Sue Ellen Allen went to prison when she was 57 years old. She and her husband were convicted of securities fraud, and she served seven years at the Perryville prison in Goodyear, Arizona, near Phoenix.
"I went in as an anomaly," Allen told me over the phone. "I was a 57-year-old, well-educated white woman, and I was struggling through stage three breast cancer."
On the day Allen surrendered, guards required her to strip for a full-body inspection.
"I folded my black gabardine slacks and pink knit sweater, then complied with the guard's order," she recalled. Allen started from the top, first opening her mouth widely so the guard could see that she wasn't hiding any drugs. Then she leaned forward to show behind her ears. She had lost her hair to chemotherapy, which made the guard's order to "move your hair to the side" irrelevant. Another guard told her that just because she had cancer, she wasn't going to get any special treatment. Allen went through the rest of the motions, spreading her toes, showing her the bottom of her feet, then squatting and coughing three times.
Within a few months of settling in to the prison, her roommate, Gina, died. "She suffered from leukemia and yet the system refused to treat her appropriately, or even give her a blood test," Allen told me.
Gina's death had a profound influence on Allen. Soon after she died, Allen approached a deputy warden and requested permission to host what she called a "breast cancer walk."
"The warden looked at me as if I'd asked for champagne and caviar, but she eventually authorized the event," Allen said.
With permission, Allen set out to work, organizing other woman in the camp. They decorated the yard with pink paper and people actually signed up, generating sponsorship pledges from family and friends to raise money for each mile walked.
"That breast cancer walk was the first of its kind in the state of Arizona's prison system," Allen said. "Since then, it's spread to different yards and it has raised tens of thousands of dollars to assist in the fight against breast cancer."
Allen went on to use her time in prison to fight against what she saw as routine degradation. Instead of feeling like a victim, she chose to apply her education and experience in ways that might empower the women serving time alongside of her. She even designed a curriculum to teach life skills.
"Most of the women who served time had to endure daily doses of humiliation," Allen said. "Repeatedly, staff members would tell the women that no one cared. Prison officials don't want others to know what goes on in there, but prison life degrades people in ways that influence them forever." Her description reminded me of everything I'd experienced during 26 years of incarceration in federal prisons of every security level.
Watch the VICE HBO documentary on America's incarceration system, featuring President Barack Obama's first-ever visit to a federal prison:
Upon her release, Allen kept up her passion of working to empower women. She became the cofounder of Gina's Team, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving outcomes for women who experience imprisonment. The organization's motto: "Education, not incarceration, is the cheapest form of crime prevention."
"I wanted to do something to help those women, because no one else seemed to understand or care," she said. Through Gina's Team, Allen said she provides direct services to more than 1,000 people each year in different facilities. She has partnered with community leaders to teach skills based on the ATHENA Leadership Model and works to help women through their imprisonment and upon release.
After being confined, female inmates—like men—generally transition to halfway houses. There, they are required to pay fees that block many from ever being able to build lives of stability; subsistence payments amount to more than $100 per week, and the payments make it next to impossible to accumulate the savings necessary to pay for deposits on housing. When they, like all felons, reveal their felony convictions on applications for apartments or jobs, the women encounter immediate resistance, if not total rejection.
"I was lucky because I found passion in prison," Allen said. "I want to help women and girls in prison because the women are the foundation of the family."
By working with thousands of incarcerated women, Allen has become acutely aware of their problems. She described a homeless man as being the only individual who could express empathy to her after her release. He approached her asking for change, and when she told him that she'd just been released from prison, the man threw up his arms and said, "Welcome home."
With an annual budget of less than $35,000, Allen and the other volunteers at Gina's Team bring guest speakers to teach the women skills they'll need to overcome the challenges that await them in society. Through those classes, Gina's Team vets the participants and then matches them with prospective employers. The employers have an opportunity to review the women's resumes and interview them before they are released from the system. Gina's Team strives to open employment opportunities so that when these women walk out of prison, they have a job secured.
The longer people are exposed to America's "corrections" system, the less likely those people become to live in society successfully. That's why people like Sue Ellen Allen and me work to bring about prison and sentencing reforms.