Last night I spoke to 125 incarcerated women at Perryville Prison in Goodyear, AZ. I was asked to do so by Sue Ellen Allen with the organization, Gina’s Team. Sue Ellen, a convicted felon who spent time at Perryville herself, has made it her life’s work to help these women. Six times a year she brings speakers into the prison to speak to the women who work hard to earn a spot at one of these special events. The events are special because it’s a break from the monotonous routine of prison life: the same ol’, same ol’, day in and day out sameness.
My wife, Rose Mary, accompanied me to the prison along with 4 people from Gina’s Team who set up the event. Some rules: can’t wear orange or khaki. Rose Mary had on orange shoes and had to exchange them to wear flip flops borrowed from one of the team in order to get into the prison! As we were walking from the parking lot to the big metal building that serves as a cafeteria as well as the space I was to speak, the first thing I noticed were the buses full of women in orange. They got out of the buses along with their guards, and waited patiently in line while preparing to pass through a metal detector and to be patted down before they could enter the building. Our group walked in past the inmates with them all smiling and saying hi to us. We also had to go through the metal detector, with me taking off all of my jewelry, my belt, and my boots. I was allowed to carry in a book and some postcards with my “Rules of Success” to use as handouts. Once inside, an inmate named Laurie greeted us and said she would be warming up the crowd and introducing me. Turns out that she is President of the prison Toastmasters Club and has some real skills.
As the room filled there was an aura of excitement and anticipation from the sea of orange. Some were in very bright orange t-shirts and drawstring pants and some had on more faded versions. The bright orange is their visitation wardrobe that is worn when they get visitors so they can look nice. Most had on makeup. This was a big deal in their lives and they had dressed up for it.
Nearly every woman raised her hand when I asked how many were parents. I was there to talk to them about the trials of being a responsible parent – a challenge for all of us but especially when you rarely see your kids or talk to them. And a real problem when you get out eventually and have no money and no job and have missed so much of your kids’ lives. But make no mistake: these were concerned parents who wanted a different life for their kids than the one they were living. I started off by talking about how we don’t raise kids; we create adults. I talked about how we need to determine what an adult needs to know in order to be successful in the world. I asked them to tell me what they thought an adult needs to know and they started shouting things out to me. (They were very participatory and enthused to be asked questions.) What I found interesting was the answers they offered me to this very important question. The first thing yelled out in response to my question about what an adult needs to know was “how to pay your bills.” WHAT? I was surprised by that response but had to agree completely. So we talked about the importance of having knowledge of how to earn money, save, invest and be responsible. The next response to the question was “work ethic.” Again . . . WHAT? Great answer. The next, “TRUST.” Then “how to take responsibility.” BINGO: these were great answers. I did thirty minutes with them shouting out things they believed an adult needed to know to be successful, though many of them obviously didn’t know these things themselves, but desperately wanted to teach their kids these things. By the way, I have asked that question of many crowds and the responses are usually more along the lines of “what it means to be happy” “how to find my purpose” or other airy-fairy intangibles.
I went on to talk about the importance of taking responsibility and gave them my number one belief and foundation of all I talk about: Your life is your own fault. I explained, as I always do, that the most important thing you can do is go the mirror, look yourself in the eye, and tell yourself, “I made this mess, it’s my fault.” I wondered how that would go over as the words were falling out of my mouth. Would they hate what I had said, as it’s so easy to blame others for our problems and this is especially the case when you are in jail I might imagine. However, when I said it, these women applauded. One more time . . . WHAT? I told them how in my own life I worked to become very successful, and then lost it all. And how I learned to turn my worst thing into my best thing. I talked about how we all make mistakes but the most important thing is to own the mistake, take responsibility for it, apologize for it and learn from it so you don’t do it again. I said, “Your past is your fault, but so is your future.” Again, they applauded.
I told them about my kids and said that one of my sons was a Phoenix cop. There was an “Ooooooh” from the crowd. I responded with, “Looks like some of you may know him.” And they laughed and laughed. They all had a great sense of humor.
Then, it was time for questions from the crowd. They asked all kinds of things: about investments when you don’t have much money, about how to make it work financially when you are working several jobs and there still isn’t enough money; about communicating with their kids, about time management and how to set priorities, about what is important when you have a job and questions about my favorite books. I took probably 30 questions. Smart questions. Well- articulated questions. Thoughtful questions. My favorite: “Do you believe everything happens for a reason?” Oops, a set up. If I say, “Yes, everything happens for a reason” that’s a cop out because you don’t have to take responsibility for what happens because obviously there was a reason. It’s a popular belief that allows folks a “way out.” Not my style, as you know. So I told her, “I believe that everything that happens has a lesson in it for us and it is our responsibility to learn the lesson so we don’t have to repeat it.” They all agreed. Many wrote that down.
I could go on and on about this experience but it would take too long. So let me summarize:
- Prison is a place you do not want to be.
- Don’t believe that the people in prison don’t care about their kids. They do. They care deeply.
- Inmates are still people. I think we have a tendency to forget that. I know that has always been the case for me. They have a great sense of humor. They have made mistakes and they know it. Most seemed to sincerely want to learn and change and do better. They were hungry for knowledge. They read.
- This speech may be the most important speech I have ever done. I was honored to have been asked. It was important, for me and hopefully for them.
Some of you may read this and believe I have gone soft or have forgotten that these women are criminals. I haven’t. I am a strong believer in jail and prison and punishment. I believe that all actions have consequences and that jail is the correct consequence for many bad behaviors. None of these women get a pass from me. However, I know that we must work to help these women (and men) to re-enter society upon release with the life skills to be able to make it in the world. To help them with the skills to get a job and keep a job so they don’t have to go back to drugs, or to their pimp or to stealing or to whatever their life was that got them there in the first place. Prison is expensive for all of us. But our society and our economy can’t afford to incarcerate people over and over again. In the long run, it’s cheaper to give them some support so their bad behavior won’t be repeated.
I encourage everyone to find out how they can help in some small way. If you want to find out more about Gina’s Team, please go to: http://www.ginasteam.org.