Interview with Sheryl Abel
by Sheryl Abel

 motherhood  prison-life  reentry

Sheryl: Hi my name is Sheryl Abel I am an ex-offender, formerly incarcerated female and today I am CEO of H.O.P.E. Inc. I am a mother, of one son ‘Ryan’ 19 years of age, who I am proud to say is graduating from high school today I’m excited about that June 3rd. Something I am looking forward to.

Salome Chasnoff:That’s interesting you were formerly incarcerated and now you are the Chief Executive Officer. How did you get from point A to Point B?

S: Point A to Point B was a vision from GOD and um a total different mind set behavior and thinking changed that is why I am where I am today.

S.C.: But there must have been some practical steps that you have took like um when you came out of prison how did you…

S: It started in prison I had a vision from GOD that being a continuously repeated offender that when released in 2002 I had made a conscious decision that I would bring about a change for myself, my son and my family. And I would also bring about a change for this community, this society and for the women that would follow me.

S.C.: So, if you could flesh out some of the details about the vision and what it brought you to do that got you to where you are.

S: The vision brought me to understand that there would be no more incarcerations for me that’s the bottom line. I had to make a conscious decision that I had to bring about a change for me, and women like me, because during that time of incarceration my last bit in the penitentiary, as we would say as women incarcerated. I came to understand that women in prison we have so much in common. Situations maybe different circumstances maybe different, but yet we are women, and 80% of us have children. That we have abandoned, so we understand what it is like to abandoned our children. So we understand what it’s like for our children to be abandoned and the things that they have to go through living in a home with no parent, and we are thankful and grateful for the ones that step up as caregivers for our children being a grandmother, sister, a aunt, uncle, a father, we even have fathers that have sometimes can step up.

But the majority of women that I have come into contact with during my time in incarceration I understand that I was much like them they were much like me. Because we were single parents that had abandoned our children, so I noticed that so, I was like I have to make a difference I have to be the difference that society needs for women coming out of prison. And preparing themselves while in prison like I did for the grand day you know, when you are getting released from prison it is like the grand day. We have the pre-parole syndrome in prison and we’ll say I am going to do this, I’m going to do that I’m going to do this, I’m going to get me a job and you know that in this society getting a job for an ex-offender it is like come on please somebody open the door and give me the opportunity that I need.

To become prosperous and become a better person in society, and know that I am in society only so that you know that you will as I reenter into society you can believe in your heart that she is coming out and we know that we can live in a safe community environment and that person is not going to hit you in the head take your purse you can feel comfo your neighbor can feel comfortable with knowing that you are paroling home and you’re going to live next door to her and feel comfortable we rarely get that. In the society and community that we live in so that is why I knew that I was determined and no one could stop me that GOD had given me a vision that he’d taken the fear away from being afraid to re-entering into society thinking I know that it is not going to last, but I am going to fake it till I make it. And faking it till you make is not healthy it wasn’t healthy for me because I found myself right back in that revolving door syndrome recidivism had just became a part of my life, but today I am the example that this society will learn to respect.

S.C.: So like what are steps what were the elements of the vision what were the actual steps that you took?

S: The elements of the vision were that you are the one that could do it. And I knew that I was the one that could do it. So I started in prison I started to change my life in prison. I dropped out of school in my junior year entering into my senior year so that was one of the things that I need to accomplish was my GED so I instilled a great population of the women that knew me looked up to me I was a grandmother in prison, I was a mother in prison, I was a auntie in prison. I was every um every personality and character to these women that I didn’t even realize that I had, but they saw those characters in me. I was someone that they could trust, so I was like if they are looking up to me and I am looking at these young babes that are coming to prison and 80% of our population that come to prison are involved in some type drug addiction or drug cases should I say that. So, I have got to be an example in prison. If I intend to be an example for women coming out of prison. So I started to go to school, I got my GED, I got my cosmetology license I went to culinary arts I took a few college courses I started life skills and I started to do a lot of things I worked with LTS I think I did every program that you could do in prison and these were things that I felt better my chances of coming out into society and being what I had called to be by GOD.

Dannette: Early on, What was your prison experience? What it was like to you and how it felt to you. How it felt to you as a young girl going into the prison system.

S: I was 29 I wasn’t all that young I was a grown woman

D: Okay, your first prison experience? What was your first experience with the prison system?

