Tuesday, February 27, 2007

New Pro-Age Commercial

In a world where young beauty is the end-all-say-all to society's definition of attractiveness, Dove, the skincare folks, have come up with a new concept: Pro-Age.

The idea is that while there are hundreds of products out there to keep a woman beautiful, i.e. young-looking, whose tag lines include the phrase ANTI-AGE, Dove has decided to hell with that unrealistic intention, and instead, invites women to accept the skin they are in.

Their new commercial,which is apparently too risqué for TV, but is available online for discussion, targets those who don't resemble teenage girls -- you know, the ones in every other ad ranging from clothes, to cars, to fast food...is it possible to ever forget Paris Hilton's own risqué car-washing/meat-eating commercial?

Sure, in the Dove commercial, the product placement is first -- they focus on the way the lotions, hair styling tools, and creams lend themselves to the "beauty within," which kind of goes against the argument of getting American's to change their minds about the way they perceive the outer physique of older (than what...23 years old) women -- but the company still sprinkles in an underlying message of being comfortable with wrinkles, sun spots, graying hair, and so on.

Dove conducted research, in hopes of finding the true voice of women, and found these results:

Misconceptions and Invisibility
91% feel the media and advertising need to do a better job of representing realistic images of women over 50
75% report that anti-aging ads often portray unrealistic images of women over 50 using these products
Nearly 60% of women globally believe that if magazines were reflective of a population, a person would likely believe women over 50 do not exist

A New Generation of Women
87% believe they are too young to be old
92% believe past generations of women over 50 were not doing the things women over 50 are doing today

Health and Beauty
89% feel it is important to care for rather than disguise their changing physical appearance

That's right Patriarch America...attempts are being made to smash the normal perception of beauty. No more masks. What a concept.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

You are Me

Dear Heidi-

I do hope that you are able to get this in time, as I am unsure on the exact date of your transfer between the rehab, and the halfway house.

I began a blog on the internet called Social Justice Feminist – it is basically an online journal where folks who are interested can read my thoughts, comment, or engage in conversation – and my good friend from high school wrote me an interesting thought about my postings.

She asked if I have shared with you how much you have influenced me, because to her, it is obvious that you have permeated my every move in life. I was taken aback by this comment because I realized that you most certainly have. I began to think back to this past December when I visited you in the Allegheny County Jail. We were separated by a glass pane, a metal diamond-cut door, and a chair or two, and I just wanted to hold your crying body – let you know that it will be ok; allow you to take trust in me as your sister, your friend. But I could not. Instead, I teared up as you said, “I wish I was you.”

What I did not realize at the time is that you are me.

I survived my life without doing drugs because of you.
I pursued my education so that I could write about the grip of drugs because of you.
I absorbed every bit of feminist literature because of you.
I tell people to love themselves because of you.
I remind women to be independent because of you.
I let people know that it is not all their fault because of you.
I strive to be freethinking, open-minded, fair and justified because of you.
I am pro-choice because of you.
I will push for better care in the jail/prison system because of you.
I will push for better care of drug addicts because of you.
I will fight for good placement of foster children because of you.
I wake up stronger, more socially conscious, because of you.
I look at my own habits and self worth because of you.
I cry when I hear of folks overdosing because of you.
I vow to change the way society views addicts, women because of you.
I promise to alter prejudices of falling out of the “norm” because of you.
I say break the mold (gender, marriage, appearance) because of you.
I spoke my mind as an undergraduate about the treatment of women because of you.
I still speak my mind as a graduate student because of you.

You see, we have meshed into a form, and we did not even realize it. I mean, I know they say that when a loved one gets locked up, is strung out, is in pain, is happy, etc, all parties in the group are going through the same sentence, however, I never realized the deep truths that run in this statement.

I love you Heidi.

Please find the strength to get better. It has been more than 13 years since you have been free of the addiction. When is the last time you have felt sand between your toes, enjoyed the shade of a tree on a hot sunny day; smiled genuinely without worrying about the fact that drugs caused nearly all of your teeth to crumble out of your mouth; walked by a mirror and did not pick and prod; read a book; found joy in cashing a paycheck and purchasing something special; paid too much for a Starbucks coffee; took mom or grandma out for dinner; or thought about love and life, instead of darkness and death?

We all deserve these moments in life, and you, my dear sister, are no exception.

