Coffee Creek

The Good Teacher - Zuleyma's Story

Zuleyma was known as a “good teacher” to her students and colleagues during the years she taught K-12. But her career in education came to an abrupt halt when she was arrested for selling drugs. An abusive partner had gradually come to have more and more control over Zuleyma, pressuring her to do whatever it took to keep her partner happy. That included selling drugs and becoming cut off from family and friends. In this video, Zuleyma explains what happened next.

Interview and videography by Greta Smith.

The Good Teacher - Chapter 3: Lost and Healing

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For the first two years, I was angry and bitter and refused to accept that this had become my life. I especially resented the fact that I had become a felon and was sent to prison for something I felt I wasn’t at fault for. My world stopped and I lived in shame and embarrassment from my name being in the news on local channels as a drug dealing teacher gone bad. In addition, my friends disappeared and did not want to be around someone who was in prison.

I lost my house and material possessions. My family members helped me with everything they could, but some of them lived in Canada and it was difficult for them to keep in contact with me. Eventually I felt so lonely and lost and didn’t know how to begin confronting my situation. I was scared and trying to figure out how to survive in prison. My friends disappearing was a hard lesson because I thought people would care about me, but life showed me that people will fail you when you face difficult situations.

I arrived at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility for women in June 2012. I went through intake where women are separated and classified. The ones with less severe crimes and a release date of four years or less go to the minimum-security side. The ones with more severe crimes and life sentences go to the medium-security side. After spending a month on intake, I was finally sent to minimum where I was given a bunk with a thin, crappy mattress, a pillow, one blanket, one thin bar of soap, a small cheap bottle of shampoo, a small toothbrush, and some baking soda that I was supposed to use for toothpaste. The space in the bunk areas are very restricted. About three feet away from each other. You need to have money on your account to buy canteen, which are approved items of food and hygiene products.

I started to work for the canteen warehouse at the Salem headquarters. I learned how to operate a forklift and to unload pallets of canteen items for all the prisons in the state of Oregon, men and women. I did inventory of items, and entered information of popular items sold in prison such as shoes, clothing, makeup, food, and drinks. I worked Monday through Friday from 6:30 AM to 3:30 PM and was paid $72 a month, which was the top pay in the prison. I did this for one year.

In the afternoon, I would help women prepare for their GED test and felt very grateful that these women are now getting a basic education to better their future. My contributions were very worthwhile because I knew they were going back to their children and would be able to get better jobs to support them.

I worked on myself as well and got into a few coping skill classes to help with my codependency issues. I also managed to get some therapy regarding the psychological abuse that I had experienced in my relationship. In addition, I found running to be very therapeutic and got very good at it. It also helped me release a great deal of stress and worries. I took every class I could to better myself so that I would have an opportunity to work upon my release outside. 

I never wanted to know anything about my ex partner.  I had finally felt free from her control and free of being scared. One morning I woke up and said to myself, “What was I thinking? I lost everything and I am in prison.” This actually made me work harder to become a better person. In fact, I took trainings for certifications like CPR, food handlers, hazmat, forklift, facility maintenance training. In addition, I was part of physical activities such as the 5K marathon and creating physical circuits to help other women find healing through physical fitness. I meditated about my life in prayer and gratefulness, becoming more humble and appreciative of the world.

After a year of working for canteen, I applied to physical plant where women are trained for trades such as electrician, welding, carpentry, landscaping, and painting. I was part of the electrician’s crew and work in this for the remaining time at Coffee Creek. I met so many women in bad circumstances that sent them to prison, like domestic abuse, being homeless, and mental illness that had caused addictions to drugs or alcohol. Many of the women genuinely had remorse for their crimes.

Zuleyma’s story continues in an upcoming post - Chapter 4: Making a Positive Life

790 Days - Part Eleven - The end of a cycle

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Isabelle S.

I’m coming almost full-circle to completing a year of my life, blogged monthly within these posts. And within this context, I’m starting a new year, too. I’m starting again with school, and I’m starting again with new possibility. This is where I was back in 2013, when I first moved to Oregon - an incoming freshman going into a private liberal arts school, waiting to see what an education could or would bring, only with more desperation on the line.

I’ll be coming in with a year of school under my belt, so I’m no longer a freshman. But the point remains the same. I don’t believe many people reach the opportunity in their lives to simply press ‘redo’; to go back to the very same place in which they were before some seemingly fatal life decisions were made, and to get the choice to act again. And this seems to be where I find myself now.

It could also be that I misunderstand the situation, and perhaps this is what it’s like to fully step into your life again - perhaps many women come to this crossroads, where they come face-to-face with the same situation where they would have acted differently years ago. And that’s the thing about incarceration, when it’s done as it’s meant to be - people just come out different. We come into the same lives we used to inhabit, but now we wear a different skin. And that’s why sometimes, there’s no better adjective to describe this whole thing than simply being weird. It’s dichotomous. You - me - I’m split in two. I experience life through multiple filters, depending on which history of mine I’m tuning into. And very specifically, it’s split in half by my time at Coffee Creek.

So, as I start this new year, in the wonderful position I have, I get to see it through this lens. I get to see it as the culmination of the work I’ve done in prison, and as the second chance I believe every human being deserves. It’s only when we put ourselves back where we first started that we are able to see just how much we’ve grown.

And how beautiful an opportunity that is.

And, if I can say so at this point, thank you for reading any part of my story that you have. Hopefully it grants a little bit of insight into the fragmented nature of change, and of our justice system. I know my life has shifted tremendously from it, and I only look forward to seeing how this develops.

I’ll see you on the other side, my friend.

The writer underwent two years at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Oregon, convicted for charges directly related to an active drug addiction.

Payton's Story

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.