cellphone and eat what I want.
My reason for writing this article was to encourage those who have loved ones behind bars with children on the outside. Please do what you can to help the babies, whether it’s a phone call, a visit or an encouraging word – it’ll mean the world to a child who has lost their mother to the penal system. I also penned this post to salute the people and organizations who work with both returning citizens and those often forgotten behind bars: you are the true heroes in this story. Lastly, this article is for women who may be wrongly influenced by a man. Love can make us do some crazy things, but if your man asks you to do stuff in the name of love that’ll cost you freedom, it’s is not worth it.
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