With all my love,

Thursday, February 22, 2007

One Dead; One Bald

There has been an absolute confluence of news, photos, blurbs, blogs, comments, radio shows, and personal conversations surrounding two famous women in our society: Anna Nicole Smith and Britany Spears.

One is dead, and one is bald.

They are both being flattened by consumers because they are blond (well, Brittany was), busty, sexy, and have satisfied the hunger of men and women around the globe, as they have objectified themselves – giving their all to show more of their physical assets, and less of their intellect.

Both have dealt with, or are dealing with clear issues, yet the media appears to be focusing on other variables.

For instance, Smith’s claim to fame has been her numerous Playboy covers, her sultry look, her life as it mirrors that of Marilyn Monroe, the marriage to the much-older-than-her oil tycoon, and more recently, the death of her son, and the birth of her daughter.

If this were an aunt, sister or mother of any old Jane Doe in this country, red flags would be thrown up all over the place, and they should. Would the focus be on the woman’s – now dead – hotness? Should it be?

If an aunt, sister or mother of any Jane Doe in this country checked into a rehabilitation center twice, and left each time within 24 hours; went through a divorce; recently had a child but is partying harder than before becoming a mother; or drastically changing their image, red flags would also be thrown up all over the place.

What stories like this should do is bring in a plethora of articles that focus less on the individual, and more on the founding problems that got folks like Smith or Spears to this point.

From the day each of them was born they were probably put into little pink outfits, and thrown a Barbie doll.

“Play nice,” someone told them.
“Look nice,” someone else added.
“Don’t forget your doll baby.”
“Look, you can learn to cook on this Easy Bake Oven.”
“No pushing, yelling or feeling angry; you must sit and act like a lady.”

As the years go by, those one-liners turn into headlines on the cover of the woman’s bible: Cosmopolitan:

“How to do one’s hair”
“Secrets to staying young”
“How to please your man in bed, while still looking perfect”
“Thin is in”
“Blond is in”
“Don’t learn to cook; you shouldn’t even be eating”

With the foundation set, is it any wonder that women such as Spears or Smith would find it difficult to lead a life where face-value is everything? We live in a world where they have both been mocked for gaining weight, losing weight, for having hair or not (which a complete no-no because our society says that all women must have the long, flowing locks for their men – and if they don’t, they must be crazy, butch, or a bitch).

With the pressure to look great, is it any wonder that these two have sought help (if Smith’s death is ruled a suicide, and Spears multiple attempts to check into a rehab)?

The point is that there are hundreds of thousands of women out there who are being conditioned in similar ways. In order to avoid future problems the media could step up to the plate and write stories that focus on:

1. Why is it that the patriarchy still rules women’s bodies, minds?
2. How does “being pretty” tie in to sexual, drug, emotional abuse?
3. Eating disorders: why women should not have them.
4. Top ten reasons we don’t all have be white, blond, thin Barbie dolls.
5. The pressures of being a mother.
6. The pressures of being a wife.
7. Rehab: What stigmas are attached, and why don’t we stay?
8. Suicide rates among women – are you the next statistic?
9. Parents: don’t pigeonhole your kids into gender roles.
10. Women are smart, and don’t have to be objectified to be noticed.

Ok. Maybe this is too much to ask for – clearly, the world is not ready for the truths. Nope. Folks would rather flip on the tube and watch exploitive story, after story, after story about celebrities. It’s interesting because those in the limelight are constantly told of their leadership and mentor roles. However, we never reverse this role and use their issues as true insight into what it is really like to be a woman.

Don't want to take my word? Check outSexualization Of Girls Is Linked To Common Mental Health Problems In Girls And Women, a news article highlighting findings published by the American Psychological Association.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A Letter to Kortni

This is a letter I wrote to a woman who is the same age as me, however, she will sit in prison until the day she dies. She is a very smart person with dreams and aspirations that have managed to survive, despite her life sentence. We have decided to chat about philosophy and society -- she is learning as much about me, as I am learning about her.


Hey Kortni-

I have decided to write you on the computer because a). I type faster than I handwrite, and b). my handwriting can be tricky to decipher at times.

So. Thank you for the latest letter; I truly enjoy these philosophical discussions! First, let me clear up a question you had. Like you, I am a very quiet and often reserved-into-my-own-thoughts-in-public type of person. I enjoy writing, because it gives me time to think; in addition to making me feel less on the spot. I tend to blush when I talk to folks about extremely deep subjects, and therefore prefer to do a lot of thinking in writing. You can do the same if you like – particularly because we only get a minute or two in class to chat amongst ourselves.

