Tara actively maintains contact with CGTC adjunct instructor, Woodrow Whipple, who teaches at Pulaski State Prison. The GDC named Whipple its 2017 Vocational Instructor of the Year last summer, in large part due to his more than 20 years of service to incarcerated citizens.
During his nomination period, Whipple told the College he felt like he didn’t do a whole lot to deserve the recognition, saying he just opens a door for them to walk through, a statement Tara disagreed with.
“All along the way he said he just opens the door, but I say all the time that he built the door,” she said. “He literally gives us as much room as we need, as much encouragement as we need, and as much as we can handle.”
Tara said she remembered her inmate number, but in recalling it, also said she was never referred to it by Whipple in his classroom.
“I was never a number,” she said.
It was those little distinctions that were “huge,” as she put it. Her expectation of what prison would be like never included this level of instruction, kindness, or grace. But on the inside, she realized nothing was owed to her, kindness wasn’t a guarantee, but that having experienced it, she is grateful.
She wrote a letter to Whipple a while back, and in it thanked him for igniting a passion, guiding her practice of it, and most of all, treating her as a person even when she found that hard to come by.
“I belonged to everybody but myself,” she said speaking to the type of person she was that led her to prison. “I spent all my time doing everything for everybody else. I spent so much time drawing attention to myself for what I was doing to others, that I ended up with my charges.”
What started out as a family and children services case turned criminal. The state of Georgia charged her with cruelty to children related to in-home healthcare treatment of her daughter, as an IV became infected under her care. She entered a no contest plea and served nearly seven years of an eight-year sentence.
The severity of the crime nor the longevity of the sentence has necessarily been a stipulation to whether or not an incarcerated citizen can take part in re-entry programs, courses, or on-the-job training (OJT). Take for instance, Ladji Ruffin, a formerly incarcerated citizen who served 20 years for killing his mother, was released in 2016. The Macon Telegraph told the story of how the Library of Congress certified him in braille transcription, a service provided at Central State Prison. His work as a braille transcriptionist, along with that of “murderers, sex-offenders and other criminals, and former cops” as the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported in November 2017, shows what an incarcerated citizen can become if given an opportunity, and even how it saves the state money.
If it sounds complex, there is a reason.
The path to re-entry is often cluttered; an arduous trek filled with flora in decay, twisted vines of guilt, boulders of regret, and canopies of shame that blotch even the brightest light. Each obstacle impedes the way up to a sustainable life, a meaningful career. Rightly so, none of these citizens, including Tara, expected to climb the mountain of re-entry without properly learning to navigate its terrain. The ground may be uneven, but the punishment of the climb is just.
In the case of Tara, she committed a crime for which her conviction and sentencing put her at a starting base well below the rare air of success. But, if these tax-payer funded educational opportunities, and the investment made into their lives by professional instructors, coupled with the guidance she and others received in this transition are designed to work, heal, and make-whole, then by nature, re-entry is less of a return expedition and much more of a first ascent, never-before-seen, pioneering expedition into life’s long excursion.
Re-entry is not a comeback to the same-old situation, it is an un-chartered discovery of self-efficacy.
What good can reasonably be expected of a citizen to mentally prepare for, actively return to, and simply make-do in a life that afforded nothing more than self-gratification, loss, pain and a landslide of deep and dark feelings?
As such, it’s not rare that while incarcerated, Tara and others walked daily through a fog of ineptitude, one that creeps up from valleys and low places, treacherous even, so dense that it feels as if they had to take two steps backward to take one step forward. On the inside, it sounds like self-doubt and fear, but out here, deep in re-entry, it feels like progress.