Yesterday I did my second talk for The Family Preservation Project Speaker Series inside Coffee Creek, the Oregon State women’s prison.
My talk is “Telling Your Life as a Love Story” and I try to illuminate all of the ways the prison system is force feeding them a narrative of shame and regret that will keep them locked up long after their outdate. I try to impress the importance of their stories taking shape and light and power – how maybe that will help catalyze the undoing of a perverse and unjust system, to create humane alternatives that heal vs harm.
I’m so grateful for the work FPP does helping women have more and more meaningful contact with their children, being mediators with legal and caretaker issues, and bringing in a dozen speakers a year to do everything from inspiration to legal teams that help women understand and navigate family law issues.
Since finishing my own two-year prison sentence in 2005 (conspiracy to distribute 5000 hits of MDMA), I’ve been back inside at least a dozen times to mentor, support entrepreneurship programs, and speak.
It’s hard to write about. There are too many angles. too many stories. Also, nothing happens there. Prison is primarily marked by the boredom, a boggling lack of common sense. For me, it’s painful at as many levels as it is rewarding. The PTSD will appear in unexpected ways. Sometimes before, sometimes during, sometimes after, sometimes all three. It becomes hard to remember why any of it matters. I go straight into an existential spiral of despair that we live in a world that cages people at all. That this is even real. It sometimes threatens to swallow me before I ever arrive. Sometimes it shows up in my body and has knocked me out a few times and kept me from showing up at all. Sometimes it makes it hard to leave. I have survivors guilt. More than not, when I walk into the gates, I’m overtaken by a strange and powerful urge to find a bunk and take a nap.
As too many of you probably understand for different or same reasons – spending any amount of time as sub-human cultural garbage is an experience that isn’t easy to recover from. When society deems you unfit to care for your own children, unfit for basic human rights, unfit for common courtesy and respect – it leaves deep scars. White supremacy, it must be noted, is at the head of this table, perpetuating dehumanization of whole communities. The prison system is in place to keep this hierarchy in place. (Please read The New Jim Crow if you haven’t).
After all of these years, I’ve determined that at the core of my own addiction history, the core of all the things it spawned from abusive relationships to a felony was the need to feel seen, heard, connected, valued.
It’s what every single person needs. The desire to have what is holy within us reflected back to us with love, care, or at least respect, from other humans is primal. It’s part of what it means to be social creatures. For better, or worse, we flock together, seeking an interdependence that isn’t always available to us in an environment that upholds the individual, the separate nuclear family, as the only and appropriate aspiration.
So I keep going back. I sometimes wonder if anything I say is helpful or even matters at all. Sometimes I feel like a fraud. It’s hard to know what’s going to make a dent in the meatgrinder that is the US prison system.
But I go back. And I have one intention in mind every time. I hope + pray that every woman in that room gets to spend two hours being seen as a person, instead of a mistake.
Maybe that’s all we can ever do for each other.
I see you there in all of your messiness, your grief. I see you there feeling that “if only you would have done things differently” you might be free by now. That somehow your failure and weakness have been your undoing. I see you and want to say NO. And FUCK THAT. Your bank account, your accomplishments, your productivity are not what makes you worthy of belonging.
The only requirement for membership into the human race is your birth. And it’s the failure of a world that doesn’t value the qualities of caretaking, forgiveness, and compassion that are responsible for this suffering.
So, please, today and all of the days, can we be a little kinder? Can we recognize the difference between taking powerful personal responsibility for the reparations that build a stronger collective safety net, but also the inherent tenderness and desire for love that lives in all of the hearts – the place where unconditional love is required?
Ok. I’m going to go rest and recover now.
Thank you for being here. I just love you. That is all.