I am a firm believer of experiencing that which you don’t understand, so then, you can understand. Reading a book is one thing. Stepping into that which you wonder about, is another.
With that philosophy, I have found myself in India (three times), Turkey, the West Bank/Israel, at the Branch Davidian House in Texas back in 2011, and last year, I began tutoring women in prison that are working toward getting their GED.
Just walking into the prison takes a bit of mojo. And, quite honestly, walking out feels a bit better than going in.
I won’t lie and say I never felt intimidated. In fact, one day I had a scarf on and as I went through security, the prison guard made me leave it with him. “We don’t want you strangled with that.”
Most of the women I tutored were in for drugs. A few for manslaughter. Some were in for violence/self defense against their abusive partner. Others for murdering their family members for money. Several for prostitution.
One thing was very clear from the very beginning, these women were savvy, angry, interested, creative, nosey, desperate, smart, intuitive, kind, hard, and scared.
I tutored in the section for women who had some learning challenges and needed help mastering the GED curriculum. Every day for several hours they study, read, do worksheets – repeat. It was great to see several pass their exams, and frustrating to see others have to go back and study some more.
What I gleaned most from this experience was the understanding of how they ended up in prison.
Most of the women I worked with couldn’t read past a third grade level. Several of them had the same story – that they were pushed through school, unable to read. After being passed from grade to grade, by the time they got to high school, they felt ‘stupid,’ and would sit in the back of the room so the teacher wouldn’t call on them. They ignored their homework and were viewed as rebels and uncaring about school. It is not that they didn’t want to do the work, they simply couldn’t do the work. Many of them ended up dropping out of high school, gang banging, selling drugs, having babies, getting caught. Several of the women I met reside in the US illegally, so after they finish their sentence, they will be deported. The fact that a majority of the women I worked with were Latinas, was a conundrum for me, for obvious reasons.
One woman shared with me that she tried to stop selling drugs – she tried to apply to other jobs. She would have friends or her kids fill out her job application, but when she would go in to drop it off, or, if she got an interview, she would be asked questions from the application. Since she couldn’t read it, she wasn’t sure what they were referring to. She said it was embarrassing and incredibly frustrating. In an honest moment she also said that going to work at a place such as McDonald’s, offered her minimal pay. Whereas if she sold drugs, she could live comfortably and support her children. I also heard this same sentiment from a woman who was a former prostitute.
I am certain that there are other factors as to why these women ended up in prison – economic status, race, abusive parents, lack of a parental role model, violent neighborhoods, the choices they made, and so many more. However, without a solid, basic education, one cannot survive in this world. The simple truth is, that the education system failed these women. The School to Prison Pipeline is real.
As frustrated as I was hearing these stories, these women wanted to make a change. So desperately. One woman I worked with was getting out a month after I began tutoring. She couldn’t wait to go home and read to her daughter. A skill she worked on while in prison, because when she left home, she had never read to her daughter before – because she couldn’t.
In March, I gave a talk for International Women’s Day at the prison. I wanted to reach these women without sounding impossibly Utopian. As a high school drop-out myself, as one who grew up in an abusive home, and as someone with a learning disability, I relate to these women on a level many can’t. Yet, as a high school drop-out that does what I do and have accomplished, I understand this is not attainable for most. My goal was to leave these women with the idea that they really can do anything they want. Because they can.
To prepare, I spoke to a woman who had just got out of prison after a 35 year sentence for murder. I wanted to speak to someone who could give me a sense of what it is like to get out and who could give me a better idea of how to present myself and not sound, quite frankly, like a snob.
This woman told me that she ended up in prison because she grew up in one of the most violent neighborhoods of New York. All she knew was violence. All she understood was fighting to stay alive. “If you didn’t fight, you could die.”
