Life In Prison

Prison’s Not a Bad Place to Be

I went to education a couple of nights ago and stopped to talk to a clerk.  I asked her how she was doing and she said that God must have sent me in here to talk to me because I’m having a really hard time right now.  She told me, “I don’t believe in coincidences.”  Then she started to cry.  She said, “Sometimes my job is really hard.  I have the inmates mad at me and the clerks get upset because I can’t get their work done as quickly as they would like, and I feel a loyalty to the staff that isn’t always reciprocated.  I’ve been here for a long time and miss my family so much, I really just want to go home.”  I was touched that she trusted me enough to open up to me.  We talked for several minutes and when I said good bye to her she said, “Thank you so much for being here tonight.”  When I first started working in education I clashed a bit with this woman.  Many of the other clerks and inmates would ask in a sarcastic tone how I liked working with her and I would usually evade the question.  Then one day I thought to myself that this simply won’t do, I need to get along with this woman.  From that point on whenever someone asked me how I liked working with her I would say that she loves me, we get along great!  It’s strange to me that just that little shift in my thoughts and words has completely changed our relationship.

Teaching the,  “Explaining Your Conviction,” class has become my favorite thing to do in federal prison. We are getting ready for the annual mock job fair so I’ve been busy teaching.  We have people from the free world coming to do job interviews, and teaching the women how to explain their conviction is vital because how we explain the elephant in the room is shaping lasting initial impressions.  I think that I’m a good teacher because I understand many things the women have been through.  I build trust with them by being honest and vulnerable. When I took the class, “Explaining Your Conviction,” I knew right away it was something I would be passionate about, so I started encouraging women on the compound to take the class.  The staff member that taught it was getting ready to retire and I had so many women sign up for the class that he asked me to stop. He said, “You might be the best promoter I’ve ever met.  If you want to teach this class when I leave it’s yours.”  I took the class several times to learn all that I could from him before he left.  When I was getting ready to teach my first class I said, “I don’t know if I’m ready, I’m so nervous.”  He told me, “You will do a great job because you care about the women and you have personal experience.”  It has become my passion!

I taught a group of 90 women on Monday and thought that the class went really well.  Later in the week a woman from the class found me on the compound and said, “I will do whatever you say I should do Portia because you are genuine and have so much love for others.”  I thanked her and then she said, “I wrote down something you said during our class and I keep it on my board to remind me of who I want to become.”  She handed me a copy of it and this is what it said, “Everyone loves a come back story and that is what we all are. I promise you there will be so many people out there cheering us on.  People will believe in us if we believe in ourselves!  I know who I am and I will decide my future.  I am not a victim of circumstance and I won’t let the little things get in my way because I have a decided heart that won’t give up!” She said, “God is with you Portia.”  I felt deeply humbled and grateful for the talents that God has given me.

I taught another class on Friday and an older woman that has been here for a while said, “Excuse me, but I’m not sure I need this class because I’ve already taken it.” Another inmate that was in my class on Monday said, “Hey don’t hate on her, she’s a really good teacher!  This class is different than the other ones you’ve taken.” I said that if you’ve taken my class already maybe you could explain your conviction as if you were in a job interview?  She responded, “Sure I can. I made a mistake and landed in prison but that’s in the past and I’m here to work hard right now so let’s get down to business.”  Everyone laughed and we got off to a great start. Then I asked if anyone else felt comfortable explaining their conviction.  A woman raised her hand so I asked her if she would like to try to explain her conviction?” She said, “No, I wouldn’t! I would appreciate it if you don’t call on me again.”  During a break she approached me to say that she was sorry for what she said and that she just wanted me to know that I didn’t want me to talk to her in class because I don’t talk to her in the unit.”  I apologized to the woman and told her that I would make more of an effort to talk to her. She thanked me and we’ve been friends since.  The last couple of days I have gone out of my way to talk to her and I am finding that some of the behavior that I found so offensive  has become much less noticeable to me.  I am learning that the way others act doesn’t have to determine how I feel about them. In fact, the way I treat them can completely change the way I see their behavior.

Recently Chad forgot to log on for our video visit. When he told little CJ what happened she said, “How can we make sure that never happens again Dad? I really wanted to see Mom and it probably makes her feel bad when we miss her visits.”  Chad told her that it did make me feel bad and she said, “We can’t make Mom feel bad, she has enough bad things already.”  Surely she is the sweetest child on earth! Later I went for a walk on the track and noticed a big group of women dancing on a cement pad. I walked over to see what was going on and a someone said that they were battling and I really enjoyed watching them.  There was so much energy as each group went out to dance and as the battle wrapped up a young girl from Utah went out and did a kick and landed in the splits, then a young girl from the other group ran across the cement and did a round off back handspring back tuck. Everyone cheered! I guess prison isn’t such a bad place to be:)

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