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April 09, 2009

My Own Prisoner

Suzanne1-W300 I’ve met so many prisoners and ex-prisoners, I hardly blink anymore. As a writer for Prison Fellowship, I’ve interviewed lifers in Louisiana, call girls from Michigan, meth dealers from California, bank robbers from Iowa, and sex offenders from Oregon.

And then I met Suzanne.

Last week I was shipped off to Portland on an unusual story assignment: to shadow a prisoner on her day of release. Thirty-four-year-old Suzanne Johnson was my story subject. Pretty, put-together, and polished, Suzanne didn’t fit the bill. No tattoos (as far as I could see), no missing teeth, no lengthy drug history. She came from an upper-middle class family, a good church home, and a substantial job history. She could have been my childhood babysitter, my dental hygienist, my big sister.

But here I was at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Oregon, watching Suzanne change out of her prison sweatshirt. It shook me to see someone so much like me marching out the inmate’s rhythm.

A few years earlier, a gambling addiction had sucked the vivaciousness out of Suzanne’s steps. When she was caught stealing from an employer to feed her addiction, everything was ripped away from her—her two children, her reputation, her freedom.

She was sentenced to three years hard time and found herself sitting at the lunch table with murderers. Suzanne’s mom remembers receiving concerned calls from her daughter that she was housed with the really bad girls. But, slowly, Suzanne began to admit to herself that she was no different, that the same brokenness that drove other women to murder was the same brokenness that led her to the video poker alley and into her employer’s bank account.

This is the lesson that Suzanne was teaching me.

I spent eight hours with her. I saw the tears when her son jumped into her arms, the laughter as she scampered around her parents' house as if for the first time, the humility she demonstrated as she listened to her parole officer lay out the rules, and the frozen expression that plastered her face when she had to order food for the first time.

By the end of the day I felt like it had been me. I found myself wondering how it would feel if I had been the one changing out of the prison sweatshirt. I think that’s because Suzanne’s picture looked so much like my own.

Everyone needs a mirror to find the prisoner they could have been. After four years of bumping shoulders with former criminals, I finally found the one that looked like me. I stepped away from my day with Suzanne, fully humbled and finally able to rip from my gut, "There but for the grace of God, go I."

(Image © Zoe Sandvig) 

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