S: Well, my first experience with the prison system was terrible it was frightening um.. let me reflect back to when I was sentenced to the Department of Corrections It was through DuPage county for retail theft that resulted from a heroin addiction so as I stood before the judge in DuPage county I went for my sentencing date I can remember it clearly and my father was there with me. And the judge said you are being sentenced to the department of correction for 2 years bam bam bam bam. What a way to tell someone that they are going to go to jail unexpectedly. I knew I was going to be sentenced on that day, not knowing exactly how the criminal system really worked, because, it was my first time never did I expect to be taken out of that court room on that day and at that time I was 3 months pregnant. So, I’m like okay I going to the penitentiary. I am looking at my dad and he sees a spirit of fear come over me not he’s not knowing that I am 3 months pregnant.

That’s a secret that has been kept from the family until I was incarcerated. So I’m told to wait in DuPage County, and the one good thing about going to prison on that day usually they say you have a shipment day. Sometimes you have to wait 7 days, sometimes you have to wait 14 days or until a seat is available for you on the bus. But fortunately, I did not have to wait they put on shipment the very next day, because they did not want the responsibility of having a pregnant women in their county jail, so that was good. Because of the experiences of living DuPage County I do not think I could have made it another 24 hours. Because that was terrible and frightening and cold. So I got to prison and on my way there a lot of things went through my mind. I’m pregnant well thank god I’m pregnant I had already calculated my time I got 2 years and I got 6 months to be there and within that 6 months I realized that, that would be enough time to bring a clean and sober healthy child into this world.

So being sentenced to the penitentiary I know you may think that I sound crazy but the fact that I was pregnant and I would be able to bring a child into this world clean and sober with no mental or retardation situations with my child I thank GOD for that. So as I enter into the department of corrections you know when you go in they do ahh clearance thing they test you for everything. Everything came out alright I was pregnant 3 months I can remember it clearly. And so I understand what it is like to have a child during my time of incarceration the first time. I had my son in prison. Fortunately. I had someone to come and pick my son up, my mother and my father. Unfortunate, for other women that come to prison pregnant some do and some don’t.

D: Can you go into detail being in prison pregnant what was that like for you?

S: Being in prison pregnant that was very frightening for me, because I was pregnant and I did not know if I would get the medical attention that I would need. I was living with, it was a strange place for me, because I had never been and that was my first time, so mentally I was always aware. I made sure that I stayed aware of my surroundings, but I managed to do the best that I could do. It was a terrible feeling to be a mother that knew she was going to have a baby in prison, and then I was going to be what I call today I was a mother that abandoned a child. After having my son and having to leave my son in the hospital that was terrible for me even though I knew that he was in the best of hands, because I was in the best of hands it was just the choices that I made in life. My parents gave me a wonderful life it was just the choices that I made. So it was very uncomfortable for me for those six weeks after I had my son my mother came and picked him up and it was running the phone bill up cause, when you’re in prison and you have children at home you try to live on the outside and you try to manage and control on the inside.

D: During the birth being in the hospital and you are alone. This is your first child, your first pregnancy your first experience in prison how was it for were you comfortable in the prison, were you shackled how did it go? Did things go well during the birth of your child? Were you treated fairly?

S: During my pregnancy my six months Jane Higgins-Hut was my warden and I salute her today, because she takes care of the pregnant women. And I am thankful for that today. She is like a surrogate mother that was my relationship with her that I had with and the relationship that I seen her have with other women I was taken out to the hospital she was notified immediately my doctor was dr. Hut he gave me a comfortable feeling during my delivery I was not shackled glory be to GOD, because I would have had a real problem with that. I have heard in the past that women had been shackled but my story today is that I was not shackled when I was taken to prison I was handcuffed I think that is normal procedure one thing you need to be mindful of my labor was induced so therefore it wasn’t really painful for as I took a ride to the hospital there was a date set for me I just think that I had become very mentally depressed because of the fact that I was carrying a child Ryan who is my son that I gave birth to and he could feel the uncomfortable environment from my senses and he wasn’t ready to come so my labor was induced the doctor was very good also not only was my labor induced I had the experience of not even having the baby I had forceps so you see I went through a lot but yet I managed to survive.

S.C.: So a lot of people would say induce labor forceps that’s not a good thing it’s a bad thing. It’s painful, it makes it more painful it like takes the control out of your hands and put it in other people hands its kind of pushing the pushing the envelope pushing the situation.

S: But Dr. Hut was so good he had waited he was there on time I would recommended him I’ve even taken my son to see him after I had came home I made a trips back to his doctor office so that he could see my son. He named my son bright eyes I think that the decision that he made were the right decisions for my situation and he waited till the last minute and he could not wait anymore. Now what other women had experienced I cannot speak for them only stories that I’ve heard that had babies in prison, but I’m glad that I got through that. Was that a good answer?

S.C.: Yeah, well yeah your story was a lot more positive than what I heard of a lot of women that had babies in prison and yours is the most positive story that I have heard.

