Sisters: Helping women in jail return homeBy Khalice Gaynor
Kali Friedman spent 23 hours a day next to the toilet in a jail cell in central Pennsylvania as she went through withdrawal from years of addiction to heroin, cocaine and alcohol. The putrid smell of urine and feces filled the air.
“I can say that jail saved my life,” recalled Friedman, 23. “You learn about yourself.”
That was two years ago. Today, after her five-month stint in the State Correction Institution in Muncy, Pa., Friedman has turned her life around with the help of a Germantown-based program called Sisters Returning Home, which is sponsored by Germantown’s Canaan Baptist Church.
Through the program, Friedman is now preparing to get her GED. A few weeks ago, she landed a job at a local Checkers fast-food outlet as a full-time crewmember making $7.25 an hour.
Things “starting to work out…”
“It feels like things are finally starting to work out for me,” Friedman said. “It’s going to open new doors for me like saving money for a place.”
Friedman, who grew up in the Poconos, is one of the success stories of the Sisters program, which helps women make the transition from prison to the community. Through the program, women can prepare for the GED test so they can get a high school diploma. The program also provides job-search information, life-skill classes and advice about housing. There is also a crisis hot line.
“The goal is to help them survive rather than going back to prison,” explained Peggy Sims, program director.
Located in a two-story twin at 304 West Schoolhouse Lane, adjacent to the Canaan church building, the Sisters program seems like a sorority. Women come and go, casually chatting, sharing stories and slipping outside now and again to have a smoke.
As they talk, Sims plays house mother. The words “honey,” “baby” and “child” pepper her speech. “I don’t let nobody mess with my girls!” she says.
Women with no voice
Sims, a member of the Canaan congregation, began the Sisters program in 2009 after she became a prison volunteer and got a first-hand look at what she described as deplorable conditions for women in Pennsylvania’s state prisons.
“Why did I start this program? Women were not being heard at all,” Sims said. “They had no voices.”
On one of her visits to a county prison, Sims was approached by a female prisoner who showed her lunch meat that had turned green. “‘Miss,” the woman asked Sims, “would you eat this? Did you know, Miss, we have to beg for tampons? When our cycle’s on and we have to beg, they tell us, ‘Bitch sit down!’ Miss, we don’t have names. Every day we’re ‘bitches’ and ‘whores.’ No names in here.”
Sims said her visits to the prisons helped her understand how the state’s prison system, which has grown from nine prisons in 1980 to 20 today, has become a new Jim Crow, the unofficial system of segregation in the South that wasn’t ended until the passage of federal civil rights legislation in the 1960s.
Ninety percent of those she visited in prison, Sims said, were poor and African-American. “I was totally shocked. It was like seeing a sea of nothing but black faces,” she recalled.
In just six years, the Sisters program has graduated 51 women. Kali Friedman, now one of a dozen women being served by the program, hopes to become number 52.
“Right now,” Friedman explained, “I’m working on getting my GED so I can further my education. I really want to go back to school for human services so that I can work with at-risk kids who may be going through what I went through as a child.”
As she spoke, Friedman sat on a couch on the second floor of the house and described her rocky history growing up in a home where both parents were drug addicts and often in and out of jail and rehab.
Friedman looks younger than her 23 years. She has long auburn hair and a silver piercing above the right side of her lip. During a recent interview, she wore jeans, a blue hoodie and pink and blue Nikes. As she spoke, she twiddled her thumbs and pulled on her ear, showing her acrylic full-set half-nail design – clear at the bottom with yellow and black lines.
As she told her life story, she spoke in a monotone about the challenges she has faced and her effort to overcome them.
Born in Monroe County, Pa., Friedman came from what she described as a troubled family. It wasn’t only her parents who were drug addicts, but also her brother and cousins, she said. Friedman, too, became an addict.
Starting with weed
“I started smoking weed when I was 12 years old. I didn’t consider that drug use. I thought it was cool because everyone else was doing it,” she said.
Soon, she graduated to ecstasy and alcohol. To support her addictions, she said she stole from stores and sold drugs. “Eventually, I started doing heavier drugs and partying pretty heavily. I was drinking every day, weekdays. I ended up dropping out of high school,” she said.
Friedman was 17 when she stopped going to school. Soon, she started using opiates every day. Toward the end of her drug use, Friedman was using a needle to inject heroin and cocaine.
Then came the bust.
Friedman said she was in a ring of 53 people who were getting prescription pain pills from a doctor in New York. They would have the pills filled in their names and each get a cut of the pills. The investigation, which took two years, led to a conviction that put Friedman in jail.
Withdrawal in jail
“For the most part, I had to go through withdrawal in jail. That was the worst part. But I can say that jail saved my life. It was rough but it was very humbling,” Friedman recalled.
“Not being able to get up and go to the refrigerator at night and get your own drink. Not being able to have the privacy of using your own toilet. Having to sit next to a toilet every night is sickening. Having to smell somebody else’s urine and feces is sickening. Especially when you’re dope sick,” said Friedman.
When Friedman was released, she was sent to Quehanna Boot Camp in Karthaus, Pa. where she underwent four months of psychological counseling. There she learned to identify the feelings that triggered her craving for drugs. She also learned to ask for help – a major step forward because she had never trusted people.
“…my brain needed to be washed.”
The most important learning experience, she said, was discovering how to identify her feelings so she could deal with them, think differently and change her ways. “Everyone used to say they were brainwashing us, but my brain needed to be washed,” said Friedman.
“I needed to think completely differently. Everything I learned in my life from a baby on, was wrong. I needed all of that gone so I could learn how to live a normal life, if there is anything normal.”
For the past five months, Friedman has been part of the Sisters Returning Home program. Besides helping her prepare for the GED and get her job at Checkers, the program has also helped her to sort through her past.
“When I was growing up I felt alone. I felt like my parents hated me. I thought they didn’t love me. I didn’t understand until I had my own addiction,” said Friedman.
“I feel like before I went through my addiction I went through my parents’ addiction. That motivated me to want to help other kids, too. I kind of understand it a lot better. It would make me feel a lot better to be able to help other people, to give back what has been given to me and to be able to change someone’s life.”
Making peace with family
Friedman said she is now at peace with her family. “I don’t blame my parents. I forgive them. I don’t have any resentments.”
That chain, however, may already have been broken.
Friedman said she has been in recovery for 17 months. Her father, she said, is seven years clean, and her brother is three years clean. Her mother, she reported, hasn’t had drugs in five months. “We’re all in recovery,” she said. “It’s kind of like a breakthrough.”