Saturday I spent all day in prison. I went to visit 150 inmates at a Woman’s Conference in a correctional institution in Maryland. Of the 800 women housed there these women are the ones that are preparing for release. I took several members of The W.I.R.E. (Women Involved in Reentry Efforts) with me. The W.I.R.E. is a network of previously incarcerated women who have successfully integrated into society after incarceration. One of the members of The W.I.R.E. was actually released from the Maryland Correctional Institution after serving 10 years. She knew almost everyone at the Woman’s Conference. She introduced me to
She is 33 years old and she has been in prison since she was 15 years old. She was in the same prison for 19 years. She had an opportunity to see the parole board four years ago, but she was in the Hole (segregation) for a disciplinary infraction. She decided to waive the parole hearing for fear that she would get a hit (set off) and be reprimanded to serve more time. It is four years later and she still has not submitted her request to see the parole board citing. She felt she wasn’t ready. That was heart wrenching for me.
I was looking at a young woman whose life was so parallel to my own. She is also from S.E., Washington, DC, is young, beautiful, intelligent, positive, outgoing, and involved in uplifting her peers in the institution. It was obvious she was not at the conference due to a pre-release status. She was there helping, to facilitate the set-up of various activities, making sure that everything ran smoothly. I asked her what she does to pass time daily. She replied, “I stay busy with school, helping others and learning all that I can.” I couldn’t’ help but remember when I would make myself so busy in prison that the days seemed to fly by. I was teaching classes, developing curriculum, facilitating exercise boot camp and more. It was my way of escaping the harsh reality of doing time. I learned that if you ever want to speed up time on an arduous, tedious task – don’t watch the clock. Immerse yourself into the activity and forget that time exists. Obsess over anything except time, because if you obsess over the slow pace at which time moves in prison it will no doubt get the best of you.
I left that institution Saturday feeling blessed but also sad and terribly frustrated. I wanted that young woman whose name, hair, and complexion were all similar to mine, to be more and more like me. “Don’t be afraid” I wanted to say. “You can soar… I wasn’t afraid…. Look at me.” Instead I told her, “I understand” although I didn’t. I told her about the support services in Washington, DC and pledged the support of The W.I.R.E.. I even agreed to stay in touch and assist her with the parole process. I asked her questions that I was asked during my hearing and tried to gage her responses. “You will do well.” I told her. Deep down inside I could not understand how someone could grow up in a prison and not be ready to leave each day. I could relate to some extent, but truly, I could not understand. After we left the conference we were all talking over dinner and I expressed my pain over meeting the woman. My Director likened her to a young person who is kidnapped and held for years and eventually the captor stops locking the doors and yet the person does not attempt to escape. That helped my headache subside a little, but my heart is still torn in two. To put the icing on the cake, my W.I.R.E. comrade turned to me and said, “You do realize she is not the only one, right? She is not the only woman there who went in as a juvenile and has been incarcerated for a long time. She is just the one I chose to introduce you to.”