A Thousand Points of Light
The United States accounts for less than 5% of the world’s population and nearly 25% of the world’s prisoners. The U.S. houses more inmates than the top 35 European countries combined. China’s population is four times larger than the U.S. and their inmate population is 1.6 million in comparison to ours at 2.3 million.
Violent crimes make up only 7% of the prison population and 93% of criminals will be released into society after serving mandated sentences for non-violent crimes.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Pew Report, the U.S. is the only advanced country that incarcerates people for minor property crimes and crimes considered victimless, such as drug abuse, and they are more likely to be sentenced for longer periods of time here. This is, in part, due to determinate sentencing enacted in 1990 and 1991 which are often set by legislatures and enforce mandatory minimum sentences.
It should be no surprise that Arizona constantly ranks amongst the top ten states with the highest incarceration rates, currently toppling over 40,000. Our governor, Jan Brewer, would rather charge inmate’s family members an application fee to add 2.3 million dollars to the already swelling Department of Corrections budget, than engage in actual conversations that could save the state thousands of dollars and lead to a more realistic possibility of reform and rehabilitation. Instead of addressing specific cases where DNA testing has proved the innocence of inmates who have served over 20 years (at a cost of over 25,000 per inmate, per year), her ‘tough on crime’ image continues to prevail over logic, reason, or consensus between both political parties that Arizona is in deep need of correctional reform.
State Representative, Cecil Ash states, “One out of 33 Arizona adults is under correctional control: jail, prison, parole, probation. This has risen from one out of 79 adults just 25 years ago.” From 1979-2009 the state population rose by 150% and the prison population grew by 1062%. While Arizona continues to face budget cuts in social services, medical health, and education, the annual budget for the Department of Corrections accounts for a total of 11% of the state’s appropriations and is the one major state agency unlikely to face cuts.
On the nightly news we are consistently being told that we are a safer nation with strict law enforcement because the stories we are offered assure us that another murderer was put away, a rapist has been caught after months of searching, multiple homicides have been solved and justice is being served. However, if we turned our ears to the 40,000 voices of inmates in the system, we would hear a much different story.
Turning specifically to Perryville Prison, we may hear the voices of numerous women currently incarcerated in Arizona. One in particular, Sue Ellen Allen, is working with GINA’s Team to bring education, life skills, and a greater possibility for rehabilitation through education to Perryville. Sue Ellen’s story of giving back to the women begins from the inside out, as many of our passions do. She spent seven years in Perryville for a white-collar crime and when she entered she already had Advanced Breast Cancer, stage three, and had started chemotherapy. She is known to be somewhat famous for being the only woman to have had a mastectomy while in one of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s prisons.
Sue Ellen wrote a book called, The Slumber Party from Hell, about surviving cancer in prison and detailing the abuse, cruelty, and lack of compassion from officers and inmates. Sue Ellen’s story is not just about her experience, but the ability to take the worst experience you think you can live through and transform it into one of the most positive attributes into a community desperately needing resources and to be uplifted. This passion was sparked by the loss of her cellmate, Gina Panetta, after six months of being housed together.
Gina was fine when she moved in with Sue Ellen. They wrote together, edited each other’s poems, and laughed together in the dark silence of prison nights. Sue Ellen listened to Gina’s stories about her trials with her mother and encouraged her to reach out to her to mend their relationship. Gina was full of life, hope, and the desire to use her experiences to counsel younger women. Only four months into a growing friendship, Gina collapsed and was taken to Medical.
Sue Ellen recounts that Medical said to Gina, “Come back in two weeks and if you’re still sick, we’ll believe you,” because she was young and appeared healthy.
When Gina complained about her head feeling like it was going to explode, Medical told her to take IB profin. When she could not even swallow Jello and described anything moving down her throat as ground glass, they said she had strep throat and gave her antibiotics. Next, she complained about bleeding gums and ears, they said she had gingivitis and advised better dental hygiene. Over the course of two months and numerous complaints and attempts to reach out to medical staff, Gina continued to worsen. While Sue Ellen was going through radiation, she lay with Gina on her bunk because Gina was too sick to climb onto hers. They cried together, holding each other, because nobody seemed to be listening to continued pleas for medical attention or even a moment of compassion.
By the time Gina was actually taken to the hospital, she had a red blood count of zero and a white blood count of 300,000. She went into an immediate coma and died within 36-hours. Had a blood test been done two months prior she would not have died of undiagnosed acute Myloid Leukemia.
Sue Ellen spent the rest of her time in prison continuing to survive cancer and bringing as many programs into the prison as possible. She wanted a Toastmaster’s Club, a Red Hat Society, better resources for inmates, and to participate in a prison yard Breast Cancer Walk. She started the first walk inside of prison and in the first year the inmates raised over 10,000 by walking in circles around the prison yard. Annually, the number of inmates participating in the walk grew, as did funds raised, and the walk spread from the women’s yards to the men’s.
