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Women's prison inmates seek "second chances" to thrive

Members of the public got a rare glimpse into the lives of inmates at the state's only women's prison last week -- and not just their lives inside the system.


Inmates at Delores J. Baylor Women's Correctional Institution in New Castle joined other speakers in sharing their entire stories for a series of TED talks. The message: everyone deserves a second chance.


The chapel inside Baylor isn't what you might expect -- it's spacious, with stained glass windows and high ceilings. And today, it's filled with more than just prison inmates. Second Lady Jill Biden and her daughter Ashley are among the dozens who have come from outside to hear the stories of Baylor's women and men -- one featured inmate, who we'll hear from later, is transgender.

Ami Temple: I'm a little bit nervous… um, are there any mothers here today? (laughter)

Most of the women who get up to speak have their hair curled and makeup done, standing tall in burgundy scrubs with DOC stamped on the back. They talk about the mistakes that sent them to prison amid spirals with drugs or hopelessness, about abuse and poverty, missing family, and learning to love themselves.

Amanda Lemon: My story is… it's not an easy one to tell. Melissa Hutchison: My dad handed me a couple dollars. He supported his habit and our room bill by doing tattoos. I was 15 years old and I had eight of those tattoos already. Temple: I just couldn't face the reality of it. I continued to use drugs because I wanted to numb myself, and I wanted to numb the hurt that I had inflicted on myself and my family. I didn't want to face it. Eventually, I made a really bad decision -- the worst decision I've ever made -- and I ended up with a 10-year sentence here at BWCI. Trudy Downs: The reality is, I've lived an entire lifetime within these walls. When my son had to have surgery, I was here. When he was getting ready for his first school dance, I was talking to him on the phone, but I couldn't be there. ... When my father became ill and passed away, I couldn't be there. ... When my grand daughter was born, I wasn't able to participate in that, either. And two months later, when my son was killed in a car accident, I couldn't be there. Temple: It's easy to come in here and give up on yourself and not put the work in. But the majority of the women in this prison are working very hard for their redemption. And I feel like… (choked up) the word needs to get out that we are people in here too. Lemon: It really is hard and you're gonna cry a lot and you're gonna fight with yourself, and… it doesn't matter, though, because it's worth the fight. So I've done that. I'm still doing it -- I'm not fixed, definitely not fixed yet (laughter) but I'm getting there, I'm closer than I was before. I've come so far from who I was. Latoya McDuffie: We owe it to ourselves to come out of here victorious and determined to do whatever it takes to change and relive our lives differently and effectively. Downs: We need people to embrace us and help us to find our second chances. (applause)

The inmates' speeches alternate with talks by outsiders -- folks like Michael Kalmbach, a recovering addict who runs a community art space called the Creative Vision Factory in Wilmington, and Chris Darling, a Delaware businesswoman who talks about changing people's perceptions about mental illness.

There's also Patricia Beebe, who heads the Food Bank of Delaware and its open-access culinary training programs. She and others stress that foodservice and hospitality are "felony-friendly" -- they'll employ people who've been incarcerated.

Beebe: It is our responsibility as a society to not be afraid. To shake up the current systems we have in place that prevent people like this from succeeding.

Today, the women of Baylor are networking with people like Beebe, who already provide services that help with the transition back into society. And the inmates are also showing off their skills. At midday, a group in white chef's clothes lines up outside the chapel to serve boxed lunches.

Katherine Burton: Turkey and cheese!…

Katherine Burton, in the fifth year of her sentence, is in Baylor's advanced culinary class.

Burton: Well, we made the homemade rolls. And we just wanted to make sure everyone would have a little bit of everything and it would fit into the containers, so we went with turkey and cheese sandwiches, chicken salad and regular salads with strawberry vinaigrette and ranch. Ropeik: How long have you guys been working on this? Burton: All week long. Well, like two weeks, really, with making the cookies. But we've been up since four o'clock this morning.

It's not the first time Baylor inmates have cooked for visitors from outside the prison. At a March event called Breaking Bread Behind Bars, inmates cooked a meal and ate with guests as part of the Mid-Atlantic Food & Wine Festival.

