I met Sue Ellen Allen via Ignite Phoenix, and she looked like a sweet, gentle, cheerful lady who I wanted to get to know. At the time, I didn’t know her story. Now, I do, and it shocks me. You can Google her name. I dare you. You’ll find a story of fraud, conviction, and seven years of imprisonment, and it is the last thing you would expect. This journey gave her a purpose and a passion, and she is spreading that passion to me and many, many others. She’s written a book about it—The Slumber Party from Hell—that will hit bookshelves August or September of 2010. She is an inspiration, and the rest of this entry belongs to Sue Ellen.
An H and Five Ws with Prison Survivor Sue Ellen Allen
How did you end up in prison?
I think fate put me there. I could tell you a long story about business fraud, lawyers, judges, and investors, but honestly I know it was my journey and I was meant to be there.
Who was your main inspiration behind bars?
When I arrived in prison, I realized how blessed I am. I have had an incredible life of travel, opportunities, love, and friendship. I have a wonderful education. I’ve never been abused nor done drugs. I met too many women there who were victims of the most unthinkable abuse. How do you wrap your mind around young women who were raped by their fathers before they were 13? They start doing drugs to escape the pain and then sell their bodies to pay for the drugs and yet they are the ones who go to prison. They inspired me to coin a motto that I live by now. “Been there. Done that. Now how can I help?” I learned that everyone, everyone has a story of struggle and pain. When you can turn your pain into power by helping someone who is going through what you’ve already experienced, your life will have meaning and be a success.
What was the worst part about prison?
Battling advanced breast cancer and watching my roommate dying was the worst. It still stuns me to think about how some people can be so lacking in compassion for people who are suffering. The last weekend before Gina died, she was too weak to climb up to her bunk. She stayed on mine, and I held her in my arms and said the twenty-third Psalm over and over. “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” That psalm is amazingly powerful and comforting.
People think prison is like the movies with dark corridors and ominous music playing in the background. It’s not. It’s not a happy place, but it is a microcosm of life with good days and bad, friendships, laughter, birthday celebrations, and rollercoasters of emotions, just like life anywhere. I missed my husband. I missed fruits and vegetables. I missed softness. I missed animals and nature.
Where was your first stop after your release?
My friend took me to Paradise Bakery for lunch. I stood at the counter with my mouth open and looked at their huge menu on the wall with all the pictures. So many choices to consider after nearly seven years without choices. I ordered the vegetarian sandwich because it had lots of tomatoes, and I had missed tomatoes desperately. In prison you rarely get fresh veggies. We were allotted 2 paper-thin slices of tomato every six weeks, and when I say paper thin, I mean it.
When did you realize your purpose outside?
When I walked into the prison I knew I wanted to make a difference. Because I was battling cancer, I asked the deputy warden if we could have our own cancer walk for breast cancer month in October. Everyone was stunned when the answer was yes. So one sunny Saturday morning in October a huge turn out of inmates dressed in our bright orange uniforms walked around our track. The first year we raised $10,000 for breast cancer from inmates who make about 25 cents an hour on average. They were so excited to be a part of something and actually able to give to the community. So many of them have been touched by breast cancer through family members or friends. I’m proud to say that walk is now held in every state prison facility and has raised over $100,000 for the American Cancer Society. It’s a huge event inside.
Then I decided I wanted to do something that would help the women and wouldn’t cost the prison anything. I came up with Toastmasters. I had been a member of Toastmasters on the outside and knew the power of the organization. I wrote to the headquarters for information, and they sent me a packet to start a Gavel Club, a division of Toastmasters designed for institutions like prisons. It took about a year of writing proposals and generally begging and humiliating myself, but it was finally approved. That was in 2004. That group is still going strong and changing lives. It has spawned two other clubs now, and the prison would like to start others. We just need some outside volunteer/mentors to help.
I was blessed to be allowed to design a curriculum for and teach a 14 week course called Life Skills that is still going on, successfully taught by other inmates. All of this helped define my purpose of GINA’s Team.
Why did you start GINA’s Team?
Gina died of undiagnosed leukemia at 25 because the medical department wouldn’t give her a simple blood test to find out why she was so sick. No one could believe it. I wanted to make sense of her death when it made no sense. I reached out to her parents, and they came to visit. We held on to each other because we were both struggling in our grief. GINA’s Team was born of our desire to give meaning to her life and death. GINA is an acronym for Getting Inmates Needs Addressed. We have a pilot program approved by the Director of the Department of Corrections to bring educational programs into Perryville prison. We bring speakers and community leaders in to speak to the women. To date we have presented Olympic Gold Medalist Misty Hyman as well as State Representatives Cecil Ash and Kyrsten Sinema, the first legislators to actually go into Perryville and speak to the inmates. We have presented a play by John and Linda King on domestic violence. We have a course in creative writing being taught by one of our volunteers and will soon be starting a class in civics taught by interns from ASU who are helping our organization grow.
We have a monthly program for juvenile girls at Mingus Mountain Academy in Prescott Valley and another beginning at Sunshine Homes. We believe that our work can help empower these young girls to change their lives before they make the fatal decision that can take them to prison. We see Gina’s face in theirs and want to help.
We are also talking to the department of corrections about developing a mentoring program to help newly release women have a successful reentry. We incarcerate more people per capita than Russia or China and yet 93% of all inmates will be released. We need successful reentry to help rebuild lives and save tax money. There are so many opportunities to help this disenfranchised and forgotten population. Prison was very, very hard, but it has given me my passion. I feel blessed to be a part of something so exciting and useful. I like to remind people that “Education, not incarceration, is the cheapest form of crime prevention.” Who said that? I did.
Get involved and get in touch: http://sueellenallen.wordpress.com/.
GINA’s Team on Twitter: http://twitter.com/GINAsTeamAZ.