Do you know there are women in the world who think you’ve given up on them?
They’re incarcerated, and it’s one of the things I learned when I was incarcerated, too.
It started when I found a book in our unit. I was in a honor dorm, you see, and very lucky to have a unit bookshelf, most prisoners did not have such easy access to books. I’d like to say that ours were left behind by girls who went home– but more than likely, they were books forfeited by someone who reached their quota of six books.
They limit the books you can own in prison. I think that’s something important to keep in mind when discussing whether or not people are capable of change or deserving of second chances.
On that shelf, I found your book, Seriously… I’m Kidding. I squirreled it away to my cell, where I read it immediately. I laughed the whole way through, and inspired by your light, I jotted down a long blog post. I told myself I’d mail to my husband the very next day.
I didn’t know he had already died. No one did. Without me, he was alone out here, and there’s no immediate way for family to communicate to us, when we’re in prison. He might have known he was taking his last breath, but he wouldn’t have been able to call me with it.
I think that’s something important to keep in mind when thinking about what someone gives up when they do time, when trying to determine whether removal from society should also include punishment within the walls. Removal from society can be cruel enough.
I found out days later, and though I read the book often after– it was weeks later before I found the blog post I almost mailed. I read it aloud to a friend inside. She’s illiterate and very much enjoyed hearing blog posts and book reviews from me. We would practice reading with the posts I write for my blog because she knew my voice well enough to piece the sound in her head with the words on the page.
Many incarcerated women are barely educated, struggling through the few classes offered. I witnessed many women who could not read the plea deals they signed, and many many more who could not have possibly understood the legalese.
It’s not an important detail to this story, just maybe something to keep in mind, before wondering why someone would plea to something they didn’t do, or why someone would serve twice as much time as someone else with an equivalent crime and never say a word.
Words are precious, inside the cage, and I read my blog post about you to my friend. She stopped me one paragraph in, and said, “No, Ellen doesn’t believe in us. Read something else.”
This confused me, so I asked another friend, an LWOP. LWOP’s are Lifers Without Possibility of Parole and they tend to be experts on social opinion. Prison reform and prison policy is, very often, their guiding interest and I’d be surprised to see a free worlder as informed. It was pretty much considered fact that Ellen thinks incarcerated women are beyond hope.
This part seems silly to say because I was in prison and my husband just died, so you’d think I’d have perspective– and I’ve never been a big TV watcher– but this news was crushing to me. Heart-breaking, actually.
If someone as light-filled as you could no longer believe in my light, then the cage didn’t just cover it, it snuffed it. I had been blown out by a signature on a piece of paper, signed through bars.
I’ve been following your life story since I was just a teenager. I’ve never watched a lot of TV, but your show was on just at the right time, and I’d do my homework to it. When they cancelled after, just after you came out, I was horrified and I hoped you realized that there were people standing by you. I was just one tiny brown girl in the tiny farm town, but I was standing by you.
I went out of my way to follow the story, requesting magazines and newspapers, because I couldn’t sleep correctly, knowing that you might not know. When I finally saw you on a talk show, I saw your smile– so serene and hopeful– and I felt like I took a breath for the first time in weeks. You knew. I could see in your smile that you knew.
I don’t know if you imagined someone like me on the other side of the screen, or a collage of your friends and family, or the possibility of faces belonging to a generation that had yet to be born– but I could see you felt it.
Hope is a powerful thing. It leads people to books. It teaches people to read. It shows people how to use their voice. It directs people to a path where their light can reflect outwards and brighten the world a thousand times over, a million times over.
You have brightened my world.
When I was young, your story opened my mind to a world I hadn’t seen before. A world where people did things out of fear, said things out of hate. And your smile eased that wound with the reminder that all things heal with time.
When I had lost everything, your book brought me light. I didn’t realize how illiterate in grief I was, till I found myself tracing the shape of your humor. I was able to read-along and heal because I know your voice so very well.
In prison, they take almost everything away and the sounds that play in your mind are the ones they provide. Eventually, the sounds and structures of the outside world fade.
That’s a little something to think about, when reading articles about how so many incarcerated women go right back in after they are freed.
But I trapped your voice forever in my mind, it did not fade a bit.
When I try to imagine it telling me that the 438 days I served have wiped clean the potential for the rest of my life, or that the suffering of one could ever undo the suffering of another– it’s hard, but not impossible. I know it’s not an unpopular opinion. It’s why America incarcerates more of its people than any other country, and it is one consequence that I have promised myself I can carry.
The important thing is, that no matter how you feel about me– or the women who I met on my journey– I believe in you. I believe in the grace of your voice.
And because of that voice and how you have chosen to wield it, I still believe in me.
I am grateful for your gift of hope, so I wanted to give you this– a little letter, filled with some things to think about– and a little truth–
that on the other side of your screen, a tiny brown girl is still standing by you.
We talk more about the details of this over at Deb’s place. Join the convo there: https://deborah-bryan.com/2016/06/25/the-grace-and-joy-of-for/