Payton describes how prison re-traumatized her, triggered memories of an abusive behavioral modification program that she survived as a teenager, and crushed her soul. Her experiences in prison and the lack of trust and resentment that prison fostered in her has made life back in the community a struggle. She believes that there is not enough education for young people about how the criminal system functions and the grave consequences that can result from seemingly small actions.
As this is my second to last blog post, I’ve been thinking a lot about how this last year in blog-writing has passed. I’ve thought about the changes in myself, in what I’ve written about, and in my perception of my own space in society. And although I haven’t reached any conclusions by any means, I have realized that this has been one hell of an extraordinary adventure. I’ve had all sorts of means come test my boundaries, and although troublesome at the time, they really blossomed into opportunities to get to know myself.
I was reading an issue of Harper’s the other day, and in their miscellaneous readings section they had published a short letter-to-the-editor written by Oscar Wilde in the late nineteenth century. And, even more apropos, it was his direct commentary on England’s prison system at the time, from his experience serving two years incarceration for “sexual indecency” - or what we might now know of as homosexuality.
I realize there will always be injustice in the world, which seems a sad, but also liberating truth to bear. Although I imagine conditions must have been harsher at the time, Wilde’s commentary was so strikingly similar to what I saw, and my own identification with incarceration that it left both a feeling of vindication, and a little residue of hollowness.
As long as systems remain what they are - which is to say, human pieces of machinery - there will be people subjugated by them. I don’t know if this is what matters so much as it is learning how to live through them, and despite them. I’m no idealist about systems change. but I do think we can become more aware of the world we live in, because, the way I see it, each one of us has had a part in shaping it, most likely unconsciously.
I’ve lived with enough guilt in my life to know better, by now. I’ve done some pretty harmful things, and I’ve been hurt in some pretty brutal ways. But neither of those matters so much to me anymore. I’ve had to make my amends where possible, and I’ve had to take accountability in order to be able to make that last claim. But regardless, in looking back at each statement I’ve made, and each subject I’ve thought important, what I see is my own future in the making.
And that is the most liberating truth I could ask for.
The writer underwent two years at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Oregon, convicted for charges directly related to an active drug addiction.
There is a nearly miraculous power behind decisions. I’ve heard somewhere that, on average, a human being makes about 35,000 decisions in a day - this counting every infinitesimally small, almost unconscious choice we might make, between choosing to reach for another piece of toast, or choosing how we feel about how our significant other responds to us.
Decisions are powerful.
And I really learned of their power behind bars. Prison is a place, almost the trademark place, where one might think of a person as deprived of choice. And that’s pretty accurate, in one very evident light. In another, the most crucial decisions in my life have been made in this space, where I was most physically restricted.
I think most of us are familiar with the idea of traumatic life events (potentially) leading to spiritual realizations, or major life shifts. Unfortunately, they can also come with depression, uncertainty, ostracization, loss of property, relationships, and personal identity, and many other effects besides.
What separates one person from another in a place like prison very quickly comes down to one thing: the power of decision. Those who are considered successful within its walls come to this place by hard work, that much is evident. It isn’t easy to live every day when you’re in prison, for anyone, I think. No matter how much you get used to it, there remains a part of you acutely aware of all the things you’re missing: your niece’s graduation and your daughter’s first birthday; the cool feel of roughened bark under your hand; the smell of coffee in the morning, when you’re lounging around the table with nothing yet to do. You really know what you don’t have, when you don’t have it. Cliché, but true.
And the power of decision is what kept me going. I realized, if I wanted to move forward, the only part of my life I could develop any grasp of was my own relationship to what was happening around me. I had to learn to separate myself from the consequences, and keep going. I had to decide to be happy, because what I didn’t have wasn’t going to come to me anytime soon.
So, I decided to notice the small stuff. The trees I was privileged to see from the window four bunks down and two bunks north of me became some of my best friends in the two years I spent in Coffee Creek. (As a side note, I was housed in the minimum-security facility. Within the medium facility, in its halls and its cells, there are no windows.) I would look to those trees when I needed support, or reassurance, and it meant the world to me to know there was something I could count on just being there.
Life is funny in this way; you never know where it’s going to take you. But you can be certain of how you choose to handle it - that much, I believe, is firmly within your grasp.
