Author Archives: unPrison Project

Reflections at Dawn (Part 2): Jacqueline Mantz Rodriguez

[Read Part 1 here]

Note: Portions of this blog post are published in the memoir, Embracing Dawn: Two Women’s Stories; Brought Together by the Prison Education Project. The book was written by Jacqueline Mantz Rodriguez (under the name, Marie Rodriguez) and Tessa McCarthy (whose name was changed in the book and here to protect her anonymity).

Writing my story and reading Tessa’s story freed something in me. I let go of the shame of my past. Tessa was so kind when she read my thickly coiled words upon the page and offered me the forgiveness I had yet to give myself.  

Tessa was barely an adult when she committed murder. She was given a long sentence. (I am being deliberately vague since Tessa’s story is hers to tell, not mine.) As for me, I was a teenager when I almost died from overdosing on alcohol. 

“I remember going into convulsions and throwing up vodka. I remember the feel of the cement on my knees as I bent over and spewed vodka out of my nostrils and mouth.” (Marie Rodriguez, Embracing Dawn).

I struggled until I was 24 when I began to turn my life around. Then I found teaching, which gave me a reason to stay sober and care for others. Tessa also found sobriety and a connection to God. 

She wrote: 

“My heart stopped when I heard the date. I couldn’t believe it. I felt my face get pale, but Angie and Chap were too busy talking about the baptism to notice. The sound of their conversation faded as I drifted into my thoughts. The date that Chap had picked had special significance to me. Six years prior, on that exact day, I had made the worst decision of my life. So many lives had been torn apart by my selfishness that day, and I would give anything to be able to go back and undo it. But I knew I would never be able to take it back. I had spent every anniversary of that day entrenched in a deep pit of self-loathing and depression, and now Chap had picked that very day. My stomach sank as I realized that I was going to be baptized on the anniversary of the day I had committed my crime.” (Tessa McCarthy, Embracing Dawn

As I transcribed our book, I knew we had done something worthwhile. Looking back, I am amazed at how much trust and faith we gave one another. I am so grateful for Tessa and her courage to tell her story. The experience changed me forever as I discovered my authentic self by writing my story with another woman. 

I asked Tessa to reflect on her journey. She wrote, “As time goes on, I feel more and more grateful to PEP for gifting me such a wonderful opportunity. I am still amazed by all the hard work that my writing partner Jackie (Marie) and I put into it. What’s more, is that … so many people have come forward to share how our writing has touched them. I am so humbled by the fact that Jackie and I were able to use our journeys and struggles to help others. I now know that I can accomplish anything I set my mind to, and can now embrace my past with love.”

I hope to see Tessa in person someday. We lived for a year writing pages of memories. We could not live the rest of our lives here — we had to move forward to a warm forgiving place of sand rather than stone. But we are bound by our journey from stone to sand, forever. 

Reflections at Dawn is a two-part blog series by Jacqueline Mantz Rodriguez. Read Part 1.


Dr. Jacqueline Mantz became a teacher through providence. Jacqueline nearly dropped out of high school but graduated with the support of her family and teachers. She returned to college at the age of twenty-four after a mentor and peace officer told her she had potential. Jacqueline has a B.A. in English, two Master’s degrees, and an Educational Doctorate. Jacqueline has worked within the education system for over twenty years in many different settings including non-public schools, special education, an online blended learning school, and now at a continuation high school. Jacqueline’s philosophy of education is simple yet deeper than any ocean. Teaching is an act of love and courage. Her ability to see each and every student as a fellow capable soul helps her facilitate student learning in a caring way that changes lives. 

Jacqueline lives teaching. After school Jacqueline works with students who are on Home and Hospital services providing an education to students with disabilities in their homes. She also works for the Riverside County Office of Education supporting new Special Education Teachers as a practicum supervisor. Jacqueline volunteers for the Prison Education Project (PEP) teaching courses on autobiographical writing, forgiveness and healing, college and career readiness, and Shakespeare. Jacqueline co-wrote a book with a woman currently incarcerated titled Embracing Dawn under her pen name Marie Rodriguez. She is currently assisting another individual, who is incarcerated, in publishing their memoir. Jacqueline is currently working on a memoir about her teaching experiences.

