Retirement landed me behind bars — actually, prison bars.
My beginnings were humble. As a young girl, I suffered father abuse in a world that had no idea it was happening or didn’t care. But my life was one of courage and empathy that emerged from a risky and troubled childhood. A childhood that inspired a desperate need to connect with others — especially the disenfranchised — and to help them. When I became a motivational speaker in the prison system, my aspiration was to touch hearts and grow minds. Remarkably, as I spoke, they listened.
In prison, I saw badass narcissism morph into care… and then kindness.
My role was to educate the weary, read to the illiterate and stop the bleeding. This work exposed the raw emotions of those who suffer. These emotions rewired my soul as I heard about high crimes in low places. Their gratitude encouraged me to work harder and to do more. There is a mystical, unpolished gift in these budding prison friendships.
But what about success, you ask?
These are my success markers. He unburdens a dark moment. She has an awakening. He shows concern for my welfare. My God, those moments are exhilarating.
Woven into The Prison Lady is an invitation to gain cognitive insight with an opportunity for enlightenment and change. If you are looking to be entertained and moved in the same moment, read my book.
As a young girl I survived physical abuse in a basement lockup. A hellish and harsh childhood generated a desperate need in me to help the weak and teach the disenfranchised. Especially the disenfranchised.
After years of teaching Toronto’s finest (lawyers that is) my glorious career was crushed into a single cardboard box and, in a devastating walk of shame, 30 years of identity and pride ended in a painful yet predictable termination.
Just days later, I found myself attending Oprah’s Lifeclass in Toronto. Fascinating, were six women from a penitentiary in Indiana who were Skyped onto Oprah’s stage. I call them the Six Pack.
We were comfortably seated when Oprah began the guest speaker introductions. But I was only interested in her special guests: the six ladies who were doing time at the women’s prison in Indiana.
These inspiring women touched my heart in a way that I can only describe as an awakening. They were entirely captivated by the notable speakers, and I was captivated by them. These gals were close to the door, which means that they would soon complete their prison sentences and be faced with new and greater challenges. After serving many years inside, navigating freedom takes formidable effort.
For The Six Pack, or anyone leaving prison, life is extraordinarily difficult. Parole carries heavy restrictions and securing employment with a prison record is immensely challenging, often impossible. Many prisoners report that they are frightened when leaving prison. Often inmates are released into a different world than the one they left.
For inmates serving longer sentences, it’s common to arrive home only to find that family and friends have either moved on or passed away. A limited support system creates even greater challenges when transitioning back into society, especially if one only knows the mindset that put them behind bars. Many suffer from the guilt and shame of their crimes and often experience a homecoming of hopelessness.
The obstacles that parolees face on release are weightier than the strengths they acquire in prison. Rehabilitation in prison is sadly inadequate as is food, education and professional help for those suffering mental health issues. Accordingly, inmates arrested as minors and have served lengthy sentences, leave prison with limited life experience. When they’re released, the simple tasks that we take for granted are often unattainable. The result is constant fear and high anxiety.
Tony Robbins was the first to speak, but I confess that my attention was fixated on The Six Pack. With each speaker, I studied the women’s facial expressions, body language and level of enthusiasm. From time to time, a speaker would respectfully interact with the ladies. They were fully engaged, transparently sharing their own personal stories and eager to heal. There was no doubt that they were hopeful, planning for a better tomorrow and grateful to be a part of Oprah’s Lifeclass.
And so was I.
Spellbound by the women’s storytelling, my heart felt heavy and light at the same time. I had never been so altogether moved. It was both a gift and a blessing. It was divine and it was by design. I wanted to speak with them, reach out to them, hug them but, most of all, I wanted to help them.
Bishop TD Jakes was the final speaker. Once he took the stage, I began to relax into his presentation and absorb his lesson on gratitude. As philosophy and mind-body healing came together in his remarks, my mood was euphoric. It felt as if Bishop Jakes was speaking directly to me. Neurons were firing off in my brain as I sat there in awe of his teachings.
The Bishop ended with: “Others can inspire you, but ultimately the only thing that empowers you is what lies within and learning how to better utilize what you’ve been given.”
