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INCREDIBLE WOMEN I MET IN FEDERAL PRISON- PART I by Jamila T. Davis This has been a very long journey, but I’ve learned many valuable lessons from some incredibly gifted women during my 6 1/2 years of incarceration. Often people think of prisoners as morbid killers, creeps or “low-lives.” But the truth is, many of us are good people who happen to make a mistake. I’ve been given the unique opportunity to develop friendships with some amazing individuals who probably would have never crossed my path, yet our mishaps led us to the same place. I want to share some of these experiences with you. I’ve come to the conclusion that the FEDS don’t discriminate when it comes to locking people up. From multi-Grammy award winners, authors, politicians, Fortune 500 executives and even lawyers, one mistake landed us all in prison. Ranging from 18 years old to 80 years old, I’ve met women of all backgrounds, ages and creeds who were serving time for committing nonviolent crimes. I decided to start this blog to create awareness about the rising epidemic of women in federal prison, and to share the knowledge I learned from individuals who have inspired and uplifted me during my term of incarceration. Reading recent tabloid articles about the reality star from “The Housewives of New Jersey,” Theresa Guidice, coming to prison, I realized America has no clue about the true lives of those of us behind bars. Therefore, I decided to give you all a sneak peek about who we are, what we do and how we manage to pass time. First up is the women from Danbury Federal Prison Camp who participated in the CHOICES Community Outreach Program with me. Let me tell you my sisters mean straight business! We’ve spoke at high schools, colleges, forums and youth conventions throughout the state of Connecticut, encouraging at-risk youth not to make the mistakes that we once did. This took courage! Together we shed a lot of tears. It was hard to admit our mistakes and acknowledge our flaws, and even harder to share them with others. But we did it! The benefit was not only for ourselves; we helped many children along the way. It was amazing that our stories had the ability to pierce the hearts of even the most rebellious teens who vowed to take our advice and deter from crime! As a federal inmate, I was given the incredible opportunity to give an acceptance speech on behalf of the CHOICES group on the stage at Yale University, in front of a packed audience. Actually it was kind of strange to be awarded by the U.S. Attorney’s office, which is the same entity who advocated for many of us to be given decade plus sentences behind bars as nonviolent offenders. None the less, the honor was a delight. As I shared our journey through the intense program, there wasn’t a dry eye in the building. For that mere moment we weren’t viewed as prisoners. We were seen as humans who made errors. It appeared that the audience could relate to the fact that we made a mistake and had the courage to admit our faults, while paying a hefty price. As I stared out into the audience that was filled with sympathy and compassion, I couldn’t help but think of those who may have committed the same exact offenses, yet never got caught. It was my hope that our stories would speak to those individuals and help them avoid our mistakes. So my first shout out goes to the women of the CHOICES program. You all inspired me to share my experiences with the world! Though many of you have returned home to your loved ones, you will forever hold a special place within my heart. Continue to live life on PURPOSE INCREDIBLE WOMEN I MET IN FEDERAL PRISON- PART 2 by: Jamila T. Davis In the late summer of 2008, when I entered the gates of the Danbury Federal Prison in Danbury, Connecticut, I was a nervous wreck. As I stared intensely at some not so friendly faces, I had no clue what to expect. Realizing I couldn’t allow myself to be anybody’s punk, I put on my best “mean-mug” grill as I checked out my new surroundings. Luckily, I ran into some girls I had met in the county jail where I was housed before the U.S. Marshals came and got me. They quickly embraced me and showed me around. The scene I witnessed was nothing like I’d ever expected. The FCI was filled with over 1100 women from all over the world. Every state was represented by the population, and even foreign countries I never heard of. As I walked around the compound that resembled an old housing project setting in the South, filled with a series of low, 3-story cement buildings, which were aligned in a rectangular pattern with a a large lawn in the middle. Staring at the scenery I experienced culture shock! Dressed in a khaki uniform and black steal toe boats, I was stripped of all the worldly possessions I once used to define myself. No longer a glittery stand out, I was now just one of the girls. Literally, I traded in my million dollar condo for a small 5 1/2 x 9 cell, which I had to share with my cell mate. At that very moment, in my mind things couldn’t be worse! In attempt to cheer me up, my friend Chermaine, a brown skin girl from Harlem who I met in Hudson County Jail, in New Jersey, walked me over to the hair care center on the compound. As I entered into what appeared to be an over-sized closet, with a sink, three small stations and two larger dryers, I recognized a familiar face. “Oh