Good pal Sue Ellen Allen harassed me (in a good way) for two years before I finally agreed to volunteer at Perryville Prison. Sue Ellen and friends started a book club, and what better place for me to be than a book club, right? So why the initial hesitation?
Was it because my father was once a parole officer? No. Was it because I don’t like to volunteer? No. Well, I mean, yes, I dislike volunteering (not very Christian, I know), but the main reason I didn’t want to volunteer at Perryville Prison was because I was scared. I had visions of Con Air. I just knew I would end up running from some Steve Buscemi freak show. Or maybe end up murdered. Or kidnapped. Something. Because to an outsider, that’s what prison is—a dark, scary place filled with hardened criminals who know how to turn a toothbrush into a lethal weapon. Was I wrong? Of course.
Getting into Perryville the first time wasn’t fun, however. There were intimidating security guards and metal detectors that went off because of my underwire bra. Once inside, it was obvious I was in prison, what with the barbed wire, heavily locked doors, and women in orange. Then, I met the girls, and they didn’t look much like hardened criminals to me. They looked like waitresses, lawyers, mothers, aunts—normal people in abnormal and unfortunate circumstances.
Many women who end up in Perryville are there because of drinking and driving. Think about that. How many times have you driven a car under the influence? One of the saddest stories I’ve heard is that of Jessica Robinson, whose mother, Jeanne, first introduced me to the world of Perryville Prison. Jessica was in radiography school, on her way to a successful career, when her life changed forever on September 5, 2008. She went out with friends that night, had a couple drinks, stayed up late, and fell asleep at the wheel on her way home. Her car accident killed someone, and she received a seven year sentence at Perryville. Her full story is here, at Jessica’s Operation Orange. The same thing could have happened to me. Or to you. Or to your best friend.
I’ve been to Perryville three times now. During each visit we discuss books like The Secret Life of Bees and Vinegar Hill—novels that beg to be discussed, especially by women. Last night was my first time rolling solo, and I had the chance to meet eleven spectacularly intelligent women trapped in unfortunate self-made circumstances. Yes, they feel guilt over what they did. Last night turned into a full-on therapy session as we discussed forgiveness and how these women worry that their children will never love them again because of the mistakes they’ve made. Then later, we laughed together, because women like to laugh, even in prison.
Has my life been altered by my experiences at Perryville? Yes. Do I still have visions of Con Air? No, because I’ve come to see these women for what they are: human beings who made horrible mistakes.
I believe in the inspirational, healing power of books, which is why I’m glad to host the monthly book club. I believe in second chances, which is why educational activities are necessary at Perryville. How can we expect inmates to be rehabilitated if they do nothing but rot in a cell for seven years? They need to be reminded that there is hope, because someday, the women I’ve worked with will be free. They will need forgiveness and support, so why not give them both while behind bars in order to make the transition easier?
I’m a volunteer at Perryville Prison—once hesitant, now empowered. I do it because I’ve made bad mistakes, too, and I want the women in orange to realize their lives aren’t over. When they are free, they will be given new lives. It won’t be easy for them, but I hope in some small way I’m helping by teaching them the beauty of books and the beauty of sisterhood, even in the most dire of circumstance.