Reflections at Dawn (Part 1): Jacqueline Mantz Rodriguez

Note: Portions of this blog post are published in the memoir, Embracing Dawn: Two Women’s Stories; Brought Together by the Prison Education Project. The book was written by Jacqueline Mantz Rodriguez (under the name, Marie Rodriguez) and Tessa McCarthy (whose name was changed in the book and here to protect her anonymity).

When I volunteered for the Prison Education Project (PEP) and signed up to facilitate the Introduction to Autobiography class, I had no inkling that this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship; a friendship with teaching, writing, myself, and my student Tessa. 

Tessa, my first student as a volunteer teacher with PEP, is incarcerated at a prison in California. As a longtime teacher, I knew how to build trust with students in person. How could I build trust with Tessa via email? 

When I wrote to Tessa, I was nervous. It was 6 am on a Friday. We were only allowed to write on Fridays per the prison’s guidelines. I wrote, “Assignment 1 Autobiography: Write a 1-page Biography; Why is your life’s story compelling? Why is it unique? Greetings Tessa, this is Jackie, I will be your new writing instructor facilitating the writing of your story. I look forward to working with you to write your story. I am so honored to be able to hear your story. I hope you are well and you find joy somehow even through these times.”

Tessa wrote me back and responded to the writing prompt. We wrote to one another, responding to the prompts, for seven weeks. As I read her story, I felt deep within that God’s providence was somehow to be found in it all. 

We were both souls in search of forgiveness and on a path to finding the light and love within. Our book was written during the time of the pandemic shutdown. Before we wrote our chapters, we engaged in written small talk. I shared stories about my dogs. She shared what it was like within stone walls. On Dec. 3, 2020, she wrote:
“I have been helping in the unit a lot because the regular volunteers got quarantined, plus I took over decorating the unit for Christmas…we’re on lockdown (which is fine by me! I get more done!) we’re supposed to get off lockdown on the 10th, but I’m sure they’ll put us back on around Christmas until after the new year.”

We connected by sharing our everyday lives. But I was riveted by the words of her life story. Friday morning at 6 am, I read her first words:
“Although I’ve never met him, I’ve been haunted by my brother my entire life. He’s always managed to show up somehow, even before I knew he existed. Sometimes he’d come in the guise of a friend who was “like a brother to me,” other times he’d appear in my dreams. When I was a young child playing make-believe games, I’d almost always pretend to be a boy. As an adult, I would come to understand that I was pretending to be him.” (Tessa McCarthy, Embracing Dawn)

I saw multiple connections within our lives. One year later, this seven-week course birthed the co-authored memoir of our lives with the help of PEP. All proceeds from the book are donated to a victim’s scholarship fund and PEP.

Reflections at Dawn is a two-part blog series by Jacqueline Mantz Rodriguez. Read Part 2.


Dr. Jacqueline Mantz became a teacher through providence. Jacqueline nearly dropped out of high school but graduated with the support of her family and teachers. She returned to college at the age of twenty-four after a mentor and peace officer told her she had potential. Jacqueline has a B.A. in English, two Master’s degrees, and an Educational Doctorate. Jacqueline has worked within the education system for over twenty years in many different settings including non-public schools, special education, an online blended learning school, and now at a continuation high school. Jacqueline’s philosophy of education is simple yet deeper than any ocean. Teaching is an act of love and courage. Her ability to see each and every student as a fellow capable soul helps her facilitate student learning in a caring way that changes lives. 

Jacqueline lives teaching. After school Jacqueline works with students who are on Home and Hospital services providing an education to students with disabilities in their homes. She also works for the Riverside County Office of Education supporting new Special Education Teachers as a practicum supervisor. Jacqueline volunteers for the Prison Education Project (PEP) teaching courses on autobiographical writing, forgiveness and healing, college and career readiness, and Shakespeare. Jacqueline co-wrote a book with a woman currently incarcerated titled Embracing Dawn under her pen name Marie Rodriguez. She is currently assisting another individual, who is incarcerated, in publishing their memoir. Jacqueline is currently working on a memoir about her teaching experiences.