my goodness, Jamila! Is that you?” A stocky brown skin girl with chinky eyes, of Guyanese decent questioned. “Yes girl it’s me!” I said with excitement recognizing Dawn, my former hair dresser from the streets. I couldn’t help but wonder what she had done to come to prison. I knew she was missing in action for several years, but now I had an understanding why. Dawn and I quickly embraced one another and caught up on old times. She reminisced on how I used to call her up for last minute appointments for both myself and my boyfriend, sending a car service to pick her up from her house in Brooklyn. She would travel over an hour to come to my house in Northern, New Jersey. Dawn’s braids and weaves were amazing, so I was happy to have her on speed dial in my phone! “You was my best client, girl! I loved the tips you gave me.” Dawn said to me and turned to address the girls in the shop. “I told ya’ll about the guy’s hair I use to braid who played for the New York Giants. This is his girlfriend.” The women in the packed salon began to stare at me, clearly checking me out. “Yeah girls Jamila is rich! She lives in a gated community and her house has an elevator in it! It’s like one of them houses you see on MTV cribs! And honey, she ain’t cheap. The tips I use to get from her sometimes were more than I charged.” Dawn bragged as the women listened intensely. “I told ya’ll this is what I do in the streets. I didn’t just come up in prison like most of these chicks around here. Now y’all get to meet one of my rich clients.” Dawn boasted. After she finished speaking the tension was so thick in the room you would need a large knife to cut through it. I tried to brush off my discomfort, but the sharp stares I received gave me an unction that I wasn’t safe. I didn’t know if I should laugh or smile in attempt to change the mood. Before I could make a move, the woman who worked in the station next to Dawn begin to snap. “Who the f&%$ do you think you are? You got numbers just like me b#$^%!” A tall, brown skin women with short stacked curls, who the women addressed as Re-Re, shouted. In a matter of minutes the situation escalated and got quite intense. I had been on the compound for less than 24 hours and I was in the middle of a nasty confrontation. Re-Re’s friends begin to surround Dawn and it was clear it was about to be on! At that moment I wished I wasn’t in prison. I desperately wished there was a door I could exit, but I was trapped! So many thoughts flooded my mind. I had two choices: Do I stand up and fight with my old friend? Or, do I try to make a break for it?…
INCREDIBLE WOMEN I MET IN FEDERAL
PRISON- PART 3
by: Jamila T. Davis
Tension filled the crowded prison salon as the girls assembled to fight. Re-Re, a tall brown skinned girl from Washington D.C. had her friends on deck and they were ready to get it in! Re-Re had her hand pulled back to hit my friend Dawn, who was her rival. Before she could land her pu…nch, I jumped in between both of the emotionally charged women. “Hold up!” I shouted at the top of my voice taking everyone off of their guard. My hands were stretch wide open pushing the girls apart. “This argument is stupid! You are both pretty, gifted black women. Why are you fighting over such stupidness.” The unusual passion in my voice must have caught their attention. The packed room of girls listened attentively, staring at me as I talked. “The government has suppressed us enough. We are all hurting and missing our loved ones. When does the madness stop? This is just what they expect us to do. They want us to kill each other. We can’t give them that! I just won’t allow it! Not here and not now!” I spoke emphatically. Inside I was frightened to death, but I let my spirit guide me. The words I spoke rose up from the bottom of my soul, releasing the energy that was trapped inside of me. I was in this strange place not knowing what to expect, but my instinct saved me. Quickly recognizing the power of my speech, the women in the shop began to disperse and the heated conversation dispelled. I was relieved! Over the next several months my hair dresser Dawn took care of me. She introduced me to all of her friends and gave me a lot of items that made my prison stay more comfortable. Having her do my hair gave me great satisfaction. Even though I was locked up, having my hair done the same way I wore it in the streets made me still feel human inside. Dawn helped to prepare me for the long stretch I had up ahead. She taught me the ropes and I listened. When you are in a dark, strange place a familiar face makes such a difference. Around Dawn, I felt comfortable enough to let my guard down and share my feelings. I enjoyed the many long walks we took together and the incredible advice she gave me. Unfortunately my union with Dawn did not last too long. I was shipped to Santa Ana, California to handle another charge and she was deported back to Guyana. I never did get a chance to say goodbye, so please allow me this moment. Dawn, wherever you are in the free world, I just want to thank you for your love and support during some of my most difficult times. You will forever be the dopest hair dresser I have had, both in and out of prison. May you continue to use your gifts to bless the lives of others, and may your life forever be filled with joy and happiness. From the bottom of my heart you are loved and greatly missed!
