Thu, 15 Jan 1998 214:48:16 -0800
This talk was for a retreat for family members of prisioners
When they return.
In my work place, on the desk of the director, there is a square plastic box. Inside are pebbles, a few plants, and one fish. One day I asked the director why doesn't she get another fish to keep it company. I was told the box describes the consequences of not completing our program, that it is a ... perfect environment. Everything the fish needs is in there, there is no room for wants, only needs. I work for a counseling service. Many of our clients come from the courts.
A perect environment.
Everything one needs but no room for wants.
I have lived inside three correctional institutions. They provide everything an inmate needs to survive, food, housing, clothing and some work to keep you from going mad.
The first time I went to prison, I was fascinated by the women serving life sentences. Many of them would never get a release date, still they had a well of spirituality that I hadn't found. they participated in all the activities available. Church, education, worker their jobs like they were on the outside getting a decent salary... why? What for? I just didn't get it. All I knew was i was getting out and I was never coming back to prison no matter what!
I had family that loved me and friends who cared about me. I just had to not get into trouble again. I'm a smart girl ... I could do that.
Upon release, my mind was spinning, all the sights and sounds were just like new. The desire to do what ever came to mind was so strong. for almost two yers I had been told when to eat, when to sleep, when to bend over and cough. Within hours I was back with my old friends practising the behaviors that put me in prison in the first place. i hadn't aquired any tools to make the lifestyle change so important to being a success during re-entry.
Within weeks I was back inside feeling like a total failure. What was I doing wrong. 'If only', and 'if so and so had only ...' I was in total denial of my responsibility for my circumstances.
My family was devastated by my failure to keep promises I had made to them, especially my children. My husband, to protect them from the emotional pain, chose to take the tuff love approach. No contact until I was willing to take responsibility for my actions. Upon my second release I returned to the free world homeless and angry.
My self esteem was dependent on other peoples approval.
All the things wrong in my life were caused by other people.
I avoided painful issues and stuffed emotions.
I was angry at my husband for not being able to repair our marriage and blamed him for destroying our family.
I felt alone in a cold, harsh world.
Before the three strikes law I recieved a third prison term. Each time in prison was an evolutionary progression of the disease of addiction, the crimes I committed were more and more violent.
While in the holding facility awaiting sentencing I attended church and felt God's hand on my shoulder. I realized that for a long time I had been giving God a list of wants, that if all I do in prayer is tell God what I want, I reduce him to the role of servanat and elevate myself to the postion of master. I made a decision to surrender to God. I no longer felt alone and hopeless.
There are some amazing people inside the walls of the prisons. People who dedicate their lives to making change in the unchangeable. Making a difference where everthing is always the same. They came up against the hardest, toughest criminals and they treat them with love and respect.
I don't know if they could have helped me the first times inside, as I had none of the willingness that I had during my third incarceration. For the first time I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. All I knew was i couldn't do it alone and this was my last chance.
The courts gave me a healthy length of time to pay for my crimes. they determined I needed to attend a drug education class before I left the Federal holding facility for prison. i remember I thought this was a real joke. What could they tell me about drugs? At the end of the class they informed me that by requesting placement in further drug treatment, I would attend a program designed to give to give me the tools to make a lifstyle change and hopefully not return to prison. I signed up.
Working on my issues with a group of other inmates, supervised by proffesionals, i learned a lot about myself. I saw how the choices I had made were very self-centered and not dedicated to achieving my goals. I took a long look at my belief system, I learned to consider consequences, I was no longer a victim but began to take responsibility for my actions.
While inside, my husband divorced me, remarried, and denied letters or visits from my children. This was very painful but with my new way of thinking, I was able to feel his pain and look at the kind of parent I had been. there would be a lot of damage to repair. My children felt deserted and were angry.
At church the Sister offered me a volunteer position helping women make decorative cards to send home to their loved ones. in doing this I met a woman who worked in the prison teaching parenting classes. Knowing I would not be getting custody again, I did not elect to take these classes. Still she invited me to help decorate the children's visiting room, to participate in the planning for family day, she showed me interest in me, she offered me 'one on one' counseling concerning my parenting issues, I accepted, finding that very helpful in preparing for what was to come.
Soon, I was to return to the free world. Six years had passed since my first arrest. I was so scared.
What if I made the same mistakes?
What if my children didn't remember me?
What if they didn't want to see me at all?
Where would I live?
What if I couldn't find work?
