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