S: Yeah I am just going to say to you that if you want the truth I am going to give you the truth.

S.C.: No, I not saying that your story, but you have had a better experience

Sl: My point, I am making a point there has got to be some good out of every thing. In life I’ve heard the stories that women told about the pregnancy and the things that they have went through, but I have not had the opportunity to see it for myself. And the leadership and direction that I fell up under I know that she would make sure that those women were cared for. She was a surrogate mother “Sheryl you got walk, get up and walk come on” I had walking passes I had vehicle transportation around the ground I had everything you could receive in a prison so that I could bring forth a beautiful child and that is what I have today a beautiful child. So that is a good story you have never heard one I just told you the real story about Ryan Abel. But the bad part was when I had to experience him not being there and him having to experience the scent of me not being there and um when I came home in that two weeks time I could tell the joy over my baby knowing that I was there was remarkable.

D: What early experiences lead you to prison?

S: Drug addiction, drug addiction people, places and things. Just making the wrong decisions I come from a good life went to good schools I dropped out going into my senior year. I went to my family put me through catholic school I went to the best of schools there was no reason for the decision and choices I made.

D: How old were you at your earliest use.

S: My earliest use I was about 20 years of age. That did not effect me there was no drug effect on my life when I was in high school or grammar school. Drugs came after the fact. Let’s correct that I will say I was in my teens 19 years of age.

D: You say you’ve had a number of recidivism how many times were you incarcerated in prison.

Sl: I will say 3 or 4 maybe 5 or 6. My longest stay was 9 yrs., and 6 months. We will say 3 or 4 times. I have had at least 3 to 4 incarcerations.

D: And in those 3 to 4 incarcerations what was your experience there I know that you said that you were under great leadership you have had great experiences were all of your incarcerations great.

S: Oh no, I said my first experience I felt I was under great leadership, because of the situation of being a mother to be that’s a frightening situation and knowing that hey call warden call the warden if I needed her for anything she would try to get to us within that 24 hours or get a white shirt over here whatever the situation was that was pretty good for the penitentiary. That’s pretty good. But I just want to reflect on my last situation let’s just go there. Being incarcerated was not good, but I was doing little bitty sentences you know you do these little bitty sentences you just run in and out of prison, it makes recidivism great you get that um attitude where 3 yrs. I do not have long to be here I was not utilizing the time that I was doing at that time. My last sentence; 9 years 6 months of being incarcerated made a total difference, made me look totally different at being incarcerated.

The first 3 years I was very angry I didn’t like anything I did not like how I was treated I didn’t like how I was talked too. I didn’t like the food that they fed me; I didn’t like the people I had to sleep with I complained about everything. You do a lot of complaining in penitentiary. But in that complaining you learn to stay out. If you want to close down the jails what’s the best way to do it? The best thing for me to do is stop coming. I would mentor and instill that in women that would come into the prison. Because after that 3 years of complaining, trying to get a time cut, trying to go back to court, get a lawyer I seen that nothing was working with 6 years left to do in the penitentiary I had to do something, because I refuse to come back to the penitentiary with a new case, once I left. So I went to I took the TAB test you know when you come to the penitentiary you take a TAB test and my brain was burnt up.

You know when you use drugs you got your mind on one thing I was a working I was a functional addict. I work jobs, hustled, and I used drugs. So that same mentality that I used in the streets I used it I reversed it in a positive way in the penitentiary 3 years had went by. I um before the 3 years had went by I had taken the TAB scores, because I needed my GED, because I had dropped out of high school and um Chris was the instructor of culinary arts well Sheryl your TAB scores are where they should be cosmetology was always a gift for me I liked dressing up doing hair, the nails thing and the toe thing the whole self esteem was a big thing for me I just like looking good, even in my addiction I liked looking good. So I went to cosmetology school and I graduated from there and I became the teacher’s assistant that was pretty good becoming the teacher’s assistant in prison that’s pretty good.

So then I realized that I had not passed my GED and 3 years had went by and they’re doing um shipment Dixon Correctional Center had came about Dixon and Logan and they were shipping the women to Dixon and Logan to the men’s prison and there goes my stinking thinking men right away I got my name on that transfer list still hadn’t got my mind and my thoughts together yet. I say that to say if I didn’t get my thoughts correct that recidivism would still play a role in my life but today it doesn’t because my thinking changed my behavior changed I got shipped to Dixon Correctional Center that didn’t do me any good. I might have been there 1year and a half 2 years and then I got ship back for sexual misconduct now how do you think I felt about that? Shipped back from seg to seg they wanted to take a pregnancy test the whole nine yards, but yet you had shipped me to a penitentiary where men were what do you expect a man and a woman that’s been incarcerated nine times out of ten stinkin thinkin is going to click in for him and her. Fortunately, glory to GOD Dwight Correctional Center my hearing found me not guilty.

