I'll give her bouquets of roses. I'll turn Heartbreak Valley into Acres of Hope.~(From Hosea 2:15, The Message Bible)
Books find me. This week the title is Corrections in Ink, a memoir by Keri Blakinger. The author writes of her history of substance use and subsequent two-year sentence in prison for drug possession. Even during the misery of incarceration, she became sober (despite having opportunity to use substances while in prison) and wrote on every scrap of paper she could find, the story of her experience behind bars. It is an intense, well-written read. She created a successful life post-incarceration and now works for The Marshall Project, a non-profit online news organization that raises issues that lead to criminal justice reform.
Ms. Blakinger's story pulled at my heart, and caused me to remember the years I conducted risk-reduction groups at the county jail as part of my job as a substance use counselor. Each time I went inside, my crossover bag was thoroughly checked. No cell phones. No material with staples. No paper chips. Surrender my driver's license. I had to be escorted by a guard to the women's unit. There was a particular smell I inhaled as I walked along the hallways--an amalgamation of bleach and the sharp-scent of anxiety. The guard would buzz me into a locked alcove while I waited to be allowed to enter the cell block. Sometimes I might have to stay in that tiny foyer for twenty or thirty minutes before I could go in. The space was stuffed with bags of dirty laundry waiting to be picked up. I told myself, "At least you can leave soon."
I usually had two hours for the group. I might have five women or fifteen. Most women languished there at the county jail, waiting to be bailed out, go to a court hearing, or be transported to their prison sentence elsewhere in the state. Some had no idea what was next, didn't have an attorney and worried about their children or what had happened to their dog when they were arrested. I felt grossly inadequate to offer them much. They sat in a circle wearing the drab, gray jail attire, the black rubber slippers. Some had no socks, and their bare feet always looked so vulnerable to me. But I would take a deep breath and say, "Okay, we'll spend the first hour reviewing ways to reduce harm, then the second hour I have a group exercise." There could be groans, but mercifully, there were always a few women who had been in my previous groups and they'd say, "Settle down, ladies, this is a good class." We'd review all the nuances of HIV and Hepatitis C prevention as it related to substance use. Sexual risk reduction. I used creative games to get the main points across. Most engaged, but for those who didn't I would always say, "Eat the fish and spit out the bones. Take what's useful and leave the rest."
Then, in that second hour, I'd pull out an orange glass box with a lid. On the side of the box was the word, DREAM. I would put the box on a chair in the middle of the group and remove the lid. I would say, "We may all have different stories, but one thing we all have in common are dreams for our lives. I would then hand them a strip of pink or green or blue paper and a pencil. I could bring in pencils, but that they couldn't keep them. I would say, "Write your dream on the strip of paper. Don't put your name on it. Spelling isn't important, complete sentences are unneccesary. You won't be graded. This is yours. There are no right or wrong answers." Usually a hush would fall over the group, a collective hesitation to participate, but then it was as if a magic breeze blew about the humble group room. The women would bend their heads over their paper and begin to write and write and write. I'd give them a two-minute warning, and still they wrote. Then I'd say, "If anyone wants to place their dream in the box they can. You don't have to." Most times each person would place what they'd written in the box. I'd then pull out each strip of paper, unfold it and read it out loud. "I want to keep my sobriety and get a car." "I want to get my kids back." "I dream to go back to school and finish my degree." "I've always dreamed of being a chef, or maybe a teacher." "I want the chance to be free and see my dog." After I read each strip of paper, I'd ask if anyone wanted to claim that dream. Almost always, the women would, but even if they didn't, I'd say, "We as a group of women support you, believe in you and wish you every success that your dream and hope for your life may come to pass." You can't believe how the energy changed in that room when all those dreams were validated. I loved those groups. Loved those women.
Reading the book was a catalyst to thinking of the women again, how they couldn't leave the group with the lead pencil, but they could leave with their dream written on a scrap of pink paper. Remembering them makes me think of people that often get forgotten in our culture. I hate that I forget and want to do better, do more. That's my dream. God help me.