Home Sweet Home: David Breakspear

The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.

—Maya Angelou

I’m not suggesting that my childhood home caused me problems. I’m confident in saying that without my childhood home, I’d have been in a lot worse position than I was, even though that wasn’t great. My own issues saw me disengage from my family and not the other way around; however, that was many moons and many identities ago and is a place I no longer live. Time has a habit of doing that.

I would suggest home is very much something that is not only subjective but is changeable. As the old saying goes, “A man’s home is his castle.” A quote coined by English Judge Sir Edward Coke in 1644, it basically means, “At home you’re your own boss.” As Maya Angelou said, home is “The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

After a while, whether it was because the environment suited the person I was/am, or whether the person I was/am had adapted to a specific environment, meaning I could thrive, prison became home. I didn’t return to my cell, my landing, my wing, my houseblock; I returned home at the end of my working day. 

I’m not saying it was the right view to have, but it was the view I had. I’m also not saying I didn’t sometimes find it hard and stressful, but then I could never say life out here isn’t sometimes hard or stressful. However, my perspective of prison became one of prison being my home. Again, I’m not saying it was the right thing to do but it is what it is or was what it was. As Catherine Pulsifer said, “Home is where we should feel secure and comfortable.”

I’m not complaining because it was what it was and there is nothing I can do to ever change my past. As I said, prison became my home and my experiences have enabled me to be the person I am today, something I wouldn’t change for the world.

It was my perspective of prison, which I grew into, that enabled me to turn my life around in that very environment. I could almost say my reason for doing so was that I grew out of it. My heart was no longer in it, as such.

I personally feel I had learned all the lessons I had needed to, and prison finally served its purpose. I should say it finally served my purpose, as the purpose of prison is to lock people up who the judiciary and, I suppose, society, deem are untrusted to walk the streets. It was a shame I couldn’t have learned the same lessons as my peers while I was at school, but I must admit, school wasn’t right for me. The school I was permanently excluded from was most definitely not for me, so I shouldn’t really say school as in all schools.

A good friend of mine says, and quite rightly, the criminal justice system pathway includes just as many exit signs as it does pitfalls. And one thing that always comes to mind when I think of those exit signs is, whose job is it to spot them?

I had gotten to the point where prison became my home and, rather than look for the exit sign, I was more focused on the entrance. Is it rational to see prison as home? If you think it isn’t, then how is it possible to spot other rational signs, like an exit sign? I recently read that 95% of people in prison don’t want to be there. Not only are they there, but many return and return. I did, and I became “secure and comfortable.

So, whose job is it to spot the exit signs?


David Breakspear began his journey as a returning citizen after four decades of experience in the criminal justice system. Since his release in June 2017, he has spoken to Parliament and delivered a TEDx talk about educational opportunities for incarcerated individuals. He is an organized crime researcher and the author of a novel on that topic called A Father’s Son. He lives in the U.K., where he continues to share his experiences and his passion for reform. Learn more about David from his website: journeyofareformedman.net.



Love 2 Learn: David Breakspear

I have loved learning all my life. School, however, was not for me. From day one, I had problems with nursery, infant, junior, and secondary school before being permanently excluded. But I had no problems with learning. That’s the thing with learning: it is everywhere. 

I’m not suggesting my goal was to be permanently excluded, but both the school and I got what we wanted in the end. I was free to go on my own education journey. Unfortunately, most of that journey took place in the school-to-prison pipeline and then within the criminal justice system. However, it was what it was! And here we are now, in a not unfortunate set of circumstances.

As much as I advocate for improvements in the provision of education in prison, I must admit that education is an area of prison that has seen a host of improvements over the years. This is thanks to the Open University (OU), charities such as Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET), and organizations like the National Extension College (NEC). 

I first became involved with distance learning in 2005, when, through financial support from PET, I began studying with the NEC. I earned many qualifications related to the work I did in prison, like mentoring and peer support, as well as those in the basics, like English and math. My highest qualification was a level three certificate Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector.

During what I knew would be my last ever prison sentence, I wanted to earn a degree by participating in the daddy of prison education programs — or at least the daddy of distance learning — The Open University.

