Women in Transition from Prison
to the World at Large
To find Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, you take the first Wilsonville exit off the interstate, turn right past the suburban fixtures of Carl's Jr and Chevron, then left down an old ferry road, past a field of cows and up to the outer gate.
The correctional facility — Oregon's only prison for women—looks like a squat community college campus, only that the two main buildings, Medium and Minimum Security, are fenced with coils of concertina wire. You drive up and speak your name into a metal box, and a tinny voice from the speaker tells you to go ahead. Inside Minimum you trade your driver’s license for a visitor pass, and lock away your phone. A sunglass’d guard with no sense of humor itemizes each object you carry, guides you to a too-sensitive metal detector, through a steel gate and into the prison. Only twenty minutes from downtown Portland, you are an outsider now on the inside.
The courtyard is where the inmates gather when the sun shines. The women wear dark blue jeans and darker blue shirts, stenciled in orange with OREGON DEPT OF CORRECTIONS. They tend to a garden, which is full of flowering annuals and vegetables in dark soil, bound for some future dinner. The women walk together in loops around the garden; they nearly always go clockwise. Edging the courtyard are the mess hall and the infirmary and the dormitory and the activity center, each similar in style but serving an individual purpose. In the activity center is the classroom where, every Thursday morning, a group of specially selected inmates gathers to prepare for the journey from the inside to the outer world at large. The women are about to undertake one of the most fateful transitions possible, from imprisonment to freedom, and also one of the least successful, given that nearly thirty percent of inmates are so unable to function on the outside that they end up re-incarcerated within three years. The classroom where they meet is papered with large, hand-scrawled posters reading BREATHE and FREEDOM IS EVERYWHERE and YOU ARE ENOUGH.
Their "reentry program" is called LIFE.
For Nealy Alley, this won't be her first time walking out of Coffee Creek. Released in 2001 after an earlier drug conviction, she handed a free bus pass to the driver and rode straight back into trouble. Broke, devoid of an education or a legally recognized skill-set, disoriented by the obligations of freedom, she returned to the orbit of drug dealers and users who crowd her meth-drenched hometown of Salem. Eking out an existence by relying on the very relationships that originally put her away, after ten years Nealy was finally arrested for possession and harboring a wanted felon in her apartment. Rather than rat out this "friend," she refused to appear at court, and was soon convicted and shipped back to Wilsonville. Now, nearing the end of that second stretch behind bars, and one week before release, Nealy comes back one final time to the LIFE classroom, ready to think hard about what could be different this time around.
“Everyone talks about what food they want to eat on the outside,” says the 34-year-old, a wide-eyed woman with long, brown hair falling straight down her shoulders. “But me, I’m more excited about clothing, because I’m really sick of this outfit!” She bursts into laughter while tugging on her inmate-issue sweatshirt.
“You get tired of the same things day after day,” she says more seriously. “If I never see mashed potatoes again, I will not be mad. It’s gonna be weird being barefooted in the shower. Those little things will be so important, like 'Thank you, God.’”
At six feet tall, Nealy curls her frame into a folding chair, beneath the exhortation YOU ARE ENOUGH — but Nealy has spent most of her life believing otherwise.
“I won’t miss this place, but I’m glad I was here long enough to learn a little bit,” she says. “I made who I am out of these 55 months, and I’m super proud of that. I don’t feel like I’ve wasted a single day.”
Nealy credits the LIFE class with creating both that sense of worth, and a tangible plan for keeping it as she reenters the world. She loved the 36-week-long class so much she took it twice.
“I never knew what it was like to care for myself,” she says. “I thought that equaled selfishness. So you can imagine the kind of relationships that led to, with friends, with men, with anybody.”
Although she has been drug-free for years, when Nealy gets excited she still talks with a quick, scattered patter. Her hands clutch, her feet tap, her thumbs twiddle. But certain topics do slow her down.
"My son was twelve when I came in here," she says. “And he's 17 now.”
There is a long pause.
“He grew into a man.”
“I hope he’s a good one.”
Pause. She touches the tips of her tawny-brown hair.
“It seems like he is.”
Nealy’s son, Dustin, visits the prison fairly regularly, but as it’s far from home, distance can be both deterrent and excuse. It has been hard for them both.
“Finding out how to fit into his life has been a real trip,” Nealy says. “After all these years I’m still trying to find my role as a mother behind bars. Prison sucks, it really sucks,” she says, but it has forced on her a new understanding of her son, and a greater compassion for her own mother’s difficulties in life. Nealy met her birth father for the first and only time in 2010. She has not stayed in contact, for reasons she will not say. It’s April 2015, and there’s a big rest-of-the-world to rejoin.
