The Road to Chowchilla
Road 22 is the road that leads in and out of the Chowchilla women’s prison in Chowchilla, California.
Originally, my vision was to sew our garments within the prison walls to ensure that when the women were released, they would have the money to start their lives. There are over 1 million women that are currently incarcerated, 64.1% are there for nonviolent crimes and 80% are Moms. Those stats horrify me.
As I dug in and did my research, I learned that employment within prison walls wasn’t really an option. If we used the services within the system, the women would earn on average 50 cents/hour after their fines, commissary account, state fees, etc. were paid off. In addition, the prison sewing operations prefer to hire women who are serving long sentences (primarily life), where the funds really won’t help, since they are not getting out. If we set up our own business within the prison walls and ran it with our own supervising team, the rules, bureaucracy, and inflexibility of the system would make it difficult for a startup. As a result, I decided that it was best to provide opportunities for the formerly incarcerated women upon their release, when they would emerge from prison with less than $200 in their pockets.
The Central California Women’s Facility, in Chowchilla, California
Regardless, I visited the prison twice and each time was moved deeply. Each time, the security clearance to walk through the gates was overwhelming and tedious. After usually an hour, we would get into a cramped car to drive less then half a mile to the sewing operations. As we walked into the sewing facility, the calm and controlled environment was eerie. Everyone is methodically doing their jobs—the same jobs some of them have done for years. Every one looks just like you and me. Everyone is calmly just working through another day… a lot of older women … a lot of minorities…. a lot of women who have given up hope.
In one of the rooms, I was drawn to a young Hispanic woman with soft eyes and a deep smile. I learned that she was serving a 27-year term and was tried as an adult for a crime she committed the day she turned 19. She had grown up in the only life she knew. She was a former gang member, and that one crime had changed her life forever. Her eyes shone as she told me how her family visits had trickled down to once every few years. She was forgotten. She was rationalizing that a long commute and life changes were the reasons for her family’s absence. There were others with similar stories: kids who grew up in poverty and abuse and were unable to break the cycle.
As I walked around, I thought about life’s opportunities and how it’s so easy to dismiss the power of being born into comfort and privilege, how much that power helps when you are in trouble. Most of the women I met couldn’t afford counsel and were born into a life with limited choices. I am constantly amazed by how the cards we are dealt at birth lead to the different roads in life…. For some, Road 22 is a path to stability—a roof over your head, a steady meal, and a dependable routine. But for most of us, we know that there are better options available.