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Embodied: Season 2, Episode 9 Transcript

Anita Rao
When we hear a story about crime and justice, most of us are guilty of a bad habit: the need for simplicity in the narrative. Good guys. Bad guys. A fitting punishment. Justice served. The thing is, when you reach only for what's easy to process, you get thin stories lacking nuance [and] often absent of humanity. The corrections system is filled with people with full lives and relationships affected in big and small ways by the time they spent behind bars.

I took the road less complicated in thinking about incarcerated people until about a decade ago. I was a budding feminist researcher and spent my senior year of college documenting experiences of a group of formerly incarcerated women. They had all taken part in a writing and performance project while they were serving time. And through conversations with them, I started to trouble my own understanding of life inside and outside prison. Each of these women's stories was full in its messy humanity. Relationships gone wrong; love found and lost; friends who stood by them; others who let them down. Systems that separated them from their kids, and now an attempt to build a new life on the outside. All of it showed me that if we keep asking the same questions about life inside and outside prison, we'll keep telling the same stories. It's time to ask some new questions. This is Embodied. I'm Anita Rao.

Adriel Alvarado
They called us the Jay Z and Beyonce of SCI Chester, of the prison.

Anita Rao
Here in the US, we incarcerate people at a higher rate than any other country in the world. When someone serves a sentence, their families and loved ones suffer punishment too. Yet despite the hardship, relationships persist inside and outside prison walls. Adriel and Monae Alvarado have one of the most unlikely love stories I've heard in a long time. They met on the inside when they were both serving time in a Pennsylvania prison.

Adriel Alvarado
Yeah, we would go to the corner of the yard, and we used to sit there and go to the moon. We used to talk about everything.

Monae Alvarado
We were never tired of each other.

Anita Rao
Monae and Adriel snuck around to find space for intimacy and even found ways to go on dates — getting really creative in their environment.

Monae Alvarado
I remember one time we got them covering us in the yard.

Adriel Alvarado
Oh, I forgot about that. We made a wall of people...

Monae Alvarado
...to block the camera and the staff. [We] had them just standing around so they can actually like block...

Adriel Alvarado
Make a wall.

Monae Alvarado
Yeah, make a wall, basically. So we could like, you know, sneak a little blow job.

Anita Rao
Although their circumstances seem far removed from most love stories, Adriel and Monet first met in a classic location for budding romance.

Monae Alvarado
Well, we meant in a laundry room.

Adriel Alvarado
Sounds weird, but I worked in laundry, and she came to get some clothes. [Laughs] You've got to explain that we made the laundry room.

Monae Alvarado
I was coming back from getting my fan that I purchased in commissary. And I wanted to stop at the laundry room — that's where he worked at — but um, but my intention was to go get some new clothes — some crispy, clean clothes, you know, state-issued uniform. And I got in there, so I talked to a couple people. That's when he came up to me and approached me, and then he asked me about my eyebrows. And how did I do my eyebrows? I used to draw my eyebrows with a big pen. It was nice though.

Adriel Alvarado
It really was.

Monae Alvarado
So I told him that, and then he was surprised and shocked like: Oh wow. You look amazing. And that's when I kind of knew he was interested. I just knew he was into me, so I kind of like went for it. I kind of like — not chased after him — but I got moved to his unit 'cause we was in a separate unit. Before we got separated. Yeah, we got separated into a different tower. We was in the same tower. We started writing each other, talking, and it just — I don't know.

Adriel Alvarado
We built up fast.

Monae Alvarado
Yeah, we did.

Adriel Alvarado
Because what I think is we was both missing something. You know, and when we both realized that the other person had something we needed, I guess we was ... We connected.

Monae Alvarado
We did. We connected fast. We fell in love fast too. We started talking about marriage and everything.

Adriel Alvarado
You know where I proposed to her at? In the yard in front of 1,000 inmates. In the middle of 1,000 inmates — these are serial killers, murderers, rapists, drug dealers. In front of everybody.

Monae Alvarado
A lot of criminals.

