Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sue Ellen Allen's story of prison, power and pain

Eight years ago this week, former Algarve resident Sue Ellen Allen was sentenced in Phoenix, Arizona, to a lengthy term of imprisonment that turned out to be both horrific and hugely uplifting. She told me yesterday: “I have so much to celebrate this year. It is a miracle I am alive and I live in constant gratitude.”

In 1994, Sue Ellen and her husband, David Grammer, were indicted by a grand jury and charged with defrauding US investors of around 1.1 million dollars.  After pleading not guilty but believing they had little chance of acquittal, they absconded. The following year they were tried in absentia.  

The couple lived as fugitives under false names in the Silves area of the Algarve until the summer of 2002. Former friends alleged the Grammers had defrauded them of investments and threatened to turn them in to the authorities. Sue Ellen, who was suffering from cancer, decided the game was up. She called the US Embassy in Lisbon.

“With only two more chemo sessions to go, our cozy world, our three dogs and four cats, vegetable garden, fresh food and pillow-filled world collapses,” she recalls in her recently published memoir, which contains a lot of fascinating detail.

“Yes, we are living in Portugal illegally. Yes, we are blackmailed with violence and exposure unless we pay a very large sum of money that we do not have.

“I suppose we could have fled, but we agree it is time to go back. I take a deep breath and pick up the phone to call the American Embassy in Lisbon. 'Hello, my name is Sue Ellen Allen and I’m wanted in the state of Arizona for business fraud.'

“There is a very long silence. Finally, the person on the other end asks for my information. 'I’ll have to get back to you.' Six phone calls and three days later, on Friday, the FBI calls from Madrid and we agree to meet them in Lisbon on Monday afternoon at two o’clock at the American Embassy.”

Sue Ellen and David thought they would be taken into custody and spend the night at the Embassy, but that didn't happen. The FBI agents who had flown in from Madrid said they had no jurisdiction in Portugal and so the fugitives could spend the night where they pleased. The flight left at eight the next morning and it was up to them to be there or not. They stayed in a Movenpick Hotel, split a BLT sandwich and each had a rum and coke.

“How naïve we are,” continues Sue Ellen in her memoir. “We cannot begin to conceive what is in store for us. With cancer, life is frightening, but the penal system is a spiral into hell.

“At the Embassy in Lisbon we are treated humanely; in New Jersey, things are still civilized. In Arizona, however, the good manners stop. The sheriff there prides himself on running the toughest jails in America. It is designed to strip you of your dignity, self-esteem, and sanity. Into this I walk with balding head, collapsed veins, and trembling heart.”

Sue Ellen and David were each sentenced to 10 years in jail. Sue Ellen served six years and nine months. David served seven years and four months. Both were released on parole. In her memoir, Sue Ellen describes her period in prison as “an unbelievable journey”.

The memoir is entitled The Slumber Party from Hell. “It wasn’t all hell,” she admits. “It was never heaven, but there are memories I would not trade, memories that will guide and define the next part of my life.”

The death of her cellmate, Gina Panetta, had a particularly profound affect. “Gina’s death started this memoir and Gina’s death started the next part of my life. She gave me my passion and my purpose,” writes Sue Ellen.

Together with her cellmate's parents she founded an organisation called GINA's Team. The organisation actively promotes education and self-sufficiency for incarcerated women and men at no cost to the prisons in the US.

“We bring volunteer community leaders, speakers and educators into prisons to teach life skills subjects. Our volunteer programs provide inmates with much-needed tools for re-entry, provide community members as role models and allow volunteers to see inmates as human beings.”

While the death of her cellmate gave inspiration, there were times in prison when Sue Ellen was so depressed that she contemplated suicide. Her life was in danger anyway because of cancer. But she emerged from behind bars in March this year in an extraordinary resolute and optimistic frame of mind.

Last weekend she wrote in a blog: “In September, 2002, I had a mastectomy. If you’ve read my book, you know it was a horrific experience that I equate to being alone in the deepest, darkest hole. On November 23, 2010, I had a second, preventative mastectomy and I equate this experience to being in a sun-filled meadow of flowers and sweet breezes, with family and friends surrounding me.

“The first surgery was performed while I was an inmate in our local jail. The second was performed at the Virginia Piper Centre in Scottsdale, Arizona. I have come full circle. It’s only been two weeks and I admit I don’t feel fantastic, but I know it is a miracle that I am alive. There were so many things the jail denied for my healing and comfort. This time, I was stunned with the attention and details to make sure I was cared for in every way so the healing would begin immediately.”

Sue Ellen, now 65, describes her experiences since leaving the Algarve as a story about turning pain into power. “I believe we must take the pain, the grief, the fear and the anger from our journeys and turn it into power. Turn the pain into power, not power for ourselves - power to help others who are lost or hopeless or terrified or angry, power to comfort and love.”

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