Shaping a Future - Life After Prison - Dawn

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.

790 Days - Part Five - Beauty

Isabelle Blog Pic.jpg

Isabelle S.
20559660

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.
20559660

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.
20559660

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

Isabelle Blog Pic.jpg

By Isabelle S.
20559660

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.

Karen's Story

Karen's Story

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.

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.

Janny's story

Janny's story

Janny's story: how an Oregon woman who had never been in trouble with the law before found herself being sentenced as a repeat property offender under Measure 57. Janny Sumnall is serving nearly a decade at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility for her role in a series of burglaries of empty homes. She became involved in the crimes as a result of her relationship with her partner who was violent toward her.