The Tennessee State Prison for Women was on the north side of Nashville, just beyond the edge of town. It must have been sometime in 1972 or ’73 when Judy asked in Quaker meeting if anyone was interested in becoming a prison visitor. Judy was the director of a halfway house for women. I had wanted to do some kind of prison work ever since I had heard a talk about it when I was 18. This was a good chance, I felt, and so did Jeanette, another young Quaker woman.
The women’s prison was built somewhat like a college campus—at least that had been the idea. Every inmate was to have her own room, and it was to be more like a dorm room than a prison cell. Of course, there was a barbed wire fence around the compound, the rooms were locked from the outside at night, and there were armed guards, mostly men.
What Judy had in mind was for us to attend the Wednesday evening sessions of the Seven-Steps Foundation. This foundation was modeled somewhat after Alcoholics Anonymous. It was a motivational program that encouraged prisoners to look at themselves and figure out why they had ended up in prison— sometimes more than once—and tried to give them tools to change their behavior. It was run by two former inmates. Almost all the women signed up for the Wednesday evening meetings to which supportive outsiders were invited (after being vetted by prison authorities). The meetings were held in a large room where we sat around small tables and listened to speakers. At the start, the women would recite in unison the seven motivational steps, which, I am sorry to say, I have mostly forgotten. However, I do remember one step, which advised not looking back to the darkness of the past, but looking forward to the possibilities of a brighter future. Jeanette and I became card-carrying members.
During the break we could mingle with the prisoners. I’d go from table to table, getting to know several of the women quite well. There were grandmothers who, while raising their grandchildren, were caught getting food stamps in both Kentucky and Tennessee; women who were in for drugs, shoplifting, bank robbery, driving a getaway car during an armed robbery. Then there were two 16-year-olds from the mountains of East Tennessee who had committed murder. The ones I liked best were two women who were in for bank robbery. They were middle-aged and always looking out for the younger women, making sure they would be dressed warmly in cold weather and allowed to stay in bed when they were sick. It was really amazing that I was allowed to talk so freely with all of them.
Judy had asked us to be on the lookout for women who were close to being released and pass on their names as candidates for the halfway house. At some point Judy suggested I "adopt" a prisoner, someone who never received a visit from family members, and become her Saturday morning visitor. I did.
Susan was a 28-year-old African American woman, a mother of seven. Her oldest, Cassandra, was 15. The children, except for Cassandra, lived with Susan’s parents in Chattanooga. Her husband was a drug dealer and addict, also in prison. Much of that I learned from the other women; they were always ready to fill me in about the particulars of the others. Susan was in for shoplifting—at least that’s what I assumed. She never told me directly, and one never asks a prisoner what she’s in for.
So most Saturday mornings I drove to the prison for the 11 o’clock visitation hour. At that time both Susan and I had heavy accents, hers Southern black, mine Dutch—I had been in this country for only three or four years. Communication wasn’t always easy, not only because of the language, but also because of the enormous difference in background. It helped that I had grown up in a Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church, which makes sure that people are well aware of their sinful nature and their inclination to do evil. I was no longer a Calvinist, but in my visits with Susan I still had this feeling that "but for the grace of God," it could be me sitting here in prison. I did not feel a great chasm between Susan, the other women, and me. It also probably helped that I didn’t have a "poor you" attitude towards them. They were in a wretched situation, sure, but I believe we all have to face up to our mistakes and suffer the consequences. I didn’t ever tell them that outright, but the women must have felt it. They didn’t hold it against me that I did not pity them unduly; on the contrary, there was a sense of camaraderie among us. And without knowing it they all helped me with my class assignment at the university.
I was taking a psychology course entitled "Motivation and Emotion." Every student was to give a talk on a related topic, and when it was my turn, I decided to speak about the Seven-Steps Foundation. I showed my membership card and explained what the foundation was trying to do. It was awfully quiet after my talk. Everyone looked at me with questions in their eyes that they didn’t dare ask. Finally a woman raised her hand: "Uh, why were you in prison?" Oops—I had forgotten to tell them that I was a "supportive member from the outside."
