When I met Barbara Currin, I asked her if I could call her by the nickname a reference had used: "Ms. B."
Currin gave me permission. And then she told me a story.
"You know," she said. "I was like a mentor before I became a mentor in prison. People used to always come to me for advice, and one day a woman came to me and she started crying. And she said, 'From now on, your name is going to be Ms. B.' Everybody started calling me that. I don't think they know the history."
Currin was released in 2020 following convictions on financial and fraud crimes that led to a six-year prison sentence at the Minnesota prison in Shakopee, a women-only facility. She'd lost so much while she was incarcerated but she also gained a family through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop (MPWW), an organization that works with inmates to employ writing as a tool for creativity and connection.
"The goal of MPWW is to foster literary community and a devotion to art inside Minnesota correctional facilities, because we believe in the power of art to empower people, challenge stereotypes about the incarcerated population, and promote healing for individuals and systems," said Jennifer Bowen Hicks, founder of MPWW.
A book authored by a friend's uncle changed my perception on mass incarceration. "Solitary" by Albert Woodfox is a must-read tale about a man who spent more than 40 years of his life in solitary confinement. His vivid, detailed accounts of his experiences in prison for crimes he did not commit gave him a path to speak and teach after his release.
Woodfox died earlier this year. I'd hoped to meet him one day.
I read his book every year, however, because it reminds me that we often fail to humanize those who have a criminal record.
As family members and friends distanced themselves from Currin when she entered prison in 2014, she felt ignored. She had graduated from college and changed her circumstances. But she had never healed from the trauma of her childhood, she said. As a Black girl in the South, she witnessed Jim Crow segregation — a white man once slapped her father in front of her — and domestic abuse in her home and her community.
Those scars impacted some of the decisions and choices she made. When she sat in front of a judge during her criminal proceeding, she pleaded guilty and hoped her family would stay whole while she served her time.
A few years later, she received the worst news of her life while she sat in a cell that was shared by nine women who all used the same pot for a bathroom.
Her 32-year-old daughter, Sandy Marie Currin, had died, leaving four grandchildren without their mother. Devastated in her grief and the separation from those she loved, Currin finally accepted a cellmate's offer to join an MPWW program that taught students to use writing as a therapeutic method.
"When I started writing about my daughter, I couldn't find my words," Currin said. "I would tell the instructor how dumb I felt, how stupid I felt. I'm putting the apostrophe in all the wrong places and what I wrote was not capturing what I was trying to say. I'll never forget. He told me, 'Ms. B, you are a raw writer and we all love it.'"
Currin felt validated and inspired.
She had not shared her pain with most of her cellmates. They did not know her daughter had died. They only knew she was hurting.
Currin continued to write through it. She journaled. She penned poems. And, through MPWW, she wrote a play on Claudette Colvin, the 15-year-old girl who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated bus in 1955 prior to a similar act by Rosa Parks.
She had an outlet. She said she worked through her past with paper and a pencil. Currin's notebooks, she said, "listened to me."
"I didn't know that was my therapy until two or three years later," Currin said.
When she was released in 2020, she had a new family via MPWW. She got help so she could obtain a vehicle — "You know, it's got rust and everything on it, but it still runs and gets me where I need to go," she said — and stay involved in the lives of her grandchildren. The MPWW organization also gave her a laptop.
Currin had her second chance.
Today, she spends her days caring for her family members, including her mother and grandchildren, the joys of her life.
A few hours after we'd met, she sent me pictures of the most important people in her world:
The grandson in the Navy;
The granddaughter who is a high school cheerleader with a 3.87 GPA;
The 16-year-old granddaughter who loves to dance;
The 11-year-old granddaughter who will take guitar and piano lessons soon.
Her son has helped her raise her deceased daughter's children.
And her youngest daughter skated through high school and graduated from New York University while her mother was imprisoned. That daughter has never left her side, Currin said.
In every photo she sent me, she's surrounded by love in this new chapter of her life.
"I didn't find me until I started writing," she said.
Then, she paused.
"Yeah," she repeated. "I didn't find me until I started writing."
Myron Medcalf is a local columnist for the Star Tribune and a national writer and radio host for ESPN. His column appears in print on Sundays twice a month and also online.