I am writing this letter to you after a long, painful week in our nation’s history. We have witnessed together gruesome images captured on video, and we’ve seen the violence that erupted in its wake. We’ve also watched peaceful protests with participants numbering in the thousands who cry for action. The emotions evoked and the soul searching this moment demands will occupy our hearts and minds well into the future.
Social unrest at the level we are witnessing may erupt overnight, but the embers that fuel it have long been simmering in our collective consciousness. Interfaith Prison Ministry for Women (IPMW) recognizes the complexity of this shared moment.
As an organization that strives to embody the values of empowerment, intentionality, caring, dignity, inclusivity, integrity and compassion, we stand with our brothers and sisters who are suffering. We recognize that the insidious nature of racism in our nation fosters beliefs and behaviors that anyone can fall prey to, knowingly or unknowingly. They are systemic and deeply rooted in our foundations.
As I reflect on all that has occurred and still is occurring, I am struck by the resonance of these events with our mission and work here at IPMW. Modern day policing and incarceration in the United States evolved from the aftermath of slavery. These systems rest on a historic and unequal treatment of people of color, particularly those of African descent. Situations such as those endured by George Floyd and countless others contribute to the sad reality that even though the United States of America has less than 5% of the world’s population, we house almost 25% of the world’s prison population.
And, once this cycle of incarceration begins, we make it so hard for people to break free.
Our faith – be it religious, spiritual or moral – requires more of us than this. Each of us holds within our hearts the seeds of bigotry and hatred. And yet, we each also hold the seeds of unbounded love and goodwill. Which do we choose to water and tend on a moment-by-moment basis?
And so, I invite you to ponder these additional questions with me:
When people trigger discomfort in me, how can I examine myself, and then listen to and learn from them?
When people break laws in our society, how can I embrace them?
When people cause harm to me or my family, how can I forgive them?
When people stand for ideologies that threaten my very existence, how do I love them?
When I see others being mistreated, how can I speak up or help?
When I myself am culpable, how can I atone?
Until we are able to move past judging people as guilty simply because of the color of their skin, we will be unable to extend the mercy of humanity toward those who have been judged guilty in a court of law. Both are necessary for a fair and just society. I hope you will join me in connecting with other engaged citizens toward transforming not only our individual hearts and minds, but also our systems and institutions of power. Together we can hold them – and ourselves – accountable for reflecting those values we hold most dear in our own lives for the benefit of the whole.
Sending prayers of peace in honor of those who have given their lives that we may see. Sending prayers of faith to you, your families and communities. Sending prayers of hope for our fractured world.
In gratitude and solidarity,
Jennifer C. Jackson
On Mother’s Day 2018, Ms. Carolyn boldly stood in front of the Hope Center and shared her testimony (transcribed by Chaplain Sarah Jobe):
I grew up with a mom and a dad in the same household. My mom and dad fought a lot, mostly because my father was using. That’s been over some forty years ago. But my mother was young, didn’t know that he was using. Watching them fight so much, I began to fight in school.
As I got older, my mom and dad separated, and in my 20’s me and my younger brother Charles were best friends. I saw him one day walking down the path to my mom’s house, and I looked at him and said, “Hey, you’ve been smoking marijuana – I want some of that!”
I had just bought a new car, and he said, “Get your keys, I want to show you something.”
We went and parked down by the school and he pulls out these tools, the ones you use to smoke cocaine. And he told me what to do, and the first time I tried it, it scared the life out of me. A few weeks later, I tried it again, and I was instantly addicted.
Charles and I began to go to drug houses and get high or wait for someone who had drugs to get us high. At the time, I didn’t really know how to get it myself. I remember the first time that I sold my body to a guy for a piece of crack. I remember that when I was high, it didn’t bother me. But after the high was gone, I thought to myself, “You just gave our body to a man for a piece of something!” And I stopped smoking. Somehow, I began to hear the Lord. I pulled myself together, got an apartment with my two sons. And I remember a guy I was interested in coming over and offering me cocaine, and I said no. And he kept pushing, and he got out the tools, and I began getting high again. This time I was making money, so I didn’t have to sell my body…yet.
I remember using when Marcus and Matthew were in school. Then it got to where I would smoke even when they weren’t in school but were outside playing…I knew something wasn’t right to smoke while they were in the house with me.
I remember one day, I looked out the window at people who had been on drugs for years. And I remember saying to God, “Dear God, look at those people. I’m doing the same drug they’re doing. But please God, don’t let me look that way.” They were dirty. Their clothes misplaced. But after that, I still got high.
And then it started that as I went to different crack houses, the Lord would tell me to go to people and tell them…whatever, whatever God would let come out. I would say to people, “God wants you to know that you are a beautiful person, and He loves you. He’ll never leave you.” And I would tell people that, over and over again. I remember there was an 18-year-old boy, the youngest who had been to the crack house, and I watched as he was taken upstairs to sell his body for crack, and I began to think, “what if that was my boy?” And I talked to that child that day. I pulled him from what he was doing, and I gave him a hit and I gave him a little packet of drugs to take home, and I said, “God doesn’t ever want you to come back here.” I later found out that he wasn’t getting high anymore and had gotten a job. In those days, I did more talking to people than I did getting high. That’s what I did at the Red Door (the name of the crack house). And people started coming to me, and the only thing I could really say was “do you know that God loves you? God is running after you, and he’s not going to leave you.”
I was out partying when my son Matthew got killed. He’s been dead 8 years now and I believe if I’d been home then it wouldn’t have happened. Matthew died a violent death, and as much as myself, I blamed God for taking him home. When the Lord called Matthew home, it was the worst pain I have ever felt. When you lose a child, it is the worst pain. Matthew was a good son, a good, good boy. He was just what Jesus wants in all of us -- a good son, always pulling for the underdog, a boy who would give you his last dollar.
After Matthew died, I didn’t have anything to do with God for four years. I didn’t want anything to do with Bibles, or church, or anyone who talked about God. And then one day, a few months ago, I took the “Forgive for Good” class. And they began to make me realize that I could forgive God. I believe that Matthew was so good, maybe God needed him for something in heaven. The “Forgive for Good” class got me about 70% of the way toward forgiving God. And then after that class I heard someone say, “Be thankful, because God took Matthew to get your total and undivided attention.” The Lord has been trying to get my attention for years and years and here today is the first time that God has my total and undivided attention. Because he took Matthew, that is my motivation to be good, so that I can see Matthew again.
God loved me so much that he gave his life for me. Ever since I made my peace in that class, I‘ve been chasing after God. All sorts of things have been happening to me, but I still believe God has a plan for me. And I love Him. I don’t love being in prison, but I believe God is using this prison to make me and mold me into the woman He wanted me to be.
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: