My name is Judy Reynvaan. I live in Aberdeen and am usually known as just a piano player and have worked for Department of Corrections for six and a half years. My current position is as Stafford Creek Correction Center’s engineering office assistant.
I began my employment at SCCC as an office assistant inside a living unit, which included me going inside dayrooms to post inmate information, pass through to get supplies, etc. I frequently stopped to talk with corrections officers and inmates. I observed the atmosphere in each pod, noting various inmate cliques, inmates isolating themselves, inmates playing games or crafting quietly and inmates who enjoyed “stirring the pot.” I noted the overall air of despair of slouching inmates, the lost hope of many, the inability to look me in the eye, and the tough-guy facades of some. There were not many smiling faces or much truly joyful laughter inside these pods and certainly all could use a lesson on just how to stand erectly.
As time went on, I moved to SCCC Records Department, putting those experiences behind me; Then, one day about two and a half years ago, Dawn Taylor, our Community Involvement officer, sent out an email — something about a presentation of Redemption, for inmates, by inmates — at Stafford Creek. Having lived life as a skeptic and working for Corrections, this I had to see for myself. And with my supervisor’s blessing, I did.
The first thing that I noticed was three inmates from the living unit in which I first worked. I knew them fairly well and that they were down either for life or a very long time. But there they stood, with genuine, honest, from-the-heart smiles on their faces, and for the first time since I’d known them, standing as tall as they really were. They looked everyone straight in the eye. Of course I’m thinking, ah, possible sentence changes. But wait, then they began to speak — confidently, courageously without inmate/street slang of any kind — the same speech pattern that you or I would use, no cocky, tough-guy attitudes like I’d noticed in the pods. WOW.
Then I begia listening to the pitch about this project and heard the often repeated statement: “Positive direction leads to proper actions.” I heard the reasons that led to this group-effort project, the desires to make positive changes in individual daily lives and changes in prison environment — they impressed this skeptic. Again, WOW. Unbelievable, right? Ah, but what are they really like when not presenting the pitch in front of peer groups, or around custody and non-custody staff? I had a desire to know if this is real or if this is just a “con.”
I decided to sponsor the next available a group so I could find what is real, and if this project would fly with inmates who have been down a long time, or, even more challenging, in my opinion, the younger guys coming off the streets, the scared guys ready to challenge and fight for alleged prison respect. I obtained a copy of the Redemption course book, and began to look over the 22 chapters required — again, by the inmate peers — before attendees can graduate this course. I looked and pondered some of the hardest questions I’ve seen since college psychology class directed at inmate attendees and wondered: How in the heck will I be any use to this program? I thought to myself, “How is an average inmate going to be able to not only write his answers, but share his innermost self, in a group setting? And what the heck is a lowly OA doing in here?!”
I’m still “in here.” And what I learned is — this is no con. This is the real deal, with more inmates than I ever thought possible, wanting to not just change the prison environment for a better place to live, but wanting to make changes within themselves. Some surprised me by saying the Getting it Right and Anger Management classes haven’t made them work, think, and dig harder and farther inside themselves like this project does. I heard stories about home lives that would make even the longest career DOC employee break down in tears, sobbing. I heard genuine distress in inmate voices as they described their individual descent into living hells and the genuine sorrow for the scars or harm they have caused to their victims, victim families, and just as importantly, their own families. I sawand heard honest regret. I saw hopelessness and desperate looks coming into these classes and saw changes at the end of 22 weeks that may sometimes include anger, sometimes tears, and many more times, changed hearts walk out those doors. And the violence statistics for Stafford Creek are much lower since the beginning of this project, making this a very desirable place to work for custody and non-custody staff.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still the few that think they’re the perfect “cons” but they don’t sound genuine — they don’t look genuine. It’s obvious, they pay only lip service. Sponsors can tell, and I’m certain so can the other inmates. I saw the proud walk into the classes and, 22 weeks later, walk out — humbly. With honesty. Me? What did I learn? I learned that those three inmates changed — from the inside out. Their attitudes are genuine. Their daily living is authentic. They smile frequently from the heart. These guys know inner peace and continue to strive daily to live it and share it. And that ideal multiples every 22 weeks! I am proud of these men who have shaped this program and themselves and have grown this into a successful project here at Stafford Creek.
I learned to remember that redemption is an ongoing daily challenge not just in inmates’ lives, but my own. I learned to hold my family and friends a little closer, a little longer and not take day-to-day living for granted. I learned to remember to be more thankful for the small things in life, not just the big ones. And I learned I am very thankful for this project and more than thankful for the handful of inmates that began this very worthwhile project.
Thank you for this opportunity to share what I am learning and for the time it has taken you to read this. I hope that one day you may have the opportunity to listen in on either a presentation or a class for yourself. It’s worth the while. I truly appreciate your time.
Judy Reynvaan lives in Aberdeen and works at Stafford Creek Corrections Center.