IFC The second season of 'Portlandia' kicks off this Fri., Jan. 6 on IFC, but…
- Posted on Mar 7th 2013 12:39PM by Thao Nguyen
In every interview regarding the release of my latest record, We the Common, I've been able to at least mention the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), and how it inspired much of the spirit and energy of the album. This, however, is my first opportunity to share a bit about some of the women inside who have changed how I see and sing. Undoubtedly, this record contains a level of humanity new to my work. As a matter of fact, it contains a level of humanity new to my self. Thank you to the women inside VSP and CCWF and CIW (all California state prisons) who have lifted and inspired and taught me things I wouldn't learn with anyone else.
Folks we visit reference themselves at times as a forgotten people. They know the notions society at large has about those in prison: The painfully cut and dry idea that a person who commits a crime deserves whatever comes, or the belief that prisons house only monsters who should be locked away. I have met no monsters. I have met mothers who live to see their children again. I have met women who after decades of abuse defended themselves. I have met women who have struggled with a lifetime of addiction. I have met people who, had they come from different backgrounds or been better resourced, would not be in prison at all.
Following are snapshots of some of the women with whom I have the honor of visiting. Their humanity and resilience is so vivid I can't help but bring them with me wherever I go. The very least I can hope for is that they do not suffer an egregiously misguided criminal justice system entirely in vain. The very least I can do is remember them well and often.
Gloria Doheny is 81 years-old. She relies on a walker. She is eligible for parole in a few years. She loves crossword puzzles. I offered to send some but she worried about the money and said, "You have to live too!" (I sent them anyway.) Gloria was a computer programmer when computers were the size of rooms. Before that she taught art. Her hair, when she takes off her murky blue prison issued knit cap, is a striking, luminous silver. It is vibrant, and confusing, as it is hard to believe anything living thrives in such an environment. She teaches fellow inmates to paint and sketch. The night after I met her I wept as I was going to bed. I couldn't stop thinking about her preparing for sleep as well, shuffling, climbing from her walker to her bunk. Gloria has had two botched eye surgeries in prison that resulted in a separated retina. She has been waiting for corrective surgery for over two years.
Sonja Marcus is hilarious and salty and tough. I think she could do stand up or have her own sitcom. I told her this. She said, "As soon as I get out." Sonja is in her 60s, serving her 17th year of a 25-year sentence. Due to California's three-strikes law, she received 25 years to life upon her third conviction for simple drug possession. Sonja speaks freely of her turbulent, neglected childhood and how she became entangled with drugs and addiction as a teenager.
Sonja slipped on cleaning fluid years ago in prison. The injury went untreated and then mishandled and now she is wheelchair bound. She says she has nearly died twice in prison due to debauched health care services. Once she was in a coma for three or four days. When we met she showed me records of her stalled clemency appeal. She started to tear up and then managed a smile and said, "They are trying to keep me in here so they can kill me!"
Lynn is the most positive, optimistic person I've met, inside or out of prison. She started a fitness program for her fellow inmates, patterned after "The Biggest Loser." When the prison allows, dozens of folks participate. There is a waiting list. Lynn also co-founded and runs a support group for survivors of domestic violence, as so many women who are in prison are there for defending themselves against their abusers. Lynn is so calming and inspiring to be around it's hard to fathom the outside world is willingly missing out. When I get up to go I can't believe Lynn is not coming too.
The last time I saw Lynn, her left knee was swollen twice the size of her right; she'd been requesting an MRI for nearly a year. CCWP wrote a letter on her behalf. Not a lot gets done unless the prison system hears from advocates on the outside. Not much gets done even after they hear from us.
Mary speaks barely above a whisper. She always begins our visits by thanking me profusely for coming. Mary hasn't seen her daughter since her trial in the mid-'90s. She has no idea of her whereabouts. I am near her daughter's age. During our first visit Mary asked me, "If you were my daughter, what questions would you have for me? I am ready to explain anything."
This past December, the vending machines in the visiting area carried fresh oranges for the first time ever in the history of prison vending machines. I bought one for Mary and watched her peel it, thrilled. She breathed in the rind, pressed it between her fingers. She ate the fruit slowly, one wedge at a time, pith and everything. She hadn't had an orange in 11 years. She said so sincerely, "It really is like Christmas." At one point I stopped talking and looked away so she could enjoy her orange in peace.
At the end of our last visit, Mary gave me a giant hug. We had been talking about the chronology of her life. She said to me, "You have to love yourself. I spent my whole life not loving myself enough."
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