I monitored The Six Pack intently for their reaction. Several of the women lit up with what seemed to be some sort of emergent light. I understood that along with six inspired women, my restorative soul had taking root. It was clear that this moment was pivotal and that it was permanently altering my psyche. A desperate but somehow hopeful group of women from a prison in Indiana had opened my heart and redirected my future. Forever.
Suddenly, involuntarily, I slapped my knee and sprung from my seat.
It was a eureka moment.
“Holy eff, that’s what I’ll do with my life!”
Hurray for Oprah, hurray for Bishop TD Jakes and The Six Pack! Phyllis is coming to prison.
Once my sudden unexpected call to action became a vow, I set out to work my way through the prison system as a motivational speaker and life coach with the force of only a vivid imagination and sound determination. When Karma unlocked the prison gates, a path to healing presented not only for the children of a dangerous god, but for me.
The universe had a plan.
Often forbidden and forgotten, prisoners are a unique blend of humanity. They emanate from the darkest creases of societal shame. But their lives touched me in a way that pushes through fear and rests firmly on courage… or what some call risky behaviour.
Have you heard of Tikkun Olam? It’s a Yiddish phrase that means repair the world. And that’s what I set out to do. A bit of a challenge, I thought. But hey, obstacles are merely challenges we overcome to get the job done.
I spent a decade working in the prison system.
Years came and years went but they never had decisive markers. Like many of you, I rode the merry-go-round while the years melted together, undefined and undocumented.
Some would say, “Write a book.”
And I would say, “I choose not.”
Until 2020. In March of 2020, the entire universe became a screwy sci-fi flick. In domino fashion, countries around the world were advised to shelter in place. Illness. Death. Loss. Life sucked and hearts ached.
COVID-19 forced us to think and reflect, so I put down my makeup and picked up my pen. In The Prison Lady, I bring you the best of me at the worst of times, with the bold authentic flavour that I value in others. My story ensues with what has been called a masterful telling of love, death, friendship and fear. It’s intensely personal. My prison relationships are intimate – these people matter to me.
The passion that I developed for prison inmates heals my flaws and deepens my humanity. The stories and lessons in The Prison Lady are not an accident. They are meant to awaken the soul and gently poke one’s forward-thinking device. My goal was to enlighten, entertain, and provide readers with a better understanding of prison life. And of prisoners.
My story is a blend of the highlights and lowlights that have threaded my life and a decade of prisoners who have touched my soul. My personal and intimate stories intersect with inspirations that promote healing, provide hope and suggest intentional change.
I believe the Universe has a plan. If we partner with it, a strong sense of accountability and control over outcome soon become apparent.
It is said that bad things happen to good people, but we are not victims unless we see ourselves as such. Our job therefore is to mitigate the bad and elevate the good. For ultimate fulfilment, not only must we have a desire to survive but a passion that compels us to thrive.
Ah, but how to do life when some ingredients are weak and some are missing? That’s exactly what this journey is about. We must discover the precious bits within and nurture the broken parts.
We make a promise to ourselves. Map the journey that puts growth on a continuum. Recognize that weakness lives in all mankind. And that how we deal with the flaws of others, how we regard others and what we do when no one’s looking is the key to a peaceful mind.
This oath involves striving for excellence by nurturing our inadequacies. I have only begun to recognize that my strength is also my weakness. Accepting weakness in ourselves and others is more than a virtue, it’s fundamental to life and to love.
Comfort the weakness of others by taking their failings and frailties into consideration. Incorporate this into your thoughts, your words and your actions. And then, enjoy a tender heart as you project your authenticity through words of wisdom.
The best thing you can do for yourself is help others.
Yes, the universe will serve up pain, but it will also serve up joy. Pain is everywhere, but joy is often found in simple things and thoughts that feel warm. The way we choose to look at a situation is the way we shall see it. Stretch out and allow yourself to see both the good and the potential for goodness.
The commitments we make today must drive tomorrow’s behaviour.
Remember that life is a series of choices that create our story. You are the only one who can tap in and turn on the wonders within. Look deep inside as you transform fear into freedom and scarcity into abundance. As you find your passion, you’ll find your joy. Because fulfilling one’s passion is what duly fortifies the flow of happiness, that precious reservoir of strength.
And now I end where I began, with tremendous humility and appreciation for those who have validated me, inspired me to do this and do more, and who have allowed me to write a book simply because they were there. These folks encouraged me to find my voice and put it out there with the collection of those who care.