I prayed long and hard, then used one of the tools I had learned in the lifestyle change program ... I asked for help. My counselor, my case manager, and other people who had worked with me during my incarceration helped me form a plan for successful re-entry. The first thing was to separate myself from old using friends and to have clean and sober housing. I applied to a post release halfway house.
On a warm August day, a designated inmate driver drove me to BART. Once in San Francisco, I rose to street level, opened the door to a stench that almost knocked me to my off my feet. I came from such a sterile environment. Urine from homeless and shameless, the odor of fossil fueuls, it was almost unbearable.My first instinctive thought was, go back .. it was safe inside. Walking towards the halfway house I saw a man in a convertible talking on a telephone while driving. This was all so new to me and was going to take some time to get used to.
At the halfway house, my first pass was a chuch pass, I went to the churches in the area each Sunday until I found the one that felt like my church and became a member after my Baptism.
Job hunting was difficult. Having to write that I am a convicted felon on each application didn't help my chances any. This was very frustrating, I used the tool of acceptance. After much searching I found a job.
After a few weeks in the halfway house, I was given another pass. I used this pass to attend a 12 step meeting where I raised my hand and told the people there my circumstances, I was welcomed, given phone numbers and invitations to other meetings and events. I used those phone numbers to create a support network for myself. Many of those women are still my friends today.
One month after my release, my ex-husband died of cancer. His new wife had written to me requesting I give guardianship of my children to her. This was a painfully hard decison to make. Using the tool of honesty, I feel I made the right choice. I have many resentments towards this woman. She replaced me as wife to the husband I loved and as mother to the children of my heart. I made a decison based on what was best for my children. My children have a well adujsuted life with her. Although I knew she would, like my husband had, exclude me from their lives, I agreed to sign the papersfor the guardianship. My P.O. informed me a few days later she had taken out a restraining order. I was to keep away until otherwise court ordered.
The time came to leave the halfway house in an unexpected way. I was told to leave on a moments notice, that my bed was needed for somene who was in need of supervision. I had a job, always tested clean, only went to church and 12-sep meetings. I was completely accountable. However, I had not made any arrangements for other housing. I had no where to go.
I walked the streets of San Francisco that night. I witnessed people using drugs, prostituting, pushing shopping carts. What was I going to do?
Using the tool of willingness, I called old friends and people from the meetings. One of my friends suggested I call John Mshoff, whom I had known since 1972, but always considered straight and kind of a nerd. He had a room for rent in his apartment but because of my criminal status he had fear of any long term committemnt and agreed to my staying for just a few days.
John was impressed with the changes I was making in my life. Every day I went to 12 -step meetngs and work. He soon agreed to rent me a room.
Living with an ex-con was difficult for John. he had little experience with women and none with the crriminal justice system. He had to accept the changes in my lfe were the ones I had to make and that no one else could make them for me. he wanted me to be a success so much that he was often asking did I send in my P.O. report, did I call drug testing today and all the other things that were my responsibility... requirements of my release.
This was not helpful, i had been constantly checked up on in prison, i felt monitored and told him if wanted, i would tryu to arrange a P.O. for him to report to. I told him that I am fragile, but that I need to take responsibility for my actions.
John laughed at how delighted I was to cook or do dishes and other household chores that had so long been unavailable in my life. We became very good friends. For the first time in my life I was in a relationship that was based on mutual respect not sex or my ability to manipulate my partner.
John earned my trust too. It was confortable talking with him. he asked me questions about prison life and I told him about attendinga Kairos inside. I told him about the community that Kairos creates for inmates who attend, about the reunions each month. He asked me if there was something I could do along those lines on the outside. i remembered the woman from the parentng classes had told me about Kairos outside, so I wrote asking to be a team member.
That was a few years back. Today. my life is not perfect, I have a much better job helping people learn to make healthy choices, I still attend church and 12 -step meetings, I see a therapist to work on my issues, I'm halfway through school towards a lifetime goal and participate weekly in a prayer and share group with women I met at Kairos Outside.
I wish I could give you a majic formula that would keep your loved one from having to return to prison, or, to get your loved one out if his or her time reaches far beyond the time it takes o reflect and change problematic behaviors.
If I have any advice to give you it would be love, listen, listen.
He or she wants to do all the right things. Remember, your loved one has live a life comparable to the fish trapped in this box. Upon release, he or she is flooded with new sights and sounds. tell them you trust them to do their best. Even if it means biting your tongue, tell them you are available should theuy need help.
Love, Love... Listen...Listen
May we recognize God in each other and see his divine activity in all we say and do. © Copyright Parvifox
All Photographs + Text © 2005 Christopher Keeley
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