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  • Writer's pictureAndi Settlemoir Barney

12 years of freedom

August 31, 2006 - my official release date from the Georgia Department of Corrections.

Last year, I nearly forgot about August 31 until I saw my picture over Paul's shoulder. This year, it was on my mind. I think it's probably a good thing that I've become so accustomed to the freedom part that it's just a day. But I never want it to be 'just a day'. So here are some of the things on my mind today.

One of the quotes I carried in my heart while incarcerated was, "Make your heart your palace or the world will be your prison." Which meant freedom comes from within. So simple, and yet, not so easy. I wish I could say I handled prison with grace and detachment, but no... those first few months especially I was pretty bad. Every day was spent pining for my outside life. At the time, my attorney still thought I would only be there a month or two before being released on parole, so I clung to that as if it were truth. I made lists of all the foods I would eat first. The places I would go. The jobs I could apply for. The friends I would call. Serious plans on paper. And then the universe slaps you with the ultimate life lesson, and makes you serve every single day of your sentence. About 4 or 5 months in, I wouldn't say I hit a level of acceptance, but I started to realize if I didn't mentally free myself, prison would consume me. The last year or so has taught me that this isn't limited to being locked up in prison... we can also be locked up in our minds.

Two years in state custody is nothing compared to so many that spend decades behind bars, both truly guilty and those that were wrongfully convicted. My experience is such a blip on the map that in the grander scheme of things, the actual time lost pales in comparison the rest of my life. If only I could say the same for the amount recovery time it takes post-incarceration.

It's heavy on my mind because after a decade of struggle, I feel like I at least have answers to the one question I held since Fulton County Jail: How can I best help others?

I remember sitting in an 8x6 jail cell for months, waiting for transfer into the prison system, surrounded by a cacophony of conflict, a staggering array of personalities, and various levels of mental illness. It was then that I realized jail and prison do nothing, not a single thing, to "rehab" a person from their wrong-doings. If anything a person goes in with great potential to come out an even better criminal.

What most people probably don't realize is that someone who is living a life of crime (i.e. drug dealer, petty theft, carjacking, burglary, etc.) most likely was born and raised this way. The majority of people I did time with... this was exactly the case. So many were born into the world and this was their family business. I'm not excusing it by any means, I hate a thief.

What I'm saying is a the system does nothing to address this issue. You can't take a man who's been stealing to support his family his whole life, and that's the only skill he has, lock him a way with other skilled thieves that will teach him more skills, then expect him to come out a changed man on the path to living a straight life. Even if the man wanted to change... how does one change without tools? It's really easy for those with skills and no criminal record to say, "Go out and find them. If you want it bad enough, you'll find them." I wish it were that easy, it's not. There is so much more to that, including obligations to the state on parole, the amount of fees one has to pay to stay out of prison, etc. That's for another time. For some it's an excuse, for others, it's not. What struck me the hardest in the last leg of my journey in work release is how many women had never had a legitimate job. It had never occurred to them that it was even an option. I met a 50-year-old woman (theft by taking background that had been on government assistance all her life) that had her very first legit job, working at Wendy's for $5.15/hour. She was a bitter, nasty woman and was considered a bully on our hall. I literally hated her.

About 3 months into her new job, she changed. I wouldn't say she was pleasant and chipper, but she lightened up. She stood up straighter. She started to loose weight. She yelled less, bossed us around less, and started keeping to herself instead of stirring up trouble so much. It was incredible to witness. Having overheard conversations on the bus, it was because she was surrounded by people at her job that treated her like a human being. I'm willing to be the majority of people that have lived this kind of life have heard very few encouraging things in their lives.

I thought about this all week since the podcast with Just Wanna Quilt was released. The feedback and support have been incredible. I never take it for granted, I am so grateful that our community is willing to hold me up and not make me feel like a horrible human being for having had a major life stumble. But women like the one above... I don't think she's ever had someone in her life tell her she's worth anything, that she's loved, that she's lovable. No one told her she could accomplish great things, reach for the stars, make dreams come true. Having employment and having someone give her a set of valuable skills left a mark on her. I don't know what ever happened to her, my guess is that it will take more than a 6-month stint at a minimum wage job to turn her life around, and perhaps if there had been more programs available to her (remember that so many don't have basic soft skills), her life could really change.

The point to all of this is... most that come out of incarceration will never truly know freedom.

All of these things have weighed on me since day one of my incarceration. How can I help? How can I even begin to help? The Sewing Doc Academy was brought to life because of the need to keep organic, mechanical sewing machine service alive. But the other side is that it's the one way I know I can help others.

This is what I celebrate today, 12 years later. Knowing that I am not alone, and that there's an entire army of incredible people that are walking with me, helping me to figure out how we can help others. The hardest part is not always having the answers. Sometimes not having any answers at all. But I've learned that the more I embrace my mission and open myself up to the world and ask for help, it keeps arriving. Every single day, something happens that tells me, "YES. This is what you're supposed to be doing. Keep going." It's one of the few times in my life that I've heard such a loud yes. Please do not take your days, minutes, seconds for granted. Please find something that might make someone else's life just a little better. An extra tip for a server who's clearly having a hard day. A hand on the shoulder of a young person feeling the pressures of figuring out their direction in life. Something, anything.

My biggest takeaway from prison, I think, is realizing that the people that are the meanest are those that are hurting the most. Honestly, this has been proven year after year in the quilt shop. It's so easy to make a snap judgement on someone without ever knowing how or why they are the way they are. This makes it hard for me in today's climate where the entire country is so sharply divided on every topic available. Everything is so black and white, cut and dry.

All of this to say, 12 years later, I am still searching for the way to bridge the gap any way I can. This mission gives me purpose. It makes me feel like I can 'right my wrongs'. My only hope is that I can leave the world a little better than when I came into it. It's something we should all strive to do in our own way. If I can find a way to help one person find their freedom from within, then I have done something.

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