Ajit George helped organize that event, as well as this one. He's the founder of TEDxWilmington, a local offshoot of the larger TED Talks nonprofit, which gives people a forum to share stories and ideas through short speeches. George says all his work with Baylor this year has changed his perspective on convicts.

"They have transformed my life, because they have remarkable stories," George says. "They all are human beings, which -- I knew that intellectually, but I'm not sure I fully grasped what it meant."

Gov. Jack Markell has made that message a part of his push for criminal justice reform in Delaware this year. He even took it to Capitol Hill at a congressional hearing last month:

"Whatever structural changes we put in place, we believe we must also change the hearts and minds of the public about who offenders are and what they can offer the community," Markell told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

State corrections commissioner Robert Coupe says these public events at Baylor are helping do that. They've been a challenge security-wise, but he thinks they're a shift in the right direction -- and he wants inmates to feel the same way.

"I hope it sends a message to them that we do care, that we're sincere, and that we're willing to trust the public to come here in this kind of large event," he says.

Though Coupe talks about creating a sanctuary where inmates can better themselves, he acknowledges that Baylor has had its missteps -- most recently in July, when the prison's third-ranking officer was arrested for having sexual relations with an inmate.

"We were not successful in preventing that. But once it was detected, we did respond. We responded swiftly, and justice will be delivered. We're cooperating with the investigation. That's ongoing," Coupe says. "The other piece of that is to send a message not only to our staff, but to the ladies here at Baylor, and that's a culture of accountability."

That means holding staff accountable -- and letting prisoners know they can come forward with concerns, and have them taken seriously. Coupe says that dialogue is still a work in progress.

"Looking at the backgrounds of some of the ladies, trust is a big ask. And I know that. But to build a successful relationship, we need trust and we need communication. So right now, we're working on the communication piece and we're trying to earn their trust," he says. "And some of them believe in it. I sense that when I talk to them. Some are still skeptical, but from where they came, I understand that."

Down a long hall from the chapel, Faith Rosenblatt is sitting in her adult education classroom, watching inmates -- some of them her students -- eat lunch with guests. She teaches here for the Department of Education, and says there's untold potential in Baylor's population.

"All these people are going to come back into our communities, so I want them to leave with something more than they came in with. And if they get their GED, their high school diploma -- there's your choice. There's a chance for something different," Rosenblatt says. "And they're all going to come back into our neighborhoods, so we may as well have them come back not being angry, being a little more productive, being a citizen that contributes to our society."

Sitting nearby is her teaching assistant, Lakisha Short. Originally from Ellendale, Short is transgender -- he plans to change his first name to Kai, after getting permission under a new state law that's the first of its kind in the nation.

Short is almost 12 years into a 55-year sentence that began in his early 20s. He's the last speaker on today's schedule, and says he'll be doing more of a spoken-word poem than a traditional TED talk.

"A lot of times, being incarcerated, we're already pre-labeled, and things of that nature," he says. "So I wanted to try to open our eyes to everyone that's here, to say, you know what -- everyone that's incarcerated isn't a bad person. We can change, and we do change. So that's what I wanted to give them today."

Short hopes guests will leave the prison today convinced that everyone -- including he and his fellow inmates -- deserves a second chance. It's what all the speeches are about, but he says it means something specific to him: "Another opportunity to do something different, to be a better person, to come out of this institution knowing which direction that I want to go in and then going forward with it."

Short has only recently started helping in the adult education class. He's also part of the prison art program, and his drawings -- studies in fine black and white lines -- are displayed in the chapel that afternoon as he gets ready to take the stage. As an artist, he goes by the pseudonym Cre8iv Change. His poem is shorter than the other speeches -- just a few minutes long.

Short: We look to find something that we have yet learned to obtain. … Convinced that we are unable to change, accomplish or achieve excellence. Self-destructive -- unaware that sometimes, people with the worst past, create the best future.

His speech ends with a paraphrase of Maya Angelou, to cheers and a standing ovation: "Our deepest fear is not that we're inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us most. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and famous?' Actually -- who am I not to be."

Videos of all the TEDx speeches will be posted online within the month.

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