Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Feb 20

Shannon spent most of seven years as an inmate at Mission Creek Correction Center, from the age of 30 to 37. For the last three years, since her release, she has returned to Mission Creek with Pat Graney and the “Keeping the Faith” dance project, to help her friends. (I mention Mission Creek and “Keeping the Faith” in an earlier blog post on February 7.)

I asked Shannon to have coffee and tell me her story. I admire her strength. I was surprised in three ways by our conversation: the profound suffering she endured as a child, the sense of fragility she has about her new life, and the depth of compassion that drives her to help other women like her.

Like many women now in prison, Shannon was sexually abused as a child. In her case the abuse occurred between the ages of 3 and 7, perpetrated by a family friend. She was introduced to drugs by her family at the age of 9. Her father used drugs to sexually abuse her when she was a teen. She was a cutter, engaged in suicidal behaviors, was hospitalized. She became an IV drug user at 26, when she also entered an abusive relationship with her girlfriend. Her long history is dominated by stealing and drug dealing to support a drug habit.

About her current life, working with Pat, Shannon says she stumbled upon success, “Nobody wants to succeed when you’ve always failed. It’s scary as hell.” Shannon talked to me with her hands sweating. She says it’s a fight every day. A slip up last Christmas, drinking with an old friend, reminded her that she’s 48 hours away from returning to her former life. Shannon rejected her old friend. That friend did return to the former life, abandoning a young child in the process.

When I asked Shannon what had changed for her, she pointed to writing and dance with Pat Graney, but mostly to simple things – the passage of time, the wish not to return to prison, the desire to survive. The biggest difference in Shannon’s life now is that she has a whole new set of relationships, where caring doesn’t mean being partners in self-destruction.

Like many survivors of abuse, Shannon has deep compassion for others. Making a difference for them is an essential part of healing. Inside Mission Creek today, facilitating writing and dance, Shannon does not think about herself, her own struggles. She is also very uncomfortable with her own accomplishments. Instead, Shannon is often close to tears, dealing with the inmates’ suffering and hoping for a better life for her old friends.