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Clarissa Burt Headshot

Sue Ellen Allen's Prison Revolution

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FRED TANNEAU / AFP
FRED TANNEAU / AFP

Not many people get the chance to walk in and out of prison for just one day. Dolores Seright, Cici Berardi and I were given the opportunity to visit Perryville Correctional Facility in Goodyear, Ariz., to do just that. We had the great fortune to speak to a carefully selected group of 125 female inmates who had earned the right, through good behavior, to listen to us speak. As prisons go, I found that Perryville is very meticulously designed and guarded to invoke the feeling that one is cut off completely from civilization. I have only felt that cut off from society once before, during my stint on Italian Survivor for nine weeks on an island off Nicaragua, and I had known from the beginning of that game that I would return safely to my comfortable life. For those who are sentenced to a term in Perryville Women's Correctional Facility, however, their surroundings are not part of a game, but of a brutal reality.

Reality for those in prison is vastly different from the version the rest of the world sees. The inmate's transition from the harsh prison life back into society can be extremely difficult. Even once prisoners have repaid their debt, they feel as if they can never truly leave their prison time behind in order to lead a better life. In addition, the world tends to categorize prisoners, released or not, as criminals. This unbecoming view cast upon prisoners is entirely incorrect. Mistakes and unfortunate circumstances, including a stay in prison, do not define who you are now or what you will do in the future. Sue Ellen Allen, author of Slumber Party From Hell, is a living testament to this principle.

Mrs. Allen is an ex-felon who entered prison while in stage-three breast cancer and came out ready to move mountains. She pressed on to become an advocate for people in rough circumstances under the organization titled, "Gina's Team." This group is named after Sue Ellen's inmate, Gina, who died at age 25 as a result of untreated myeloid leukemia. Gina entered prison after stealing $3,000 worth of goods from an abandoned store accompanied by her boyfriend. She was sentenced to three and a half years in prison in order to pay her debt back to society, but her time in prison cost Gina so much more.

Gina experienced intense pains, bleeding, and weight loss before prison doctors even bothered to take her to the hospital. When Gina's blood was finally tested, it was too late. Her white blood cell count was 300,000 and her red blood count was zero. Sue Ellen refused to let Gina's untimely death be the end of her story. Mrs. Allen responded by being bold enough to organize a cancer walk from the inside of prison. The obvious success of her cancer walk caused Sue Ellen Allen to realize that making positive changes inside prison is not impossible.

Soon after her cancer walk, Sue Ellen teamed up with Gina's parents to research incarceration rates, causes of incarceration, and steps they could take to improve life for inmates. After hard research and hours of planning in 2009, "Gina's Team" was born. Their philosophy is "Education, not incarceration, is the cheapest form of crime prevention." Some of their biggest achievements include recruiting Misty Hyman, Olympic gold-medalist, and Martha Mertz, founder of ATHENA International, to offer classes in prison. Sue Ellen and her allies at Gina's Team have revolutionized the paradigm for prison inmates.

Thanks to Sue Ellen's unyielding determination, Gina lives through the lives of those who are touched by the efforts of "Gina's Team." Mrs. Allen's motto, "Been there, done that: Now, how can I help?," has fueled a transformation inside the prison where Gina died, inside of herself, and in the lives of anyone who will allow Gina's memory to change their life.

By Clarissa Burt with Brooke Smith