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RED & BLACK ... Are In Prison?

Design by Sawyer Pennington, Underlying photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

The story of how we "ended up in prison" is one we're often asked to tell, and we think this column (first published in February 2013) does a good job of doing that …


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Coming up with this month's topic and title was easy. Figuring out how to explain it may be a little more complicated.


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No kidding. Every time we meet with Chaplain Watkins and she tells us about the men she works with and how they've reacted to our book, I'm left speechless.


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That, in itself, is fairly amazing.


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Cute. But if anyone had told us when we wrote our book that it would end up in a men's prison and that offenders would not only be reading the book, but enjoying it, learning from it, and sharing the lessons in it with their families, I'd have said they were crazy.


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I believe that is what you called me when I told you that we were going to be speakers at the National Prisoner's Family Conference last February.


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No. I thought you were kidding. Remember, YOUR business plan was that the book would be the basis of a sitcom. Not a Texas-approved textbook.


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That might not have been our plan but, as you know, life rarely goes according to plan.


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There's an understatement. But at the time, I thought it was just another one of your "outside the box" ideas. Way outside the box. However, once we spoke at the conference, and started learning more about the prison world, I realized there was a huge need for this information.


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You are conveniently forgetting that initially you were fairly negative about it.


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Yes, I was. My attitude was that prisoners had done something wrong, so they deserved to be in prison. I had no desire to help them. My heart was with the students, and trying to get our book and its "real life" lessons into the schools.


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I understand. I would venture to guess that most people feel that way. On the surface, it seems logical.


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Of course, you saw it differently.


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Maybe more pragmatically. And then I started doing research. What really got my attention was the Children's Defense Fund's, "Cradle To Prison Pipeline" report. It explains all the contributing factors that feed that pipeline. And how education is a critical key to changing the trajectory of these lives.


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What got my attention was the concept that you can calculate how many prison beds will be needed in the future based on children who can't read on grade level by the fourth grade.


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It makes perfect sense … once you stop and think about it.


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But it's not something you would typically think about. But then again, you rarely do the typical thing. Like the time you asked me what I was doing on a Friday night, and I thought you wanted to go to a movie. It never dawned on me that you were inviting me to "go to prison" with you and the founder of Wings Ministry.


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And you found every excuse in the book not to go.


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I'm a single mom. Heading off to a prison is not something I'd feel safe doing. And I wondered about your logic, but didn't want to ask.


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There is only one way to get first-hand knowledge. I wanted to see what I had only read about. However, I was not prepared for what I discovered.


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I remember you telling me that it was like a scene out of the old "Get Smart" TV series, with the long corridor and the locking doors.


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Architecturally, it was built in 1908 and is beautiful. Although initially intimidating, once I met some of the men it became very "human." They were truly appreciative of my being there, as so many of them feel the outside world has forgotten them. And once the chaplain heard about our book she was anxious to read it.


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What I still find hard to believe was that she mentioned that Stringfellow Unit is the only prison in Texas that has a kosher kitchen! I remember telling you that in this instance, G-d was not being subtle. There was clearly a reason that this was the first prison you ever visited.


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I believe the word is beschert.


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Well, a lot has happened since then. Chaplain Watkins not only had our book/program "approved," but also completed two pilot book clubs with 50+ men, and has already started a third. Even Sawyer, who is only 10, was surprised by the feedback from the men who have completed the program. Her exact quote was, "Wow!"


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What I find fascinating is how many of these men are connecting the dots between how not understanding personal finance causes stress, and then realizing how it can lead to drugs and/or alcohol. And how "all of the above" contributes to bad decisions.


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Obviously, they're finding the "life lessons" I learned as a 40+ year-old to be extremely important as they're saying they want to share the book with their families. I'm moved by their statements that they want their wives, their children, to learn what they're learning.


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Well, according to Chaplain Watkins, their actions are matching their words. They are writing home about it, and a few even said they were going to send the book home.


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I know. But my favorite story is the man who now turns off the water when he brushes his teeth. It sounds like such a small thing, but it says so much once you learn that he's doing it to because he recognizes he'll be living with someone when he gets out and doesn't want to waste their money. He wants to start today to make it a good habit for the future.


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It is all about taking control of your life, versus letting your life control you. It is what I told you when Nick got fired. And it is what we tell students.


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But in this case, I can't help but wonder how many lives are being touched – not only the offenders, but their families, their friends, their communities. Not to mention, what if some of the men who have read our book now start making better decisions. And once released, don't return to prison.


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Exactly. Just imagine the money that would save taxpayers. The cost of Texas state prisons is about $22,000 per person per year, which works out to $60 a day. Our book costs less than half a day in prison. So if it has the potential to actually make a difference in their lives and their future decisions, it seems like a small investment … with huge upside potential. To me, it is a no-brainer.


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I was thinking more about the family environment, but your numbers make perfect sense. Unfortunately, just because something makes sense, doesn't mean it's going to happen. Just take a look at the education system. And what we've been trying to do for over three years now with limited success.


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I know. It is extremely frustrating. But one day it will be ironic.


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What do you mean?


