OTI Online
Winter 1999

Serving the Sentence:
From both sides of the bars
by Deborah Shouse


My friend Elizabeth is in prison. "Please send me poetry books," she writes.

I imagine her sitting in her cell until lights out, reading Keats or Marge Piercy, and writing letters to her husband and son. I imagine her lying on the two-inch mattress, tucking the thin blanket around her, grieving over her family, her home, her work, all the things she had to leave behind.

When Elizabeth and her husband were accused of insurance fraud in connection with their small business, I knew little about the charges, except that they were controversial.

"I am not guilty," she told me two years and ten lawyers ago when the story first hit the papers. Already she was immersed in depositions, enormous legal bills, hearings, the case entangled in politics. After that first story in the newspaper, many of her friends abandoned her.

"I am not guilty," she told me, when she was on bail and forced to live under partial house arrest, wearing an electronic ankle bracelet that let her whereabouts be known at every moment; when she missed seeing her 15-year-old son play basketball because she had to be home by 7 p.m. every evening.

"I am not guilty," she told me after the trial, and after she was sentenced to prison: five years in the federal penitentiary. Her husband got seven.

I look in the mirror and I see Elizabeth. I wonder, Who is truly not guilty? Is putting someone like Elizabeth in prison making the world a better and safer place?

Before Elizabeth, prison was for "other people," people who didn't follow rules, who didn't care about others, who were hurtful and harmful. But Elizabeth is one of the kindest, most caring people I know.

"I am lucky because I can see the KMart parking lot out my window," she writes. I feel her longing. She has been sent hundreds of miles south and her husband has been sent hundreds of miles west. "The parking lot reminds me of ordinary life. I can't see the people, but I imagine them buying towels and socks and sweatshirts, and I know someday I'll be doing that again."

Meanwhile, Elizabeth is on "butt patrol," spending four hours a day picking up litter in the prison yard. As one of the few women in the prison with a college education, she asked if she could help other prisoners study for their high school equivalency test. Her offer was refused, without explanation. She signed up for a creative writing class, but was told her "sentence was too long. Those classes are for short-timers."

My images of prison, like most people's, are from television and the movies. In my letters, I ask if she is afraid of the other inmates, if she feels she could suddenly be stabbed or raped. Elizabeth is not afraid. She feels an odd sense of community and camaraderie with the others. She also feels the emotional tension. "Every two weeks or so, emotions rise. Then, I know something will happen. I try to lie low, hang out in my cell more," she writes back.

Many of the inmates are suffering withdrawal from drugs and alcohol. Many are mothers and wives, torn from their husbands and children, isolated from everything they love. The mourning and anger are sometimes overwhelming.

Elizabeth too feels overwhelmed. Three weeks after her arrest, her older son was shot and killed in a random act of violence. She and her husband sought permission to see their son's body.

They were told they would have to pay special marshals to escort them, that is, if the marshals were available. An hour before the funeral home closed, the marshals appeared, manacled them, and drove them to the funeral home. Elizabeth sat next to her husband, but couldn't even hold his hand, because of the way her hands were manacled. At the funeral home, they looked at their nineteen-yearold son for the last time. Heavy chains weighed down Elizabeth She couldn't touch her son or kiss him good-bye.

How does she stand it? I wonder with each letter I get from her. I have met people who have been in prison before, but until Elizabeth I have never met someone like me. The inhumanity seems unconscionable. Even more unconscionable is that I can't figure out how to help.

So I write to her and pray for her, and I think of her often. I think of her when I am discouraged, when I am worried about money, concerned about my children or feeling stressed out by work. Sometimes, when I am rushing through the grocery store, I think, "Elizabeth would really appreciate picking out her own food, unloading her basket, carrying her groceries out to the car." I slow down, and remind myself that what I am doing is a privilege, not a chore.

"I'm taking two classes in Bible studies," Elizabeth writes. "The teacher treats us like we are real human beings."

Elizabeth was one of my closest friends, someone I loved eating dinner with, going for walks with, talking about books with. She and her husband welcomed me into their family. Now, Elizabeth is no longer just a friend: She is an inspiration. I admire the way she is making a spiritual journey out of her prison time. I admire the gentle and courageous way she is living through her "too-long sentence." And even though my own life sentence is different - freer, more filled with hope and opportunity - I pray that I can do the same.


Deborah Shouse sees her writing as a way to understand and celebrate the intricacies of everyday life. Her work has appeared in Ms., Family Circle and Christian Science Monitor.


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