Second, how interesting that you speak about women being too much on the level of men – leaving our femininity and replacing it with manliness. I just read a book by Ariel Levy, called, “Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.” If you get the chance to read this, please do. The book basically says that women who take part in societies endless attack on women’s liberation – through things such as being a stripper, taking part in videos such as “Girls Gone Wild,” being overly sexual on TV, etc – are actually reversing the hard work that our earlier feminists have put in.

Meaning, the women who are engaging in the above-mentioned occupations or events think that they are empowered because we have gotten to a point in our culture where it is ok, accepted, and fun to show off our bodies. Um. No. It is not. According to Levy, these counteract the original ideas of equality because it is still a man’s world, and the ones who are getting paid off of, and being titillated are men. In various interviews, women who are strippers, etc. say they do not enjoy their jobs, and the very fact that we are commodifying women’s sexual prowlness, identity, beauty, etc. is debilitating for women on a whole.

Further, she also talks about tomboys. I am not a woman who wears makeup, deep v-necks, has manicures and pedicures, nor one who wears pink, glitter or heels. Nope. I like my brown-colored clothing, my Chucks, and wife-beater tanks. In the book, Levy says that if one is not wearing frou-frou clothing, sipping martinis, and being, well, feminine, then she is also doing her part in reversing the hard work of the feminists who came before us.

Why? Because if being equal to men means losing the identifying factors of being a female, then all we are doing (by dressing and acting the way men do) is wanting to be like men; emulating men. That is not equal, she says, instead, it is a culture of men.

Hmmm. I see her point, however, I have been educated in areas that include gender.

First, like everything else in the world, there is nothing that is black or white. While there may be the societal definitions of both male and female, there are also people who are biologically male, but present as a female; and biological females who present as a male. There are biological females who present as a female, but identify with being male, and so on. Really, there are many combinations. Therefore, I do not think that we moving towards an all-male society just because we act like men. Why? Because who said what a man is supposed to be like, look like, act like, etc? Not me. Why could it not have been that women are the aggressive population, and men are the demur ones? Why is it that we cannot move beyond the stereotypes and molds that some culture hundreds of years back set up? The answer is simple. In order to maintain the status quo of male culture, power, and enslaving women to their duties of motherhood, housewife, homemaker, etc – even in the career world women still only make 80 cents to every dollar a man makes.

How interesting that an author such as Levy thinks she is empowering her audience by telling them that their prowlness is not for themselves, but for men at large; but in actuality, what she is doing is perpetuating the stigma and role that we are supposed to play. How many folks in prison portray their femininity – make sure their hair is in place, their makeup is on every morning, no fighting, cussing, eat only salad, etc? Is it scary for you to be around that many women who look like men (as you put it in your letter)? What do you think about my argument about the tags we stick on biological males and females? Can we eliminate them without losing equality?

Next, without getting into the same Marx discussion, I wanted to thank you for your thoughts on the Conflict Theory. As you could clearly see, America is most certainly a mirror – many fake truths and mirages lie in our paths. And while it is easy to simply attempt to avoid the pitfalls, often, we are so pigeon-holed into stereotypes – regarding race, class, age, sex, orientation, and so on – that actually moving up the ladder is very hard. And when one does – because often society allows whose who “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” to be respected because of their hard work – as soon as they mess up, this country will punish them by drudging up the old stereotypes.

You asked if I am a captain; if I hold the power to control. Yes and no. I have worked hard – and continue to strive daily to educate myself, reach deep into the foundations of our society and uncover the truths, break down walls, etc. – yet I am still a woman who comes a family with no money, who is the second kid in my family to graduate from college (my YOUNGER sister completed her degree a year before me), who was raised by a single mother, who has addicts in her family, whose OLDER sister is a lost soul who has abused her body through prostitution and drugs for so long that it weighs heavy on my heart and shoulders…these details are part of me, and they marginalize me, and stigmatize me. In many ways, I embrace them because without someone telling me what I supposed to be, I would never find the words to fight that mold. In that way, I am my own captain – but in so many other ways, we are all captains of one another. As the saying goes, we do not live on our islands – instead we must work, live, learn and embrace each other.

