[Article originally published July 2, 2020]
When you’re incarcerated, your concept of freedom changes. As an incarcerated woman, no one asks me how I plan to spend a summer holiday. Beach vacations, BBQs, and trips abroad are all on hold for me. It brings me sadness but in prison I learned quickly how to spot the silver linings. In this case, at least I don’t have the stress of trying on bathing suits!
Given the upcoming Fourth of July holiday, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what freedom means to me. I even asked my prison mates what it means to them. One trend quickly emerged: freedom is in the eye of the beholder.
For me, freedom is of the mind. It’s having found contentment and peace within myself and knowing that I am no longer under the constraints of mind-binding dependencies, which in my life took the form of the wrong people, substances, and lifestyle.
My definition of freedom has most definitely evolved since beginning my sentence. Prior to my incarceration, I equated freedom as most do – to a political or civil right. When that is taken away, as it was for me, you feel shackled. Liberation comes only when you realize that no one can take away your mind – your ability to hope, to think, to grow, and to dream.
While I have severe physical limitations imposed on me, I am free to pursue opportunities in prison that will develop my mind and enable me to better my life and the lives of my children when I’m released. There is so much joy, independence and freedom in knowing this.
I wasn’t always like this; an awakening takes time
For me, it took two trips to Perryville prison. My second incarceration – a six-year sentence – was my rock bottom. I committed to do things differently this time around.
I picked up self-help books and built on my spirituality. I followed the rules and kept a small circle of friends who built me up and inspired me to be better. This is key to staying out of trouble on the inside.
I knew I would not return through prison gates a third time so I set out to do something that challenged me and pushed me further intellectually than I had ever been pushed before.
I applied for a job at Televerde, an inside sales and demand generation company that hires, trains and compensates female inmates at Perryville prison. Their focus is on empowering us with marketable business skills and technology training that will lead to professional career opportunities as we are released. That alone is powerful. They see me in orange and they know my criminal past yet they don’t believe that defines my potential. They view me as more; dare I write an equal!
It was when I was hired to work for this company that I began to really grow and transform. As that happened, my interpretation of freedom evolved.
From broken to beauty-FULL
Coming into Perryville, I was broken down, unempowered, and lacking self-worth. My employer gave me the courage and support to rebuild and reshape my life, literally from the inside out. They provide me still today with the skills, mentoring, and tools I need to change the trajectory of my life and drive both income and outcome.
I’ve been able to regain my sense of self-worth, independence, and yes, freedom. I matter. I have value. I am able to provide for myself and my family, which helps alleviate the financial strain of my incarceration.
All of this is key to a successful reentry back into society. Without all these pieces, I don’t think I’d feel free because I wouldn’t feel whole. I know that when I leave Perryville prison, I will be employed, independent, and successful. That’s freedom. Yes, it’s in my mind for now but I know it will one day be my physical reality as well.
I want other women to experience this same sense of freedom but this can only come with more second chance investments. I am hopeful as more people recognize the importance of educating and rehabilitating women and men like me, but it’s not happening fast enough. People are falling through the cracks by the thousands. I hope that my success and the success of the 3,000 Televerde graduates who came before me inspires greater investments in our community by businesses, government and philanthropic organizations. There is so much talent on the inside. You just have to choose to see it.
As I wrap up my time here at Perryville, I think of all I have accomplished — the people I’ve met, the lessons I’ve learned, and the things for which I am so thankful. I will leave here without regret, knowing that I have taken all the right steps to prepare myself for a purposeful and prosperous transition back into my community. I will leave here with the realization that although I’ve spent the last six years in prison, I have never been freer. And that’s what freedom means to me.