My favorite of my 7 books is the perfect little fantasy novel called “Selah of the Summit.” I poured my own true life experiences into that book but made it look like fiction. A lot of the details were added fantasy elements from my imagination, but the basic tale was true. Writing fiction is much easier than writing a nonfiction, reveal-all book with my name as the main character and the awful viewpoint “I.” Victims of abuse often find it easier to distance themselves from the abused person they are by creating another persona and objectively telling their story (like a drama or puppet show they can control) as if it happened to someone else. So “Selah” tells my story of being an abused wife and survivor of other traumas, set into the deliverance tale of a desert slave girl who is freed from her castle-like prison and led to the mountains. I even made the San Bernardino Mountains (where I lived for years) the setting for that journey.
Now I’m writing “Selah 2.” I call it “Selah of the Desert.” It shows my more recent history and adventures. For over 9 months I taught full-time inside a California High Desert prison for male felons. The hours were long and difficult, security was crucial, and I (as well as prisoners) was always closely watched. I never expected to find something valuable there (or, more precisely, someone)—until love slipped between the prison bars.
I was miserable, sad, and lonely after the break-up of my marriage to a Turk. I was stranded in the desert, not adventuring overseas, and very few family or friends knew that I existed (except thousands of people on social media—but they were not exactly real). Christmas approached. I wasn’t invited anywhere except to the Geo Company Christmas party (one night) and church (where I was new and not a member of a special group). I kept catching viruses from the inmates and struggled through long days inside the prison sneezing and blowing my nose, always holding a tissue in one hand. I had one friend to meet at Starbucks, but later that fell through. I gave everyone who worked at the prison hand-signed Christmas cards, fancy ones I bought at Costco. The last thing I expected was a sweet Christmas card from one of my inmate students.
Now that I’ve filled you in with real-life details, read “Selah of the Desert” to see how all this happened. The story continues as I write each chapter. For the first time in my life, the Fantasy Realm mirrors the Real World—almost exactly—in my story.
If you’d rather read my story in less fantasy and more reality, here it is:
Love Slipped Between the Prison Bars
For over 9 months I taught the GED (high school) course full-time inside a California High Desert prison for male felons. It was a “Special Needs Yard” for sex offenders, ex gang members, and ex cops who couldn’t be in the “General Population.” The hours were long and difficult, security was crucial, and I (as well as prisoners) was always closely watched. I never expected to find something valuable there (or, more precisely, someone)—until love slipped between the prison bars.
I was miserable, sad, and lonely after the break-up of my marriage to a Turk (As an English professor, I had taught 5 years in Russia, Turkey, and China). I was stranded in the desert, and very few family or friends remembered that I existed. I had thousands of followers on social media—but they did not seem exactly real. Christmas approached, a bad time for me since my father died on Christmas when I was little, and I lost my mother and only brother not long after. I wasn’t invited anywhere except to the prison employees’ Christmas party and church (where I was new and not a yet a member of a small group). I kept catching viruses from the inmates and struggled through long days inside the prison sneezing and blowing my nose, always holding a tissue in one hand. I had one friend to meet at Starbucks for coffee and a real-life chat, but she was busy with her own family and job. I gave everyone who worked at the prison hand-signed Christmas cards, fancy ones I bought at Costco, with velvet and gold foil along the edges. The last thing I expected was a sweet Christmas card from one of my inmate students.
De Leon (not his real name) slipped the old-fashioned card to me, covered by lined writing paper on which he wrote the words “Keep Safe.” He was new and sat up front near my desk. I raised my eyes in surprise and looked at him, and we both smiled.
So began our 2-month secret love affair inside a prison. We saw each other every work day, slipping notes to each other between pieces of paper, exchanging clandestine smiles. We sometimes found time alone in the classroom after all the other students left. We talked about our shared Christian beliefs, our lives, our hopes, our love. We planned to be together (even marry) after his five-year remaining prison sentence finished. He had already served 13 years for a gang-related crime that was not murder. It seemed like such a long sentence—that now would be far less in California.
I was an English teacher, not a Corrections Officer, and working inside a prison was not my Dream Job. I knew we would be caught, and I would lose my job for “familiarity with an inmate” and for exchanging letters (and if they knew we had managed to hold hands briefly, that really would have made my bosses angry). We broke Company Policy but no state or federal law. Prisoners are allowed visitors and to send and receive letters. We exchanged no contraband except paper, never passed money or drugs, never planned a prison escape. We never even hugged or kissed. My classroom had 3 big windows that opened to the main corridor where 2 Correctional Officers were supposed to always walk and keep guard.
Our last afternoon together was the day before Valentine’s Day. De Leon gave me 2 hand-written letters, and I sang “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” to him. My boss walked in just after I finished, and I knew he suspected us. As I left that afternoon, I saw him in Central Control, watching videos of the hall outside my classroom (the classroom inside camera was not working).
On Valentine’s Day, my boss caught me sitting at my desk when I should have signed out and gone home. I was reading De Leon’s last 2 letters, a smile on my face. Mr. Finch had been standing behind me, outside the window, watching. I knew he liked to do that, and I was intimidated by his behavior. He was smiling as he entered the room and asked,
“What are you doing?”
“Reading letters,” I replied.
“From my daughter,” I tried to lie.
My boss knew better.
“Show them to me,” he said.
I got up from my desk and walked out to the hallway, knowing it was futile to ignore him, knowing that anyone inside those prison walls relinquished their rights to privacy when they entered the many barred gates. My body, my bag, even my car in the parking lot could—at any time—be searched.
Still, I tried to ignore him. He kept following me down the main corridor.
“Give them to me,” he demanded again.
I stopped, turned around, and handed him the 2 handwritten letters. Inside the prison, no one could have a mobile phone or personal computer. We all became good at the old-style way of writing with a pen on paper.
He stood still in the middle of the hallway, reading. I wished I could be invisible. Then he walked to the Captain’s Office and told me to wait outside. Through the barred windows I could see him hand the letters to the Captain who read them slowly as she sat at her desk. She looked up with a sad and disappointed expression on her wide face, and then she handed them to the Assistant Warden (A.W.) who had been meeting with her. His back was to me, so all I could see was his well-combed black hair and elegant dark suit. I knew my job and reputation in the Company were forever changed.
It has been over 2 months since I was fired from the prison. Geo Group International, the private prison company that runs that Special Needs Yard, has not let me visit De Leon even once, though I filled out the necessary papers and was approved. I’ve called the A.W. many times, and he has not returned my call. For many weeks they punished De Leon with solitary confinement in “The Hole” and no access to a phone to call me. They moved him to 3 different dormitory rooms. At least they let him write me hand-drawn, colored cards and letters, and they give him the letters, photos, and books I sent him, after they read them and held them for awhile.
De Leon and I have recently been able, finally, to speak to each other on the phone, but still I cannot visit him, which violates his rights. I have written to and called the new California Governor, Gavin Newsom. I’ve asked for a face-to-face appointment. I am hoping to meet with him and for him to let De Leon out of prison sooner than 5 years. We are still waiting to have one visit with each other. According to the prison visitation rules, we could even hug and kiss each other twice—before and after our timed, watched visit. I have told only one of my friends about this. In my small family, only my young adult daughter Jessica knows. She said it was romantic, and maybe we could have a prison wedding. I told her that, in a perfect world, we could.
You can also read “What I Learned in Prison.”