57: Hope in Orange

57: Hope in Orange

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Hope in Orange

Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light.

~Vera Nazarian

Once a month, every month, I’m surrounded by orange: orange shirts, orange pants, even an orange sunset. But never fresh oranges; the officers tell me the inmates make the fruit into prison hooch.

They mix pieces of stale bread with slices of oranges and water in plastic bags. Then they tie the bags beneath their ill-fitting orange clothes. Days later, when the hooch begins to smell like yeast and rotten fruit, the mixture is ready. For an hour, drunkenness dulls the color orange and the reality of barbed wire.

I understand their need to escape. I have nightmares about prison and I’m only a volunteer.

Perryville Prison is located on the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona. Surrounded by desolation — desert and mountains of dirt — the prison could be hell, except people don’t leave hell, whereas they do leave Perryville. And often return.

I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe Perryville Prison is haunted by the women themselves. The ghosts of the past surround their heads like teased hair, and I see reflections of loved ones in the edges of their eyes.

My dear friend Sue Ellen Allen harassed me (in a good way) for a year before I finally agreed to volunteer at Perryville. Sue Ellen, an ex-con herself, started a book club during her lengthy tenure at Perryville, and what better place for a writer than a book club?

Why the initial hesitation? Was it because my father was once a parole officer? No, although he wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of his daughter working with ex-cons. Was it because I don’t like to volunteer? No. The main reason I didn’t want to volunteer at Perryville Prison was because I was scared.

I had visions of prison movies like Con Air. I just knew I would end up running from some Steve Buscemi freak show. Or maybe end up murdered. Or kidnapped. Something. Because to an outsider, that’s what prison is — a dark, scary place filled with hardened criminals who know how to turn a toothbrush into a lethal weapon. Was I wrong? Of course.

Getting into Perryville the first time wasn’t fun. There were intimidating security guards and metal detectors that went off because of my underwire bra. Once inside, it was obvious I was in prison, what with the barbed wire, heavy locked doors and orange uniforms. Then I met the inmates, and they didn’t look much like hardened criminals to me. They looked like waitresses, lawyers, mothers and aunts — normal people in abnormal and unfortunate circumstances.

Many women who end up in Perryville are there because of drinking and driving. One of the saddest stories I’ve heard is that of Jessica Robinson, whose mother Jeanne first introduced me to the world of Perryville Prison’s book club. Jessica was in radiography school, on her way to a successful career, when her life changed forever. On September 5, 2008, she went out with friends, had a couple of drinks, stayed up late and fell asleep at the wheel on her way home. Her car accident killed someone, and she received a seven-year sentence to Perryville.

I’ve been a Perryville volunteer for two years. I now run the book club. During each visit we discuss books like The Secret Life of Bees and Memoirs of a Geisha — novels that beg to be discussed, especially by women. Every month, I have the chance to meet spectacularly intelligent women trapped in unfortunate self-made circumstances.

Yes, they feel guilt over what they did. Some nights turn into full-on therapy sessions as we discuss forgiveness and how these women worry that their children will never love them again because of the mistakes they’ve made. Then, later, we laugh together, because women like to laugh, even in prison.

Has my life been altered by my experiences at Perryville? Yes. Do I still have visions of Con Air? No, because I’ve come to see these women for what they are: human beings who made horrible mistakes.

I believe in the inspirational, healing power of books, which is why I’m glad to host the monthly book club. I believe in second chances, which is why educational activities are necessary at Perryville. How can we expect inmates to be rehabilitated if they do nothing but rot in a cell for seven years? They need to be reminded that there is hope, because someday the women I’ve worked with will be free. They will need forgiveness and support, so why not give them both while behind bars in order to make the transition easier?

I’m a proud volunteer at Perryville Prison — once hesitant, now empowered. I do it because I’ve made bad mistakes, too, and I want the women in orange to realize their lives aren’t over. When they are free, they will be given new lives. It won’t be easy for them, but I hope in some small way I’ve helped by teaching them the beauty of books and the beauty of sisterhood, even in the most dire of circumstances.

I walked into Perryville two years ago as a stranger. Now my girls give me hugs. They call to me from across the yard. We have inside jokes. We might be surrounded by orange, but for at least an hour a month, we transcend color and become light. For an hour, we are free.

~Sara Dobie Bauer

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