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.


Black's Head Black assets.rebelmouse.io



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.


Red's Head Red assets.rebelmouse.io



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.


Red's Head Red assets.rebelmouse.io



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!"


Black's Head Black assets.rebelmouse.io



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.


Black's Head Black assets.rebelmouse.io



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.


Black's Head Black assets.rebelmouse.io



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.


Red's Head Red assets.rebelmouse.io



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.


Black's Head Black assets.rebelmouse.io



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


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What do you mean?


Black's Head Black assets.rebelmouse.io



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?"


Red's Head Red assets.rebelmouse.io


Well, that should get Austin's attention.


Black's Head Black assets.rebelmouse.io



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

"Made in America" is more than a slogan. It's about supporting your neighbors, your community, your country.

BANTER BITE BACKSTORY: It was your usual Monday morning for Red – she cringed as all of Black's emails from over the weekend dropped into Outlook. (While Red tries her best to escape from work on weekends, that seems to be when Black works hardest. Or, at least, writes the most emails.) Those were followed by a bunch more from earlier in the morning (emails from Black usually start at around 5:30 A.M.!), including one that got her attention as the subject line was "Buy American" and in the email Black suggested doing a Banter Bite on President Biden's "Made in America" Executive Order.

Black also explained that she had subscribed to a new source of political news, Punchbowl News, that had sent a detailed data sheet on the Executive Order that morning at 5 a.m. (Red rolled her eyes while also being concerned about Black having even more sources of information and "ideas") and offered to forward it.

Once upon a time, Red might not have reacted at all or, to be honest, even cared.But that was before she and Black wrote their book and, after they decided to self-publish (that's a story onto itself), Black insisted they print in the U.S.A., even though it more than doubled the cost of the book.

Red can still remember questioning why they'd willingly spend more money than necessary, which resulted in her getting one of her first business (combined with civics) lessons from Black. We won't bore you with all the details but as Black pointed out to Red, there's a price, often hidden, for maintaining high standards. And although more than few people thought we were crazy; we took a deep breath and followed our hearts. And we've never regretted that decision!

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Yes, I know the inauguration was last week, and I'm sure Black wants to tell me, "Get over it!" but I'm still thinking (and reading articles) about Amanda Gorman, the amazing 22-year-old who was not only the youngest inaugural poet ever, but also the nation's first National Youth Poet Laureate. Her poem, "The Hill We Climb", was incredible and her delivery mesmerizing as she brought her words to life. But as impressive as that was, what I found most incredible was what I learned later that night when she was interviewed with CNN's Anderson Cooper.

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Everything with us is a story. Several years ago, we were working with a branding company, and one of the team imagined us as cartoon characters. (Thank you, Puneet!) People told us they loved our sisterly banter, so we started doing a single-frame cartoon to introduce our monthly columns. Then we used them on slides at speaking engagements (Black's corporate background taught her how BORING PowerPoint presentations can be, so she refused to have slides filled with words) and people suggested we syndicate them. (Black, of course, then researched syndication.) And, we even used them at a pitch meeting with Hasbro. When we started working with an animation company, and saw their version of our "creatures" we decided they needed to be front and center.

So, just about the time we began developing this website, Black suggested to Red we start a daily "Banter Bite" that we could publish on our Twitter and Facebook pages. It could be about something happening in our lives, current events, some obscure fact/study she happened across, the list goes on and on ... Red's reply? (Keep in mind, she's the self-proclaimed queen of blah-blah-blah.) "I'm not sure we'll have enough material to be able to post every day."

The reality? In the beginning, Black humored Red and we didn't do them every day. But Black kept churning them out based on their conversations – and soon there was a large backlog. We decided to publish them six days a week (we believe Sundays shouldn't be spent on gizmos, although that doesn't stop Black from working).

The feedback? Almost instantly, people told us our Banter Bites are fun and quick to read. But also relevant to their day-to-day lives – and not just on the day they're published.

In other words, they don't have an expiration date! And although they may be considered "old" in today's world of social media and "instant news" (even something from earlier in the day can be considered old or outdated), every month we list our "favorites" of the month.

Find one (or more) you like? Consider sharing it …