After three years of parole supervision, New York State finally discharged me. As a free woman, my excitement brewed for my first visit to Maine. Cheryl Wilkins and Yolanda-Peterkin Johnson accompanied me. We wanted to connect with the women in our group, Right/Write to Heal, for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women in New York and Maine and see them in person. Cheryl and Yolanda were also crucial speakers in the Abolition Night at the Strand Theater. I couldn’t have had better companions. I admire these women for their strength and dedication to fighting to make the lives of people who have justice-involved backgrounds successful.
My first thoughts were that it was going to be cold in Maine. I had wool sweaters, hats, long johns, and a down coat packed. To my surprise, the weather was warm and beautiful each day of our stay. We arrived the night before the event and settled in our rooms. I commented that it looked a little like some of the neighborhoods in Queens, NY.
Erica King (https://placemattersmaine.org/who-we-are/) came to the hotel to meet and greet us. Jacinta Earnshaw came along with Erica. The warmth of her smile and bubbly personality cut through all the jitters I had; I felt at home. We all got acquainted and settled in for the night with the excitement of visiting and seeing the women tomorrow morning and the Abolition Night event at the Strand theater later that night. It was a long day ahead of us.
Traveling to the prison, I observed the beauty that Portland offers – the foliage of browns, oranges, yellows, and greens hues displayed on the trees. any doorsteps had fall decorations and pumpkins to feast your eyes on, a stark contrast to the tall buildings of New York City. We all ooohed and ahhed at the beautiful scenery and commented on the laid-back vibe of Portland.
Before entering the prison, I wondered how I would feel. Would any anxiety start creeping up on me? After all, this was my first time back in a correctional facility. We made sure to empty our pockets for items not allowed and only took our IDs with us. Animal lover that I am, I noticed a rehabilitation facility for horses directly across from the prison. I found out that the women volunteer there, but due to covid, it’s closed. The prison had a vegetable garden right outside the facility. What a pleasure to grow your food. I thought about the Bedford Hills garden at Fiske cottage and how much we all loved growing and sharing the harvest.
The Supt. Michelle McLauchlan greeted us at the door with hugs and sincere words of how happy she was we came. She expressed her concern about being depicted as soft on crime because of the progressive choices she has made honoring the women’s dignity. She was very emotional and compassionate, talking about her wishes for the success of the women in prison and kept expressing how she wanted to treat the women with dignity in all aspects of their lives.
We toured the prison and talked to many of the women and officers. The officers were very helpful and happy to explain the day-to-day characteristics of the prison—what a different vibe than in New York. We talked about our reentry process, the importance of education and planning for the future, as well as recruiting new members for the writing group. To my surprise, there were a few women there from New York, who, once released, will be returning back. We shared information and left feeling inspired and hopeful. A great visit and I look forward to going back soon.
Our next event was at the Strand Theater, “ABOLITION NIGHT AT THE STRAND THEATER.” The first inaugural Justice Scholar Strategy Network Showcase will be hosted on November 5th, 2021, at The Strand in Rockland, Maine. This event was hosted and co-designed in partnership with the Opportunity Scholars of the University of Southern Maine, the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, the University of Maine Augusta Prison Education Partnership, and the Freedom and Captivity Project. As I walked into the Strand Theater, something came over me and I experienced a moment of deja vu. Had I been here before, or maybe it just reminded me of my elementary school auditorium, with the folding seats, wooden stage, and black curtains. We proceeded downstairs to the Greenroom and waited for others to arrive. There were refreshments and beverages, and the atmosphere was filled with positive energy. Yolanda and Cheryl went over their performance and I helped read some lines with them as people slowly drizzled in.
The announcement came that the doors would be opening in 30 minutes, and I wanted a good seat and proceeded upstairs to the theater, purchased some popcorn and Dots candy. I sat with the women from the Southern Maine Re-entry Center which I visited earlier. I was astounded that the prison let them attend this event along with Abbie Turner (Our Right/Write to Heal liaison). It was amazing, they were excited and nervous to read their poems and go on stage and I was glad to be there supporting the women.
The evening went off without a hitch. Everyone was engaged in the spoken word poetry and prose while Ali and Yolanda’s comic vibes were a big relief to take the edge off the seriousness of the pieces.
The night ended with a Q & A, and, to my surprise, Yolanda called me up on stage while acknowledging I was finally off parole and everyone applauded. Nerves came alive as I walked on the stage and headed to sit down. There were a few more questions and the big one was what can we do to help? I spoke up this time and said that we are all here because we share the same vision of reform or abolition, yet we know co-workers, family members, and friends who do not share our vision. I ask you to have the hard conversations about mass incarceration and how it is destroying communities and families, get them involved in a small way, and keep watering the relationship until it grows.
Abolition night was a huge success for all who attended, and I was honored to be a part of it.