“I saw something on the TV a couple days ago that had a cordless vacuum cleaner, and that blew my mind. I was like 'What, they have those now?’” Nealy laughs, wild-eyed again. “Like, I can’t wait to see what a phone does. I hear they have birthday cake M&Ms, just little things like that. A lot has changed out there. I’m excited about little mundane things, like hairclips. We can’t have them here, and I have a lot of hair. Scissors! I haven’t used a fork in 55 months, but I get out next Thursday morning. I’m gonna get a nice Denny’s breakfast and a pedicure. Yay!”
"We're treated like people."
The LIFE class — Lifelong Information for Entrepreneurs — was begun in 2007 by Mercy Corps Northwest, a charitable organization devoted to helping small businesses get off the ground. (This reporter was hired by Mercy Corps during the course of this project.) Though a prison might seem like a strange setting for a business class, inmate Angie Sherer says she's learning about a lot more than just profit-and-loss sheets. By the end of the class, each inmate prepares a thorough 25-page re-entry plan with tangible steps to help with the transition out of prison.
"There’s so much to this class," Angie said. “It’s not just learning the business skills, it’s about learning to be a whole person so that you can be successful in whatever you do. [This class is] amazing because we’re treated like people.”
Angie’s class notebook is open. One of this week’s class assignments was to write a third-person autobiography for an imaginary newspaper called These Changing Times, and the headline Angie wrote for her story is “She’s Living Proof! Angela Sherer, a former inmate at CCCF, is now a social worker fighting for children of incarcerated parents. Here is her story…”
The words are written in colored marker — alternating purple, red, green and yellow. During the class, each inmate stands and speaks about why she chose her particular story.
“I just feel really passionately about healing the family bonds created during incarceration and not leaving them severed,” Angie says, when her time comes to speak. “There’s evidence that if you strengthen those bonds, the recidivism rate decreases. So. That’s me. Thank you.”
Her classmates applaud. Angie is eloquent, and she had a good job at Verizon Wireless before she started popping Oxycodone, which led to trying heroin, which led to selling heroin, which led to Coffee Creek. When Angie went to prison on May 2, 2012, she lost custody of her infant son, Tristan. Angie has never spent a Christmas with Tristan, nor any of his birthdays other than his day of birth. She didn't see her son at all for the first two years of her sentence. Now Tristan is five years old, and Angie says the thing she most looks forward to about getting out of prison is getting to know her son for the first time. "He doesn't know me out there," she said. "He’s four and he’s amazing. I was 23, now I’m 27. With eight commercial drug felonies. It’s gotta stop somewhere."
On the final morning of this LIFE class, Patricia Walker begins to weep. After a moment she steps to the podium, beneath one long banner that reads CONGRATULATIONS GRADUATES and another that reads MERCY CORPS. Slowly at first, then with gathering speed, she speaks.
"The most challenging part of this was reaching back into my past and pulling out the parts that I still feel are good. Because this class made that possible. And the best part, of course, was the joy... Spending two hours feeling normal."
A long-time resident of Coffee Creek, Patricia looks out at rows of inmates, some of whom are also weeping. Her community.
"In this place you don't really have that opportunity to have people treat you with respect and kindness and genuine caring all the time," Patricia continues, “and that was huge for me. To be able to go and learn everyday, and to use my brain in a way that hadn’t been used in a long time was a really big deal... And I thank you all.”
Applause rises from Nealy, Angie and the other inmates as Patricia walks to her seat. After all of the graduates have spoken about their experiences, Mercy Corps’ Doug Cooper, teacher of the class, walks to the podium.
“This class is fairly rigorous work,” he reminds the graduates. “From really hardcore business skills, working with financial tools like balance sheets and profit- and- loss statements, to negotiating and good communications. But it’s really clear that it’s all really transferable to life in the outside world. You see that connection right away, and you apply it very studiously to both your business ideas and also to your life. It was a challenge for a lot of you, and it’s really to your credit that you’re sitting here having graduated the class, and done an exceptionally good job doing it. And we learn as much or more from you as you learn from us. Congratulations. Alright, let’s have cake!”
After posing for pictures, hugging and high-fiving Angie, Patricia and dozens of her fellow graduates, and with only three days to go before her release, Nealy cuts and serves the sheet cake on small Styrofoam plates. Only after each person has a piece does Nealy take one for herself.