Resilience and Workarounds

I’ve been working with my community college’s prison re-entry program this quarter for my sabbatical, writing profiles about some of the people there. It has been such a pleasure to get to know the people I’ve interviewed better, and being trusted with their stories a great gift, one that comes with immense responsibility. Each profile celebrates the resilience of the person it focuses on and the incredible work being done at MCC 180 RAP. When the program is ready to publish the pieces, I’ll link to them here.

One unexpected but happy outcome of this work is an English class I’ll be teaching beginning in December to women incarcerated at the Community Corrections Center-Lincoln (CCC-L). The goal of community corrections is to help incarcerated people transition back into society through work detail, work release and education programs. There are two locations in Nebraska: Omaha (where the vast majority of them are from) and Lincoln. Over the summer, women were moved from the Omaha location to the new Women’s Housing Unit in Lincoln, a transfer that took most of them away from their jobs, family support systems and educational pursuits at the community college. I am so pleased to have the opportunity to bring educational opportunities back to them as part of the re-entry program.

I joined the re-entry program director and another instructor at the facility last week. The Women’s Inmate Council was meeting that day, and we attended the gathering to introduce ourselves and preview the classes we’ll be offering. After, we were given a tour by a corrections officer who also works as a case manager in the unit.

I’ve been inside of several prisons and jails in this state, and much of the media coverage about the new women’s unit has been about how beautiful it is, some stories comparing it to a college dorm or even a resort. It is not a resort, of course, but the facilities were far nicer than anything I’ve seen before. What I was most impressed by, however, were the staff members working there. They were friendly and warm to both visitors and incarcerated people. There is a prison staffing crisis in our state, but everyone I saw working at CCC-L seemed to believe in the mission of helping incarcerated people in their transitions.

As we began our tour, we walked outside to a playground and seating area that is used when families visit, lifting and breaking my heart all at once. A small group of women transferring from the prison in York arrived, loaded with boxes and bags of their belongings. They looked weary after the journey, apprehensive, and I wondered if they understood how much things were about to change for the better. Besides being closer to their release dates, they were about to join a supportive, encouraging community to help with their transitions, their focus turning from incarceration to freedom.

Inside the housing unit, there were women knitting together, working out in the gym, playing cards, doing laundry. It was bright and airy, clean, organized but homey. Two women are assigned to each room, fitted out in dorm-style furniture with two beds (not bunks), two desks and chairs, two lockers. The large bathroom for each wing was better appointed than any college dorm I’ve seen, and the women have privacy that they cannot count on in other prisons or jails. We visited a beautifully equipped kitchen where incarcerated people can prepare for earning their food handling licenses. The men’s dorm was not as nice, a gym-sized open room crammed with bunks, but almost all of the men living there will tell you that it’s better than being in prison.

There was so much to take in, and I was glad to see it, but I was on my feet and walking for almost an hour, my legs becoming numb and unsteady. Sigh. Such reminders of my limitations because of MS come at the worst times. After seeing one men’s dorm, the officer guiding us asked if we wanted to see another one, and the other two women were all in. I finally had to cry uncle and let them know I couldn’t go on much longer, ending the tour for all of us.

I should have said something before we began, letting them know I was good for 30-45 minutes, or I could have spoken up halfway through and bowed out a bit early. I could have brought my cane for support, but I so rarely need it that it didn’t cross my mind.

The next day, the re-entry director apologized to me over e-mail. She had nothing to apologize for, of course—managing my MS symptoms is not something I can contract out to other people. But she’s lovely that way, so I did my best to reassure her that I was fine. And I was fine. I’m fortunate that I’m able to recover after sitting for a while, that I’m still able to do all of the things that require walking in a regular day for now, including going on a walk just for exercise. It’s a good thing I’ve never liked shopping because the time limit on my being upright would take all the pleasure out of it.

My legs are my biggest reminder of MS each day. Because they fail me after standing for too long, I’ve ducked out of a few social gatherings earlier than I otherwise would have. Where I used to stand at the island to do prep work as I cooked, I now have to sit at the table when I can to save my legs. If I want to walk more than a mile, I need to split that walking time up into more than one trip or stop at a bench to recover. After my 30 good minutes, I feel it first in my thighs as they go numb, getting so numb that I cannot feel my hands on them. Next, it spreads to my knees, and I have to focus on the way I’m walking so they don’t buckle. I feel it in my toes, too, as they tingle, but I’m grateful for that tingling because at least I can feel something, unlike the nothingness I feel in my upper legs. I’m fortunate to work in a career field where I don’t have to be on my feet constantly.

In prison, where the rules and limitations of the system create obstacles, creative problem-solving results in workarounds. For example, without something to boil water for hot drinks or ramen noodles, some people will drop a live wire into a cup of water to heat it. Floss can be useful for cutting things or threading eyebrows to shape them. Recently, an incarcerated man told me about a friend who used his prison ID card to slowly, patiently slice up a watermelon from the institution’s garden, one he enjoyed that much more for the effort that went into it.

People with MS have to come up with their own workarounds to live as fully as possible when it comes to daily activities, employment and exercise. Behind the scenes, their brains are doing that as well. When lesions interrupt signals from traveling from one place to the other the normal way, the brain helps those signals go around the lesion, creating a detour-like path. The brain’s ability to do this decreases over time as lesions increase, but it slows symptoms in the early stages of the disease. Our ability to adapt is greater than we know.

Adversity helps us find and build our resilience. One reason I enjoy working with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people is because they understand this better than most. There’s so much to learn in overcoming circumstances that would hold us back, whether they have to do with addiction, poverty, disability, illness or loss. Incarcerated people would rather not be incarcerated, and people with MS would rather not have MS, but finding ourselves in these situations anyway, we discover strengths we did not know we had and purpose that may have otherwise eluded us.

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