Ex-convict Sue Ellen Allen wants to help other former female felons stay out of prison.

From the Big House to the White House

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: People Issue: August 2016
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Sue Ellen Allen was pumping gas in Downtown Phoenix when a homeless man asked her for change. To the man, she must have seemed sympathetic: a sweet-faced, grandmotherly type with Lucille Ball-red hair. And she was sympathetic, but she didn’t have money. “Sir, I am so sorry,” she told him in her faint Texas twang, “but I just got out of prison –” 

Before she could finish her sentence, the man threw up his arms and exclaimed, “Lady, congratulations! Welcome back!”

Allen was stunned. “Nobody had said that to me,” she recalls. “We don’t say, ‘Welcome back.’” Instead, the ex-felon author of The Slumber Party from Hell says, “Getting out of prison is like being shot out of a cannon, naked and blindfolded, into a brick wall.”

Ex-convicts are released from their cells into the virtual prison of The Box – the “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” box. Checking “yes” often bars them from getting a job, living in a decent apartment and going to college. It’s one major reason that 76 percent of released U.S. prisoners are rearrested within five years. 

So how can we help former inmates assimilate and become productive members of society? Allen, 70, is tackling that question, both with a prison education program called Gina’s Team, and with Global Reinvention, a public/private sector collaboration to give female ex-cons fair chances for reintegration. 

Allen with Rachel Maddow

The movement is gaining national momentum. In January, Allen sat with the First Lady as a representative of justice reform at President Obama’s final State of the Union address; three months later, the White House hosted 19 companies that took the Fair Chance Pledge to offer second chances for the country’s one in three adults with a criminal record (see sidebar). Allen wrapped up her busy spring by addressing The United State of Women summit in Washington, D.C., about opportunities for female prisoners.

“What I want is to have the best minds in America come to the table to solve this problem from [the perspective of] business, technology, justice, social work and ex-felons,” the Scottsdale resident says. 

Because of Allen’s surprising backstory – and sympathetic appearance – she’s in a unique position to make her voice heard. “People listen to me because I look like them; I look like everybody’s Republican grandmother,” she says. “And I’m not.”   

Chris Jansing of NBC News interviews Sue Ellen Allen at the
White House in January

Before prison, Allen lived a remarkably large life, residing and working in 21 countries. At age 3, the Texas native moved with her parents to an engineering camp in Venezuela “100 miles from headhunters,” she says. Stints followed in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Puerto Rico. 

After graduating from the University of Texas, she taught in one of Houston’s first desegregated schools. Her fluent Spanish and French led to jobs at Club Med, Sheraton and Del Webb hotels in Phoenix. Here, she met her husband, David Grammer, and started the jewelry business that would change their lives.

From the outside, Collectibles by Sue Ellen was a sparkling success: Allen fashioned pins for Barbara Bush and Margaret Thatcher, sold pieces in Saks Fifth Avenue, and got a contract worth millions, she says, to create jewelry for the Vatican’s gift shops.

Allen with U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch

But closer inspection revealed desperate cash flow problems. According to Allen, Grammer inflated the company’s profit projections to shareholders, who staged a hostile takeover. In 1994, Allen and Grammer were charged with defrauding more than 20 investors out of $1.1 million. 

According to the Arizona Corporation Commission, “the couple was dubbed the ‘tag-team’ fraudsters by the FBI because of the cold and calculating way they worked together to defraud investors in various business schemes that spanned two countries.”

The couple plead not guilty, saying they weren’t siphoning money but investing everything in the company. Allen denies she knew about Grammer’s deception. She says when she asked her husband why he didn’t ask for help or declare bankruptcy, he told her, “I thought it would be dishonorable.”  

They lost their home, possessions and many of their friends. Allen suffered a breakdown; she couldn’t eat, sleep or shower without help. Her mother suggested they go to Europe and live quietly. At first, Allen refused. Then she thought, “OK, let’s just go away for a little while. I just need to sleep, then we can come back.” So Allen and Grammer skipped their court date in 1995, absconded to Portugal, and lived under assumed names… for seven years.

“I’ve never run from anything in my life, and I just ran,” Allen says. “I am ashamed of that, and I regret it. And I regret that people lost money investing in our company. But I don’t regret this journey.”

Still in Portugal in 2002, Allen was diagnosed with breast cancer. As she endured chemotherapy, the couple was “blackmailed with violence and exposure” unless they paid a “very large sum of money” they didn’t have, she wrote. So they decided to turn themselves in and face 10-year sentences in Arizona’s prisons.

Fair Chance Pledge

Since April 2016, more than 100 businesses and
15 higher education institutions have signed the
Fair Chance Pledge that reduces barriers for the 70
million Americans with a criminal record. They have
vowed to “ban the box” by delaying criminal history
questions until later in the application process,
ensuring that people with a criminal record can at least
get a foot in the door. Organizations include:

√ Arizona State University
√ American Airlines 
√ Coca-Cola
√ Facebook
√ Google
√ Starbucks
√ Xerox

Prison, as depicted in The Slumber Party from Hell, is a sensory deprivation chamber. It is calibrated to rob people of dignity, identity, choice, stimulation, education, kindness, health and hope. It doesn’t just take away people’s freedom; it takes away their humanity. 