INCREDIBLE WOMEN I MET IN FEDERAL PRISON- PART #4 In a dark place that I expected to be a cruel world, I met some really bright lights. To me, a light is a person who God uses to shine His reflection upon others. Going through life circumstances, we often question “why me?” I’ve learned through my journey that some of us have been sent on difficult missions to help others who will have to experience the same path. These are people whom I call lights, because it is there light that leads the way for many others! Behind bars, I’ve met many dynamic women who have helped me on my journey. Each of them have contributed to my life in different ways, but this one individual is a stand out for women in prison. Sentenced to serve a 12 months in Federal prison, she could have put her feet up, relaxed and used her time to rest her brain, but she didn’t! I am proud to introduce you to a woman that used her time of imprisonment to create a powerful book to help other newcomers overcome the fear of imprisonment and teach them how to get through their sentence as quickly as possible. Her name is Lisa Barrett and her new book, which is scheduled for release early next year, is called “How To Navigate Through Federal Prison And Gain An Early Release.” I had the pleasure of collaborating with Lisa on this project, after discovering we had similar experiences and fears of imprisonment. We both hired the same prison consultant to help us prepare for prison. She paid a hefty $5000.00 fee, and I paid $10,000 to retain his service. Although we both come from different walks of life, we were nervous and had no clue what to expect. Like myself, Lisa thought prison was going to be a death sentence, but it was not! Her book will now help to relieve the fears of many by preparing them for imprisonment and educating them how to get out as quickly as possible. With this book, they will not have to experience the pain or pay the price that we did. This is our give back! We share what we have learned and provide powerful tips to help newcomers. Lisa Barrett is a long term educator who worked in the Pennsylvania public school system for close to 30 years. She also held the title as Teacher’s Union President for many years, where she advocated for change in the school system. I’m glad now that she is free, she has picked a new role as a women’s prison reform activist to help create change within the federal prison system. We desperately need her help! So, shout out to my friend Lisa Barrett! Not only did you survive your worst fear, you created a manual to help others do the same. You are what I call a true overcomer! May God richly bless you in all your endeavors. Thank you for shining your bright light upon me. You are truly loved and appreciated! UP NEXT!!!… As you know more and more female celebrities are being sentenced to serve time in Federal prison. Theresa Giudice, reality star of the “Housewives of New Jersey” is up next. Although there has been a lot of press about what she can expect to experience in prison, most of the reports are inaccurate. The reporters have no clue of what goes on behind bars, but Lisa Barrett, author of “How To Navigate Through Federal Prison An Gain An Early Release,” does! Sorry, “Orange Is The New Black” does not give justice to what one can really expect at the Danbury Federal Prison Camp. Author Lisa Barrett tells it like it is! Stay tuned for her new article and get a real inside view of life for women behind bars in Federal prison!
INCREDIBLE WOMEN I MET IN FEDERAL PRISON- PART #5
By: Jamila T. Davis
It was a hot summer day on July 8, 2013, and I remember it like it was yesterday. I was called to the office at the Danbury Federal Prison Camp by my counselor who introduced me to Lauryn Hill. Lauryn was sentenced to serve 90 days for tax evasion. Because she was in a strange place, with no clue what to expect, I was asked to show her around. Instantly, Lauryn and I connected on so many different levels. We had a lot in common and knew many of the same people from the music-industry. Her presence was a breath of fresh air. I had been down for 5 years at the time, and I had limited association with those I was incarcerated with. Lauryn and I would talk for hours, as I got lost in time. I learned so many things from our conversation that have been useful to me even till this day. She is a true survivor! Our conversations seemed surreal. I felt like I had embarked on a spiritual retreat that was long over due! Lauryn worked with me in the Recreation Department in the prison. She assisted in instructing the Advanced Guitar class. I looked forward to Saturdays when the class would meet. Every weekend for 2 hours we seemed to escape from mundane, every day prison life through Lauryn’s music. At times, it felt like we were in a concert hall as her strong alto voice belted out ballads, while she did her signature strum on the guitar. Watching her in action was amazing! She is truly a musical genius who can rock all genres of music. As an amateur musician and vocalist, I gained a lot of useful tips in a short amount of time from Lauryn. My favorite moment with Lauryn occurred on Labor Day 2013. In the FEDS holidays are a big deal, because we eat well and we have outdoor activities in the summer. As a part of my prison job, I normally D.J the events. I had my MP3 loaded with songs and I was ready to go! As Lauryn and I sat down in the chow hall to eat, along side our friend Dianne Wilkerson (former Massachusetts State Senator), I eased out my seat and changed my play list. The song “Poison” by Bell, Biv, Devoe came on and Ms. Dianne flew out her seat. I knew it was her favorite song, so my ploy to get a reaction worked. Ms. Dianne