I had many reasons for studying for a degree in prison, including:

  • To pass the time and keep my mind active when behind my cell door.
  • To find out if my childhood teachers were right and to see what would happen if I did fully apply myself. 
  • To learn to speak “their” language — to speak properly and stop using language that would get doors slammed in my face. I knew that would happen anyway, so why add to it?
  • To understand the lessons of my “lived experience,” and how to use it in a way that would have the most impact.

I began with the OU by taking an access module called “Understanding people, work and society” before moving on to work on — and earn — a bachelor’s degree in criminology and psychology. I continue studying by taking OU’s Open Learn courses.

I am proud to say, I achieved everything I set out to achieve and continue to do so. Along the way, I also learned, and continue to learn, so much about myself.

The more I learn, the more I want to know.

Some of my most peaceful moments in prison were while studying in the early hours before the noise of prison kicked in. Such a profound silence. Peaceful beyond explanation. Therefore, if I find things getting a bit too noisy in my mind, I take myself back, and these days, I don’t need to commit a crime first.

Education makes the impossible, possible.


David Breakspear began his journey as a returning citizen after four decades of experience in the criminal justice system. Since his release in June 2017, he has spoken to Parliament and delivered a TEDx talk about educational opportunities for incarcerated individuals. He is an organized crime researcher and the author of a novel on that topic called A Father’s Son. He lives in the U.K., where he continues to share his experiences and his passion for reform. Learn more about David from his website: journeyofareformedman.net.

Are We Together (Part 2): Jacqueline Mantz Rodriguez

[Read Part 1 here]

We continued our creative writing class with The Prison Education Project (PEP) at Luzira Maximum Security Prison in Uganda, Africa. We had gotten to know our writers and even to hear some of their story ideas. In the third class, the writers were invited to read a piece they worked on for homework.  

“Who wants to come on up?” Helin asked, “Don’t be shy.”

“I will read mine,” said a man I will call Ali. He had a shaved head and dimples.  His smile was as bright as his yellow smock and pants. We all sat and waited as he walked up to the screen.

“This goes out to Queen Jackie.  It is a letter of hope and love from across the seas…” How I wish I had the letter to me as it combined Ali’s love for America and boxing with his crush on me. We snapped when it was done, and I tried not to blush. 

“Thank you, Ali, interestingly Ali, I write to people I admire all the time,” I said. 

“Do they write you back?” asked Ali. 

“Yes, my favorite author, Mary Dorian Russell, wrote me back. Read The Sparrow gentlemen if you can get a copy,” I said. They all nodded and wrote the name of the book down. 

Helin and Los called me Queen Jackie in jest for the rest of the class. Names were important. PEP encouraged all teachers to use the writers’ names as much as possible during classes so they would feel seen and heard. It worked. We were all connected, a circle of writers sharing with one another our stories. One of the ways we were able to connect with the students was by sharing our own stories. Helin, Los, and I were all authentic, speaking of our lives and struggles. I discussed my sobriety and the grace it gave me to write. Some writers nodded and I recognized kindred souls. Los discussed poetry with the writers and told them about his favorite poet, a Portuguese man named Fernando Pessoa, who wrote poetry under at least 81 names. Helin brought her cat Khaki up to the screen and he became the official mascot of the class.  The men always asked about Khaki.

“Say hi to Khaki.  Tell him we miss him,” the gentlemen would say right before we logged off. 

In our last class, all the writers read a piece of their writings. Many of the gentlemen sang songs to us or quoted biblical scripture wishing us health and peace. At ten pm, the guard said we had to log off. We did not want to go. The hope in the room was intoxicating. We could all feel it and wanted to hold onto it as long as possible. 

“We hope you come in person to Africa to teach us in person, we will be waiting,” said a young man who looked all of sixteen years old. 

PEP succeeds in working within prisons because we work within the system. PEP works with correctional facilities in a collaborative manner and follows the rules and policies within the institution, without questioning or challenging them. Yet it is still troubling to see these redeemable men behind prison walls. With the pandemic ebbing it is my hope that PEP will resume in-person classes within the prisons of California and the world. PEP will then have teachers journey to Luzira Maximum Security Prison in Uganda, Africa to teach in person. My dream is to journey to Uganda, meet my fellow writers, and hear their stories face to face. 

