Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you died and came back years later? Well, I actually have had that experience—not actually dying per se--but dying to the world that I lived in and coming back to that world. In 2012, I was removed from my world, everything I had and everyone I cared for, to be incarcerated for 44 months. Prison is a world unto itself. You have absolutely no control over your life but even more, you have absolutely no control over anything that goes on in the outside world you left. Your life, as you knew it, comes to an abrupt halt as you learn how to adjust to the rigors of incarceration. As you do this, life goes on for your family, friends, and the progression of growth in your hometown. It truly is as if you have died and everyone else continues living.
Transitioning from incarceration is hard. No matter how much you dream about coming home, you are not prepared to walk outside that fence as a free person and “fit” back in to that world that you were plucked from. As I met with friends I had not seen, I was amazed at how much they had changed; I still remembered them as they were. They, too, were amazed at how much I had changed in appearance. So many things had happened in the lives of my family and friends that it made my head spin just trying to put it all together. Sometimes I did not feel a part of the conversations they were having because I had no idea what they were talking about. I find that as I pass places I shopped and frequented, it just seems to me only yesterday that I was there but as I go inside, things are all different. The first three weeks that I was home, I nursed a headache at the end of each day from trying to take it all in. It was and still is a surreal experience.
When friends and relatives die while you are in prison, you do not grieve as you would if you were there all along. You have been physically separated from them on a day-to-day basis and it’s easy to pretend that they are still there. The grieving starts when you get home and they are not. As I unpacked my mother’s things my first week back, they felt so familiar to me, as if I were just picking out something for her to wear the next day at the nursing home. When someone is very much a part of your life as a parent or significant other, you have to deal with the fact that they have died as if it just happened. I spent hours looking at pictures of the funerals of my mother and my fiancée, reading cards and funeral books, and crying.
As you try to fit yourself back into your past world, you still carry the stigma of your crime. Some people expect you to act like a convicted felon the rest of your life. You are considered “unrepentant” if you are seen having a smile on your face, laughing with friends or performing normal activities. I found myself going to places I didn’t think anyone I knew would be. I wore my sunglasses everywhere, even if it was cloudy. When I did see someone I knew, I was always a bit reluctant to have a normal conversation with them. I know I meet people who whisper behind my back or even make rude comments. That goes with the territory. I shake the dust off my feet and move on. The thing I have to remember is that the world does not revolve around me. I must not be paranoid. I must be ready if I am confronted by someone. The truth is, most people don’t really remember what happened five years ago and the rest don’t really care!
I used my time in prison to try to really get to know myself. I used my time in prison to really learn how to love people. I used my time in prison to find out what I really wanted to do with my life and to try to take advantage of the tools offered me in order to do that. I used my time in prison to learn to like myself just the way God made me. I was fortunate to be a part of the Duke Divinity Project Turn Program, and to have the wise counsel of the Chaplain to help guide me. I had the excellent training of the JobStart program and its wonderful Director to get to know who I am and whose I am.
As I start on this new road, I hold out a hand to all of the women getting released. We are sisters and we can lean on and help each other transition--not back into the world as we knew it--but back into a new world as we see it.
We invite you to take a listen to Susannah Long's song "God of Every Woman," which she wrote as a student in last semester's Project Turn class. In Susannah's words:
"Last semester, Interfaith Prison Ministry for Women hosted a Project TURN course on Domestic Violence in the Bible at North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women. This was my second TURN class and I had felt drawn back for another semester by the simple joy of seeing my friends again; laughing and talking with these women who I would otherwise not be able to see. As a songwriter, I am constantly itching for new poetry, trying to sing the song that will be a balm on today, and I tend to do a lot of my writing in classes and meetings, where words are flying around the room just begging to be caught (and where I suppose I’m supposed to be paying attention). I spent many class sessions recording the exegesis and insights of my classmates, writing down key words and turns of phrase, hoping to put into song some of the experiences of the women in the room.
As I drafted a new hymn about the women of the bible who we discussed in the class—Hagar, Tamar, Ruth, Jephthah’s daughter, the Levite’s concubine—I felt heavy with the despair on the page. So many of these biblical women are objects, so few are narrators of their own story. That day, when the class was asked to pick a Psalm to pray corporately, one of my incarcerated classmates chose Psalm 27, an impossibly happy passage that felt incongruous with the pain discussed during the class sessions. As we read aloud: “I believe that I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living,” I realized that there was some sort of faithfulness in the recitation that I did not yet understand, but that my incarcerated classmates were confident as they read. I knew immediately that those words would form the refrain and transform a song of struggle into a song of praise.
Thank you, Susannah, for sharing your powerful and moving song with us all.
Project TURN is a class that has been offered at the Raleigh Unit in conjunction with Duke Divinity School and the School for Conversation since 2009. We are pleased to highlight the work of student participants that grew out of the class.
Please enjoy more of Susannah's work at:
Ministry for Women
112 S. Salisbury Street
Raleigh, NC 27601
Copyright 2013 by Presbyterian Prison Ministry d/b/a Interfaith Prison Ministry for Women