Anita Rao
Monae and Adriel were incarcerated together in a men's prison just outside of Philadelphia: SCI Chester. During Monae's sentencing, she made it clear that she is a woman and wanted to be sent to a women's prison. But that didn't happen. Being trans in a men's prison meant Monae faced harassment and physical violence from staff and fellow inmates. Once she started dating Adriel, he started facing some of the same. Still, they tend to look on the bright side. And while some people punish them for their differences, others were inspired.

Monae Alvarado
You know there were people who came out of the closet...

Adriel Alvarado
Gangsters too. Like known gangsters like, I'd be like: We helped you find your inner you?

Monae Alvarado
We would write each other a note. When we'd see each other in the hallway, we would pass a note, or we'll hug each other like: Hey.

Adriel Alvarado
Or we'd have somebody ... We'd be like: Hey, you're going over there? If you see such and such, can you give them this? So it was like 1700s — just sending letters and waiting back for response.

Anita Rao
But when Adriel and Monae were both in solitary, they took their communication technology to the next level.

Adriel Alvarado
Every time we went to the hole, we, you know, there was either, you know, a moment that we just bonded. [We got] real connected. And this is weird. We used to write letters, because sometimes we didn't want to scream out, because we gotta talk through the doors. She'll be in one cell. I'll be in another cell. So if I wanted to talk, I'll have to scream out the door, and everybody else could hear, you know, so — to keep that private, we would tie a string to like a piece of envelope, and we would fish it across to one another. And we'll send letters back and forth like that. So she'll tie her string to my string, and we'll just [send] back and forth letters, and magazines and newspapers — primitive, very primitive. We'd call that texting.

Anita Rao
Perfecting their love letter writing was important practice for what was to come. Monet was released in 2017 while Adriel remained inside. And for over a year, their relationship continued while apart.

Monae Alvarado
It was hard being apart just doing things by myself. I had to get a job. I worked two jobs, because you know, I had to send him money when he needed it for commissary. I also sent him books that he needs just to keep him sane inside. And I'll write him a letter like every other day I'd write him a letter and send it to him, just so he can...

Adriel Alvarado
Have something to read! [Laughs]

Monae Alvarado
He's always stressin! [Laughs]

Anita Rao
Monae and Adriel's love story isn't over. We'll come back to them a little bit later in the episode. But first, let's meet another couple whose relationship persisted for years despite prison walls.

Sutina Green
Steven's my first love, and so for me I was just like: I don't care if this is the rest of my life, like I want to be with him. I love him. And, you know, this is the sacrifice I'm going to make for me to be happy.

Anita Rao
Sutina and Steven Green weren’t involved when Steven was first locked up, but their history goes back all the way to junior high. They were young lovers. And after a divorce, Sutina reached back out to Steven. At the time Steven was serving a life sentence without possibility of parole.

Sutina Green
I wrote letters here and there, and we remained friends. I went through a divorce, and so I started writing Steven again just to see how he was doing, and our relationship picked up from there back in 2001.

Steven Green
I was extremely excited and happy. I just didn't know how long it was going to last. That's kind of the sad thing about it. You know relationships — like those walls are built in prison they're not built just to keep people in. They're also built to keep people out, and so I think there's this wear-down effect that that happens with the relationships, so even though her writing and her wanting maybe to reconnect and to come visit. I always felt that like it was one day going to be like: I can't do this anymore.

Anita Rao
No matter the strength of their love or the honesty in their communication. Steven's imprisonment meant the relationship would always be unbalanced.

Steven Green
I would say that, you know, that these relationships — sometimes they can be very one-sided. Or like, I like to say: You know, she has all the power 'cause she was on the outside, and I was on the inside. And so our relationship was one of economics, where if she didn't have money, then we weren't talking. And if she did have money, then we would talk, right. And that's just for dealing with like the phone calls. But if you go into the visiting area where you're able to visit, that takes money. And she didn't have money like that. And she was a single mom, you know, raising five kids.

Anita Rao
From the very beginning, there was a push and pull in their expectations. Let's go back to their first date. After dozens of letters, Sutina proposed coming to visit so they could see each other again for the first time in years. Steven accepted with mountains of hesitant hope. Visitation time was approved, Steven cleaned up and made sure he looked his sharpest. And he walked into the visitation room where loved ones and families were waiting. And Sutina wasn’t there.