The writer underwent two years at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Oregon, convicted for charges directly related to an active drug addiction.
When Ailene left Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, she quickly found a job working in fast food and started to volunteer at a detox facility. She soon realized that, with the many barriers she faced as a formerly incarcerated woman, she needed to go back to school because education would be the key to building a new life for herself and her children. She's a passionate advocate for more educational opportunities for currently and formerly incarcerated people.
"That prison education programs are highly cost effective is confirmed by a 2013 RAND Corporation study that covered 30 years of prison education research. Among other things, the study found that every dollar spent on prison education translated into savings of $4 to $5 on imprisonment costs down the line.
Other studies suggest that prisons with education programs have fewer violent incidents, making it easier for officials to keep order, and that the children of people who complete college are more likely to do so themselves, disrupting the typical pattern of poverty and incarceration."
This video was produced and edited by Avalon Edwards, who is a rising junior at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. She chose to intern with the Women’s Justice Project this summer because she wanted to learn more about the unique and often overlooked challenges that incarcerated women face.
WARNING: this video includes description of sexual harassment and abuse that you may find disturbing.
Barrilee was incarcerated in Oregon in the 1990s, before Coffee Creek Correctional Facility opened in 2001. Due to overcrowding at the previous women's prison, she and others were sent by the State of Oregon to Arizona, to a private prison run by Corrections Corporation of America. At that prison in Florence, Arizona, she experienced intimidation, sexual harassment, and sexual abuse at the hands of guards. Barrilee returned to custody in Oregon but her troubles did not end there.
In 2012, four percent of state and federal prisoners reported having experienced some type of sexual victimization. The intention of incarceration is to hold people accountable for the crimes they commit, yet many finish their sentences with new abuses and traumas to contend with on the outside.
In my eyes, freedom began when I recognized the intense amount of help I needed. One of the most difficult circumstances of modern-day life, I think, is that nagging sense of why. Why, when we have so much, does life happen the way it does? What’s the enduring purpose behind all of this materialism? Why keep trying?
These are sincere questions I think many of us encounter at some point within our lives - maybe during moments of stress or transition, at the loss of a loved one, or the end of a major step in our lives. These questions arise from a place of deep innocence within each of us. These are the questions that were awakened within me by the sequences of life that brought me into Coffee Creek.
It is this sincerity that also awoke a deep understanding within me. If I want to live what I consider to be a successful life, I need to take responsibility for creating it. If I wish for purpose, I need to make it. Over the two years I had to be with myself, I realized that what I wanted could be distilled to simple terms: love and happiness. I realized that even though I didn’t know it at the time, I was being guided by a set of beliefs, tied to very basic desires - and once I recognized this, I could take back responsibility for achieving those desires.
I wanted something to matter. I wanted something to live for. In Coffee Creek, I found many women turned to their children (as most women within Coffee Creek were mothers) as a motivation to keep them afloat. People often talked about the lives they would create for themselves and their families, if they were given the chance to. I couldn’t identify in the same way, but in my mind I saw leaving Coffee Creek as a way to change my life, and as a way to give birth to a different self.
That’s why, when I was released, I took every opportunity I could put my hands on - I joined groups, started meditating, got a membership at a gym, found a housing assistance program, started multiple jobs, found a career and finance coach - all because I didn’t know what lead would take me where I wanted to go. I knew that if I tried as many things as I could, I would figure it out eventually. I would feel out the direction in which I wanted my life to go.
It’s only by beginning to accept this help, by declaring a state of openness and vulnerability, that I was able to begin moving away from the cravings and depression that had ruled my past life. Instinctively, I knew I needed to throw myself into my life in order to fully detach myself from my past. Unfortunately, that possibility isn’t always there for everyone. But, part of me deeply believes that if we open our eyes, we will find a way to grow out of our desperation. We all come from different circumstances, and so this growth is unique to every person. It is my desire to see our cultural focus shift away from the past, and towards this growth.
The writer underwent two years at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Oregon, convicted for charges directly related to an active drug addiction.
At just 19 years old, Crystal was sent to Coffee Creek Correctional Facility on a 16-and-a-half year sentence. In this video, she describes what it was like to arrive at the prison, how "old-timers" took her under their wing and how she adapted to prison life. Crystal explains how, despite her experiences of trauma and abuse, she found her voice and used it to speak up for herself and others.
