(Photo: Phanatic/Flickr)

From the White House to the Big House and Back: What One Woman’s Story Means for Criminal Justice Reform

By Sue Ellen Allen


On Tuesday night, I was a guest at President Obama’s last State of the Union. I was invited by the first lady to recognize my work connecting incarcerated women with education, job training, and other resources.

When I attended the White House reception yesterday, it wasn’t my first time there: In 1992, I was a guest of then-First Lady Barbara Bush. That invite was a thank you. I had a fashion jewelry company at the time and was commissioned by the Congressional Wives Club to design a 1000 Points of Light pin to present to Mrs. Bush at their annual VIP luncheon.

But in between my two visits to the White House, I spent time in another house — the big house. For nearly seven years, I was in prison for securities fraud.

What I saw there will never leave me. If you had told me what I was going to see and experience while in prison, I would have said, “Not in my country, we don’t treat people that way.”

I was wrong.

I watched my cellmate die in the most excruciating manner. I fought back from breast cancer without proper medical care. I watched other women suffer.

When I was in prison I found myself saying, “I used to be a person.” Others argued. “You’re still a person,” but I didn’t feel like one.

Fortunately, I’m no longer in prison, and I’ve made my life’s work helping those who still are: Those torn from their families, coping with consequences of past mistakes, and wondering when they — if they — will ever feel like a person again.

People want to know how I made this transformation: How did I climb back from so low?

The answer is simple: I never give up. I’m not here to say that I’m fabulous or strong because I’m not any of that. I’m just determined. When you knock me down, I know I have to get back up.

Getting back up isn’t easy though. For some it is almost impossibly hard, because, as I like to say, prison is the gift that keeps on giving — it’s never over when you get out.

If I want to live in a respectable apartment or neighborhood, I still have to check a box — and if I check the box, no one will take me. The boxes are everywhere: on applications for jobs, housing, benefits.

“Have you ever been convicted of a criminal offense?”

Yes.

I used to be a teacher, but can never be one again. I used to be a real estate agent, but I could never get a license again. For many people who have served their time, the hardest question is, “How do you make a living?”

The only person who says “welcome back” to you is the friendly neighborhood drug dealer.

Too many people who could be productive members of a community waste away in prison. My cellmate, Gina, was one of those people. Gina was a young woman from a nice family in Phoenix, but she had the worst taste in men. She was introduced to drugs by her second husband, and she stole $3,000 worth of stuff from an abandoned store.

Her three-and-a-half years of incarceration cost over $87,000 for a $3,000 crime — and that’s only the cost of incarceration, not counting the cost of the police, jail, court, and so on.

Gina is one of millions who altogether are costing our country $80 billion dollars a year, just to keep people locked away. That’s money taxpayers are putting into a system that isn’t working. Sixty percent of people who leave prison end up right back inside. If people returned 60 percent of Microsoft’s products, it would go out of business.

So why do we let this continue?

Most inmates are desperate to do their time in a productive way and make a better life for themselves when they’re released, but they can’t do it because the programs to prepare them are not available. We need to spend taxpayers’ money carefully, like on things that work.

We need to put our money towards reinventing re-entry.

Today when you get out of prison, you go to Goodwill or someplace similar, and they teach you how to write a resume and interview for a job. After a course lasting a few weeks or months, they give you some clothes, and you’re expected to go out and find a job.

Well, where are you living while that’s happening? How are you paying your bills? How are you doing all the things that make it possible to re-enter your community?

To be blunt, at that point it’s almost too late. We need to re-invent the process. We need to start earlier, with programs inside prisons that prepare people who have served their time for a life where they never have to come back.

Put another way, our prisons shouldn’t be warehouses. They should be preparation for a new life.

Many people will say, “Why should inmates get anything? They don’t deserve it.” But education and job training aren’t a reward. They’re a necessity for everyone hoping to have a good life. And what’s the alternative? If we send people to prison, treat them in a humiliating manner, and expect them to behave differently, we’re crazy.

By investing in job training for prisoners about to re-enter society, we’re creating a better workforce. We’re creating mothers and fathers who want to join the PTA and be there for their children and get good jobs to support their families. We’re creating a safer world by stopping the cycle of recidivism.

It was an honor to represent the millions of voiceless and faceless women and men behind bars and to visit with the First Lady and talk to people in the White House about this issue. It’s an honor to be heard. If you agree and care about this issue, please visit Gina’s Team to learn more about our work and how you can support a new beginning for our prison’s system.


Sue Ellen Allen is a co-founder of Gina’s Team, a nonprofit that promotes education and self-sufficiency for incarcerated women in Arizona. She is also the author of the memoir, “The Slumber Party from Hell.”