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ORANGE COUNTY

In a bleak prison, a women's group glows

June 12, 2007|Dana Parsons | Dana Parsons' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns: www.latimes.com/parsons

On the second Monday of the month, Suzanne Darweesh leaves her Fullerton home and makes the easy drive toward Corona. An easy drive in time, assuming she leaves early enough to beat the traffic, but less so on the psyche.

"There but for the grace of God we could all be," she says, mindful of the good life she lives in Orange County and the sad lives she's heading toward as she gets ready for the trip to the California Institute for Women.

She doesn't mean that she entertained thoughts of being a criminal, like the women she'll be talking and listening to in the early evening. What she means is that, who knows, had she had a tougher childhood, less loving parents, an abusive parent or husband, a drug dependency ...

Darweesh, a retired teacher and a veteran of social causes, is part of Women of Wisdom, a project that conjoins volunteers with female inmates in monthly two-hour discussions about some aspect of prison life. These are not sob sessions, and it would be inaccurate to say that they leave Darweesh drained or sorrowful.

To the contrary, she marvels at the inmates' spirits, which somehow remain intact despite the relative bleakness of their surroundings.

But being heartened by the prisoners' attitudes doesn't change what is: Some are looking at lengthy terms, others at personal problems that may or may not be getting fixed.

"It's an emotional thing for me, I have to admit it," Darweesh says Monday afternoon, just minutes before heading out the door for Corona. The Women of Wisdom moniker refers to everyone in the group -- inmates and outsiders -- and they sit in a circle so there's no hierarchy.

"It is an amazing group," Darweesh says. "It bowls me over every time I go there. They have been from hell and back and some are still recovering from the 'back' part."

Darweesh has been involved in other causes, including the plight of farmworkers. But when a friend mentioned the criminal justice project, it clicked, touching a nerve from her days as a college student in New York.

The project, which typically brings about 30 women together in the prison chapel, isn't about guilt or innocence. It's about more nuts-and-bolts issues like the impending nursery at the prison so new mothers in custody can be near their infants. Or about preparing for, or coping with, the parole process.

"We don't ask why they're there," Darweesh says of the prisoners, "but what they share are amazing stories of pain and suffering and an inability to accept and forgive themselves. And yet, most have reached that point and they help each other in a way I have never seen in any other group I've been a part of, whether it's a church group or League of Women Voters or whatever."

She's not sure where that reservoir of strength comes from. Despite a woman she considers an excellent warden at the 2,500-inmate prison, Darweesh says much of prison existence is dehumanizing. She knows the outside world is largely unconcerned about that, thinking that inmates deserve whatever they get, but Darweesh says: "No one deserved to be treated as an animal. We're all humans."

Like many of us, Darweesh has wondered what it'd be like to live behind bars. Her brief experience came nearly 40 years ago, when she was teaching at an American elementary school in Iraq and was jailed for two weeks during an investigation that spilled over into suspected espionage.

She can't imagine what an indeterminate sentence that ranges upward to life would have done to her as a younger woman. In other words, "If I couldn't walk out at night."

But she can walk out at night. She can step into the night air after two hours of hearing from women who aren't going anywhere but who still take time to make themselves up, fix their hair and give an impression of vivacity and a hold on whatever youth they have.

She tells me there are enough women-in-prison stories to fill up a month of columns.

I ask if saying goodbye every fourth Monday leaves her despairing. "I always feel inspired, I really do," she says. "I think it's because of their acceptance of what's been dealt to them and their support for one another. And they have this hope that they will get out."

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