Free Woman

What is freedom and where can it be found? At Arise Collective, we have the privilege of walking alongside women who are saying “yes” to claiming freedom … now. Freedom that transcends prison. Freedom that all too often has been lost outside its walls and therefore is all the more precious, once found.

In the Spring of 2018, Arise Collective featured a new series entitled Free Woman. We invite you to peruse the entire campaign by clicking on a story link below and celebrate freedom with inspiring women, as well as learn more about the issues of incarceration and reentry. 

We look forward to taking this journey with you. In the meantime, we hope that you will stop for a moment – right now – and consider what it means to be free.

I’m part of a group of women on the outside who served significant time in prison, over five years. We like to encourage anyone who has been incarcerated that you still have a connection that you can call. In believing in each other and sharing with each other, we can support one another because we know that none of us is trying to go back to prison. You can’t help somebody else if you’re not together yourself. We became our own little circle and we support women who are coming after us. We have a network on Facebook, and if we see something we don’t like that would jeopardize our freedom, we’ll unfriend you. I know that I will, because nobody…nobody is going to take my freedom.

Freedom doesn’t mean branching out on your own before you’re ready. Sometimes it means narrowing down, pulling back. It will come. Keep your relationships. If your family or trusted friends have gotten on your case about doing something, maybe they saw something that you can’t see right now. That’s all a part of growing into accepting your freedom. Sometimes you think you got it all together, but you don’t. Mary told me that, and I tell it to others because this was my experience when I was younger. I was trying to be that tulip that comes out early in the spring, trying to do too much too soon, before I was ready, when winter was still holding on. Be patient. There’s a freedom in that, too.

Freedom now is that when my gut says speak, I speak. I want to be like the older ladies at my church. They are able to say anything that is on their minds. I love that. When I’m invited now to speak and am asked to talk about what I’ve done, I tell people that I want to say more than just what I’ve done. I am going to talk about what transition is and what my sisters need.

I’m always growing, always looking for the next chapter. I wouldn’t have listened to any of this when I was younger. I couldn’t have heard it then. I was going to do my own thing, be my own person. Now I don’t let anyone dictate to where I should be or who I should be. I have redeveloped the inside of me. My Creator has been chipping away all the stuff I was putting in place to mold me to the direction He wants to take me. It is not for me to know where that is, just to trust and follow. It is faith. Having the true faith base of being spiritually grounded. That’s the part that I thank IPMW for in supporting Chaplaincy and JobStart. That is the ultimate freedom.

Lu significantly participated in Chaplaincy services within the prison and was a member of the Choir and Dance Team. She was a part of JobStart 30 and received her Certificate in Theological Studies from Duke Divinity School through Project TURN in 2017. She was a featured songwriter in the Conviction concert series and received mentoring as a resident of Redirection Home, Inc. She is proud to be a registered voter. Lu works full-time and speaks locally and is an active member of SSCC. In her free time she enjoys LIFE.

My journey to true freedom began in 2011 when I arrived at the Raleigh Unit of North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women. I had already served 20 years of a life sentence, and I was excited to be at a minimum custody camp. I immediately went to the Hope Center and became active in anything I thought would help me understand where I was, how I had gotten there, who I was, where was I going, and most of all whose I was. Through the joint effort of the prison and IPMW, many programs were brought in, and fantastic chaplains were there to guide me in the direction God had for me. I began to grow and walk toward freedom.

I began this journey to freedom before I knew that I would ever physically get out of prison. While parole was a possibility, it was not a guarantee. I had to learn to find my freedom while I was still incarcerated. I gained freedom from domestic violence, unforgiveness of myself and others, and much more. The biggest growth and the hardest leg of the journey was when I began taking classes offered through a joint initiative called Project Turn. This is a program offered by Duke Divinity School to give incarcerated women a chance to grow spiritually. It was the hardest and most rewarding thing I have done. Not only was I able to answer the questions I had asked in 2011, but I learned much, much more. During these classes, I learned who God is and who He wanted me to be. I learned that even though I was in prison with a life sentence, He had a plan for my life, and He would fulfill that plan even if it meant never reaching the “free world” again. I learned about the images that are used in the Bible to depict God, and that while they may seem minor, they can provide the comfort He desires us to have. But some of the most important things I learned were about me. These classes gave me the insight to realize that I am worthy of respect, I have a voice, and I have something valuable to say.

Today I can say that I am free from myself and the past. I am free to make my own decisions and to control who comes and goes in my life. I am finally free to say NO. I am also free from believing that I am stupid. I am free to be the intelligent and competent woman of God that I was always meant to be.

And, I am finally free from prison, too!