Are We Together is a two-part blog series by Jacqueline Mantz Rodriguez. Read Part 1.

Further Resources:
For more information on the Prison Education Project’s work with Luzira Maximum Security Prison, please watch this documentary: PEP Uganda.

“Winner of the Los Angeles Film Awards for “Best Documentary Feature,” produced/directed by Dr. Renford Reese, this documentary takes a look at one of the most fascinating prisons in the world, Luzira Upper Prison in Kampala, Uganda. David Goldblatt from the UK’s Guardian newspaper stated that “Luzira is the home to the world’s most elaborate prison football league.” Beyond soccer, Luzira is an intriguing place where prison guards have no weapons, where inmates hold hands with each other and occasionally with the guards as they walk the yard. This film captures the amazingly tranquil and healing community in this prison. PEP-Uganda volunteers traveled to Luzira from California to teach but they learned substantially more than they taught. The volunteers witnessed the essence of brotherhood, sisterhood, culture, community, and humanity.”  (Youtube Description)


Dr. Jacqueline Mantz became a teacher through providence. Jacqueline nearly dropped out of high school but graduated with the support of her family and teachers. She returned to college at the age of twenty-four after a mentor and peace officer told her she had potential. Jacqueline has a B.A. in English, two Master’s degrees, and an Educational Doctorate. Jacqueline has worked within the education system for over twenty years in many different settings including non-public schools, special education, an online blended learning school, and now at a continuation high school. Jacqueline’s philosophy of education is simple yet deeper than any ocean. Teaching is an act of love and courage. Her ability to see each and every student as a fellow capable soul helps her facilitate student learning in a caring way that changes lives. 

Jacqueline lives teaching. After school Jacqueline works with students who are on Home and Hospital services providing an education to students with disabilities in their homes. She also works for the Riverside County Office of Education supporting new Special Education Teachers as a practicum supervisor. Jacqueline volunteers for the Prison Education Project (PEP) teaching courses on autobiographical writing, forgiveness and healing, college and career readiness, and Shakespeare. Jacqueline co-wrote a book with a woman currently incarcerated titled Embracing Dawn under her pen name Marie Rodriguez. She is currently assisting another individual, who is incarcerated, in publishing their memoir. Jacqueline is currently working on a memoir about her teaching experiences.

Are We Together (Part 1): Jacqueline Mantz Rodriguez

“I look deep into the lion’s eyes. It was me or him, so I stab him with my spear.  Chack, chack, chack, whumpf, whumpf,” said the writer as he grasped an imaginary spear and puffed out his cheeks to make the sound of the spear hitting the lion’s flesh. Helin, Los, and I were open-mouthed as we listened to our fellow writers as they sat together in white plastic chairs with their journals and pencils in hand, telling their stories via Zoom in our final creative writing class. 

During the pandemic lockdown, I decided to start volunteering with the Prison Education Project (PEP). There are times when one feels compelled to do something. For years, I dreamed of teaching in prisons. I could have easily been in prison if I had not gotten sober and found teaching. I thought, “There but for the grace of God go I.” This is not me being trite. PEP was the answer for me as it was the largest volunteer-based organization in the United States committed to expanding educational opportunities for the in-custody population. The last class I taught was from December 2021 through January 2022. It was a five-week course on creative writing. 

Two other writers taught the class with me. Helin was a working writer and Los, was a poet who just finished law school. The course was held online via Zoom as the writers were incarcerated in a prison in Luzira Maximum Security Prison in Uganda, Africa.  

Luzira Maximum Security Prison houses both men and women.  It is the only maximum-security prison in the country. According to the Human Rights Reports by the Department of Justice in 2020, there are human rights issues involving citizens who are arbitrarily arrested or detained in Uganda, Africa. There are also political prisoners in Luzira. Some prisoners spend years in prison awaiting trial only to have the court find insufficient evidence to justify their detention. 