Anyways, I hope you have a great holiday, and I look forward to hearing your response to all of the topics mentioned above. You are a wonderful, intellect who deserves the best in life. May you find the strength to continue the struggle.

All the best,

My thoughts on my sister, BGAP

Since Oct. 16, 2006, the drive down to the Homestead Correctional Facility has been long. With the sun breaking through the early morning clouds, I head down three interstates, through three tolls, before I drive the long stretch leading up to the grayed-out building, surrounded by razor wire. Often comparing the hustle and bustle of my Miami neighborhood, and this rural farmland, an odd feeling of peace usually falls on my shoulders. I never sleep well on Sunday night. Maybe it’s the fact that Monday mornings are the only day of the week I have to set a 6 a.m. alarm, or maybe it’s the fear of leaving the women once again.

Like many of the 17 women in the writing workshop, I too have had my share of grief and worry. Some of it has been the effect of my own late-teen angst – a time when I too found myself in trouble with the law – but most of it has been the result of my older sister. Being the middle child I remained close to my mother’s side as a child while we were woken up in the middle of the night by drug-induced anger, or as she was brought home by women and men in uniform. My sister never grew out of this lifestyle.

Over this past Christmas break (Dec. 2006) I visited her in the Allegheny County Jail. The visiting facilities are poor, as a Plexiglas wall, a steel chair, and then a wire door (totaling about eight feet between my hand and hers) comprises the long hallway of a box we are forced to visit inside of. I sat choked up for an hour with this beautiful person hidden behind heroin scars. She has only a few teeth left, her skin is jaundice, and the area below her eyes is sunken and shallow, yet she is beautiful. In between the begging and pleading to get her out – she promises that this rehab will be the one to get her on her feet – I make jokes. She laughs, but loathing her looks, covers her face, and hides her broken smile.

Talking to her throughout the years I have come to realize that sometimes we don’t get choices. Sure, she may have made the choice to puff on a crack pipe at the age of 20 years old, but it is my contention that she never made the choice to have the hunger continue for the past eight years. A good rehab program could have been a choice, but we don’t have the money to foot the $10,000 a month bill. With no help from the state or from her family, her animalistic behavior has come to fruition – it is kill or be killed, survive or die, steal or starve, prostitute or withdraw. Life has been full of choices, but they have not always been the most ideal.

Sitting in the workshop I feel the same anger, love, fear, confusion, sadness, and frustrations that I have felt with my older sister. We all play a part in the game of circumstance and sometimes I am the enabler – often being called a bleeding heart liberal – and other times I am the aggressor who demands self-respect, honesty with ones self, and purpose.

The workshop has surprised me in so many ways because I think that while I always see the good in people, and I have always been attracted to telling both sides of a story, I was not prepared for the emotional toll. I leave the compound with tears stinging, with a lump in my throat. I hear remorse, anger, love, fear and I see such greatness and possibility amongst those sitting in the circle. It pains me to leave, while they stay because of circumstance. The deep emotion that is carried out with me through the prison gates continues as I talk about my experience over dinner with family, while out at a bar with my friends, in my journal, in the writings I edit for the workshop, and through the articles that I am preparing for the media.

Letters to the Victim

Nearly three quarters of the way through with this semester’s writing workshop at the Homestead Correctional Facility, and we are knee deep in remorse, regret, anger, love, and apologies.

Maybe it is the holidays that remind the ladies of the families they are missing, and also reminds them of the victim’s families who are grieving because of their actions. Maybe it is our encouragement that allows these women to reach into their souls and produce works that hit every nerve and emotion capable in the human body. Or maybe it is the fact that more than half of these folks will never leave the cold interior of the correctional institute – and the other handful of them will get out once they are old and gray.

Whatever the case, the work has been absolutely riveting.

For some, a letter to their victim may mean never even knowing whom the recipient would have been. For example a young woman from Columbia took a deal with a devil, also known as the Columbia mafia, and attempted to transfer cocaine from her home country to the United States. She was stopped in Miami, and her package of white-powder goods was only sniffed not by individual users, but rather, by police dogs. However, this stunning woman with long, flowing, curly black hair – now sprinkled with silver – understands that had her package been received by the dealers here in the States, families would have been ripped apart. Like a bullet, drug addiction memes nearly everyone in its path – addiction tears the life from its users, suicides and murders take place, and public safety is affected. This Columbian inmate, Monica, – who learned English in prison, and speaks and writes the language very well – understands that because of her, the cycle of detrimental drug use in this country would have ensued.