Through programs offered at the Hope Center, chaplains, and IPMW, I had the courage to walk out of the gates of NCCIW when I was paroled in December of 2018 to face the unknown. After serving twenty seven years in prison, I can now walk out the door and go where I want because I am assured of God’s presence in my life. The future is still unknown, but I know who I am and whose I am. Thank you God, IPMW, Duke Divinity, and the chaplains at the Hope Center in Raleigh!

June 22nd will always be a special day to me.

One day I realized I had enough. I was lonely, depressed, in an unhealthy marriage and living in addiction. I lost my children and was viewed as an awful person due to the choices I made while in my addiction.

On June 17, 2016, I cried out to God “I can’t do this anymore”. I wasn’t suicidal or anything, but I knew living the way I was was no longer an option. Five days later on June 21st, I was arrested. I was so heavy that when I realized what was happening I was like “sigh” finally. A weight was lifted off of me. Not only did I no longer have to worry about how I would support my addiction, June 22, 2016 was my first day clean.

Then, on June 22, 2018, I was released from prison. Even though I was finally physically free from the prison walls, I realized my freedom came before that day. I noticed myself free when I realized my perspective changed. I was no longer judgmental, and I saw the blessings I was receiving. I saw that I could reach out to others and ask for help. I learned I didn’t have to do life on my own.

June 22, 2019 I will be off parole, officially free from the criminal justice system.

Overall, I discovered freedom in my life experiences. Now I am free to live life and be the person God has created me to be. I am free to have the desires of my heart!

Because I can now say I am free, I want to help other women experience freedom too. I have been through a lot in my life. Not only substance use and incarceration. There isn’t much I can’t relate to. If I can encourage one woman to walk in her own freedom I would encourage her by saying:

We are fighters and we have to fight for the things we want. The fight will be hard sometimes, but the reward will be well worth it. Don’t fear, don’t allow shame to grip you, and accept help when offered.

Freedom is….
A moment to exhale
No worries

​Freedom to me is knowing I am NOT going back to that life.
Freedom is peace. That’s what it is!

Have you ever been so desperate for love…to have somebody love you…that you would be willing to do the unspeakable, to take something from somebody that only God has a right to take?

I am 41 years old and for 38 years of my life, I didn’t love myself. My parents divorced and remarried when I was very young and started new families. I found it very hard to fit in and I started trying to get attention in negative ways. Wanting so desperately to have that acceptance led me to men, being very promiscuous, and giving away so freely something that should have been a gift, just to have that false sense of that acceptance and love.

I’m not saying that was the reason for my actions later in life because I was older, and I knew what I was doing. In my mind and heart, I thought the only option for a man to love me and to see me was to do something drastic. I made a choice of hurting somebody, and that desperation led me to prison. Not to sound like a cliche, but prison is where God cleaned me up and turned me around.

Freedom to me is not being bound to somebody else’s acceptance and approval of me. It is being able to love myself. I first remember feeling free when I was in the JobStart program. I remember Dr. Noell talking about all the garbage we carry along inside of us, and sooner or later we had to let it go because it was poisoning us. It hadn’t occurred to me until then that I was holding on to all those past hurts, things that had happened to me and that I had done. Once I knew where I was supposed to go for love, I was able to let go and love myself. That was the biggest relief and biggest freedom I’d ever felt in my life.

In JobStart Fridays, I was asked to write a letter to my victim. When Amy (Otto) asked us to do that assignment, I was skeptical, but she said that it was important, because if you never have the chance to see that person, you’re at least taking it out of you and laying it down as a record. Being able to write “I’m sorry” and feel that it was actually being said to her was freeing, and it did bring some kind of closure. I still have a tremendous amount of remorse for what I’ve done, though, and pray that one day, I have an opportunity to apologize to the woman I hurt and let her know that she in no way was responsible for anything that happened. I think this is an important part of my healing process…to make amends as much as I am able.

Freedom was in my very first way of voicing my love to God – through dance. I was finally able to use my body in a way to bring Glory to God, for what He designed it to be used for. I thank Chaplain Jobe for her faith in me and giving me that start. I also got into photography in the prison. I was in the Service Club and took a photo of a woman who, when she saw it, said, “Jean, I’ve never looked at a picture of myself and thought it was beautiful. You gave that to me.” Just seeing that on her face jump started my passion for photography. Who said nothing good could come out of incarceration?

Learning to love myself, actually looking at myself and discovering who I was and what I had to offer people, I guess I blossomed. I wanted new and different things. I looked forward to having true friends, and if you’d told me 5 years ago that I’d be working at a church, I would have laughed at you. But that’s where God put me, and that’s where He’s using me. Every day I get to go to work and meet genuine people and I love going to work and serving those people. They are my friends. They are my family. I think I bring a little bit of excitement and joy to their lives, too.