No I hadn’t physically I had not had sex with a man, but oh honey many times I thought if I could I would and wouldn’t be no stopping me. So what was that mental abuse? I think that it was mental abuse that the correctional center put on me it was mental abuse simply because if I could have I would have and having sex with the man would have caused me to lose my outdate. There was nothing beneficial there was nothing that was going to be beneficial, but that stinkin thinking and nine years and 6 months sentenced to 20 years in prison 9 years and 6 months to do and there is a man baby please so I got shipped back and I was found not guilty. So we are into my 5th year of incarceration and the only thing that I have done was completed cosmetology school and study for my GED on the unit I had many sisters that were college students that um would help sister on the unit as far as tutor, because the educational line is so long when you want to get into school you can’t get in school. So what do you do I instill in the women during my time of incarceration if you can’t get in class take out 30 minutes to 1 a hour away from the card table do something positive for yourself don’t be like me.

My 3rd or 4th time incarcerated and I didn’t do anything just came in and got busy whatever the program was that’s how I got with the program. But I realize that there are opportunities in prison. There are opportunities in prison you just have to have a mind made up and be determined. Nothing is going to stop me, because the buck stops here I was determined to become successful and know that I would be able to say for the last time this is what happen to me during my last time of incarceration. So 5 years I studying for my GED, now we are going into a whole other faze a whole other faze um Decatur pops up its the new kid on the block pilot program Oh I want to go I want to go Sheryl Abel had her hand up she wanted to go for everything but at that time they had discovered lumps in my breast and at that time that was another fear lumps in my breast oh mom, mom they I have lumps in my breast people think that I got cancer. That was very, very frightening now no one could step in and be surrogate mother for that, because that’s a matter for life and death.

And that is something that we must take very seriously as women I instill in women today get your mammogram sonogram, pap smears on a regular basis don’t wait like I did to discover that I have lumps in your breast so that held my shipment up I couldn’t go to Decatur right away. But fortunately the medical care was good because they would transported me outside to the hospital to have my mammograms, sonograms, because I was so lumpy but glory to GOD is was fibrocystic something that runs in the family. So I am writing the wardens left and right when I find out everything is ok and I get clearance to leave I think that I am the second shipment second or third shipment that has went to Decatur it’s a pilot program and we are under the direction and leadership of Deputy Director Missy Stutler. And we are under leadership and direction of her Now I think Deputy Director Missy Stutler I shake her hand because she came in and made some changes within the institution she brought in those life skill programs because other than that we were just sitting dead. Go to school if you can get into school, we have activities chow line walking 3 times a day. If you want to eat Commissary walking not a lot of whole lot of whole lot of activities, but you have to make the best out of bad situation no one wants to go to the penitentiary so these last 9 years and six months, were off the chain for me, because I was determined to change the system now how was I going to do that. By not coming back.

Salome: So let me just ask you one quick thing, during this time of incarceration were you able to see your son? How often were you able to see him?

S: Oh I haven’t got to that part yet hold that thought! I’m shipped to Decatur Missy Stutler has the life skills program also Lincoln came about women are being shipped from Dixon and Logan to Lincoln and Decatur I’m pretty sure that’s correct.

S.C.: And why are they being shipped.

S: Because they are closing down women and men it’s time we had a lot incidents mothers having babies a lot of sex going on. But that’s what you get when you put women and men together we are going to find a way, because that’s what women and men are made for. A whole lot of things happened and I think it was a wonderful thing. Because when I am around a man in an enclosed air like that I can’t get my thinking together. (She laughs) I can’t get my thinking together, because there are a lot good looking men there. They look a lot better than the men we see walking the streets today and they are taking care of themselves and they have groomed themselves. So I’m in Decatur and this is when it all starts for me. And in Decatur I will take you were I am now Missy Stutler we are under the direction of her who again I want to say was very important to my time of incarceration and women who were in during those times in the 90’s and early 2000. There was no reason you could not get your life together if you wanted to and I’m speaking from Decatur Correctional Center and I know the same was direction and leadership was at Dwight and Lincoln okay no prison was not a great thing for me, but I made it good for me because I took advantage of the programs that were in there.