Inevitably, one day she got in a fight with another teenage girl. She said as the fight escalated, they both were surrounded by men who were egging them on, screaming and yelling at them to keep fighting, cheering each blow they gave to each other. She said the adrenaline was too much and they just couldn’t stop beating each other. In the end, she killed the girl. She said when it was all over, all she could remember were the men’s faces, as if they were proud of her while she was fighting, but then, passing disapproval and disbelief, when the girl died. She held herself accountable for killing this girl. She also said that the neighborhood as a whole had no understanding of their role in that incident.
Thirty-five years later she is in her own apartment, learning how to use a cell phone, shop for herself, cook, pay her rent and bills, apply to jobs, and simply how to live, on the outside.
I got off the phone with this woman that day and thought, I just had the best conversation with and learned so much – from someone who murdered another human being. It was strange. I didn’t condone what she had done. I just listened and humanized her, from the very start of our conversation – all the while thinking of the woman whose life was cut short, and never had the chance to talk with me, or anyone else.
I think of all of these women often.
We have this vision of what prison looks like and we certainly have a vision of what a woman in prison might look like. However, when we go inside, that is when we ‘get it.’ Most of the women I met don’t belong in prison. They belong in school, in job training, and in therapy. Most of the women have been and are calling for help. They are trying to fix their lives. They are trying to learn to survive in a world that labels them ‘trash,’ ‘waste,’ ‘slut,’ ‘dirty,’ ‘whore,’ ‘stupid,’ or worse.
It’s so easy to dehumanize those we lock up – those who are deemed unworthy because of their crime. Yet, we never ask, Why? Why did they get there? And, How did they get there? In my opinion, we are all culpable and responsible for those who land in prison – the teachers, parents, communities – what is our role in ensuring that every child gets what they need to live as many of us are afforded to live? It is their right.
A young girl (and boy for that matter), needs role models, and hopeful, patient teachers and adults in their lives to offer a sense of place and accomplishment. We must empower our young girls to be more than they think they are. To be more than they are told they are. Because they are more. They matter.
Unfortunately, the cycle continues as the children of these women in prison pay the heavy price by having no parent present in their growing years. Organizations such as Get on the Bus, transport kids once a year to see their parents in prison – often times, this is the only time a child can visit their parents.
I often wonder if those kids can read. Are they getting passed from grade to grade without anyone asking, do you understand? Are they judged and paying the cost of their mom’s bad decision? Are they loved? Do they feel safe?
I am in no way asking you, the reader, to feel sorry for a woman who commits a genuinely heinous crime. However, I am asking that we stop and take a look at the whole picture. Because we’re all in it. These women made bad choices, yes. However, they are just as worthy as we are, especially in God’s eyes. They have the same dreams as we do. The same insecurities. The same hopes. The same pain. They love their children, just as I do. They are loved by their children, just as you are.
Some would say I am radical. If reaching out to and caring about those who are deemed unworthy in our society is radical, then, I guess I am. This radical way of being suits me. It lends to my ministry and it empowers me, to empower “them.” They have gifted me, I believe, more than I have gifted them. I love being this way.
So, I just ask one thing – go inside, wherever ‘inside’ may be for you. Take a look around. Have a seat. Listen. Practice inclusivity. It’s not easy. But, really, is anything worthwhile and humanizing, ever easy?
Karen Leslie Hernandez is a theologian and interfaith activist. With a focus in Christian-Muslim understanding, as well as religious fundamentalism and extremism, Karen is the only theologian who is a Latina and a United Methodist doing this type of theological work in the US. She has published with several media outlets including the Women’s United Nations Report Network, The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue/Studies, the Interfaith Observer, and she is the only Christian to publish an ongoing Op-Ed Column with OnIslam out of Cairo, Egypt. As an instructor, Karen designed and taught an Interfaith Dialogue workshop with Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, and she teaches workshops throughout the Bay Area. Karen currently lives in San Francisco, is consulting with the United Religions Initiative, is an Ambassador with Parliament of the World’s Religions, is pursuing her Doctor of Ministry at Claremont School of Theology, and she is also a domestic violence advocate.