One of my personal keys to handling distress is discipline. And where did I learn discipline? From Coffee Creek. Within its walls I lived in an environment where the sheer chaos and drama around me really drove me to find something deeper within myself; it forced me to find a source of sustenance that would keep me going. If I hadn’t looked there, I would have been sucked away by the ‘he said/she said’ stories (or in this case, ‘she said/she said’), or given in to fears and insecurities about what two years in prison was going to look like. (If you don’t think two years is a long time, you’re right - but try it yourself. It’s hard to swallow at the beginning.)
I find that most people I met in prison, at one point or another - and usually further along in their sentence - found this ability to ground themselves in their own reality. You can usually tell who’s new by their level of acceptance of reality, and by their groundedness (or lack thereof) in the present. This isn’t always true, but I think it speaks to the power of time. Within the walls of Coffee Creek, and essentially isolated from the fluctuations of the outside world, you start only to count on the very basic events of the day: meal times; shower times; when you can brush your teeth; when the lights will go off.
In my experience, having so few things to reliably count on actually helped me look for what was more important - the things that provided for my growth. I began to supplement my spare time with rigorous, routine exercise (not an uncommon thing to see many people turn to); within my spiritual service, I began to meditate daily and unyieldingly. In fact, I became known for this tradition, if for nothing else than the fact that it’s hard to hide anything you do from the 150 women who surround you - especially when you live on a top bunk.
Some of the habits I picked up were done so strictly, in a sense, that I wouldn’t (and don’t) pursue them in the same fashion out here as I did in there. My life has so far found a softness that I didn’t have the privilege to experience within Coffee Creek. The sometimes excessive discipline that I learned within those walls - for example, there were long stretches of time that I would eat very little other than raw vegetables and beans - helped me to truly experience the benefit that comes from pursuing a habit over time. I think if I hadn’t been forced to sit down for two years with very little to do, my young self might not have picked up on this for many, many years. After all, it’s hard (I think) for a 20-something to dedicate herself to any sort of activity, when there’s a whole wide world to experience.
Don’t get me wrong, I am still fond of varying experience. Only now I see that those two can go hand-in-hand. I see that dedicating myself to a discipline which truly helps me isn’t mutually exclusive to trying different things, or trying something, and if it just doesn’t feel right, letting it go. This is the softness I’ve developed. It means I know what helps me, and I keep doing it - but just because I do one kind of meditation, for example, doesn’t prevent me from joining a Buddhist group, or trying out a different form of yoga, or going to church. I try many things to help keep my life vibrant, but now I know what to hold on to.
Coffee Creek has taught me to become strong. The key is I now know what makes me stronger, and I keep doing it.
Isabel describes her experience of incarceration in Oregon and the challenges of accessing programming in prison that can help rehabilitate people or train them for new careers after prison. She believes better access to trade programs in particular would help prepare women for life outside. But even for those who have managed to learn a trade in prison, finding an employer who's willing to take a chance on someone who's been incarcerated is one of the major challenges of life after incarceration.
Isabel experienced houselessness before going into prison. She feels fortunate to have found agencies to help her with money after her release to secure housing. But persuading a landlord to look at a formerly incarcerated person as a tenant can be as difficult as finding work.
As unfortunate as it is, Coffee Creek was probably one of the best lessons I’d had in life about inequality. There is a definite culture to prison life, and it rings of disparity. It’s reminiscent of street life, and followed not only by the women in prison, but by many of the officers as well - particularly the newer ones, and particularly males.
I don’t mean to cast blame for perpetuating patterns. I understand that with particular life choices comes a particular way of staying safe, and this follows almost everyone into prison. What’s more disconcerting is the adoption of these beliefs by the staff members that spend nearly eight-to-nine hours of their day with us. What results is a system that feeds back to us the same message we’ve heard most of our lives (if you’re like most anyone who ends up in prison): You’re worthless, you’ll amount to nothing, and you’re here because you don’t know better and you can’t know better.
It’s not like these statements are directly said, for the most part. But they’re followed. It happens in the way we as women are spoken to, and the way we are spoken about. It’s my personal opinion that this can be one of the most debilitating aspects of incarceration: It forces someone to spend years in an environment in which they are treated no differently than they were on the streets, and in which support is mainly offered by its unpaid volunteers ... but rarely by its own staff.
