You wouldn’t think from 5 miles away you were driving toward a women’s prison. My daughters and I chatted about the melting sun in the distant mountains of Goodyear, Arizona. Flat brown clumps of dirt and dust stretched for miles until finally we could see a row of palm trees standing at attention leading the way to the front gate of Perryville Women’s Prison. The grey concrete walls shot up from the ground and locked arms in solidarity to prevent anyone from going in or out without stringent security clearance.
You may have heard of Perryville prison, for its historical reference but more recently for its notorious inmate Jodi Arias, serving a life sentence for the murder of her ex-boyfriend. Ironically, what I witnessed was less Dateline Murder Mystery and more Ilyana: Fix My Life. I was looking forward to my day with the women inmates as I had attended a TEDX event there last April (yes, eyebrow raising, I know) and found the inmates to be ever so welcoming, open, honest, grateful for input and working as aggressively on self-improvement as we worked on graduate degrees.
There are 4000 women that reside inside the Perryville and many of them are victims themselves. At the TEDX conference I heard a speaker describe a young girl whose stepfather repeatedly raped her. When she summoned the courage to tell her mother, her mother didn’t believe her. Shortly thereafter, she met a man online who told her that he loved her and wanted to take care of her. It was like water to the parched throat of one crawling through the desert. But there was a catch. They met for coffee where he explained he owed a man some money and if she could just have sex with the stranger, they could leave his debt behind and they could ride off into the sunset. Her happily ever after turned disaster and two years later, she was still with him, turning tricks daily and, sadly, now drug addicted.
For many of these women years of mental and physical abuse collapsed into a in 1- inch thick file of petty drug charges– “You’re damn right I took the bargain and plead guilty, I was facing 50 years for something I did on the worse night of my life.” –boiled down to quiet dreams on wool pillows.
After publishing my book Gender Physics: Unlock the Energy You Never Knew You Had To Get the Results You Want, the CEO of Arouet, an organization devoted to empowering these women by preparing them for reentry and helping create successful integration in society, contacted me about sharing my theories with the women of Perryville . Having had such an eye opening experience at TEDX I jumped at the chance.
I donated books with hopes of making a difference and volunteered to facilitate workshops. I had high expectations the day with these women be inspiring. I wanted my daughters to share the experience of connecting with them as real people and breaking down the stereotypical labels like convict, inmate, jailbird and deviant.
Upon arriving I was immediately struck by the mass of orange. Yet, when I looked closer, each one of them still expressed their individuality. Some wore their pants down low on their hips while others wore a cute prison issued stocking hat perched on the back of their heads. I smiled at them and everyone smiled back. Humanity confirmed.
I struggled to imagine what each them must have been like the first day they arrived at Perryville. Were they this calm? Were they hopeful? Angry? Afraid? I tried to put myself in their journey to this very moment where are paths had crossed. Over the 4 workshops I hosted at Perryville, patterns started to emerge. We were finding common ground.
1. We want to be attractive.
One told my daughter that she runs in the yard everyday trying to keep herself in shape but their diet which is so high in carbs makes it impossible not to have a round belly.
2. We want to belong.
One asked my daughter what they thought it would be like to meet a prisoner clearly measuring if she was now an outsider. She was reassured when my daughter said that after a few moments she forgot where she was. They said they appreciated us advocating for incarcerated women and were hopeful we could help break down the stigma.
3. We prioritize our values.
We did an exercise to establish our values and integrity ranked relatively highly . So did loyalty, trustworthiness and empathy.
4. We honestly reflect on our mistakes in order to learn and grow.
I spread out 100 pictures on a table and asked the women to choose a picture that spoke to them. After everyone had their selections in hand, I asked them to take a few moments and think about why that picture was chosen and explain it to a partner sitting next to her. One chose a picture of an archer. “This is my second time here. The first time I wasn’t honest with myself about why I was here, but now I am and I am working on those things. I am on target.”
5. We have uncertainties.
Some raised concerns about leaving prison and marketing their skills. Others said that they had been in prison since before social media had become so prominent and they didn’t know how to use it to find a job.
At the end of the day, we were exhausted but fulfilled. The evaluations showed that the time we spent had been worthwhile. One said, “Thank you so much for the visit from Betty Ann! It was engaging, and very informative. The information that she shared is valuable in not only life experiences, but also in our professional life.”
“It was also so inviting that she trusted in us enough to bring her two wonderful daughters. You could tell by looking in her eyes there were no preconceived notions about us or the place she had come.”
Isn’t that all that anyone can hope for? To be given a chance, to erase the stigma and to live free from stereotypes? We have a lot of common ground after all…