First and foremost I started mentoring the women on the units come on because at one time people didn’t even know that I didn’t have a GED now that how sick I was walking around thinking I’m looking good talking like I had a GED and didn’t have one so that was some sick thinking I was able to mentor these young women coming in there and women my age that didn’t have their GED its okay today I don’t have mine either, but this is the only way we are going to get our life on the right track. You can’t even get a job at McDonald’s if you don’t have a high school diploma in some places so we would get together and we would learn together and we worked on getting GED I had to take my GED 3 times and in taking my GED 3 times do you think that women didn’t think that she’s a failure we ain’t gonna follow her. She can’t even pass her GED, but I was determined and the more determined I got the more determined they got and I got my GED and they got theirs and then life skills I went to every life skills program that the penitentiary had to offer.

Why not? How much it cost to house me a year a lot money I do not have to give you the numbers cause you know take a lot money to house me I am going to leave after nine years 6 months with nothing under my belt I had a totally different attitude at Decatur I fell under the leadership of Deb Denning she was my warden and she would inspire me. I had a nick with the administration I just had a way with them you know what I am saying hey I showed them that if you put it out there for us I could get the women to do it. And women followed me life skills the classes were packed, parenting the classes were packed, self-esteem the classes were packed. GED classes the college classes were packed, because we have to make a difference for ourselves because no one is going to do it for you instead of complaining.

Dannette: So what year was this?

S:I came home in 2002 I think this was 1999. Some where around there and I did everything that I could do. And I inspired those women to do it as well in the vision.

D:So moving forward just a little can we get to the visitation of your son?

S: The visitation of my son to visit me my mother who is a registered nurse now she is a community person she does prison ministry. For Advocate Bethany so I am proud to say that fortunately I had a mom that stepped up she had stepped down from being a grandmother and take responsibility of being a mother of my son she brought my son to see me twice a month on a regular basis. Then as it got time then I had my father he would fly 3,500 miles from California to make sure that I got visits. Aunts and Uncles so I had plenty of family support and they would always say do something different while you are in here/. Like they knew it was something you could do different to make your life different and then I would look at my son I had to watch my son as a baby during my time of incarceration I had to watch my son grow up.

But I was able to bond with my son during my time of incarceration, but it is nothing like a mother being home with her son and helping ways and instilling him or her the things that a child needs from a parent so then as we got come 1999 when I got to Decatur like I said I had did everything you could do I was involved with the chaplain I was involved with LTS. So I started working with the chaplain and LTS on the inside of the prison and I got involved with Lutheran Social Services where that is a program where they bring the children in on the bus and families to sit down dine well they have 2 hours, 21/2 hours of quality time they have a luncheon for them they have activities and they have a RAPP group for the caregivers that is really off the chain. So I would just be working with them I was offered one day so you know I never see do you have any children yeah I one son Ryan.

Well do he comes to see you? Well at that time yes I was having a lot of visits. When I had got to Decatur now I getting close to the time for me to come home. And those visits started slacking up a little plus I am further I like out in the boon docks that a long way from home but you do the best that you can do. So well this program um one of the ladies Marilyn Hammond she bring the children and Sr. Pat Davis they bring the children to Decatur and Lincoln and she says to me I would like to call your mm so that we can bring her to bring your son for a visit I was like no un un girl my mother is tired let’s just leave my mother where she is she’s been good but she pressed me and pressed me so I gave her the information to call my mother and the result of that is my son started to ride the bus. Then my father flew from California to ride the bus to see who were these people that were taking busloads of children to prison to visit the mom. Excellent program, excellent program so that there were so many things that I got to participate in and actually experience, but the greatest thing about that is being able to see your child there are mothers who do not get to see their children. So can you imagine the stories that I have heard? Women started believing in me and trusting in me and this is how my vision came about. If I was as good a listener as I was in prison to hear some of the stories why women came to prison what happened to get them there.

I’ve heard murder stories, I’ve heard child molestation stories I’ve heard child abuse stories I have heard all types of stories and I say today was it really my fault that I went to prison. When I look back over my life there were situation that should have been looked at I was an addict, but yet DuPage County sent me to the penitentiary. Why? And I stated the recorded stated that I am an addict that have never had help and too ashamed and embarrassed to ask for help I was in denial shamed to let people know yeah I’m hooked on this stuff and I can’t get off of it, but yet you thought that sending me to the penitentiary was the best thing for me. Well I don’t think that works there should be other alternatives if someone says their sick then you need to get them so assistants besides sending them to the penitentiary. Because sometimes we become complacent with going to the penitentiary the penitentiary does not always have to be good for you. In some situations, my situation being a drug addict I think that I should have been offered some opportunity to go to some treatment center and there were some treatment centers available for me at that time but that was totally ignored and that is where my journey started so do I blame the criminal system. For me becoming complacent with going to the penitentiary because it was okay I blame them cause I needed help and they didn’t give it to me and I blame them still today.

