My Life in the Middle Ages

Gayle Saks-Rodriguez

Gayle Saks-Rodriguez
Boston, Massachusetts, United States
November 11
Gayle Saks-Rodriguez has been a writer since filling her fourth grade diary with such perfectly crafted sentences as: "Ricky is getting confirmed tommorrow. Since I'm Jewish, I'm not really sure what it does. I should congradulate [sic] him though." She has written about everything from her mother’s double-suicide, online dating, to her work with female inmates, with deep honesty, candor and humor. Saks-Rodriguez (when she wasn’t yet a hyphenate) grew up on Long Island in a town that most people have never heard of and lives in Greater Boston with her husband, daughter, two orange tabbies and one slightly insane Lab mix. Please follow me directly on my site at:


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Editor’s Pick
JUNE 8, 2012 12:06PM

Why Women in Prison Lose Their Dreams

Rate: 16 Flag

One of the most gut-wrenching things I learned about a woman in the weekly workshop I teach in prison was that her mother shot her up with heroin for the FIRST time when she was 10-yrs old.  That was until today when I was told that a woman in my class was recently set on fire by her pimp.  I learned this about 2 hours ago.  There is a new hole in my heart left by the part that feels as if it was scooped away and dropped into the pit of my stomach.

Another woman shared that she set HERSELF on fire while smoking crack.  Others have been battered to a pulp.  Most have lost their children.  I've heard stories like this week after week after week and if I EVER become inured to them it will be the signal to stop.  That will never happen.

These women, at one time or another have lived their dreams that arose from their talents.  They have been on their high-school debate teams, restaurant owners, professional organizers, ice skaters and nurses.  They've been sober, parents, dance instructors and world travelers.  One or several missteps have broken some of them, crushing their spirit and the hope that they will ever be who they were meant to become.

Because of their criminal backgrounds and repeat felonies, one woman can never be the judge she wanted to be.  One will never be able to work with children, the one thing she knows she's good at.  Others will go back to the way they ran their lives before they became incarcerated, turning tricks and forging checks to make the money they need to support a daily drug habit.  They admit that in no time in their lives did they dream of giving a guy a hand job for $20.

Today, a young woman asked if I knew how to interpret dreams.  I said that I could take a shot at it and here's what she shared:

"In my dream which I have a lot, I'm at the methadone clinic and Jesus is standing right next to me.  He's there to get his fix too.  He tells me that if I don't stop using I will die and that God will never forgive me.  He says that if I do stop, there is a chance that my son will forgive me and that God will too."

To the rest of us this seemed rather obvious.  One of the woman responded by saying, "Yeah, it means stop fucking using!"  Point taken.

I've asked the women to write about their dreams and the steps they might take to achieve them and to next week share them with the class.   I can't imagine what a woman who has been set on fire will say, but I just want to tell her so very badly that the world is okay and that there is room in it for people like her to succeed.  How in the world would she ever believe that that is the case?

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Sometimes you're just fucked. The world is not OK - never has been. Glossing over reality doesn't do anyone any good.
Powerful stuff -- thanks for posting this.
I really admire the work that you do, Gayle, and how you're able to go with the flow of what the women are saying. Some people do succeed, one day, one tiny step at a time, if there are enough people around who care. Thanks for doing this work and sharing it here.
Is there really space for these people to "be okay and succeed" once they've been incarcerated? In today's world? Lawd knows it's difficult enough for folks who don't have criminal records. Just being unemployed through no fault of ones own makes it difficult to find work; having been convicted of committing a felony is tantamount to wearing a scarlet letter for the rest of ones life. I just don't know.
Drugs, drugs, drugs--the true villan--along with the dealers and users.
I worked for a number of years in the prisons, 99% with men. I heard some ghastly stories. Fortunately for me, I was doing ritual and not directly involved with their histories. Hopefully what we did was helpful to some of them in dealing with stuff...
Dante's hike through the 9 circles of Hell was a church picnic compared to what these women have been through, are going through now, and for many of them, what still lies ahead.
Gayle, I think that dreams can be ρossible as long as the individual wants to. But your thinking is the actuality that no words can stand as reason " How in the world would she ever believe that that is the case? ".I think that her life ought to be a ρaradigm..I mean I have seen Ορrah making her colour and weight issues a theme carrier. She has made her self a ρroduct, sρeaking out in the oρen on her issues and declaring 'If I did it so can you'. And the girl in ρrison has more to say to me and all on living, on loosing hoρe, freedom and how she can build a life again..I mean, more than Oρrah or another similar examρle to me. But you are true some times our logic is here to understand insanity. Brilliant work. Rated!
You just wonder how some can carry on...but you are tere, doing the work and maybe, just maybe some of the women will "succeed" and move on. Moving post.
As a society we are horrible at rehabilitating people who have been imprisoned. Small wonder so many people end up going back to prison; there are so few opportunities available to them once they're out.
I admire that you wrote from such a non-judgmental stance. The work you do seems wonderful, and I am glad you are encouraging dream journaling. Blessings, J
What heart wrenching life stories. A tough question. What great work you do. Will they ever be able to forgive themselves? Or imagine a different life? Maybe with the help of people like you.
This piece resonated w/me b/c I deal w/something similar.

I volunteer at our local battered women's shelter, but I work w/the residents' kids; I deal w/the pre-teens. The stories we hear are just incredible, and I can just imagine: if the mother has lost all hope, then how can her kids hope for anything better than they've known? What I hope to achieve is that these kids can see in me a different kind of woman than they've known before--someone educated and aggressive enough to live her own life, and perhaps someone to be emulated later on.

Having known some friends who were previously incarcerated and seen their struggles, perhaps sometimes you ARE "just fucked." That still doesn't solve the original problem.

About the only thing I could advise these women is to find something to do that'll keep body and soul together and let that help piece their lives back together and find a different path. A difficult proposition but hopefully one that'll keep them out of the streets and lock-up as well.

(And THAT--prison--is a whole other issue; the concept of prison privatization gets a whole other slant when privatized prisons profit from every occupied bed--what better way to make $$ than by locking up every junkie-mom "for her own good?")
This story is an excellent example of what happens when society doesn't support a sector of its classes.

Telling these women it will get better without providing them with the necessities to get there are why so many are repeat offenders. Some programs are offered during parolee's post-sentencing, but even these programs have limits, and some of them are disappearing entirely due to budget cuts.

Each woman who has returned to you a written record of what she wants [her dreams] has taken the very first step towards succeeding with fulfilling that dream...each additional step will require support and guidance.
I'd love to hear what the women come back with next week...
I've heard many states still require women who give birth in prison to be shackled, and that the infant is then taken away from them.

I call that barbaric and a threat to the rest of society since it creates the next generation of outcasts. Shame on America.
A wonderful post and a window into a place so few people every get to see or understand. In our society women offenders are on the lowest rung of the prison hierarchy, and yet they are so much victims of the system--just about any system you can think of. It's important that people like you are there for them with that big heart that says, "You can share with me and I won't pull back or reject you." How else could someone share with you the things these women do?