I don’t want to be unfair - there are some amazing officers and other staff who have worked there for years, who care and know how to work their jobs properly. As usual, they’re too few for the overwhelming number of both inmates and assorted new officers.
Spending time in Coffee Creek, I experienced what many women thought about themselves through the ways they behaved, and the ways they were treated (myself included). I got to see the very real way that life was lived by other people, and I started to understand just how much of a life-and-death battle it really can be. I was able to see firsthand how choices no longer become choices, and what loneliness and raw need can do to us. I got to see what humanity is like under pressure. It’s important, and fragile, and part of every human life, but it remains within a very broken system.
It cut something open in me. I know there are other truths to be learned, and perspectives to see. Prison is seen as the underbelly of society - if so many of us can be locked away and treated with such disrespect, what does this say about the rest of us?
Our Women's Justice Project Director, Julia Yoshimoto, and our Director of Communication, Alice Lundell, spoke to host Doug McVay for Prison Pipeline on KBOO. We explained how our HerStory Oregon project works, what we've learned so far, and what's coming next. We also shared some extracts from video interviews with women who have been incarcerated in Oregon.
To listen to the show at KBOO's website, click here. This program was hosted by Doug McVay and produced by KBOO.
Angel describes the "lightbulb moment" when she realized everything had to change - and the long road to achieving change. After a police raid on her home with her child present, she was ready to build a new life, but first she had to get through a prison sentence.
On Sunday, October 29th, 2017, nine individuals told their stories in a performance titled: Shaping a Future: Life After Prison. The performance was the culmination of writing workshops sponsored by the Regional Arts and Culture Council.
The project was conceived of and organized by writing teacher, Carol Imani. The performance was held at the First Unitarian Church in downtown Portland and was directed by Chris Karczmar.
Each of the awe-inspiring participants read a monologue they wrote over the course of the workshops, they told stories of redemption, grit and determination centering around their reentry to society after time spent in prison.
The monologues were broadcast in a series of three shows by the Portland radio station KBOO. With kind permission of KBOO, we are sharing their broadcasts here. This show is part two of the series and features a monologue and interview with Dawn. Dawn's monologue begins at five minutes, 22 seconds.
To hear this program at the KBOO website, click here. The show was hosted by Amy Johnson and produced by KBOO for Prison Pipeline.
Life is about new beginnings. I feel it almost every day, as a deep truth in my bones. I’m particularly prone to think about this when I travel, when I’m around other people with no real agenda of my own. It’s almost like a solitude that covers me, that washes over me and keeps me afloat. It’s neither happy nor sad, nor necessarily ambivalent. It just is.
This is one of the greatest lessons I learned from Coffee Creek: life can take everything from you, and yet there is something you can never lose. Time after time I saw people find this thing within them, find this spark that kept them going, and yet I know from experience how many people lose this when they leave. They turn back to old lifestyles, to drugs, to people who may as well be a drug, for what they do to others’ lives.
I don’t believe it’s the individual’s fault. Some things are their responsibility, but we have built a system centered on capturing people, renouncing their identity, and covering them with shame. We leave them alone, and, when they’ve been alone for enough time, we put them right back where we found them, on the corner of a dirty intersection downtown. We provide some food and shelter, depending on the county and the circumstances of the crime.
Am I right to think this is bizarre? And yet I never saw such beauty as I did in Coffee Creek. I never saw so many amazing individuals, most of us deeply flawed or scarred in many ways, yet so desperately seeking to create something meaningful, because otherwise, how could we survive?
So, when I travel, I think about this beauty that I felt - I feel it, because it is a part of me. I feel the rawness in my soul that came from having everything taken away from me, with the exception of the truest, deepest spark in me. And, I’m not even sure I would have seen it, or recognized it, had I not had the people around me to nurture it. People with the wisdom and compassion to see past human bullshit and human fear, and nurture what was really driving me to continue living.
People who don’t find this die. I’ve also seen this happen. They look to be alive, they walk, they function, and they carry a heavy, heavy sense of despair, anger, resentment. They find any reason to keep retreating inwards, because the world is unfair, and we’ve been hurt so much. Being human, we have both of these things inside ourselves. Being human, I retreat and lash out and feel despair, at times. But at least I know this other thing - at least I’ve been shown another way.