The all-male class of students was dressed in bright orange and yellow smocks. The one guard in the room was always friendly and helpful. He stood to the side in his green uniform and beret. We taught the class at eight pm on Sunday nights. Across the world in Uganda, it was ten am on Monday morning. The classes lasted an hour and a half. 

At the beginning of the first class, students introduced themselves.

“Greetings gentlemen. Are we together?” I asked as I put my hands into the shape of a circle. Everyone put their hands into a circle and held it up to their chests. This was a cultural reference from the country taught to us by PEP and we used it to connect. 

“Name a place where you would like to set a creative writing piece. Share out your name and the setting of your writing piece,” I said after Helin, Los, and I introduced ourselves and welcomed the writers to class. There were around fifteen men in the room, and they all took turns introducing themselves and their story settings. Most of the men set their stories in their villages in Africa or in the prison. Many wrote of the struggle before their time in prison. They wrote of struggling to eat and searching for work in the cities. Others wrote of love lost and betrayal. Their stories flowed naturally embedded with figurative language and metaphor. The Zoom connection went in and out so we had to keep waiting for them to log back on. By the end of the hour and a half class, we had learned all the writers’ names and something about their stories.    

During the second class, we discussed origin stories. “We always want to know our character’s backstory. An example of this is a superhero’s origin story,” said Los. 

The creative writing class morphed into a writing workshop where the writers responded to prompts and shared their writings. Most of the classes were spent listening and offering bits of input on the use of dialogue and imagery. 

This is how the last few classes would typically go. Helin, Los, or I (we mixed it up) would ask students to share their writings from the homework the week before.  Numerous hands would pop up and we would smile and laugh together. We would let each writer read their stories or poems for three to five minutes. After they finished, we would state what we noticed and ask questions. The writer would furiously write down the notes and thank us with a nod of his head with his hands clasped together. We got to as many people as possible and then started again the next week.  It was hard to stay within the time limit. 

These men were bursting with stories, with tales they needed to write and speak to the world. During these moments spent online I felt like I was overseas sitting in a room with writers in Africa, not at my computer in Palm Springs. The reality was these men were incarcerated. Some were facing the death penalty or life in prison. Their society may have put them behind stone walls but their voices were strong, vibrant, and alive.

Are We Together is a two-part blog series by Jacqueline Mantz Rodriguez. Read Part 2.


Dr. Jacqueline Mantz became a teacher through providence. Jacqueline nearly dropped out of high school but graduated with the support of her family and teachers. She returned to college at the age of twenty-four after a mentor and peace officer told her she had potential. Jacqueline has a B.A. in English, two Master’s degrees, and an Educational Doctorate. Jacqueline has worked within the education system for over twenty years in many different settings including non-public schools, special education, an online blended learning school, and now at a continuation high school. Jacqueline’s philosophy of education is simple yet deeper than any ocean. Teaching is an act of love and courage. Her ability to see each and every student as a fellow capable soul helps her facilitate student learning in a caring way that changes lives. 

Jacqueline lives teaching. After school Jacqueline works with students who are on Home and Hospital services providing an education to students with disabilities in their homes. She also works for the Riverside County Office of Education supporting new Special Education Teachers as a practicum supervisor. Jacqueline volunteers for the Prison Education Project (PEP) teaching courses on autobiographical writing, forgiveness and healing, college and career readiness, and Shakespeare. Jacqueline co-wrote a book with a woman currently incarcerated titled Embracing Dawn under her pen name Marie Rodriguez. She is currently assisting another individual, who is incarcerated, in publishing their memoir. Jacqueline is currently working on a memoir about her teaching experiences.