Steven, so, what were you feeling after that first visit didn't go as planned?

Steven Green
I felt that that was normal, right? Like maybe she had the second guessing of her own decisions and, you know, grew cold feet so to speak. And it was, you know, pretty much like — this is how it's gonna be. Like, you know, what do I expect? When I'm sentenced to life without ... Like, who do I expect to dedicate their life to me, right. And I don't mean that in any disrespectful way, obviously, I love my wife. But I just don't understand it. So it's like one of those things — like the matters of the heart doesn't always have to make sense, I think.

Anita Rao
Sutina had a valid reason for missing their date. Her family had gotten in a car accident, and she had no way to reach Steven on short notice to cancel. Despite getting stood up and justifying his fears, Steven gave Sutina a second chance. The relationship grew. But the thing is, while Adriel and Monae could sneak around to spend time together, Sutina and Steven’s time together physically was very constrained.

Sutina Green
It's one kiss and hug at the beginning of the visit, and one kiss and hug at the end. We were fortunate enough that we were able to sit next to each other. So we could hold hands. We played games. Clothing was very strict. There was certain colors you couldn't wear. Certain type of clothes you couldn't wear. So basically I had created my own prison — you know, this is what I wear for prison visiting. And then this is what I wore for everyday life. So I had my own prison wardrobe. So definitely visiting they make it not pleasurable. Yeah, no, there's a lot of restrictions of things you can and can't do.

Anita Rao
With visits limited, letter-writing is a non-negotiable. But it doesn’t just have to be sappy, “I miss you” notes. Monae would slip into some lingerie and send over whole photobooks to Adriel.

Adriel Alvarado
The letter could just have a picture and then as long as I see that name, you know coming to me...

Monae Alvarado
He's always looking forward to my letters.

Adriel Alvarado
You know, so that means a lot that means a lot to people in prison period, you know. Even if it's for that one second that they write, I know that one second was all about me.

Anita Rao
Since she'd been incarcerated, Monae wasn't allowed to visit Adriel. For a year, it was only letters and phone calls. Despite the distance, they were committed to taking their relationship to the next level. Even before Monae's release, they'd begun marriage arrangements. Once outside, she kicked the wedding planning into high gear. The prison chaplain refused. The nearest courthouse mandated both parties had to be physically present to sign the documents. The Pennsylvania State Prison system had no precedent for their circumstances.

Adriel Alvarado
The legal process was a pain in the butt, because there was no policy set in place to marry, you know, an inmate and a former inmate that was in the same prison. You know, so policy, no policy was set. So we was the first from what I understand. She even wrote the White House.

Monae Alvarado
I tried every day.

Adriel Alvarado
She wrote Obama. Because she used to write, and she used to send letters for me, you know, because sometimes, I'll be writing my own letters. So I got a letter from the White House. I'm like, national security, what's going on! And then it was talking about that we have to start the process and see where it goes, and then they'll be able to jump in if need be. She went home. We got married. What like about...?

Monae Alvarado
I went home in July 2016, and we started the process soon after. And November 22 [the] same year we got married. It was fast. It was quick. 20 minutes about.

Adriel Alvarado
We got married in the visiting room. I had to wear my brown set. My DOC. My state issue.

Monae Alvarado
It looked nice though.

Adriel Alvarado
It looked nice, because despite all of that, certain officers, you know, they let me go out there with Timberlands. They let me press my clothes. That's never happened before. They let me go out with browns from population — usually when you go to visiting room, you've got to put a jumpsuit on.

Monae Alvarado
And in the visiting room you have to put on slippers.

Adriel Alvarado
And slippers, yeah. But they let me put on Timbs.

Monae Alvarado
That was nice. I had a dress, a white dress. It wasn't fancy.

Adriel Alvarado
It was!

Monae Alvarado
I had the belt with the rhinestones.

Adriel Alvarado
I told everybody it was Versace.

Monae Alvarado
It was expensive, but...

Adriel Alvarado
It was nice. I liked it.

Monae Alvarado
Thank you.

