Meet Pamela…

Pamela, 55
Incarcerated: 32 years
Housed: Bedford Hills Correctional Facility

Diane: What is it that makes you happy?

Pamela: What makes me happy is to play softball. I love to play softball- it’s one of the things I get to do here in the summer months, and that makes me really happy. Besides being with my family and friends, that’s one thing inside here that makes me happy.

Diane: How do you play here?

Pamela: We play in the yard. It’s kind of like a bootleg setup. It’s half grass, half field type of thing. When I play, I feel free. I feel like I’m in a game somewhere at some playground or park, and I feel extremely free. I totally concentrate on the game and forget I’m in prison. That’s my favorite thing to do. And I’m still hanging in there! I’m getting kind of old, so I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to play, but I’m doing alright. 

Diane: Do you have leagues or opponents that you play?

Pamela: No, we don’t. It seems when Covid happened, there were a lot of lockdowns here. People got lazy during the lockdowns, so there’s not as much interest anymore for sports.

Diane: Is there something in particular that you worry about?

Pamela: My mother. I worry about my mom all the time. Unfortunately, she broke her hip last week. She was at the hairdresser, and the guy forgot to lock the chair. When she got in the chair, she fell and hit the sink. She had to go into emergency surgery the following day, was in a nursing home, and just came home yesterday. That was very hard for me because I can’t be there to take care of her. My dad is taking care of her, but he’s 83. That was really tough. It still is really tough.

Diane: How old is she? Does she live nearby?

Pamela: She’s 81 and lives in Florida. She’s been unable to come due to her compromised health around Covid and not wanting to travel because of Covid. I haven’t seen either of my parents in three years and now that they’re in Florida, it’s a lot harder.

Diane: You sent us a poem that you wrote, which was so touching to me, about being a mother.

Pamela: Not being a mother.

Diane: It was touching to me that you were able to articulate what you felt about having a baby.

Pamela: I got sent to prison when I was 22. I did not have any children at that time. Because I had a life sentence without any possible leave for parole, one of the side-effects is that I could never have children, being incarcerated all of my life. I believe you are talking about a poem that is called, “Emptiness Inside.” I was speaking about wanting to be a mother and wanting to have a child and feeling like not a whole woman because I couldn’t experience that.

Diane: Do you want to read it?

Pamela: Sure.

Women are supposed to give birth
Therein lies their worth
Ultimate femininity
Expanding the human race
Leaving a piece of me
Forever multiplied in someone else
Infinity in the soft soil of a womb

Me
22 years old
Sentenced to life
Sentenced to be barren
My body a dry desert

Oh, child of my womb
I sometimes swear I feel your heartbeat
Your restless soul move
I see you in my dreams
A little girl
Ribbons the colors of cotton candy.

My baby girl
Trapped within me forever
Serving life in the prison of my womb.
I even named you
Epiphany
My awakening to womanhood

But I am just a girl
Never a woman
If I can’t let you out.

Diane: Thinking and talking about your life sentence without parole… What motivates you?

Pamela: Well, God. I have a deep sense of spirituality and I live a life of service here and I decided long ago I will try to make my life as rich as possible despite my circumstances. I do a lot of work with the other women here, in school, at the grievance office where I work, and advocacy work. I work all the time. I thank God I have the energy of a 12 year old, so I’m okay. I run around all day and it keeps me going because I’m busy. I feel like I’m doing things that are good and I see that I help and the changes and the results of my efforts. I feel like I want to keep my mind sharp and stay enjoying the life that I do have. I don’t want to be miserable, I don’t want to be angry. I want to be as positive as I can, so I keep myself involved in positive things. 

Diane: Negativity can really tear you apart.

Pamela: Well, I see what it can do everyday. There’s a lot of people that are angry, bitter, miserable and they’re still here. Only you have to live with yourself, and I don’t want to live with a person everyday that is that way. So, I do my best, focusing and hoping that one day, this will end.

Diane: And that’s probably why you feel so young, right?

Pamela: Well, I never take a nap, I’m always running, I try to stay in shape with sports. I keep my mind in shape going to school, writing, doing things…

Diane: That’s great to hear because I’ve been in prisons, and they can be so oppressive. 

Pamela: Yeah, it’s totally an oppressive environment, but I think that life is a choice. Everyday, you choose what you’re going to do with the day in front of you, and I choose to live and live in a peaceful state in the midst of the chaos that’s going around me. Honestly, it may sound corny, but I have the joy of the Lord in my heart, and my circumstances can’t take that away. They just can’t. I might lose it for a minute or whatever, but they can’t take it from me.