 

Why Did She Leave?: Koren Brand

I saw her standing there
Yesterday morning,
Our eyes meet
And when my brain and my heart realize that it is her,
I turn my head
And focus my eyes
Far away.
I know that it breaks her heart
But, pretending she doesn’t exist,
Is my survival of the fittest.
She left me,
Alone, afraid and needing my mom,
And still she chose drugs over me,
And let her friends ruin
The life that she had with me,
And every time I think she’s changed,
She calls me collect, from a recorded prison line.
She leaves me,
Always following other people,
Like a sheep does to a wolf.
And every time I tell her the truth,
It makes her sad.
And being without her,
Makes me mad.
So I pretend she doesn’t exist
And when I ride by her
I’ll turn my head
Which seems much easier
Than letting her break my heart again.
Time and time
I’ll casually ask around about her
Hoping to hear that she’s doing just fine,
Wondering if I cross her mind?
I love her,
But the people around me,
Tell me that she will never change,
Secretly hoping that they’re wrong,
Praying that she is happy and safe.
Dreaming of future days,
Where endings are happy,
And my story is told a different way.
Trying to figure out why I was never enough for her,
And why she would hurt me the ways that she always did?
Does she know that the pain she caused me,
Made it hard to be a normal kid?
I miss her,
But I don’t know if I’m ready to forgive her.

Koren (Korey) Brand is a returning citizen. She is passionate about writing poetry and essays as a form of sharing her experience. Korey wants to change the world and one way she is doing that is by volunteering for The UnPrison . Read Korey’s full bio.

What I’m Focusing on in My Recovery: Katelynn (Katie) Thibodeau

I have been in the justice system for six and a half years,  Since first entering the system and struggling to overcome the adversity that comes with being in the system, I have overcome addiction and crime.  

In asking Katelynn what she’s focused on during her recovery, she says; “In my journey of recovery I have focused hard on becoming my best self, no matter what roadblocks stand in my way. One major goal I have for my life is to continue with my education, and eventually work on becoming a child psychologist. In recovery I have taken every opportunity to help others. Another goal of mine is to have a positive impact on individuals’ lives, like so many amazing  people have throughout my many years of hardships; childhood trauma, mental illness, addiction, crime, and recovery. I take pride in helping others. I never want anyone to feel  helpless, and alone as I have so often in the past. Throughout recovery I learned to give back to society for mistakes I have made in the past, by helping others overcome their own hardships. My life passion is to help others, I’ve survived so much in my lifetime, I can honestly say it has made me into the  strong person I am today.”

Katie is a returning citizen. She is passionate about never giving up, setting big goals and sharing her strength with others.  Katie currently lives in Vermont with her fiance who shares her zest for life. Read Katie’s full bio here

Meet Katie

TW: Mention of sexual abuse and suicide

My name is Katelynn (Katie) Joy Thibodeau, I lived 26 long and rough years. I spent those years moving around the New England states of Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Currently residing in the state of Vermont, and for the first time in those 26 years, I have stability. I got engaged last summer, to a woman who has a similar life history to myself. She challenges me daily to be the person I always dreamed of, but I did not believe was possible. 

Life in my shoes has never been easy or “fair”.  I was abused physically and sexually nightly on and off from ages 5 to 12 years old. I was diagnosed with varsis mental health illnesses in second grade. By 5th grade I was expelled from 3 public schools and had been arrested my first time. At age 9 I found alcohol, age 11 it was a nightly need, just to cope through the pain. Lived ages 13 to about 18 years old moving back and forth between residentials and psychiatric wards. By the time I moved home, I suffered from a major fear of the public,  and couldn’t even get to the door of a small gas station without a panic attack. Within a month I was in active alcoholism and decovering every drug heard of in my area. I lived in active addiction cycling through jail, psych wards, and rehabs till I was 24 years old. When a almost fatal suicide attempt, landed me back in jail. For the first time ever something changed in me. 

Leaving to work through childhood trauma, and the trauma of my years bouncing around the psychiatric ward. After 3 years of hard work and recovery, today I live a life I personally believed was never possible. I have big life goals today, and truly believe today anything is possible with a lot of honest hard work. It was a very long hard journey to get where I am today, I gave up on myself countless times. I am living proof change is possible, you just need to give it your all and when things start to fall apart find the strength to fight through.

Honestly life is never easier, whether living a life in active addiction or living the honest life of recovery. I face struggles daily. The difference is I’ve learned to cope through those struggles, and at the end of the day I love myself, believe in myself, and I have stability. I wake up each morning grateful and ready to face life straight on, prepared to fight those struggles, not numbing myself to cope and avoiding life.