jumped in the middle of the floor doing her old school dances, and Lauryn fell out laughing. She couldn’t believe how we cut up on the holidays. Yet, by the time the next song was on, Lauryn was out of her seat too. We did the wop dance and the Kid n’ Play together as the old school music played. I felt like I was back in junior high school. The cafeteria foreman was cool. I think he actually got a kick out watching us. After Lauryn was up, I slid over to the MP3 and put on Lauryn’s song “Lost Ones.” The cafeteria went into an uproar! It was like we were all characters in the Debbie Allen “Fame” movie. The crowded room of inmates started shouting “Lauryn, Lauryn, Lauryn!” After being nudged on, I passed her the microphone and L Boogie got busy baby!!! I couldn’t help but assume my position as the hype women. I started jumping up and down and the young and old followed my lead. We even had the 70 year old women jamming to the song. It was crazy!!! Definitely not your typical moment in federal prison. Lauryn performed for us as if she was doing it for a full house at Madison Square Garden. I keep her music playing and she kept singing! Even the prison staff crowded around to see her perform. At that one moment the officers in blue seemed to find a mutual connection with us all, which is rare. We all had one thing in common, we were Lauryn Hill fans. It was phenomenal! For weeks the women in Danbury talked about the mini- concert. It was like she raised many of us from the dead. The energy in the entire building changed, even with staff. In a 90 day period, she made us human to them. So this goes out to my sister for another Mister, Ms. Lauryn Hill. Thanks for lifting my spirit during a period when I needed it the most. I miss you so much it isn’t even funny! I have to say you kept it 100. Thanks for not forgetting about me and showing me love, even after you exited these doors. You will forever hold a special place in my heart. You did your time like a soldier! LOVE YOU L-BOOGIE!!!
Part 6 INCREDIBLE WOMEN I MET IN FEDERAL PRISON by: Jamila T. Davis The strongest people in the world are those who can take their adversities, learn the lessons that lie within them, and use them as an opportunity to become better and wiser. Hands down, Teresa Giudice is one of those people! I had the pleasure of meeting Teresa back in January 2015, when she was housed with me at the Danbury Federal Prison Camp in Danbury, Connecticut. As a high profile inmate with tons of media attention, her stay in prison was nowhere near typical. From Day One, inmates swarmed her like bees, and the staff tracked her every move. Overnight our quiet camp became a landmark for the media. I’ll never forget looking out my window watching a plane circle around the building so close that we thought it was going to land on the prison grounds. Paparazzi were willing to do anything and everything just to get a picture or statement about Teresa’s prison stay. The stakes were so high that I watched women plot and scheme for several months on how they could cash in on the job, but Teresa beat them to the punch! She sold her own picture to the media, which lessened the stakes. Smart cookie! As time passed things began to settle down and we got to learn who the real Teresa was. Unlike the stories depicted in the media, she was one of the most humble women I ever met. Every morning I was greeted by her warm smile in the dining hall while she scrubbed the tables diligently, as if they were located in her own home. Even when her co-workers didn’t show up, without recourse, she never fell short on her duties. I admired that about her. She was very kind and down-to-earth, and always helpful to those in need. Instead of complaining about her circumstances, I watched her find productive ways to pass her time. Her energy became a bright light to the Camp, as women began to follow her lead. After Teresa started participating in Yoga classes, the Camp gained an all time high rate of class participation. Even the haters wanted to be around her to learn her secrets for staying fit. I was one of the inmates who were fortunate to have developed a bond with Teresa. I enjoyed listening to her talk about her kids and the things she aspired to do when she came home. I had never watched her show prior to meeting her, but I was entertained thoroughly when she came and got me to watch re-runs of the show and gave me the back story on her fellow cast mates. I chuckled at her feisty, on-camera, personality, as we also got to see Teresa turn up on a few occasions. One night I just knew she was going to flip the table in the Recreation room when one girl blocked her from watching Joe’s interview on the Andy Cohen Show. Thank God she just vented and caught her composure just before things got out of hand! We learned quickly she didn’t play about her kids and her man! People across the world talk about the diva they see on television, but it is Teresa Giudice’s purity, compassion and kindness that has won me over as a fan. Many say they will remember us, but quickly forget how it feels to stand in our prison shoes. Reading Teresa’s new book “Turning The Tables,” she stayed true to telling it like it is! By the way, my character is Shaniqua in the book. It was a very good read that often had me saying “I can’t believe she told that!” I look forward to catching the next season of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.” The cast members better get ready, because Teresa has learned some new punch lines in prison that are sure to keep them in check! After overcoming prison, especially the one we were housed at together, she can handle anything! That’s why I call her an INCREDIBLE woman!