The greatest tragedy of our prison system is to see so many people with so much potential, and to see very little done to encourage it, and to bring it to life. It isn’t enough to tell someone that they have a problem, and that they should fix it. We all need to be shown how to do it, don’t you think? And here’s a prime situation for it - a dorm full of 150 women, a cell block with 50 eight by five foot rooms, full of people that have nowhere to go and an aching sense that there could be something better.
You don’t go to prison thinking you’ve done alright in your life. Even people who outwardly boast about their crimes, inwardly, in some way, know they’re fooling themselves, or think there is no other life for them. They certainly won’t recommend it to you. When I first landed in jail, every single drug addict there was, at the same time that they’d be praising their drug, telling me to get off mine. I was too young, they said, they started that way too, and they would change it if they thought they could.
If they thought they could.
Why don’t we take it upon ourselves to show people the kind of life they can build, who might not know otherwise? I came from a background of such deep depression that I couldn’t see past my own nose. I didn’t know I could be happy. I didn’t know there was anything worth working for. Now I do.
April describes her experience of parenting from prison and the pain of separation from her children while incarcerated. She talks about the challenges of rebuilding her life after incarceration and her thoughts on what our community needs to do to make things better for people reentering society.
By Isabelle S.
For the first time in a long time, I can feel where I am. Today I can say this; tomorrow, I may not. But I feel the steps beneath me, and I can feel where every decision has led me.
For the first time in a long time, I feel capable. And I feel every mistake and victory that has brought me here as something that has been for a long time resounding in my soul.
Nothing in the last year has come easily. Every effort has been a challenge, and every moment another mountain to surpass. What’s slowly changed is my willingness to accept. I realize it’s a privilege to uncover these challenges. I wouldn’t wish my experience on anyone else, but I recognize that, for myself, it’s forced me to find a new way to live.
There’s so much I disagree with in our criminal justice system, and in the society that bred it. And my opinion of it fluctuates from day to day. I don’t hold anything against what I experienced, because I know it saved my life. But having to go through hell to get here was by no means a pretty thing.
What I see now is that we all need something to wake us up. We each need to find whatever experience was made for us in this life, so we can understand what’s really of importance to us, and why we’re really here. I wouldn’t have made it through the experience of incarceration if I hadn’t found a reason to get out of bed every morning, if I didn’t find something I could really believe in this world.
I hold with infinite gratitude what I learned in this life in the depths of my heart. And I try to reconcile it with all of the difficulties, with all of the craziness that’s come attached. That’s the challenge in talking about this, about recovery, and justice, and reform. Do I mention the gratitude I have, that I’ve discovered I can be happy in this life, and that I have another chance? If I do, does that devalue what I feel, or how hard it’s been?
It’s a little of both. And it’s been so hard for me to understand, walking through this process, that everything I feel along the way is absolutely okay. It doesn’t devalue my gratitude, it doesn’t make me self-centered or dim-witted. The fact of the matter is, life is a mixture of the good and bad. For everything wonderful I’ve gained, there’s been an equal time where I couldn’t see past the difficulties around me. For everything that’s become ten times harder now than before, I’ve gained ten times the reward.
Reentry has very much been an act of balancing myself and allowing life to continue moving around me while I find my place within it.
Life will keep changing. And I will find my place.
By Isabelle S.
Last month, I spoke about the difficulty of negotiating my space with others. Now, I want to focus on negotiating this space within myself.
Loneliness. This was, and continues to be, a key theme. One of the many reasons I remain grateful for my harrowing experience is for its ability to continually draw out of me the most unpleasant things I hold on to. I’ve felt lonely around people, as I think many of us do, and I also feel lonely within myself. That’s not new to my experience, but something of it is definitely reminiscent of life in Coffee Creek.
The way we frame post-release, we ask a lot of our soon-to-be fellow community members. Yes, there is an increase in resources and aid, as awareness of the national epidemic of incarceration is increasing. But there is also a growing expectation of our ability to adapt and adjust to the world we enter, and at increasingly faster rates.
