Women's prison class graduates with tears, honesty

jshaffer@newsobserver.comDecember 12, 2013 

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    Tax-deductible donations can be sent to Interfaith Prison Ministry for Women, 112 S. Salisbury St., Raleigh, NC 27601. You can also contact the group at 919-829-0311.

— On graduation day, Mary McLamb stood and told the story of her hard-luck life – a collection of sorrows that landed her in prison.

As a child, her grandmother scavenged her clothes and toys from the dump. At age 13, she got pregnant by a rapist. After marrying four straight abusive husbands, she got caught plotting to have one killed.

“I tried to fix it myself,” said McLamb, 48. “Here I am.”

But on Thursday, she joined nine other inmates from the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women, the 26th class to finish the JobStart program. During 16 weeks, they learned to write resumes and interview for jobs. They honed their typing skills and learned to make Excel spreadsheets. They took yoga lessons from a French horn player with the North Carolina Symphony, channeling their anger.

They wore no mortarboards Thursday and carried no diplomas. But when they walk out as free women, they’ll take tools to keep them outside.

“When they were little, they wanted to be dancers,” said Mary Ray, executive director of the Interfaith Prison Ministry for Women, which helps run the JobStart program. “They wanted to be dentists. The one I hear the most, they wanted to be their mothers.”

JobStart operates only in the Raleigh women’s prison. It receives no direct state funding, but the Department of Public Safety provides transportation and street clothing. First Presbyterian Church offers space for classes and meals, and Wake Technical Community College provides a teacher.

Otherwise, money comes from the prison ministry and private donations, sending about 240 women through classes each year.

“This is the first time anyone ever sat them down and said, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’” said Bob Inskeep, associate pastor at First Presbyterian.

On Thursday, the 10 graduates described widely varying paths to prison, some of them very different from McLamb’s life of poverty and abuse.

“I was a middle-aged alcoholic soccer mom,” said Andrea Free, 51, serving time for embezzlement. “I now know what I want to be when I grow up.”

More than 2,500 women are serving time in North Carolina, 76 percent of them mothers, according to DPS statistics. Half of them will be re-arrested within three years and 30 percent will be sent back to prison.

Each weekday morning, the 10 women in JobStart travel from the prison to the church, where they take classes from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Computer classes follow from 3 to 5 p.m.

“I can type without looking down at the keys!” raved Belinda McDonald, 32, convicted of drug trafficking in 2009.

Many of Thursday’s graduates described emotional, physical and sexual abuse as children, much of which continued into their married lives. Shannon Morrison, 43, described wearing turtlenecks in the summer to hide choke marks on her neck. Tywanda McPherson said, “I never saw the first slap coming.” In 2004, she was charged with shooting her boyfriend.

McDonald didn’t have those stories.

She really did want to be a dentist, and was working as a dental assistant when she moved to Jacksonville with her husband, who was both taking and selling pills, she said, adding that she fell into the same habit. After they separated, she said, a friend asked her to sell him painkillers.

“He was fine when he left,” she said through tears. “But he ended up taking too much. He overdosed. I deeply regret what I did. It’s a mistake I’ll never repeat.”

In prison, she completed an apprenticeship in a dental lab. She can fabricate acrylic dentures. As a felon, she worried she’d never get a job. But she’s been practicing in her mock interviews.

Whatever happens, she plans to do what all 10 women did as they graduated Thursday: be honest.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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