There have been other letters written as well. Some of them, such as a 30-something-year-old’s piece written to a man she killed when her vehicle slammed into his one night on the freeway; she was in Palm Beach for vacation, and was high on substances. She tells Robbie that it has been hard to write the things down that rip her heart up each and every morning that she slips on her prison blues. She thinks of him any time she is afforded a smile, a laugh, or a somber moment. Why? Because he can no longer have these moments. She goes on to say that he was a cool-sounding guy, based on discussions at the trial, and they could have even been friends.

One letter, though, really sticks out.

Jessica was just shy of her 18th birthday when she roused up two friends to rob a boyfriend of her mother. With a gun to his head by the sole male conspirator, Jessica and her female counterpart rummaged through the boyfriend’s home. Stash in stow, two of them left the house, while Jessica stayed back. To the surprise of her friends, shots rang out. That man not only had money, he had raped Jessica when she was a child. She received a life sentence for this retaliation, but it does beg the question: what is one’s mental state if they have been abused, raped, mentally, emotionally, and physically scarred by the hands of an adult? Not only was her life taken from her as a child – when she was raped – she also took a life while she as child – she had not even reached adult age when the murder/robbery took place. She was in pain when that trigger was pulled. She probably hated him, wanted to seek revenge for the string of events that led her to a life of crime – as research has shown that those who are abused as children often abuse themselves and others as they grow up because like a drug, the loathing soothes wounds. Yet, she wrote a letter to her victim. Jessica, who often sits in the workshop slouched and with her head on the desk, asked the man who violated her to forgive her. She said I now realize that the cycle of pain continues if no one is there to end it – she asks him, what abuse did you endure that caused you to abuse me? And, can you forgive me for ending your life, even though you ended mine? Reading this request, it is impossible to not express her bravery – could you make this request if it were you? The Supreme Court documents express “the vendetta” Jessica wished to pursue, and that she had “a personal grudge against him;” however this seems awfully glorified. Is it truly a vendetta if your soul was ripped from you, and if your psyche is forever scarred by the image of a large man climbing on top of you as a child?

While I am in no way condoning murder, one has to wonder where the line in the sand is drawn. At what point does reactions to a childhood rape become first-degree murder?

Email From A Man With Questions

In Response to:

As you do these pieces remember your own words. If you do as you state them you will have a larger readership. You might take a moment now and imagine yourself as the sister or close friend of a victim of these women. Now, you should reread what you wrote from that perspective. How will you write to include this audience in your readership as well?


I will quickly say that I have been a sister of a victim of a crime. It is not easy. In addition, I have been a neighbor to victims, as one's community problems are all of our problems...crime affects all of us.

However, as a compassionate person -- who now sits with a group of other compassionate women on Monday mornings in prison -- I see that people most certainly have the ability to change.

Sure, for some, it takes a couple of years in therapy, solitude, and in a rigid environment that does not offer hugs or kisses for their mistakes. And usually that is why they are there. One women said to me "the only difference between me and you is circumstance." As I said in a previous email, we have all done things that could have ended in fatal results, and could have landed us in trouble with the law.

Further, approximately 80 percent of women in prison are there because they were in abusive relationships all of their lives. While it may be hard to see it from their perspective, when one is degraded, and told be submissive, treated as less than a human, it is hard to make a rational decision such as simply running away. For many of them, their core self-loathing stems from men in their lives who have hurt them. Living in a patriarch is not easy. Women, despite successes in the 1970s still live under a glass ceiling, we still make 80 cents to every dollar a man makes, we still get raped, abused and told to stick to our roles as wives, mother, and housekeeper. And most importantly: to shut up.

The idea of premeditation, which is part of first-degree murder (the sentence that puts these folks behind bars for LIFE), in many of these cases seems null. Why? Because as stated above, their lives have spiraled out of control thanks to literal brainwashing by unsupportive, abusive men, and women, in their lives. Who is the real victim here?

Lastly, I will say that I am not a fool. There are most certainly people out there that snap, and they need to understand that they had choices, and moreover, that there are consequences.

However, what kind of consequence is two, consecutive, life sentences? They should be punished in the afterlife too? Their coffin should sit in the prison cell for another 70-odd years? Is that what happens to us when we make a mistake?