S.C.: So what do you think the system gets out sending women to prison instead of into treatment why is the situation self perpetuating?

S: Please how much money do we get a year? How many hundreds of thousands of dollars do we get a year? For sending women to penitentiary and I cannot speak for men, because I am not a man I think that it is terrible that 80% of the women in the incarcerated in prison have not gotten the attention that they need and some of us didn’t have the since enough to ask for it. But you knew what the situation so you did not help the situation so that enable it to continue to perpetuate so we have to look at that are we getting the help that we are asking for so then they say she can get treatment in prison. What the since I’m in prison that is mental I in treatment that’s mental I’m still in prison and when you are in prison you will rebel from a lot of things only the strong is going to survive. And we still have women my age that are still going back and forth to prison. Because they didn’t get the help that was needed from the very beginning the fact that they didn’t get the help and they didn’t know how to ask. So in my vision in my last 2 years of being incarcerated under the leadership of Deb Denning she pushed me because I would tell her I have already taken the GED 2 times see I’d tell her I can’t do it.

See sometimes you will hear the women say and I loved the women that come out of women yeah prison was bad for some women who just did not want to get it right for some of them. Some stories that you hear where women had bad experiences maybe true, but what lead to those experiences a prison has rules you got 1,500 women leaving in the prison you better have rules. Cause we are going to take over there who wants to live with rules no one rules are made to be what broken and in prison when you break rules there are consequences now I don’t always agree with the consequences that you receive in prison now lets go there. Now that was a part of my vision and I used to talk to women all the time cause baby it doesn’t mean nothing you break a rule they write that ticket and you are going to pack up quick with out giving being able to give an explanation. I think that well somewhat to a certain extent I’m hearing that, that has changed. You are not always wrong and I don’t think that a person should be put in seg in segregation when they first get a ticket until the story has been heard now say there was a fight two women got into a fighting you get a lot that. That goes on 24 hours around the clock.

Besides at lock up, even at lock up because you might get into a fight with your roommate. But women are going to what women are going to what have disagreements for whatever the reason maybe so in my vision I’m tell the women stop fighting, stop hollering and screaming, put the cards down needing more things to do. An idle mind it the devils workshop. You ain’t got nothing to do in the penitentiary what do you do keep up chaos. So I had a lot women following me and the wonderful thing about the vision I want to get there is that it was a vision from GOD and I never spoke a word to anyone. My last 2 years of being incarcerated GOD was preparing me and in the preparing he was teaching me how to listen to women and understand. Because in prison who’s listening who’s really listening okay who’s really listening you have to find someone you can trust and know that they are listening that’s where it all started for me. So now as I started the program and you know it was really something because it was a mental thing with me I was looking at all the things that I could change if I could just come back through that door not the back way, but the front way. How am I going to do that.

Because it starts on the inside the change must come from the inside of the prison if you want to see results so upon my release I came home and I was determined I started working with formerly incarcerated women that were coming out of prison because you know we have this thing about when they are going home girl give me your phone number so I had a phonebook of phone numbers and address so that I could contact women when I got home and for them to contact me as well, but them not knowing what my purpose for them to contact me was to help them to stay focus to empower and enlightening them to do the right thing with their lives because I was determined that I had been delivered from my addiction and I was going to do what it took for me to be successful in this society to help somebody. If I could shut down the prison baby I working towards trying to do it. And get the women the help that they need. So I contacted the women and started having meetings at my moms house. But before I go there I want to say Lutheran Social Services, because I am coming to the end. When I came home, you know when we leave prison when we go to prison we get that X on our backs and that’s for real.

Some women have a thing with ex-offender girl don’t use that, because we’re not an ex-offender oh yeah there is an X on your back you need to realize it and to society that who we are so we need to keep that at face value I am an ex-offenders in their eyes always. They look for me to slip, but I got news for them today honey, Ex-offender there is an X on my back and that a fear that we contemplate before we leave prison how am I going to get a job who will hire me. Where will I live can I, I did so bad in my mother’s home so that is she going to trust me to come there because I am a 3 time loser. Is she going to allow me to come there. Whose going to let me come to their house because of my previous history. They have a fear too. So today what we do is work with caregivers of women that are in prison and we let them we develop relationships with them to prepare for the mother coming home. So that in hopes in building a relationship with them and letting them know that we are ex-offenders and through an example this is the change that we hope that your daughter can bring when she comes home. Oppose to going to a shelter or a transitional house or in a substance abuse house. I did 9 years and six months now when I left the prison after doing 9 years and 6 months now and If I came home doing drugs after 9 years and 6 months then you know what that the prison system has fallen.