Anita Rao
Steven and Sutina also pursued marriage while Steven was serving time. But Steven’s insecurities persisted.

Steven Green
I mean from what I remember, right, the marriage came more from her perspective, right? I wasn't like ... It's so like hard for me to say like, as time went on, I kept just thinking: I'm gonna get, you know, like a "Dear, John" letter, or I'm going to call her, and she's just gonna be like: Hey, I can't do this anymore. Because it's so rare that relationships last like beyond five years. I mean, I think that's just normal, even out here on the streets, like in the public, right? But especially in there with all the different added stressors. And so I just approached each visit, and each time with her as just that this is my special moment with her. I'm going to spend it now with her, and I'm just going to enjoy it, because I don't know when the last time it will be when I get to see her again. And yeah, but from my perspective, the marriage and more of the commitment side of the relationship came from her.

Anita Rao
Sutina, how did you ... What made you decide to commit? What was that turning point where you said: I want to commit to this person for my life?

Sutina Green
You know, I loved him. And I didn't want to spend my life with anyone else. And so yeah, it was me pushing. I know when I first brought up marriage, he was like: I don't know if I want to get married. Like, I don't want to do that to you. I'm never coming home. And I basically told him like: I understand your points, but this is what I want. I know what I'm getting myself into.

Anita Rao
But things went beyond just marriage. Steven and Sutina had children while he was incarcerated. And as their daughters were entering their teens, Sutina pushed for even more.

Sutina Green
You know, I had first told him to apply for commutation. And he didn't really think that they happened, you know, or if they did happen, it was for people who had political gain. But Governor Brown started commuting more and more people. And I would send him in the commutations. And I'm like, please just apply for commutation. And so I think with all my nagging, he decided to put in for commutation.

Anita Rao
So much life keeps happening, even though time seems to stand still when you're on the inside. For Steven and Sutina that meant figuring out parenting. Most every weekend, Sutina made the long drive with their two daughters to visit Steven. In the visitation room, Steven would work on school science projects, practice jiujitsu and just try to be as present a father as possible. By the time Steven’s commutation was approved, his oldest daughter was already in high school. In September 2019, Steven left prison and joined his family.

I know you're used to me talking to my parents on this show, but after so much time spent talking to Steven and Sutina, I really wanted to know more about the dynamics in their family. What was it like for their kids to grow up with a father serving a life sentence without parole? Did the decisions their parents made in the name of love make sense to them? Steven and Sutina’s eldest daughter is 17-year-old Jenesee. She says she has had to do a lot of adjusting throughout her parents’ relationship

Jenesee Green
Having an incarcerated parent is tough. You know, like, it depends on everyone's situation, though, because I know some parents aren't there for their kids at all. But I know that some parents like my father was there for me as much as he could be without, like being overbearing, I guess. I guess now that he's out, I realized that it's tough, but like when he was inside still, I didn't really think much of it, because it was like, normal for me, you know? So like, it was just normal for me. Like there was nothing like tough about it. Like, I mean, as I got older, I started to realize like: Oh, I don't want to go visit him anymore. Because it was a long drive. It was like four hours. And I was so tired of doing that drive like almost every weekend, every other weekend. I was like: I don't want to go see him. I don't want to go see him. But I mean, once we got there, I was like happy to go see him, but it was just the drive that would kill me, because I'm like: I don't want to go see you anymore. I just want you to come home, so that way we don't have to drive anymore.

Anita Rao
You mentioned that it can be kind of hard to talk about. And it can bring up a lot and can be really emotional. Did you talk about it much with like, friends when he was incarcerated? Was it something you felt comfortable talking about? Or was it a part of your life that you kept a little more private?

Jenesee Green
Yeah, so I usually kept it private, just because I know that a lot of people wouldn't understand. They're like: Oh, yeah, like I'm so sorry. Like, I feel bad that you have to go through that. But they don't really understand what it's like to have like an incarcerated loved one. Like especially your parent. It's different if it was like your uncle, your grandfather, whatever. But like, that's my dad. That's my dad. Like, you probably have your dad at home. I don't, you know? Yeah, I mean, I usually kept it private. I wouldn't ... Because sometimes, especially when I was younger, I would just tell my friends like: Oh, my dad's at a business meeting, or he's on a business trip, like he can't come. Because I would feel embarrassed. Like, I don't want to say that my dad's in prison. Like, why would I want to say that to my friends? Like, that's not something I'm proud of?

