Mass incarceration

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.

What's caused the huge rise in women in prison in Oregon?

In the last twenty years, the number of women in prison in Oregon has tripled, even while property and drug crimes - the major drivers of women's incarceration - have fallen. What's causing the problem? Over-zealous charging practices, mandatory minimum sentencing, and treating more crimes as felonies are major reasons for the rise. Oregon is spending millions of dollars annually to warehouse women that we could be investing in treatment and community programs. 

To learn how you can make a difference on this issue, visit the Oregon Justice Resource Center website.