I am a 52 year old mother of seven children, six of whom are extremely successful adults. My youngest is 7 years old. I have a B.S. in Nursing, and have worked as a direct entry midwife. I love to cook, walk, read, write, and knit. I am a devout Christian who doesn't care for religion. I look and act just like a well educated, well rounded, healthy, middle-aged American woman. I also spent six months of the last year in prison.
Women make up approximately 7% of the average prison population, and women in prisons are the fastest growing part of prison populations. Most women in prison are there for non violent crimes, and women in prison are 33% more likely than men to have arrived in prison for drug and alcohol related crimes. At the same time, an alarming 60% of women in prison have been either physically or sexually abused, or both, at some time in their lives. Women in prison have children that are left behind with relatives, or lost all together to adoptive parents, if the woman's prison stay is deemed too long by the state human services department.
For me, my stay in prison was a result of a bad law that made my sins of the past a very present reality. I am a recovering alcoholic and at one point in my life, many years ago, was being ravaged by the disease. During that time, I racked up a fair number of OUI's and OAS's, but after a couple of trips to rehabs, and finally, a halfway house, I was able to achieve, and maintain my sobriety.
As a habitual offender, I did not have a driver's license for a very long time, and one day at the end of my abusive marriage, I drove to the grocery store, just to get away for a bit. On my way back, I was pulled over and arrested because my husband's car did not have a valid inspection sticker. Maine has a minimum mandatory sentencing law called Tina's Law, and as a result, I was sentenced to 3 years in prison, with all but 9 months suspended, and 2 years of probation for a trip to the grocery store without a license. With good time, and the support of my probation officer, I was out in six months.
It was two years after my arrest that I finally walked through the prison doors. Within an instant, I knew I had entered a world that I did not know existed. It was one thing to be locked in a prison cell for 22 hours a day with a stranger and the toilet/sink combo in your cell, just like on TV, and having to adjust to the intense deprivation and lack of creature comforts. It was quite another thing to be suddenly, and very harshly, slapped in the face with the stark reality that on my very worst day on this planet, that I have had more advantages in life than most of my fellow inmates had ever known, or would have a chance to know.
As I listened to their life stories, and their perceptions of what "normal life" was , I realized that there was a whole part of our society that I had been absolutely oblivious to, except again for depictions on television and in movies. In their reality, friends did nothing but steal from them, or abuse them. Husbands and boyfriends hit some so hard that they lost babies, or had residual brain damage, and other men, usually relatives, used them for drugs and sex. Parents gave coal for Christmas and nothing else, and locked a little girl out of the house, stark naked and in bitter cold, because she was 6 and didn't want to get dressed for school one morning. Mothers were the first person to hand a crack pipe to a number of young women and teach them how to use it. They had sisters also in prison, or sons, or husbands, or aunts, or fathers.
What these women were left with from these experiences was a pain so deep that the only way to squelch it for a time was with drugs and alcohol, starting from a very early age. What I saw was a group of bright, loving, talented women with few or no life skills, a lot of anger, and no concept of unconditional love or love of self. And little to nothing was being done while these women were in prison to change these things and make certain that they didn't return. Some have been in two or three times already, and were barely 30 years old.
I cannot express the sense of guilt that I felt, and continue to feel, for not knowing that there were so many beautiful women with so many gifts living a life so very different from my own---women who, with the right help, could light up the world with their insight, hopes, and talent. From that point on, my prison stay became less and less about me, and more and more about them, and what needed to change within our legal system, and the prison system to fix what is obviously broken. Part Two of this series will look at what is done for women in prison prior to their release, and what changes must be made if we, as a society, want to stop turning our backs on this waste of precious human lives, not to mention money.