I think this demonstrates something endemic to our culture: we expect so much, so quickly. And this is precisely what no class or counselor could have prepared me for. Yes, I expected to work hard when I was released. Yes, I expected it to be challenging. But I could not have prepared myself to understand just how much I would feel, and just how little time I would have to process it.
In fact, as I’ve shared before, it’s now been eleven months since my release, and this understanding is just beginning to catch up to me. I’m only now starting to see why life can be moving on so well before me (especially in contrast to what I went through before and during incarceration), and yet I feel dimly lost, and unhappy. In truth I am not; although I do feel unhappiness, I have no wish to be anywhere other than where I am in this moment. What I am doing is slowly processing my disorientation, learning to understand my own wants and needs, and coming to see how these may not be met by the world I’ve been encouraged to build around me.
In other words, I’m learning to think for myself.
Funny how something like that can sneak up on you, no? It’s no wonder I’ve reached out to people, asked for help, and at the same time had no idea what to ask for. It’s as if this voiceless wanting rests within me, and everything I’ve experienced to this point has told me to shut it away, for the sake of moving forward and putting my life back together.
In some ways, we all swallow difficulty to move forward. I consider it safe to say no one wants to be stuck in their emotions. But whatever happened to integration time? Whatever happened to sitting down with someone and saying, “Hey, I went through something really shitty in life, and I still feel sad about it, even though I think I shouldn’t be.”
Sometimes, it’s necessary to recognize the ways we’ve been affected by life in order to move on.
By Isabelle S.
One of the first things I notice in life after prison is this bizarre self-consciousness. I’m sure it was here before, only now, it’s very acutely evident to me. It feels like I’m wearing the wrong size pants, or I’ve shown up to a dinner slightly less well-dressed than everybody else. Bizarre examples, but a lot of this self-consciousness shows up in the way I perceive my body, my movements. That something is different about me seems so obvious, like something I carry around that everyone can’t help but see.
I used to have a somewhat solidly defined identity. I had an idea of who Isabelle S. was in that space: whether I identified as an addict or not, or in recovery, or a person of privilege and education; whatever it was, I had accrued things in my life that I had attached to my name, piecemeal.
And then I come to a place like Coffee Creek, where just the fact that everybody dresses the same, watches the same things, and lives in the same place - well, it removes a lot of barriers. Everybody starts to look the same, too.
In a way it can be a more personal experience - it takes more work, but you get to see people for what they think and how they act, rather than judging by a lot of the markers we’ve habitually learned to put our stake in, e.g. how well somebody is dressed, what style they’re representing, how put together they seem, etc. It definitely required a shift in perspective, and one that I appreciated while I was there.
I didn’t know how it would affect me once I left, however. I didn’t know that it would mean I also lost touch with some part of how I related to the world around me. For example, a lot of how people interact when we get to know each other revolves around sharing our common interests - what we like; what we watch; who we emulate; our heroes and icons.
That was one of the hardest parts of reintegrating. I felt like I was rejoining an entirely different culture, and wasn’t aware of the status quo. Having conversations with people where the mere mention of a single choice (“I like this color, or this type of food”) meant a world of possibility to me, and one I hadn’t been exposed to for years. It was overwhelming. And to describe these feelings I was having, like I was a newborn, who had just seen color in her world? I didn’t have the words for it.
It’s not as if this is a negative experience in its entirety. It’s that I felt awfully lonely in going through it. I didn’t want to be a part of a post-prison population; I didn’t want to sit in circles of others and identify myself as someone who had undergone a horrific experience. Ironically enough, it seems as if it’s where I would have found community. There didn’t seem to be very much of it in the other parts of my world, where people had already learned how to live, knew what they wanted, and got by, for the most part, without very much help from anyone else.
There’s a whole spectrum of things that defines contact with others; closeness, touch, familiarity. These are the things that are taken away in prison. You’re stripped, so that you can be “corrected.” And if they don’t do this in one way, they most definitely do in another. What saddens me is so few people recognize that, as human beings, we need these things. We can’t survive alone.
And that’s very much what I felt in my first few seconds out of that gate.
Karen grew up in Eugene, Oregon, with parents who were violent to one another and with a mother who abused alcohol. She spent time in foster care and a girls' home and started using drugs including heroin as a teenager. Addiction and bad relationships eventually led her to burglarizing homes for which she is now serving time in Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Oregon.