This past Saturday I found myself in the most of unlikely places, California Institution for Women in Chino California. Yes, that would be prison. I was there as a visitor, mind you! My friend and Rabbi recruited me to go to CIW monthly to bring Judaism and recovery to the Jewish women there.
I stood nervously in front of the metal detector at check in at the prison waiting for the gruff security guard to clear me. I was dressed in my best Orthodox Jewish wear (long black skirt, long sleeve white top and black beret to cover my hair) because, well, I’m Orthodox Jewish.
After ½ an hour I was finally cleared and stepped through the metal detector with just my sunglasses and Drivers License in hand (I had to lock my purse and other belongings up). My Rabbi, myself and two other volunteers passed through the antiseptic lobby to the doors that opened up to the prison yard.
The doors shut behind me and the combination of the 107 degree heat and the sad, fenced-in yard filled with dead, brown grass made a wave of panic come over me. It didn’t help that my Rabbi told me the reason why visitors are not allowed to wear blue to the prison.
“We don’t wear blue because the inmates wear blue and when the buzzer goes off, for whatever reason, all the inmates have to drop to the ground and those who are left standing wearing blue are shot.” He said very matter of fact.
Being the comedian I am (and also my humor gets more pronounced in stressful situations) I replied, “Does periwinkle count, because I have this cute pair of periwinkle culottes.” “Yes, all blue.” He replied not getting the joke at all.
The panic got worse as we walked to the trailer where all the Jewish women in the prison and the Rabbi who works at CIW hold their Shabbat services and Torah study. I suffer from anxiety and claustrophobia so the panic was about being locked into a place and not being able to get out. I calmed myself down by saying to myself that I am here for purpose, to help Jewish alcoholic and drug addicts and that I can in fact leave.
On the way to the trailer we passed by some inmates. There was a very butch lesbian chick with a moustache holding hands with another inmate and an 8 month pregnant Hispanic woman. The blue that they were wearing matched their blue faces.
The prison also smelled like urine, feces and bad cafeteria food. For the most part the yard was empty and I asked why.
Apparently women were going out in the yard and committing suicide. I can’t say that if I was imprisoned that suicide wouldn’t be a viable option. There seemed to be no hope at this place just lost souls doing their time while being treated inhumanely.
Even though it was 107 degrees these women were locked into their cells for hours on end without any air conditioning. We treat animals at a shelter better than that.
We finally reached the little brown trailer and walked in. Thankfully, it was air conditioned. The Rabbi who worked at the prison was leading the women in a Torah study discussion. The portion of the Torah that they were studying was about being cursed from crimes you commit. Ironic, yes, but it is the right before Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur so all Jews are getting ready to ask for forgiveness for their sins.
There was a group of about 20 women who are either Jewish or converted to Judaism. The women were of various nationalities ages and crimes. They all wore yarmulkes and prayer shawls. A heated discussion came about when one inmate was adamant that the Jewish people are the chosen people while another woman thought that was really arrogant of her. The prison Rabbi handled it beautifully.
What I felt from these women was hope and faith. Their connection to God and to Judaism meant the world to them and I can understand why. In a place with so much despair this little trailer was a respite. My Rabbi said the prayer over the wine (juice) and I said the prayer over the bread then we went into the larger room to start the Alcoholics Anonymous workshop.
All of the Jewish women and a few more joined us as we made a larger circle and proceeded to go through this workbook. After the workshop I talked to some of the women. I helped one with her prayer and meditation and another I talked about her divorce and domestic violence issues. I have sponsored women in AA who were just out prison so I was somewhat familiar with the routine as well as the prison mentality.
All the women I’ve known who have served time have heartbreaking stories. It is like they never had a chance in life. Many grew up in foster homes where they were beaten and sexually abused then got into drugs which led them to prison. So, essentially they never got out of the broken foster and prison system that we have here in the United States.
Psychologist Stephanie Covington was interviewed by The Guardian, April 22, 2014 about women in prison. “One in three women have suffered sexual abuse, and more than one in two have suffered domestic violence; half have attempted suicide at some point in their lives, and going to prison retraumatises them – so basically, we are amplifying or compounding their problems.”
I do believe that there needs to be an understanding of trauma as well as addiction in our prison system. I know these women have committed crimes violent and non violent and need to repent for their sins, but it wouldn’t hurt if we gave them some encouragement and hope. I’ve seen lives turn around through a belief in a higher power and through Alcoholics Anonymous.
I know I’ve been accused of trying to save the world, but I will start with this little group of women at California Institution for Women. If I can change one woman’s outlook on life from a despairing blue to a hopeful white than I have done my job in making the world a better place.