Glory be to GOD we got a fact here 9 years and 6 months and I want to come home and still use drugs, but I did not have substance abuse treatment while I was in prison. I had just made up my mind that I did not want to do it anymore. But that does not always work for other people. Some people need treatment, but we need to know where we are going when we leave prison. Prison needs to work with us on a regular basis give us other alternatives of where we can go not 2 or 3 shelters or 2 or 3 transitional homes they need to implement more homes for women. Where women can get their children and bring them there with them. If it is a 3 level transitional house they need to make it available for a women to come home and take her life back. So that’s where I come in at, so I am working with women that are coming home from prison and I know that I have that X on my back so I’m like what are I going to do? So my parents built me a beauty shop in my mothers basement and that’s where I started because remember I graduated from cosmetology school because I knew that I had to be self-independent, because who gonna give me job when they pull that rap sheet up. Once they type that social security number in there they are going to be like oh my GOD.

And the question is on the application have you ever been convicted of a crime and they should have never put that question on the application. At least allow me the freedom to want to speak about that during the interview so when I check that box that I have been convicted of a felony and then when I walk out the door after filling out an application I have seen this actually happen my application is goes into the trash can. Is that giving me the opportunity to come back into this society and learn how to be productive with the help of family and community? I don’t think so. That’s where I come in at I started a beauty shop and I teach the women I instill I won’t say teach, but I mentor them. Because I am a mentor and I have a lot of mentorees honey you should see the application that come in from Dwight, Lincoln, and Decatur Correctional and now I am getting them from Kankakee. I get tons of them and I am working with the Department of Corrections they are sending the applications the women are filling them out they getting them to family services, Family Services are sending them to me so that we can work with the women starting on the inside.

How I work with the women on the inside of the prison is today remember previously in the interview that I wanted to come back to the prison but how was I going to come but glory be to GOD in the vision I saw me going into the prison through the front door and that is how I go today I go and inspire women I let them see by example what I am doing some of those same women that I have mentored are coming home some of those same women that I have tutored to help them get their GED are coming home. I am receiving application from them and I am giving them HOPE and that is the name of our organization H.O.P.E., INC., Back to me working I knew it was going to be a problem with me getting a job and it was a fear, if I had let it be a fear. If I had let that fear live in me I would be still using drugs today. But see I was determined. So well Lutheran Social Services I started calling them and I told Marilyn that I was so impressed with how this program has worked with women like me I was so impressed with how the importance of children coming into the prison to see their moms the moms hugging them and telling them I love you and it is not your fault that I am in prison you don’t have to live the life that I am living. Children want to be able to say hey just be an example.

When they have a parent PTA meeting at the school and grandmother has to come and the child has to call grandmother mother that is a mental problem for a child mother missing in action. Why? Because she’s in prison, not because she was in prison, but because she was an addict addicted and I am speaking about myself that she did not get the help she needed from DuPage County. When he sentenced me the penitentiary for 2 years and I did 6 months. As I said earlier glory be to GOD I was able to have a child clean and sober, but same option if I had been sent to a treatment center I still could have had a child clean and sober did he have any sympathy for me or my son? That just started what a curse on my family a mother had her son in jail. Mother abandoned her child, so Lutheran Social Services I said I want to give back. I didn’t have money, but I wanted to give back by a service to them. I said Marilyn you know I do hair. My mother had built me the beauty shop I said would you come and let me do your hair. She refused a couple of times finally I got her to come and she asked me did I have a resume. Ah a resume! That was the most funniest thing that I had heard since I been home May 7, 2002. I thought that was the funniest thing a resume’ oh my GOD. I said yes I have a resume’ one of all the things that I have done in the 9 years and 6 months of my incarceration. She said I’ll take it.

I ran outside to my mother I said oh my GOD ma the lady wants a resume’ because I could not believe in a million years that someone would actually ask an ex-offender. I’m telling I still get just overwhelmed with joy when I think about it. Does she have a resume’ and then a month later offer me job. So I went work for Lutheran Social Services and what I started doing was setting up providing transportation for women that were in prison for the caregiver to take the children to see them. The exact same thing that someone had done for me. So when I say that it is a vision from GOD that is truly what it is. I don’t work ex-offenders, I don’t work with women in prison, I don’t work with the children and the caregivers and go out into this community and pass the word about my deliverance and salvation just because I want to do it I was chosen by GOD to do it. And that ain’t no joke, because it is a lot of hard work. Because you got some people pulling for you and you got a lot of people pulling against you. So and GOD had put me in that place to work for Lutheran Social Services because he was preparing me for this day that was temporary I wouldn’t be there long. It was so I could learn the things that I needed to learn.