They say that men in prison talk about their women but that women don’t talk about their men; women talk about their children. That was certainly true for most of the women in the Nashville prison. During my time there I learned how difficult it was for the mothers to maintain a relationship with their children. They tried to buy birthday presents with the little money they received from family members or from doing some kind of work. I knew that Susan did not receive any money from her family, and I cannot remember if she was able to earn a few dollars to spend in the commissary where the women could buy toiletries and soap. She certainly didn’t have money to buy presents for her children if she had wanted to. I could have given her some, but I had been told both by people with prison visitation experience and by the leaders of the Seven-Steps Foundation not to give money, so instead I bought Susan toothpaste and bars of soap, and once in a while I gave her three dollars.
I sometimes asked her to tell me about her children. I knew that Susan was not her real name; she had adopted it for the trial so her children wouldn’t read about her in the newspaper. I figured she did care about them, at least somewhat. I tried to think of ways I could help her be more involved in their lives. I bought her paper and envelopes and stamps, but she used them to write me beautiful letters in flowery language. I don’t think she ever wrote home, because she never received mail from anyone.
Then one fall day I told her I was going to collect books of green stamps, and if we had enough she could use them to get Christmas presents for her children. The Quaker meeting really came through. I received a large number of filled books, enough to give nice, big presents to all seven of Susan’s children. I picked up a catalog at the redemption center on my way to see her that Saturday morning.
Susan didn’t say much when I showed her the catalog. I had a note pad and pencil ready; there were plenty of stamps for really nice gifts: a playhouse, a rocking horse, dolls, trucks, a pretty purse for Cassandra, and, at my suggestion, something for her parents. Susan was quiet. When we had used up all the stamp books, Susan looked dark. "What about me?" she said, "am I not going to get anything?" I suddenly realized that this woman, married and a mother at 13, never had the luxury of growing up, of getting past her childish wish of receiving presents, tokens of love. How could I have missed that? I hastened to tell her I would buy her a Christmas present and she could make a wish list that I would take to meeting.
A week before Christmas, my husband, John, and I drove to Chattanooga to take the presents. I don’t know what I had expected, but not this very kind older couple living in a small, nice house. The children were polite, a bit shy of course, and simply dressed. The grandfather helped me put the playhouse together, and I felt uneasy because he was so deferential. Was I too bossy, too assertive? One of the little boys came up to me and whispered, "Please tell my mother thank you."
It was clear that Susan’s parents were too poor to afford the bus fare to Nashville to visit their daughter, and I didn’t know if they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, write to her. They were shouldering the heavy burden of raising Susan’s children. They must have been deeply disappointed in their daughter and likely felt some resentment. They expressed none of that to us, of course. They were too gracious.
I do not know if the presents brought Susan and her children closer together. I cannot remember her telling me if they had written to her or not.
I visited Susan for about six years, and when she was released, she stayed with us for a few days before moving in with friends. She was using her real name again, so I recognized it when, not long afterwards, the newspaper reported her being caught shoplifting in a department store. I was devastated. I had really believed that I had helped her turn her life around. Had I been too naïve? Yes, probably. Had all the time I had spent with her been a waste? No, I didn’t believe that. I had made her life a little more cheerful while she was incarcerated.
A couple of years later she called me from Atlanta. She’d been in and out of prison, always for shoplifting, but lately she had received some therapy in the Atlanta jail, transactional analysis, from the book I’m OK, You’re OK. She sounded a little wiser, a little more aware of her own destructive behavior. Or maybe she thought that was what I wanted to hear. It was the day we were moving to Little Rock, and I couldn’t offer her help or friendship at that moment. She didn’t ask for it; she just asked me to get her a book for a business course she was taking in prison.
I lost track of Susan after our move. She had believed that the world owed her something and because she didn’t get it, she would take it. I hadn’t agreed. And yet we had been friends.
Since that last phone call 30 years ago, I have, from time to time, felt remorse about not giving her my address and phone number in Little Rock. At the time she seemed to be a bit more willing to turn her life around; perhaps I could have helped her. I could have called Friends in Atlanta and asked them to get in touch with her. I could have, but I didn’t.
I realize there is a bit of hubris in such remorse. I know from experience that God tries to send us the people we need, when we need them. I wasn’t Susan’s safety net, and I know I was not her savior; although in my youthful pride, I may have thought it once in a while. I was her friend.
"You have always been good to me," she said in one of our last conversations. And perhaps that’s all that mattered. I was good to her, and "the Spirit that delights to do no evil" will have taken it from there.