Two months after Sue Ellen was released from prison, in May of 2009, she attended the funeral for Marcia Powell. Marcia Powell was an inmate who died in a human cage at Perryville in 2009 from extreme heat exposure, even though prison policies stated that inmates were to be limited to outside confinement lasting no longer than two hours. Sue Ellen and Gina Panetta’s parents went to the services along with Chuck Ryan, the current Director of Perryville. Sue Ellen walked right up to Director Ryan and told him she had some ideas for programming in Perryville that would not cost him anything because she knew budgets were tight. The warden happened to be sitting in the same pew and remembered Sue Ellen from her initiation of the inmate cancer walks and eight-week life skills courses she had been teaching inmates while she was still in prison. Chuck Ryan handed Sue Ellen a business card and suggested she get in touch with him. Within 24 hours a meeting was arranged for Sue Ellen and Gina’s mother Dianne Panetta, to present the mission of GINA’s Team to him.
Luckily, between the setting of the appointment and the actual date, Sue Ellen also met Republican State Representative, Cecil Ash. She told him about her experience in prison, shared that she had written a manuscript detailing her time spent at Perryville, and was working to bring programs into Perryville that were centered on inmate education and re-entry into society.
Representative Ash asked if he could attend the meeting with Director Ryan and two weeks later the three sat in front of Ryan. Sue Ellen explained the mission and the importance of it being that 93% of inmates are released from prison into a state with an unemployment rate of 9%, without realistic options while in prison to even obtain a G.E.D. certificate.
Sue Ellen says, “Education is two-fold. Education is educating the public and the inmates. Most people have no idea what inmates are restricted from accessing and how it inhibits successful re-entry once they are released. I want a conversation about this in America. All we can do is start a conversation that we need in every household. And because we have almost 7 million in prison or on paper, more and more families are going to be touched. If we don’t have this conversation the situation is going to become worse and it will end up costing the state and country even more money.”
In the 1990s the Arizona legislature realized that 50% of inmates had less than an eighth grade education. They mandated and put in the budget, that if an inmate scored less than eight on an R&A (Reception and Assessment: including AIMS testing and dental and medical screenings before placement) you must go to school. There are three teachers on each yard and three classrooms, then ten teachers aids who are inmates who scored 12.9 (12th grade/9th month) and they teach until inmates pass eight which means eighth grade equivalency. They test every month. When eight equivalency is achieved they have a ceremony and a graduation and hand out certificates, then inmates are allowed to work. But getting to eight does not mean you are acquiring your GED, yet that is what the legislature mandated in the 1990s. This law has not changed. It is going on now. While Sue Ellen was in prison GED tests were offered monthly and they were free. Now, they cost an inmate $20.00 and are offered only quarterly.
Sue Ellen has been out of prison for two years and within that short amount of time she has created GINA’s Team whose mission is to, “Get inmate’s needs addressed by contributing to inmate education and improved social skills, thus creating better citizens, smoother re-entry and more peaceful and constructive communities both inside and out.” Not only does the project operate within Perryville, but it has extended services to youth programs working with at-risk adolescent girls between 12 and 18-years-old. One facility GINA’s Team currently works with is the Mingus Juvenile Facility in Prescott, Arizona. Each month for the past 13 months the girls at Mingus have been exposed to guest speakers, artists, and community activists. This assists in overcoming adversity and inspiring the girls to heal through a variety of mediums that inspire self-expression in creative ways.
Sue Ellen has connected with various people and involved them in her cause: activists of all natures, political parties from both sides, and families of people who are against mandated sentencing and for reform that can reshape our correctional system. Working closely with Arizona State University interns to assist in the mission of GINA’s Team, Sue Ellen has crossed visions and paths with educators and artists alike with similar insight to the current issue of corrections in Arizona. One of them is Gregory Sail who has a three-month-long residency exhibition. The room created in the Arizona State University Museum is painted in black and white stripes and the space is used for a variety of events that are ongoing to educate the public about Arizona and U.S. incarceration issues. The project provides the opportunity for the public to explore the impact of modern criminal justice through fact-based tours, dialogues, and programs, offering a first-hand experience of the many strands that make up this complicated narrative.”
One collaborating artist, Elizabeth Johnson, Coordinator of Public Practice at the ASU Art Museum, dancer and choreographer, is working with women at Estrella Women’s Jail and their daughters. Using the theme of a pearl, a metaphor of something that is building value through friction in enclosed space to make something beautiful and unique and something of value along with values a woman would want to share with her daughter, or pearls of wisdom to be passed on. Skype is being used, along with the exhibition space and studios, to connect female inmates with their daughters.
The intention of the exhibit is the same as Sue Ellen’s intention – to spark conversations and create space for people of all backgrounds to collaborate and discuss an issue that is being ignored in a state that can benefit from changes that include shorter mandated sentences, increased access to educational resources while in prison, and re-entry programs that support our community staying safe.
The community is coming together strand by strand, from all different professions, beliefs, and political stances. It was not at all surprising when I asked Sue Ellen what she thought the solution to our correctional problems was, that she replied, “We just need more conversations,” which seems to be what everybody has been saying in Arizona over the past few months about the issues that we are only offered glimpses of through the news. Sue Ellen sat on my porch, enjoying the view of petunias and mint in full bloom and told me her story of surviving – not cancer, nor prison – but the lesson that the most horrible experience we think we are going to have to live through shatters into a thousand points of light as we continue to walk our paths.
Links to Resources:
Arizona Department of Corrections:
U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics
Christopher Hartney, U.S. Rates of Incarceration, A Global Perspective, National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 2006, http://www.nccd-crc.org/nccd/pubs/2006nov_factsheet_incarceration.pdf
Pew Charitable Trusts
• This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.