My Time in Prison

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.

Jessica, pre-Perryville.

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.

Inside Perryville.

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.

18 thoughts on “My Time in Prison

  1. Thank you for Volunteering Sara. I have a daughter in Perryville. I really wish that I lived closer so that I could help out. So I could join a book club. I live 2 hours away. I have done a book drive. I have 5 boxes of books to bring down to Jeanne. I can not wait to meet her. I have also joined the Sunshine Club. Thank you once again for all you guys do. 🙂

  2. Oh, Sara, you made me cry, good tears. Thank you so much for finally jumping in with both enthusiastic feet to bring your talent and experience to these women behind the wires. YOU are making a difference, a huge one. We are all so grateful

    • Sue Ellen
      I just wanted to say. I loved your book. It helped to understand more what my daughter is going through. She is on the San Carlos yard. We have for more years to go. Thanks to all for your thoughtful and caring help. 🙂

  3. Great comments, Sara. More people need to interact with inmates to realize what you did. These people are like the rest of us, except that their mistakes became public. Our state needs to provide more opportunities for rehabilitation.

  4. Sara,

    I, too, have been to prison. That force of nature, Sue Ellen, invited me there and I’m now a familiar face inside. Everything you wrote resonates with all of us who go there. You are making a huge difference. Thank YOU! Martha

  5. I worked at a 3/4 Level prison for men for a while. It really opens your eyes to a different side of human nature. I was able to handle college tours where college psychology and criminal justice students got to meet with murderers and such. It was a great experience. It was terrifying to go into a room full of male felons, but it taught me to toughen-up. A lot. Great post!

  6. Pingback: Book Clubs in Prison « Sue Ellen Allen's Blog

  7. Well done on your blog, Sara. I too volunteer for the book club at Perryville.
    I love attending my own book club and love moderating the book club at Perryville because they are women, ordinary women who’ve made a mistake.
    They love books and are excited to discuss them. I volunteer with Jeanne on gathering books for Jessica’s Operation Orange and it is rewarding to help, especially when you can give a part of yourself to help others….and get to enjoy books!

  8. Great post about you and about the women in Perryville. I chair a non-profit that works with ex-offenders to get them back into the workforce and so often, it was one small bad decision that changed a life. Blessings to you for helping to change them again.

  9. Thank you so much for writing this post. So moving and thoughtful, and a perspective that helps make the real world “behind the wall” more accessible to those who have not been there.

  10. My name is Heather Heaton, and I am a new Alabama author. Please consider helping me introduce my story, a series of ebooks entitled “Her Letters from Prison”, to your friends. I don’t want other young girls to have to experience what I have had to endure.

    My new ebook series (“Her Letters from Prison”) is an inspirational resource for reading pleasure, review, contemplation, and discussion. My own testimony is: “God changed my life in prison!” http://heatherheaton.posterous.com/my-ebook-series-her-letters-from-prison-women

    “Her Letters from Prison” (Parts 1 & 2) will validate your inquisitive thoughts and doubts about what goes on in women’s prisons (It is what it is!); and it can justify the efforts spent toward women’s prison ministries. These two ebooks can be a motivational (tell-it-like-it-is) resource for drug rehab/prevention and reentry programs, especially when combined with “Her Letters from Prison – Part 4: Recycled – Second Time Around”.

    “Her Letters from Prison” is a non-fiction, inspirational, romance ebook series; with the original letters (with prison art) included as images for authenticity. My story describes how female offenders are perceived and handled (often abused) in the criminal justice system. The story continues (Part 4) to describe my first two years of re-entry back into the real world and how she ended a destructive narcissistic-codependent relationship.

    “Her Letters from Prison: Women-in-Prison” (Part 3) contains two PowerPoint presentations prepared for the University of Alabama/Women’s Studies “Women in Prison” conference. Both presentations are based on Parts 1 & 2 of my story; and they are entitled “Women-in-Prison (Almost Invisible)” and “Women-in-Prison (Facts/Myths)”. Also, my personal testimony is included in the Part 3 publication.

    You can go to http://www.heather-heaton.com, and click on a direct link to my Amazon.com and/or Smashwords “book pages” for “Her Letters from Prison”. Alternatively, you can visit my “author pages”:
    1. http://www.amazon.com/author/heatherheaton
    2. https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/heatherdh

    My ebooks are also available in paperback format. The paperback book (“Her Letters from Prison”) may be obtained by contacting me through my website “contact” form. The paperback book contains Part 1, 2, and 3 ebooks. “Her Letters from Prison – Part 4” will be published as its own paperback book soon.

    Also, I have a new ebook series entitled “Women-in-Prison Short Stories” available now on Amazon.com and Smashwords. This series is intended to help troubled teens understand the real, true prison environment in terms of the personalities, crimes, and relationships inmates must deal with on a daily basis. The message is, “You don’t want to go to prison!” These true short stories describe the relationships between individual inmates with severe crime(s) and other inmates who must react to and deal with those who committed severe and often violent crimes. The short stories are being published now as individual ebooks; but eventually, they will be grouped together and published as a single composite ebook and perhaps a paperback.

  11. I personally know the family of the driver that was killed by Jessica Robinson and the grief and heartache they had to go through.

  12. Keep in mind the majority of these women didn’t make one mistake or even two mistakes. Most of them made repeated “mistakes” time and time again. It wasn’t until they just wouldn’t shape up and do what’s right (obey the laws) that they were finally sent to Prison. There are consequences for bad decisions. Drinking and driving is a bad decision and unfortunately it can result in killing an innocent person or persons. I wonder how sympathetic you would be if a drunk driver “chose” to take that risk, the risk of killing someone and did so…your loved one. I don’t feel sorry for these women. Like all women, they have made bad choices over and over again. This is their consequence and believe me, most of them were warned it could come to this. They were told this by their attorney, the judge and probation officer the ten plus times they broke the law(s) and was arrested before being sentenced to Prison. Someone is always hurt, some more than others with each of their bad actions and decisions. I have no sympathy. In fact, I think they have it too good. They don’t worry about paying their electric, gas, phone, water, grocery or laundry bills. They eat every day and have a roof over their heads. Most of them go to work every day too, but don’t have to worry about gas for the car. Transportation is provided to them if it’s away from the prison. That spending money isn’t a lot, so they have family and friends supplementing their income. Friends and family come to visit with them. They mingle with one another, have their smoke breaks and even do their best to manipulate, have fun and flirt with the officers. They are all there for a reason, and as mentioned most of them are for many, many, many reasons. Once they are out, we are then expected to do for them? What about all the people that need help, but haven’t broken the laws? They are just typical, regular women with children who they love and do their best to provide for. They just made lawful decisions throughout their lives, but let’s focus on these poor, pathetic women. Really? .

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