i believe in you.

Dear Ellen,

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.

seriouslyOn 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.

The Hope.

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.

 

Thank you,
Ra

__________________

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/

33 thoughts on “i believe in you.

  1. Thud.
    Limited to only 6 books? And that’s only if you’re lucky enough to be allowed to have books at all? I just can’t wrap my head around that. How can you deny someone the ability to read? *Why* would you deny someone the ability to read? I would think that allowing/ *encouraging* everyone to read would actually make the jobs of those work within the prison system easier. There’s a lot I just don’t understand I guess…

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I think the problem is property. For instance, we’re only allowed 6 cubic feet of personal property, including the prison property that we’re required to have (like the issued sheets, etc). The other problem is that in a society without money, trade is the major form, and someone like me who had the capacity to have several dozen books sent in, could have– potentially– used it to barter a better circumstance. That said, I totally agree with you.

      Access to books is vital. There are ways to make it happen– for instance, the honor dorm was the only place where I could donate my books to the unit rather than giving them back to Property, but I had to fill out paperwork. That might have been an option in another dorm, but it wasn’t made clear to me. That would be a way for friends and family of inmates to provide reading material for an entire group.

      The thing is, it’s not even allowed to lend a book. They write your name in with sharpie and if it’s found in someone else’s possession, it’s called contraband. You both could get in trouble, and the book could be destroyed. It’s silly.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Wow. They destroyed books because someone lent one to someone else? That’s crazy.
        Some sort of library type system where books could be freely shared seems like a really good idea to me. I’m sure that the prisons would have issues with it due to the financial side of it in some way though…

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I know. The literacy rate surprised me most. When I was in Orange County, there were a number of women who couldn’t read or write… I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it. I still can’t. How could a county spend thousands of dollars moving a tree from one side of the street to another, for visual impact– and still have residents who can’t read? That’s a misuse of funds, but it’s hard to fix something when people are too shamed to admit they have a problem, and when everyone else is closing their eyes to it. That’s a good thing about my prison journey. I stopped closing my eyes. 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

  2. I had to think about this post for awhile before commenting because something tickled a part of my brain that I really liked. Finally figured it out. Even though people on the outside might consider convicts lost causes, people on the inside don’t. Like a small beacon of hope of self belief that even they might not be aware of, but is there. Now that I am reading what I wrote, it isn’t making sense in words but it makes sense in my head. People have hope and hope is beautiful. 🙂

    Liked by 7 people

  3. Beautiful Ra❤️ I haven’t followed Ellen’s life as closely as you have, but she’s always been a tv personality who gives me a good vibe, if that makes sense? I’d like to read her book. I’d be surprised if she had given up on women behind bars – that’s not for me to speculate – but that’s not the point here: the point is she inspires you with her words and that’s priceless. Words can change the world. I’m worried with the current climate here that people will take action out of hate and fear, but I also know that there are people behind their screens holding lights x

    Liked by 1 person

  4. *sigh*

    I might have to telepathically send you what I’m thinking because it isn’t converting to text very successfully.

    I admire Ellen greatly – so intelligent and witty. I admire you too, though, Ra. You make me hope. You make me believe. Perhaps this will seem incongruous to you, but I think you carry more light than you know.
    Love you. xx

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Your experiences are invaluable Rara. It gives your writing a width of emotional range that is seldom found anywhere else.It is heart wrenching that Dave had passed away – and you were writing to him. Oh Lord that is crushing. And the draconian book policy – Wow.

    Thanks so much for sharing Rara, Thud!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve been trying to put together a post on this huge change that’s been worked in my heart the last couple of months (yes, surprisingly, begun by That Musical). One of the pieces of that post was our discussion about forgiveness and where we put our focus. I read this and felt another piece, but I still just can’t find the words.

    I remember reading something Ellen said about prison or prisoners some months back. I’m trying to find it right now to write a little explanation when I share this post, but everything I find is inane Hollywood gossip. Gah. Do you happen to have a link addressing this? What you’ve written here is very important to me, for reasons I still can’t articulate. (I’ll keep trying, for sure.)

    Love you.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You are still amazing me with your truly generous spirit. The things you are now able to share because of your incarceration are so deeply thought out and vivid and it has opened my eyes to a whole new way of looking at things. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This, just this one. If you never wrote again (oh, how sad I’d be, along with so many others), but this would be enough. Beautiful Ra… inside and out. You. And if it’s ever helped, if you imagine midlife, older women like me beyond your computer screen, reading your work, then yes: Hope. xox

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Literacy and women … sigh. I used to work in a program for pregnant and parenting young women, aged 16-22, who were interested in getting their GED. One question we asked at intake was, ‘What is the last complete grade you completed in school?’ This lovely, yet afraid and angry 21-year-old who had two beautiful babies, answered: ‘Fourth grade’. Her family moved often and she rarely completed a grade. She was placed in junior high because she had aged out of elementary school but dropped out when another girl, who was pregnant by the same man, threatened to toss her down the cement steps in front of the building so she would lose her baby. Instead, she left so she could raise her children in (relative) peace, in a neighborhood where they slept on the floor at night because dealers ran the alley outside their bedroom window and shootings were frequent … so reading? Not so much …

    Liked by 1 person

  10. It might be a good idea to forward this post to Ellen. I think you’re right to believe she’s a good person. The next step therefore would be one of her shows dedicated to women in prison and books. Or learning in general. You are the exception, I think, but lack of learning and the choices that cuts off, may lead a large portion of those women to prison.

    Perhaps Ellen can help remind her audience of many things about incarcerated women, beginning with reminding folks of our common humanity.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Thud. Gah, I hope Ellen gets a chance to read this! I heard a story a couple of years ago that absolutely boggled my mind. (Hope you don’t mind if I share it here…)

    I played tennis with a lovely woman from South Africa (she was white and Jewish – this matters to the story). She lived in a very upscale neighborhood in Nashville, TN (she and her husband were both doctors). She was probably one of the most open-minded, kind-hearted, and giving people I have ever met. Just being around her made me smile.

    Anyway, one day she told me the story of her neighbors. You see, on one side of her home lived a homosexual couple – males. My friend had no issue with these people. However, the feeling was absolutely not mutual. I don’t want to bore you with the details of their horrific relationship over twenty-plus years, but suffice to say accusations, insults, and even lawsuits were a part of it.

    I remember thinking, “Here are two gay men, accustomed to all forms of prejudice in our society, ridiculed, hated, sometimes even vilified, and yet, these two maintain their own prejudice against Jews.” For me, it made no sense, especially since I knew how loving and sweet my friend is. It showed me the uglier side of humanity, the one where we reveal ourselves to be hypocrites in the extreme. It really bothered me a lot, but I try to remember it, lest I go down that same path in an area of my life.

    Perhaps the real lesson in the above story is the truth that it is human nature to respond to discrimination with discrimination, abuse with abuse, hatred with hatred, violence with violence – IF we do not learn the discipline of forgiveness. I believe that these two men took whatever pain they had suffered for being ‘different’ and turned it into cruelty towards another they deemed ‘different’. *sigh* When will we learn?

    Keep being the Light, Ra, ❤
    C

    Liked by 1 person

  12. One of my friends is a librarian in a prison here in the UK. She gets really cross when the offenders are not able to get to their library sessions – usually it’s because of staffing shortages. It is so vital to keep folks reading, especially in a place where life can only be understood by the other folks who are living it.

    Liked by 1 person

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