Life behind bars

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

Crystal's Story

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. 

790 Days - Part Seven - Discipline

Isabelle S.

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.

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

790 Days - Part Six - The Flip side

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Isabelle S.

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?

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

790 Days - Part Five - Beauty

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Isabelle S.

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.

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

790 Days - Part Four - A Simple Truth

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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.

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

790 Days - Part Three: Disorientation

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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.

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

790 Days - Part Two: Social Differences, or how I react

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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.

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