In England, the life sentence is 14 years. That's right. Just about a quarter of a century. Across the pond people suffer, pay their dues, learn to make changes, get help in transitioning, and then can come back to their lives, to their families, their passions, their kids. No doubt, they are heavily monitored via probation, parole, etc. but they are can live as they were born: AS HUMANS.

As a journalist, I will always seek the other side; forever putting my feet in someone else's shoes. This is the process. You learn to understand and value histories and environments. No one is one-dimensional. Instead, we are complex, 3D individuals. There is a lot going on in America: capitalism, materialism, abuse, the rise of conservative republicans, the cutbacks of important programs for proletariat groups, drug addictions, homelessness, racism, classism, sexism...and it is my contention that we must all understand that.

Choice and Consequence

The idea of choice and consequence are two that come up quite often in my prison writing workshop class.

Somewhere around 80 percent of the women behind bars have been sexually, physically, or emotionally abused (or all three), as children.

One woman told the group yesterday that when a man touched her inappropriately at the age of eight, she knew something was wrong. She did not know the word for it, but she knew it was wrong. Another woman tells how at the age of five she knew to not only shower after her abuse, but to also burn her clothes. However, when abuse is someone close to the victim, they realize that this is family, and secrets of this sort are not told to the world. Many would rather take the abuse, than to take what ever it is that they think will happen to them if they tell.

For the women, sexual abuse sparks off a long cycle of degradation and self-loathing. They ask themselves "what did I do to deserve this?" And instead of answering their internal questions with a finger pointed at their abusers, they turn the abuse on themselves. And why shouldn't they? Do they not go to school, watch movies and televisions, and read magazines everyday that tells them to be coy, dress provocative, be true to their man (even if that means the uncle that slips into her bed every nigh smelling of whiskey). The contradictions going on in their young minds are deep, and when topped with the scarring of years of slapping, yelling, prodding, hurting, touching and ignoring, many of those who are abused do not seem to have the choice any more to leave.

We all know there are services out there. Sure one can call the local runaway line, talk to a counselor about the abuse going on at home, but the reality is the shame and fear get in the way. So they get attention other ways. They act out in school, they pick fights, or they go the other direction and shoot heroin, drink fifths of vodka under a bridge, or sell their bodies to the streets.

As one participant of the Bridging the GAP program so defined it: the bullet used to kill her attacker not only killed the man abusing her, it also killed all her abusers, her mother, her father, her siblings, the system...herself.

And while it seems as though females, in particular, are damn near programmed to eventually snap – for example the fact that women are set in a mold where we are told to be gentle, demur, quiet, complacent, and robotic; and those who exude any anger, aggression or passion (the way boys are programmed), and swiftly punished for stepping outside of the characteristics set forth by the founding values of this country – there are ways to stop the cycle.

The group is working on various ways to coerce these juveniles – who will sit in their detention centers and both read this anthology of writings, or watch the adults actually speak to them via media such as film. Some of the adults in the workshop speak to them only in questions, thereby allowing the girls to answer them for themselves. Some give explicit details of the realities of spending life in prison: the everyday cavity checks, the rapes, the violence, the mask, the loneliness, the monotony, the eventual loss of family and friends, growing old, missing the chance to have children, not being able to attend their own parent's funerals or their nephew or daughter's wedding, and living everyday under the scrutiny of the correctional officers.

Mostly though, the should-have, could-haves come up. Many say that had they been told of the realities of their actions, they would not have reacted the way they did. Instead, they would have found the strength to get up one morning, pack their bags and leave. They would have found the strength to tell someone; fight fire not with fire, but with humanity.

It is my contention, however, that this strength is increasingly hard to find in a world where we are lauded for being angels, and demeaned for being aggressive and strong minded. What do we call those women who stand up for themselves, believe their body is their temple – oh yeah butch, tomboy, and so on. Who the hell wants to be ostracized in a society where we are already marginalized?

The change for these girls needs to start with society, we need to eliminate the rules of the patriarch. We need to be ok with women’s power – and not just equal rights attained in the 1970s – and drop the requirements that cause both men and women to suffer from. But since this process is just that, an evolution of ideas, we must take the individuals and have them listen to older women – their mirrored images – and see that without the strength to move forward, they will forever be trapped in the life they are leading now.