Right before I came home from prison, my Mom reached out to me, and said how excited she was about my upcoming release. I haven’t seen my mother in 19 years. Now we have reconnected, which has taken a lot of trust on both of our parts. I thank God for the chance to know her all over again. I’m learning about my siblings and hope that one day soon I’ll be able to go to visit with all of them. At one point, I wrapped my existence around being there for my children. My relationship with my stepchildren has been a blessing, and I pray for the day that my daughter reaches out to me, and when my two youngest children are old enough to make that decision for themselves.

Freedom to me is just taking every day as a gift and making the most out of it. Living it to my fullest potential. Community is very important to me, and I believe that a lot of my success is because of the community I have in my life. I have mentors, friends, instructors, organizations – they’ve all been instrumental in easing the transition and helping me stay focused on setting my goals and achieving my dreams. They hold me accountable. When you’re incarcerated for all those years – or even a little time – when you have that sense of freedom, you need someone to hold you back a little, so you don’t go absolutely crazy with it.

Five years ago, if you would’ve asked me what freedom means to me, I would’ve said, “Staying out of prison.” At that time I didn’t realize freedom was spiritual. I didn’t see being enslaved to low self-esteem, drugs, unforgiveness and distorted thoughts as not being free.

In 2014, while watching my mother pass away, I saw myself succumbing to the life I was living. I was in an unhealthy relationship for 20 years, settling for physical and mental abuse. I had a very expensive drug habit, and I didn’t believe I could get clean on my own so I never tried. I owed a lot of money and I committed crimes to sustain my habit. I isolated myself because of the shame of who I was and what I was doing. At that time, I thought I was on the road to destruction … but I was destruction.

Freedom didn’t happen for me all at once. Now, as I look back I can see God was gracefully breaking me the whole time I was in prison. During my incarceration, my 6-week old grandson passed away. I was hurt because I didn’t get approved to attend his service. When that happened, I realized something had to change. I wanted to do something different … to live a normal life. I wanted to work honestly, help my kids with homework, not commit crimes.

I started connecting more spiritually, surrounding myself with different people and thinking differently. Freedom came as a process of correction and healing. God would show me areas that I was bound and He sent people in my life to help me overcome it. He also removed people from my life and showed me how to depend on Him more. At that time, it hurt but I didn’t realize it was beneficial.

One day, a friend told me about the JobStart Program and encouraged me to apply. I had already been transferred to several facilities during my incarceration and I didn’t want to move to another facility. I was comfortable where I was but God spoke to me. I applied and I was accepted, however I got denied the transfer I needed to attend the classes. I don’t remember what happened, but I got back on the list and was accepted a second time and approved to transfer. I took advantage of all the program offered, the mentors, instructions, workbooks, workshops and networking. All of it.

On one of our trips in JobStart I realized going back home wasn’t the right choice. I had been thinking about it. I wondered, “Can I really go home and not do drugs?” “Can I go home and live the new life I want to live?” My mind said I could, but my heart knew I couldn’t. I hated change but I knew this change was good even though it was scary. Making the choice to stay in Raleigh, I knew I was free.

I asked God to open a door for me if I was meant to stay and He did. My friend Jean gave me an application for a transition home randomly. She didn’t even know I was thinking of staying in Raleigh. Next thing I knew, I was being connected to different people and the pieces were all coming together. My decision to stay was affecting my whole family. They had to take care of my children and grandchildren, but they trusted the process and supported me through it. When it came time to go to a transition house, I didn’t want to go. I cried. I wanted to be comfortable, but I knew I wanted to live a better life. That’s when I knew I was changed.

For so long I struggled with unforgiveness. I didn’t forgive myself for the way I treated people and my community. Especially my children. I wasn’t there for them. While in JobStart I had the opportunity to receive constructive criticism from my classmates. That’s when I had a chance to cry out and release what I felt about myself. The more I began to see myself according to how God created me to be I began to let the unforgiveness and shame go.

Now, when you ask what freedom means to me I can say freedom means being at peace. It means learning to embrace your struggles. Learning that they are an opportunity to grow and help someone else. It means living a life of purpose and intention. It means being able to forgive yourself.

Today, I am free to dream and have the courage to carry it out. I am free to take healthy risks and live a life of abundance. A normal life of integrity and dependence on God. I am free to be a great mother, friend, and servant to the community. Now I am free to share my past and not be bound by shame or the fear of people judging me.

If I could go back in time I’d tell my 13 year old Teresa it’s ok to cry out for help. Don’t try to grow up too fast and don’t allow shame and pride to hinder you from living. Stay humble, be obedient and love yourself.