Anita Rao
Is there, like if there was another kid who was going through a similar experience, like do you feel like you have any advice that you would want to give, or anything you've learned from your own experience that you think could help someone else?

Jenesee Green
So I would probably say to them like: Things are going to feel weird. Things are going to get tough sometimes. But honestly, you should be really grateful for like them being home, because sometimes I just ... I'm not grateful. Because he's there all the time. But yeah, you have to be grateful for them being home instead of being where they were. Instead of ... yeah, I don't know.

Anita Rao
No, that makes a lot of sense. Like try to be present with them where they are, and where you are right now.

Jenesee Green
Yeah, like spend more time with them, even though sometimes they might get on your nerves, or they might piss you off, I don't know. I am really grateful for them. So...

Steven Green
I would say I was like an alien being dropped off into another world, because I got incarcerated very young. I was 18 years old. So, I didn't really know what it was like to be ...I had no idea what it was like to be a husband or a father or just who I was, you know, without like all the political ramifications ramifications of prison. Right, like inside we have a very structured world. We know what all the rules are. We know what happens if we break the rules. And we know what happens — like you're kind of like stuck like in an arrested development, like you have to remain who you were at the time you were incarcerated. And so when you're trying to grow past that, you can't ... You kind of really don't ... Even though you do change, and things do change, and people do understand different situations. But coming out, it's like you have all these now: Oh, I can do this. Oh, I can do ... just choices. And I don't have to ask permission to go to the bathroom, or I don't have to ask permission to go to the store. Like I can just get in my car and drive somewhere. [A] very different reality for me. And then to deal with her expectations of who she not thought I was, but her expectations of the roles that I have to take — like husbands act this way. Fathers do this. And, you know, for me, sometimes I'm like: Well, it doesn't mean I have to. But that's a different conversation, I guess.

Sutina Green
As someone who's never been formally incarcerated, you don't realize how traumatic prison is for them. And so I did have probably high expectations, I didn't think they were high expectations. You know, I thought: Oh, this is easy. Like, you know, it's not that hard to do. But it actually is. Like, I didn't realize how prison really affects just everything ... on how, you know, we expect everyone out here knows how to do things. And so it's different for him to have to learn how to use a cell phone. And I do see, I would get frustrated easily. Like, you know: You've been home for a few months now. Why aren't you getting it? And so I've tried to learn to have more patience. That doesn't always happen. But yeah, it definitely ... reentry is not what I expected. You know, I didn't expect like a fairy tale. I knew there would be some ups and downs. But I just, I think for me, you know, it just, it was a lot harder than what I thought reentry was going to be like, for us.

Anita Rao
How about negotiating intimacy, I mean, going from that environment where you're allowed to, you know, sit on the same side of the table and hold hands to an environment where you know, you're living in the same house, and you can be physically and emotionally intimate more often in whatever ways you want to. How did you all make that transition? That feels ... That sounds difficult?

Sutina Green
I think for me, it's funny. Like I was worried about that. Like when he comes home, like is he gonna want to be more sexually active than me? And it's, to me, I think it's been quite the opposite. I ... I'm wanting to have sex more often than he does. But I think we've come to a compromise, you know, so that we're both happy with our sex life.

Anita Rao
Sutina and Steven are still trying to find the balance that prison prevented. For Adriel and Monae, living together on the outside meant totally re-building the relationship that was based around prison rules and culture. Strangely, some of those rules followed them. Adriel joined Monae in February 2020 just days before the world headed into a pandemic lockdown.

Adriel Alvarado
You know, a lot of them letters were talking about our future, you know: Hey, we want to do this. And hey, we want to do that. And let's do this. And so far, we've been getting it done. We went to California. I'd never been to New York. We went to New York. We went to Baltimore. I mean, we're fulfilling what we spoke about years ago. It's taking a little time, but we're getting there, you know.