It will not be easy. We are asking them to be stronger than the forces of the patriarchal society; stronger than their boyfriends who ask them to be the drug carriers; stronger than the father or mother or abuses them; stronger than capitalism that drives the need for materialism through the roof, causing many to rob, steal or kill for freedom from poverty. It will not be easy.

As I round out my fifth week in the program, the hauntingness of a life sentence seeps into my soul. Five times I have been searched, monitored, and so on, in order to visit with these beautiful women who are searching their selves each and every day. Five times I have sat next to women dressed head to toe in blue. Five times I have wondered what their food is like, how big the beds are, what it feels like to be given one roll of toilet paper for the entire week, how it would feel to never turn on the radio and freely dance and sing -- releasing emotions and energies that can only come out when one is alone. Five times is nothing to them.

Think about the young woman who came in at 25 years old, and is facing a natural life sentence, with no chance of parole. My five times turns into her approximate 18,250 times (that is if she lives until the age of 75).

That is a lot of time for consequence.

First Day in Prison

Today was my first day as a volunteer facilitator for Bridge The GAP (Girls Advocacy Program), which links adult women in prison with young women in the juvenile justice system through writing.

The program is located within the confines of the Dade County Correction Prison in Homestead, Florida (about a 45 minute drive from my house), and is led by a former felon – who now sits on the governor’s ex-felon watch dog task force – as well as two other women who have used creative means to advocate on behalf of those with no voice.

I got to the command post for the women’s prison at 8:15 a.m., met my fellow facilitators and went through various super secure-locked doors, bag checks, and identification documentation before we got to a small classroom and met the 15 women taking part in the 13-week project.

After arranging the chairs into a circle, I introduced myself as a young person who is committed to abolishing social injustices that further marginalize women, criminals, young people, and minorities. I told them how as a journalist, and now studying to get my master’s in social work, it is my hope to expose to the world the demonization that continues in our world/media in regards to people behind bars. Further, I reminded them that as humans we all deserve a voice, and despite the common misconception, these folks are more than just numbers, they are wonderful, delicate, intellectual, funny, distraught people, who are often a product of an environment that lends to problems out of their control.

On my left sat a 31-year-old who came to Florida on vacation seven years ago, and never left. And while there were no details on the crime during today’s two-hour session, she was convicted of vehicular manslaughter and will sit in a cell for the next 38 years. On my right, a bright woman, who was commended for her writing skills in the past, is sitting on a double life sentence.

At least ten others in the room are facing life in prison – some for first-degree murder, others for aiding in a crime; and even more may never get out because of an inadequate parole board system that does not look enough at the environment the women come from (many have been sexually abused day, after day, after day as children). And while many think 25-to-life means a quarter of a century behind bars, the women present at today’s meeting said that the powers-that-be never look at behavior until at least the second parole meeting, which usually comes about 35 years after the inmate was convicted of a crime. The percentages are slim to none.

The population of women in prison has been on the rise throughout these past years, and one way to curb the numbers is to stop young women from ever reaching the adult circuit. BGAP hopes that by having the adults pour their hearts into significant, moving tales about their lives in the big-house, which later will be performed via interpretive speech and dance to the girls, they may cut down the recidivism rates, and let these girls know they still have a chance.

It will be my job, as a writer, to take these stories and create journalistic articles by cutting out the fat in the pieces, making them objective and forthcoming, and sticking to one point (what ever that may be).

Many of these women were locked up before they themselves could have children and, for some, the last 25 years in confinement have allowed them to reach inside of themselves, revisit their crimes, experience anger, remorse, sadness, etc. They are now ready to share their experience with a generation between the ages of 10 and 17, who are mostly first-time, yet violent, offenders, with family and individual histories of abuse, and mental illness.

As these women reflected on their sentences, I felt their sadness and pain. What would it be like to serve life in jail? What would it be like to think about the one incident that forever cast you as a monster in the eyes of the general public? Have we not all made decisions that if only cranked in one direction or another, could have landed us in jail, dead, or on another path? The stories that have yet to come from this amazing group of women will be both devastating, and uplifting.

I look forward to the next 13 weeks, where each Monday I will face the challenge of generating story ideas to share with the world through media, while at the same time being a trusted friend to these folks. I hope to be there for them, because let's face it, the institutionalized system was not set up to be sympathetic, especially not to women (who are already marginalized in society) who have committed crimes, and stem from poverty-stricken communities and families, have little to no education, and who are "acting outside of set mold" of demur feminine.