My most quoted line was said completely off the cuff. Some other editors at Ms. magazine were throwing me an omelet party at some restaurant in the neighborhood for my 40th birthday. And a reporter said to me, kindly, “Oh, you don’t look 40.” And I said, just off the top of my head, “This is what 40 looks like — we’ve been lying for so long, who would know?”
– Gloria Steinem
Only July 18th, 2015, I walked out the California Institute for Women, in Chino Hills, after completing 438 days of incarceration in the care of the State.
It was raining, and my mom and I drove immediately away from the gates and towards tacos. I changed in the bathroom of the cozy taquería, removing my prison-casual wear with the business attire my family had prepared for me. It is what I am accustomed to wearing, here in the real world.
I am educated. I am close to my support network. I believe heartily in our responsibility to give back to our world and community. I like eating tacos, playing with dinosaurs, and reading Sherlock Holmes over and over again.
I am the 1 of 32 Americans who are incarcerated every year.
People want to hear my whole case study to weigh the merit of the accused crime and arranged penalty. Unsurprisingly, I am reluctant to tear out a painful piece of my life story — to rip out a piece of my gut and heart– and place it on someone’s singular moral scale. I am not the fresh pick of the deli today. Besides, every Scale of Justice should be calibrated the same…
but of course it’s not.
In a single hallway down a prison dorm, you’ll find women with matching charges and entirely different sentences. You’ll find women doing time because of things they did to survive while doing time. You’ll find women who still don’t understand the terms of their penalty because they cannot read, or were under the influence– or in mental duress– while arrested.
In a short walk down a hallway, you’ll find women whose stories you can’t avoid– stories that sit on your heart and break your scale because you know they were legally-sound decisions. Just as you know– just as you pray— that if your little sister or daughter found herself in the same corner that she would find the strength to take the same action, even knowing the cost.
But most importantly, you will find women.
You’ll find mothers who stay up all night studying Algebra so they can keep up with their too-smart middleschooler. You’ll find wives who painstakingly turn greeting cards into frames so they can look their husbands in the eye every time they walk out the door. You’ll find great-grandmas, skipping meals to be available for their assigned phone time with their brood. You’ll find daughters, kneeling by their bunks, reciting family prayers.
And sisters. You’ll find us everywhere. The ones related, and the ones connected by sheer fate. We’re hopscotching from one person’s room to the next, playing rapid scrabble in the wee hours of the morning, and decorating our rooms for every celebration we can hold onto.
In the work arena, it’s young girls with prison G.E.D.s leading the march to offer classes promoting women in S.T.E.M. It’s mothers who are laying the concrete, and grandmas who are fixing the air filters, and daughters who are immersed in electric studies, twisting pear wires with flawless rapidity.
I was a wife. I was a fire fighter. I did good things.
Like all the women in there, I did those good things while horrible things were happening on the outside.
And yet, when we come home, we’re shushed.
Don’t tell your story, don’t check the box. Don’t let anyone know unless you have to. Whatever good you did in prison is diminished entirely by the fact that you were there. You were there, so you were bad. You are bad. Society removed you, and never looked back.
It’s a hauntingly-intentional melody, a consistent echo from all corners of society.
Oh, Ra, it’s said to me– often, kindly, firmly– you don’t look like a felon.
It’s a different context, time, and issue– and I’m a whisper compared to Steinem’s glorious roar– but I recognize an omelet party when I see one.
This is what a felon looks like.
We’ve been lying for so long, who would know?
I will be working on a resources page for my incarcerated sisters, or as I call them– my Inside Voice. I’d like your help, but I understand if you’re not comfortable. If you are ready, let me know. We can do better for our women, and I think I now know where to start.
On an unrelated note, how do you take your omelet?