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Besides the fact it is much cheaper to educate than incarcerate (average cost for a year of public education in Texas is about $8,700 per student compared to the $22,000 cited above; nationally, the numbers are around $11,000 and $31,000, respectively), one day I expect to ask the question, "Why is it that these critical life lessons are being taught in prisons, but not in our schools?"


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Well, that should get Austin's attention.


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Austin? I was thinking Washington, D.C. And, it needs to do more than that. It needs to get everyone's attention. Especially voters.

When we reread the post we did two years ago (see below), we felt it was worth repeating … as even though mental health’s being discussed more, too many people still don’t want to talk about their situations because they feel ashamed and/or they don’t know “Where To Start – Mental Health In A Changing World” (the theme of this May’s Mental Health Awareness Month) or who to contact. (Remember, there’s a 988 lifeline.)

Millions of Americans face mental health issues each year, and it’s important to remember that no one has to face it alone.





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I’ve only recently started listening to country music, mainly because that’s what Sawyer’s always listening to, but I already knew of the mother-daughter duo, The Judds .


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Hard not to, as it was the most successful female duo.


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What’s hard to believe is that the day before her and Wynonna’s induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame , Naomi committed suicide. As a mother, your instinct is to put your children first, so that shows the overwhelming depth of the depression she was battling.


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I am sure people questioned how someone who appeared to have everything, and was about to be awarded one of her industry’s highest honors, could feel so bad about herself or her life to want to end it.
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Design by Sawyer Pennington, Underlying photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Who would ever think of “celebrating” credit card debt? Not celebrating paying it off – celebrating a mountain of credit card debt. Well, Black thinks Red’s credit card debt is worth celebrating, or at least this story about it is. And not just because April is Financial Literacy Month.

When Red was in the midst of her crisis (her husband unexpectedly got fired), she was freaking out about everything, especially money. And specifically, her credit card debt. If she could have remained an ostrich with her head in the sand, she would have. But Red knew she needed to face the facts (although she hadn’t run a total of how much they owed on credit cards, she knew it was a lot), so, with much trepidation, Red turned to Black, hoping she’d just tell her what to do.

Instead, Black wanted to give her a history lesson. On credit cards?! Black doesn’t even like history. And even though Red, who loves history, didn’t want to hear it, she decided to take the path of least resistance and humor her sister.

At first, she found it mildly interesting, but then that “unwanted” history lesson changed Red’s life. That might sound like an exaggeration, but it’s not. Because as soon as Red changed how she looked at credit cards, it changed how she used them.

Don’t believe it can make that much of a difference? Read “RED & BLACK … The History Of Credit Cards?” and decide for yourself.

People have told us they're using our sisterly banter to start conversations with others (family, friends, and even in classrooms), so Black created "Conversation Starters".

Red lives in an extremely diverse community (very different from the community we grew up in), and over the past few years, there’s been an increase in hate crimes and general “nastiness” directed toward people who are “different”. So, in honor of Celebrate Diversity Month, we’re rerunning this Conversation Starter in which Red remembers the first time she met a Black person, and Black … well, Black talks about Dr. Spock?!





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Growing up on Long Island in a Jewish home, I didn’t think twice about my best friend (who’s still a close friend) being Italian, although we did have different cultural and religious beliefs. And although we lived close to New York City, it wasn’t until I went to college in North Carolina that I met a Black person (and a Southerner, no less). She and I quickly became good friends and laughed at the fact we had the same last name, but that’s where the similarities ended. Yet, I had never really thought about diversity, or to be honest, even heard of the term, until you had us working on Career & Technology Education (CTE) curriculum, and we did a soft skills worksheet on it. That’s when I discovered that “diversity” was actually a “thing”, although lately, it seems to have become a political topic .

But once I was aware of it, I realized how much I learned from being friends with people who have different perspectives and experiences than I do. Of course, having a sister who at times seems more like a Vulcan, likes to push me outside my comfort zone, and makes me look at things from different viewpoints, has made me a better person – both in terms of newfound knowledge as well as a greater appreciation for how and why others may see things differently .


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Vulcan or otherwise, there were things to learn from Spock, which highlights the importance of diversity. In the broadest context, diversity introduces us to unique experiences and perspectives. In the workplace, it is often referred to as Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI), but I will stick with diversity (for now), which includes not only race, sex, and age, but also gender and sexual orientation, disabilities, religious beliefs, and socioeconomic status, and I am guessing there are other differentiators. I think it is as simple as accepting that not everyone is alike. (How boring would that be? It would be like only having vanilla and chocolate ice cream.) And, recognizing that differences are not right or wrong; they are differences.

From a business perspective, the more you look at things from different angles and perspectives, the more fully (and more creatively) you will see things, which in turn, helps you better understand and provide value to your target market.

I know I said I would not get into equity and inclusion, but I love this quote from Vema Myers, “Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.”

THE CONVERSATION STARTERS

  • Define diversity. What does diversity mean to you? What are its challenges and benefits?
  • The concept of diversity in the workplace encompasses acceptance and respect. But that also applies to your personal life. How can your actions and behavior help or hinder the situation?
  • Are your friends and workplace associates a diverse group of people? If so, what have you learned from them? If not, why not? And would you be willing to proactively get to know people outside your "usual” circle?
  • Do you think “diversity” is seen differently by different generations? Why?