“If you told me what I was going to see and experience,” says Allen of Estrella Jail and Perryville women’s prison, “I would have said, ‘Not in America; we don’t treat people that way.’ We do. I was wrong.”

Allen was shocked by the mean-spirited guards who shackled her before, during and after her shoddy mastectomy. She couldn’t believe she had to walk blocks through the prison yard, collapsing and vomiting, to get chemotherapy or beg (in vain) for food that didn’t make her sick. She didn’t expect the filth, the hostility, the apathy. She considered committing suicide by saving apple seeds and poisoning herself with the cyanide inside.

But Allen also didn’t expect the empathy of her fellow prisoners. When she was denied a pillow after surgery, the women combined their precious supply of maxi pads and sewed her a Kotex cushion. The inmates said the Lord’s Prayer each night together and cooked Rice-A-Roni in a wastepaper basket together.

When Allen’s cellmate and friend, Gina Panetta, 25, collapsed and began experiencing excruciating pain, Allen begged the grumbling staff to get her treatment. Prison doctors and nurses dismissed the symptoms as strep throat or migraines and largely ignored her. Two months later, Panetta died of acute leukemia, without being able to say goodbye to her children.

The travesty sparked a change in Allen. She launched in-prison efforts: a cancer support group, a breast cancer walk, a life skills class, a Gavel Club and a Red Hat Society. When she was released in 2009, after serving seven years, she founded Gina’s Team, an inspirational life skills program at Perryville women’s prison. The six-week, volunteer-led courses teach the ATHENA Leadership Model, which focuses on constant learning, courage, collaboration and giving back – both inside and outside prison. Its speaker series brings in motivational role models like Olympic gold medal swimmer Misty Hyman.

Many women in prison, Allen says, were raped by relatives or beaten by partners, then sought solace in drugs and sold their bodies or stole to support their addictions. The prison system further dehumanizes them. 

“The theory is that this inhumane treatment will inspire people to not come back,” Allen writes in The Slumber Party from Hell, which she started in prison and published in 2010. “It doesn’t work.” Based on the national five-year recidivism rate, it fails three-quarters of the time. On the other hand, the Gina’s Team Leadership class graduated 594 women between May 2011 and December 2015; of those, about 365 have been released from prison, and just 30 have been rearrested. “My motto has always been ‘Education, not incarceration, is the cheapest form of crime prevention,’” Allen says.

Grammer was released seven months after Allen, at age 74. While in prison, he developed Parkinson’s Disease but was denied treatment, Allen says. He died in 2014. Allen lives on Social Security, making a restitution payment each month to her investors.

Women Behind Bars

Nearly two-thirds of women in prison are mothers

77-98% of incarcerated women have experienced
trauma (including violence and/or physical/sexual

73% of women in prison reported a mental health

Up to 50% of women who are incarcerated were
homeless in the month before their incarceration

42% of women in state prisons have not completed
high school

Sources: Women’s Prison Association, National
Resource Center on Justice Involved Women

Last April, she handed over leadership of Gina’s Team to Panetta’s parents but remains on the board. Allen is focusing on her new venture, Global Reinvention. She’s spoken at TEDx, ASU, the National Press Club and national summits. She’s lobbying lawmakers and companies, trying to get businesses, politicians, prisoners and the justice system together to brainstorm ideas for reinventing rehabilitation and reentry.

Every year, more than 600,000 convicts are released from federal and state prisons, and another 11.4 million people cycle through local jails, according to White House statistics. That’s an enormous potential labor force that could boost the economy. Instead, lives are being wasted because the system is “a machine that puts folks in, pushes them out and puts them back,” Allen says.

When prisoners are released, they have little money, assistance or job prospects. Thirty-six percent of state prison inmates lack a high school diploma, according to the Bureau of Justice. What’s more, they’re catapulted from a dungeon of sensory- and choice-deprivation into a flurry of overstimulation. Many are so overwhelmed, Allen says, they can’t even grocery-shop without walking out in tears. People like Allen who were behind bars for several years find themselves in a world so technologically transformed they might as well have time-traveled. 

The Arizona Department of Corrections says it delivers a robust mix of programs, including education, work, self-help, substance abuse and career training. “While ADC places a strong emphasis and effort on inmate reentry, an offender’s success is ultimately a responsibility of the individual,” says ADC spokesperson Bill Lamoreaux.

“My idea of reinvention is that reentry should start from the minute you walk in the prison,” Allen says. “I want each prison to have an HR department to be there to teach inmates business skills, interviews and résumés.” She persuaded the Department of Commerce to allow companies into prisons to interview women for paid 90-day apprenticeships, extendable based on performance, so they can reenter society with a guaranteed living wage.

When people tell Allen prisoners should be punished, not helped, she counters, “Are we going to be a society of rehabilitation or retribution? America presents itself as a Christian country. Forgiveness and rehabilitation are certainly part of Jesus’ teaching, but it doesn’t seem to be part of the mentality [in the justice system].”