I am a volunteer here at UnPrisonProject. You will come to know me and my life journey through my blogs. My goal is to give readers strength and hope, through my journey and blogs.

Check out her stories, poems, and blogs right here on the UnPrison Project’s web page!

New Year, New Skills: Koren Brand

As a young child, I was diagnosed with various mental illnesses. This was only the beginning of my childhood challenges. I was in second grade, about 7 years old, when I was first put on medication. I remember that day like it was yesterday. Even the first medications I was prescribed; adderall and risperidone. It was set up for me to get my meds in the nurse’s office at school daily. I remember feeling as though I was different from all of the other kids. For most of my existence I felt this way. I never felt like I truly belonged. That feeling brought me into dark times, too many times, in my life. In grade school I had an Individualized Educational Plan (I.E.P.) for behavioral issues, and struggled with reading, writing, and speaking. I met with both a speech therapist and someone to work with me one on one for reading. I never put honest effort into either because they were both things I was taken out of class for and the last thing I wanted is more reasons to stand out from others.  All I ever wanted was to fit in, make friends, and have the childhood I saw the other kids have. 

Well that was not the plan others had in store for my life. At home I had no one to teach me about life or help with education. Home life for most of my early childhood was difficult. I was sexually and physically abused on a daily basis from age 5 to 12 years old. My nights at home were not teaching me to read and helping with homework but instead fighting to survive. I was growing up too fast, too young. 

In grade school I acted out in search of attention- good or bad. Fourth grade was the first time I was ever expelled from a school. By the time I was in 6th grade I had been expelled from three schools. At this point, schools were becoming unwilling to accept me. From an outsider’s point of view, I was out of control and would never change. Although those who choose to remain open-minded, and who really got to the person inside the behavioral nightmare, always had faith in me, and saw far more in me then I could ever imagine. It was those people who always believed in me, who gave me the strength to believe in myself. I never had someone who believed in me and wanted to support me in being my best myself. When first meeting these individuals often I would try and push them away, because it felt unnatural and uncomfortable to me. I have learned in recent years to remain open minded and give people a shot before denying their support.

School remained a challenge. At the age of 12, I was sent out of state to a residential school for girls 12 to 21 years old who struggled with mental illnesses and public school. I remained in Massachusetts until I was 17 years old, although I did not remain in the same residence. I bounced from psych ward to different residentials over those 5 years. Never having true stability or knowing where I’d be next. Those years weren’t spent on education though, those years were spent learning to control my actions and live with my mental illnesses. Working through the trauma of my childhood, and learning to cope through the many flashbacks and nightmare I suffered through daily. 

At 17 years old I moved back home to Vermont. Home wasn’t like childhood with the abuse but it still remained unhealthy. I watched my family struggle with alcoholism most my life and as my brothers and cousin got older drug addiction as well.  I was no stranger to either. Actually I struggled with both even before spending those 5 years in Mass. I started drinking at age 9 to deal with the abuse, but at 10 years old the man abusing started buying me a 5th a night. That continued until age 12 when I watched that man die in front of me- alone. 

Before being sent away to Massachusetts I started hanging out with teenagers smoking weed and eventually formed an addiction to opiate medication. My best friend’s mom had a year’s worth of oxycontin. She was 16 and I was 12. She ended up stealing a couple bottles. At first I said ‘no’, the next day we were smoking, and drinking out in woods. Then I chose to join in with them and do a line. That one line wasn’t enough though instantly I wanted more and more, until they had to be taken away. That continued for a couple of weeks until I was given the news about going to Massachusetts.

I want to share this story with everyone, with the hope of giving others the strength and confidence to do something that might scare them. I want to remind you all that nothing is ever impossible, so, never give up. I know how easy it is to feel hopeless and discouraged. I truly believed that my dream of being able to read and write was an impossible one to reach. I wasn’t able to even read a chapter book. Reading was beyond just challenging.

Today I read on a daily basis, and am able to read much more than a mere chapter book. Learning to read changed my life.

Koren (Korey) Brand is a returning citizen. She is passionate about writing poetry and essays as a form of sharing her experience. Korey wants to change the world and one way she is doing that is by volunteering for The UnPrison . Read Korey’s full bio.