What I Cannot See

A while I back had the privilege to speak to a group of women at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (Purdy) preparing to release. I arrived with an outline for my topic, but ready to invite interaction from the class. I wanted to know what was on their minds to make the best use of our time together.

One is set to release in January and clearly has some nervous energy. As she was speaking, I began to form a picture in my mind. The exact context wasn’t important, I recognized the pattern emerging. I asked if I could reflect back to her what I thought I heard her say.

I held up an imaginary mirror on my shoulder and encouraged her to correct me if I interpreted the information wrong. “I think I heard you say you are imagining a scenario where you will likely disappoint people, people you don’t know. These nameless, faceless people will then have the power to sway your course in recovery and reintegrating into society. Is that what you meant to say?” I could see the lightbulb go on in her eyes as we shared a moment of understanding that it is unwise to give this control
to anyone.

As we exited the prison chapel, one of the volunteers asked how I knew to do that, to relay it back to her in a way she could gently receive. The answer is simple – been there, done that. I gave power to a nameless, faceless group of people to sway my course for years. Over and over and over. I believed my ability to make my own decisions was inferior. I also believed embarrassment would kill me. (It does not). I know what it feels like to be in her situation.

I know what it feels like to have that heavy metal door slam behind you in the corrections facility. I have experienced the terror of knowing if you continue do everything you’ve always done, you’re coming back, but you don’t know how to do anything else. I wonder what difference it would have made if I had found a mentor sooner.

I spent years in self defeat until I stepped out into the unknown and allowed some new people to speak into my life. Under their influence, I took a shot at a different life. One that paid off.

I pray the women in class find and recognize people who speak life-giving guidance to them as they emerge into the world. I pray they are willing to step into the unknown for a shot at a different life.

What if no one had been there to help me?

“Most inmates will be released at some point. We can either fear them or we can mentor them. Of course, it’s okay to be cautious and selective. Yes, have some specific structure in place for her to follow.
She understands rules and that there are repercussions for breaking them. But without grace and opportunity allowing her to transition from inmate to citizen, there’s a greater chance she will add another label to her identity: perhaps homeless, drug addict or institutionalized.”

– The Girl in My Wallet
Excerpt Chapter 23 – From Inmate to Citizen







Teresa Nickell is an accomplished entrepreneur, an active volunteer for women in prisons and shelters, and the author of The Girl in My Wallet. Readers are comparing her to Brene Brown for her focus on vulnerability as strength.

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