So I’m working for Lutheran Social Services so that’s a real testimony honey you could get a job. So when I go into the prison’s I can tell the women honey I have had a real job. There’s hope for you sista’s you can do it. And also I work for Ceasefire, Maywood Ceasefire from 2 to 10 guess what I doing you wouldn’t believe it I work mentoring children the youth that have dropped out high risk, and gang members that are out in the streets I’m helping them to change their thinking ones who have dropped out of high school I am helping them to get back into high school. If they are dealing drugs I’m teaching how to get off the street corner. I work with the women ages 16 to 25 years old the youth women. A lot of them how they get involved with gangs is through the boyfriend carrying guns for them getting killed in drive-by shootings so I allow my life to be an example for them as so see GOD will open doors for ex-offenders to have jobs if you believe. So how do you believe? Because I told you earlier we have that fear in prison that we are not going to get a job. We come home and we can’t take care of our children, we can’t feed them our children want the famous this our children want the famous that back-to-school is coming our children need school supplies clothes Easter is coming I know you are going to have Easter a well round feasted meal on the table for your child. Right or wrong? Then we work with them as what?

That becomes very depressing for a woman that’s coming out of prison. Then you have Christmas everybody wants to enjoy Christmas I’m a get busy If I don’t have a job I’m a go back into those stores because you learn to do what you doing when you learn to do it if you continue to practice it you learn to do it well. And then when I go back into the stores picking up things that I cannot afford to pay for, but I am good at it that will wind me back where? in the penitentiary so it is mandatory that this society t opening up their doors and start giving people jobs when they’re coming out of prison. Or else we are going to have repeat recidivism we have 2700 women incarcerated in the state of Illinois 5000 children affected by the mom’s incarceration. That’s a lot and that was like last years statistics I have got to check to see what the statistics are for this year.

So I’m working with Lutheran Social Services for 5 years I resigned from the position during that time I am having meetings at my mothers house now let’s talk about that an ex-offender open up her mother door she allows me to open the door to her house for ex-offenders to come in and sit down for a self-help support group and people say what is a self-help support group what is so big about that? Well first and foremost because people listen you get the opportunity to talk, about the things that you need to talk about and not be criticized not be looked down on, but yet be heard. And there are other women there that you can relate to. Believe or not self-help support groups helps keep a woman out of prison, because we can’t afford to see a shrink. Sometimes we have mental health issues. Anybody that has been to the penitentiary and this is my personal opinion have some type of mental issue something has went on. Whether is was domestic violence in the home, child molestation in the home, drug addiction in the home alcoholism in the home there were a lot of things going on in the home that have lead us down the path that we have taken. So the vision we are H.O.P.E., Inc. I bring women into my mothers home we have special events that we do our mission is to bring understanding, love and support to formerly incarcerated women who want to lead productive lives for themselves and their children. Honey I push children, because I know what it is like to be a mother that has abandoned her child during my incarceration and it was not my son’s fault. Our vision is our vision is to empower women and that is what I do I empower women to remain focus I enlighten them by my story of success and I say to them if I can do it you can too.

The butterfly I believe in second chances the butterfly symbolizes hope of a second chance of life. The mission, vision, and the symbol all came to my heart through my vision what we do, we are a reentry program. I go into the prison’s because it is mandatory that I do. I go into the prison’s and I talk to the women I instill in them doing presentation’s for them and you never know how it is going to end up and yet I have been successful in doing so I let them know the application is out how the application and upon paroling they need to call us right away, but the most important thing about is pulling them making that family connection bond with the mothers that are incarcerated is… too. Get that application from the women that are incarcerated and what we do and because of the special events that we have we assist caregivers. Do you know how often caregivers are forgotten when they are taking care of the children. How much money are they getting from public aid a lot of these caregivers are seniors. Okay they might have lived off of general assist all they life from generation to generation. Can you imagine what they go through, can you imagine what’s it like for someone to call their home and says I have a $25 to $50 gift certificate for you to go to the grocery shopping for you and the eight of incarcerated parents that you have living in your home. Honey that’s a great help so that they can have a round feasted meal on their table. They deserve that. They deserve to go to school with decent clothes on decent shoes on their feet. School supplies, the books that they need they deserve a mentor if they need one, because the mother is incarcerated. And all those things we try to offer them at H.O.P.E. do no we don’t try we do.

Dannette: We would like to thank you Sheryl for telling how you walked out the door and are now coming back in. Not in handcuffs and shackles.