Diane Wilson, Chairperson
Prison Reform Sub-Committee of the Conference Board of Church & Society
“I’ve had 20 good years – years in which I have given back to people, to my community, years when I have reconciled with my daughter, years of being clean and sober. Years when I feel like I am important – not just a waste of space.”
This is what I heard from a woman to whom I grew close to in the last 6 years. Her name is Margaret, a woman dying of the effects of Hepatitis C. I met her when I was presenting life and job skills workshops to women in prison. She had been in and out of prisons in California and Arizona for over 25 years, and now became a role model for women in my workshops who were going to be released in the next 3-6 months. When I met her she was clear about the mistakes she had made, the plans she had for the future and the contributions she intended to make.
She, like all the women I met who had been in prison, taught me. She taught me what failure and success were, what courage was and when hope sang. I also learned that there was very little within the prison system itself that offered any preparation for release. The most consistent trainings inside were ones that assured return.
Most of the programs, including my own, were not funded by the prison system. Instead they were ones that were soft-funded by grants and volunteers. The programs were inconsistent and small. Nothing like what was needed to foster success on the outside. When I left the women’s prison I said a prayer for those I left behind.
I never forgot them, and recently met a woman who had gone through one of those workshops about 10 years ago and said it changed her life. A humbling statement for me to hear, since she, not I, did most of the work. I often ask myself, if I had experienced what the majority of those women did (thrown out of their homes at age 14, lived on the streets and learned that turning tricks brought the fastest money, including connection with drugs), would I have had the courage to turn my life around like many of them did?
I still don’t know the answer to that question. I do know that I now feel impelled to change a system that supports mandatory minimum sentencing, promises opportunities for recidivism and increases private-for-profit prisons. And I do know that I felt the call for this mission.
This was the last conversation Margaret and I had because she died that week. Before that she had completed her Master’s Degree in Social Work, been employed as a case manager in a rehabilitation program, worked to get her rights restored and voted in a presidential election. Was this a miracle? Maybe. Margaret and others like her are the ones I won’t ever forget – and that’s why I care and continue to care.