Diane: Would you want to share a typical day with us?

Pamela: A typical day. Well, this morning was really a typical day. Before 8 o’clock, I was called all over the place before the day even started because there are problems in the housing units. A sergeant was calling me, the officers were calling me because there was a lot of confusion about policy and procedure that was recently changed about the housing unit operations. I was called to get what the rules are, pull the rules, go back, talk to people, explain what’s happening, get some clarification from supervisors about how things are supposed to be operating. Pretty much my day starts: I get up at 5 o’clock in the morning, I pray, I take a shower at about 6, then I handle what already happens or is coming my way even before I get to work at 8 o’clock.

Diane: What’s your job?

Pamela: I work in the grievance office. I’m the elected grievance representative for the prison. Every six months I have to run and be elected again in order to keep the job. I’m in my ninth term right now. So, I handle all complaints, and there are no shortage of complaints. So, I handle them, I try to resolve what I can in my head informally… It’s a lot of diplomacy. Speaking to people, trying to come up with solutions, working with on-site supervisors, sargeants, lieutenants. If it can’t be resolved it has to get filed and we go to hearings. I work every day from eight to four, but my job really never ends. Even if the office is closed, the job never ends. People just see me, and I’m the “problem lady.” So, every problem they have, whether it’s nighttime, morning, weekend, whatever, they come asking me, “What are the rules about this?” There’s rules about everything here. The rules are sometimes fluid, and that’s when there’s problems. Certain people interpret it a different way, and I try to get clarification.

At night, I try to play racquetball for at least an hour or an hour and a half every night. I make phone calls, do what I have to do for myself.  That’s pretty much a typical day. On the weekends I go to church, I visit sometimes throughout the day. I also just finished a PhD program. I was going to school for a while, and I’m hoping to start another master’s program in the Fall. I’ve been in school forever, and I’m still in school. I love to learn.

Diane: Are your programs in person, or are they in correspondence?

Pamela: Both. I did one master’s program through correspondence, another master’s program through in-person learning. I did a PhD through correspondence because of course that was during Covid. And this master’s that I just applied for, if I get in, will be in-person learning through New York Theological Seminary. That’s a pretty prestigious school. I’m hoping they won’t say that I’m over-qualified and that I’ll be able to do it. 

Diane: Tell me about the person you were before you came here, and the person that you are today.

Pamela: It’s funny because I’ve really always been the person I am today. However, I’m much wiser, much less naive. I feel like before, being that I was so young -I was 22- I was not as focused on other people as I am now. I did do some service work before I came into prison, but at the level that I do things now, very little has to do with myself. My days and my nights have to do with everyone else, so I have become a lot less selfish, although I wouldn’t have described myself as a selfish person. I’m just more aware of the needs of other people and focusing on that and how important that is. I think that’s probably the biggest change. And of course, I’m a lot more world weary- I’ve seen things I wish I never saw and experienced things I wish I never had.

Diane: Well that’s a gift that you’re giving back so much.

Pamela: I feel like the more I’m blessed with -the more I learn- I always end up giving it back to everyone. I never just learn and keep it all to myself.

Diane: Is there any relationship you want to talk about?

Pamela: I have great friends inside prison. I know people say you can’t find friends in prison, but you can. I have great friends outside of prison- people who have stayed by my side throughout the whole incarceration. Then, I have other families that I’ve created from friends and people inside here. A problem for me is that everyone leaves but me. So, my life is always about having friendships and then losing the physical person with me because everyone goes home. That’s rough for me, but a lot of the friends that go home stay in touch, and that to me is beautiful and speaks to the fact that you really can get friends in prison.

Diane: We only have three minutes, but I would love to open the floor to you and let you ask anything that is on your mind.

Pamela: I feel like a lot of times people in prison are seen as one-dimensional and we’re described or are forever frozen in our worst state. That defines everything about us, and we’re people. We’re humans. There’s more to us. Especially people that have been in prison for a long time. If you didn’t learn whatever you were supposed to learn in being sent to prison, you’re just never going to learn it. I think that there should be some way to reevaluate people who have served 20 or 30 years. All this time to determine if there’s a continued need for their incarceration, or if they could be doing something better outside of prison.

Diane: One last thing, because a lot of people have not heard about Humans of San Quentin. Is there anything you want to say about it?

Pamela: I think it’s a great program because it encourages people to write and find a voice. Not only to write, but then putting the writings out there. A lot of programs come into prison and they want you to write. You write in groups and then the writings never go out into the world. I think that it’s so important for people to read things by people in prison and to see themselves in those same struggles.

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