Sutina Green
Inside or outside, relationships take work. And it goes both ways. I always said, you know, with Steven, it was easier, because I was the one that constantly gave, and he always took. And now that he's home, he's learning how to give, and I'm learning how to take, so it's not such a one-sided relationship anymore.

Anita Rao
Is there anything about their connection and their love or dynamic that you hope for for your own future?

Jenesee Green
There's probably a lot, but not the prison part. [Laughs]. I don't know. I just ... Their love is literally unexplainable. Like, I'm so serious. Like, I can't explain the way that they love each other. I just know that I would want that for like myself for my own relationship in the future. Um, they're, they're both so caring, and I love that about them. I love that. They care for each other, not even just like for each other, but for everyone. Like, they want to see everyone succeed, and they want to do good like, they're such good people.

Anita Rao
That's so beautiful. I'm sure it would mean a lot for them to to hear you say that.

Jenesee Green
I hope they don't hear that. [Laughs]

Anita Rao
Well, if you're listening to this podcast, turn it off!

Jenesee Green
Don't listen to this anymore, guys. Turn it off.

Anita Rao
Sutina and Steven Green celebrated 17 years of marriagen in March. Steven is pursuing his education full-time, and Sutina is the communications manager at RE:STORE JUSTICE, an advocacy organization that works to end life and extreme sentences. Monae and Adriel Alvarado will celebrate five years of marriage in November. They live and work together in Philadelphia.

My thanks to Grant Holub-Moorman and Charlie Shelton-Ormond for producing this episode. This show is sponsored by Weaver Street Market – A worker and consumer-owned cooperative, selling organic and local food at four Triangle locations in North Carolina. Now featuring online shopping with next day pickup.: weaverstreetmarket.coop.

Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio, WUNC, a listener-supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on-demand, consider a contribution at wunc.org now. Incredible storytelling like you hear on Embodied is only possible because of listeners like you. Lindsay Foster-Thomas is WUNC’s director of content. Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer. Quilla wrote our theme music. Special thanks to Melissa Radcliff and our friends at Ear Hustle for their help with this episode.

And this is our season two finale. If this is your first time listening, or if you've been rocking with Embodied from the beginning, thank you! Hosting this show and the kind of conversations we welcome on it have opened my eyes, heart and the door to opportunities I never imagined. One happened very recently. I was asked to give the commencement address to the Women and Gender Studies Department at my alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In my address, I share three lessons I've learned in the decade since leaving that program. Here's a small sample of the words I chose to share it with that graduating class.

I told you that I'm an analyzer and a thinker. It may not surprise you to know that I'm also a planner. I love a plan. But as I've learned over the course of the past 10 years, the opportunities that have been most worth it. The moments that have been most life giving, didn't come because I thought and planned my way into them. But instead because I was forced (or encouraged) by a deadline or circumstance to take a leap of faith. Make a decision and trust that when it came time to make another decision, I'd find a way to do it that aligned with my values and priorities in the moment. Each of these decisions, moments and leaps of faith are the product of lessons that I've learned and relearned but ones that this very program helped lay the foundation for, and ones I'd love to share with you today.

Number one: Embrace periods of stretch and periods of rest. Feminist activism in whatever form you engage in it, will require you to stretch. You'll stretch to step outside your comfort zone and have a difficult conversation with someone in hopes of getting them to see a new perspective. You'll stretch to organize a conference, a rally or a reading group. You'll stretch when someone else's activism shows you your own blind spots. This stretch is good. It is where the growth happens. It's where you create and share and engage. But it cannot be your constant state. I've noticed that it's only when I rest can I really integrate everything that I've learned. When I step back from the noise for a minute, I can see where I need to heal parts of myself to go back out and keep doing good work. When I rest, I can figure out the difference between productivity for the sake of productivity and work that's enriching for myself and others. And even more important than all of that: Rest is in itself activism. Capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy send us messages that we're not worthy of rest. That we must keep producing. Those messages take us away from ourselves. They trap us in guilt, shame and judgment, and they disconnect us from our inner wisdom. This program in the past four years has taught you about the beauty of stretch, and to honor all of that stretching that you've done and will continue to do. I hope you also make time for rest.

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