Feature Story: A Second Chance for a Woman Who Believes in Second Chances

Screen Shot 2019-09-25 at 8.22.57 AMScreen Shot 2019-09-25 at 8.19.46 AM

 

Words and Photos By Alessandra Nicole
Contributing Writer

(originally published in Greenville & Hockessin Life Magazine, June 2019)

To know the nurturing resilience of sunshine is to know the heart that belongs to Patricia May.

On a humid Sunday afternoon in early June, May sat in the bright kitchen of her Hockessin home, one filled with an array of framed Bible hymns and beautiful original paintings done by incarcerated people and bought from art fairs inside her former workplace. Sweet old rescue cats serenely snaked around her ankles, begging to be let through glass sliding doors to the large and sunny deck outside.

The doors framed a view of nearly two dozen enormous planter pots that sat bursting with everything from snap dragons to mint. Near the doors, a small table supported a smaller assemblage of plants, and the electric water bowl for the cats beneath the table gurgled peacefully.

IMG_3095

Ms. May displays one of a vast collection of original paintings showcased in her home that was painted by and purchased from inmates from art shows over the years.

In stark contrast to this soothing serenity was the jarring fact that this gentle-spirited, sparkling-blue-eyed woman is a prison riot hostage survivor.

One morning in February 2017, May, a former counselor with the Delaware Department of Correction, went into work at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna, and a few hours later was taken hostage by an inmate wielding a sharp object.

She was tied up with a hood placed over her head as other inmates raged violently throughout the rest of the building.

She was moved to two cells and held for almost 19 hours.

Her life was in the hands of her faith and the men who surrounded her in the same facility where she would regularly bring bouquets of flowers she arranged from her home gardens to bring some joy to those visiting.

“At James T. Vaughn, I was known as the ‘Flower Lady,’” May said. “During spring and summer, I kept flower arrangements in the administration building and in the Gate House for the enjoyment of staff and visitors. Many times I was told by a visitor that the flowers would brighten their day when they may have been sad for having to visit a loved one in prison,

“I never accept pay for my arrangements. This gift was given to me by God, and I believe giving to others is a way of showing God’s love in a practical way. No doubt this brings me joy to be able to give something that brightens everybody’s day.”

Why then, you might ask, would this woman, now since retired from the Department of Corrections, choose to return to do work with incarcerated people in a program to offer them a second chance?

 

In the 1960s, May abandoned her home economics major at a local community college in Florida to embark on her studies in criminology. It was a course of study that was virtually unheard of for a woman at that time, but for May, who grew up the daughter of a pediatric nurse and a policeman and listened to stories nightly of chases with moonshiners to the Everglades, it seemed like a natural step. The stories became her children’s nursery rhymes.

“On many nights, my dad would wake me up at two o’clock in the morning, and tell me, ‘We’re all hungry,’ with a trail of police behind him,” she said. “Sometimes he called me on the phone and asked me to prepare something for them to eat on some mornings.”

“My dad’s friend at the police department played a part in me changing over to Criminology.” May attended Florida State University and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminology, Magna Cum Laude. She eventually left Florida and embarked on a 40-year career. May worked for the Attorney General’s Office for the State of Delaware; Public Defender’s Office; Department of Correction, Community Services and Bureau of Prisons; Juvenile Corrections; Treatment Foster Care; a women’s Transitional Living Program and Substance Abuse Treatment programs.  Patricia retired from the State of Delaware, Department of Correction in 2018.

During that time, she nurtured her nearly lifelong passion for gardening – cultivating outdoor flowers and vegetables and small-scale, hydroponic and full-spectrum light indoor gardening.

IMG_3101

Ms. May’s small-scale, hydroponic and full-spectrum light indoor gardening.

While working for the Delaware Department of Correction, May thought of ways to dovetail her profession with her love of gardening. An opportunity arose to direct the My Brother’s Keeper Mentorship Program, a faith-based program in 3 sections: Monday Night Group; Residential and Reentry at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.  A horticulture program (hydroponics) was hoped to be included but ultimately was not accepted by Vaughn Administrators.

“The goal was to teach the inmates a new skill that could be used in the future, and learning how to grow food for the institution was part of teaching inmates about a healthy lifestyle,” she said. “Growing food within an institution reduces cost to the state, supplies nutritious food and reduces the carbon footprint of food being transported. Horticulture programs have been shown to reduce tension; reduce idle time; give hope; and improve the health of the inmates, which is not only humane, but cost effective on health care costs.”

My Brother’s Keeper emphasized the use of mentors, education, substance abuse recovery treatment and other aspects of restorative justice. Its mission rested on the belief that most people with criminal behavior can become productive and contributing members of society if given the opportunity to learn pro-social values and employment skills. The program also included a reentry section, which supplied mentors and guidance for men returning to the community. May was also staff advisor for the Monday Night section of the program, which was for men who were not able to be housed in the residential program.

“We [My Brother’s Keeper] were about changing the heart, with 40 different classes all about teaching and training and mentoring.

“Change the heart and that will change the behavior.”

In her kitchen, May opened two enormous five pound black binders and set them on the countertop. They were the training manuals for My Brother’s Keeper that included a multitude of educational modules, ranging from social skills development to architecture and engineering. Title headings like “Basic comparative religion” and “Introduction to the brain” were listed among a variety of others in the table of contents.

May moved her index finger down the page. “Money management.’ ‘Effective communication skills.’ ‘Moral decision making.’ ‘The art of conflict management.’

“We had 100 men in the residential program, and about 30 or 40 who attended the Monday Night program who weren’t a part of the 100 residents, in a prison that had around 2,700 people,” she said. “Do you know what it’s like to see someone who is serving a life prison term, and you give him something to live for?”

While the impact of the My Brother’s Keeper program was, at times, transformational, it was eventually ended and she was transferred to the fateful C Block building where it was known that trouble was brewing. On Feb. 1, 2017, inmates at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center took four corrections department workers – including May — hostage inside one of the facility’s buildings.

Wielding sharp instruments, inmates were demanding education “first and foremost,” a “rehabilitation program that works for everybody,” and a comprehensive look at the prison’s budget and spending.

The day-long hostage standoff ended after state police stormed the building, rescuing May and her fellow workers, and finding Sgt. Steven R. Floyd, a 16-year veteran of the Delaware Department of Correction, unresponsive. Floyd was later pronounced dead.

“Everything I had worked for so hard was taken away,” May said.

In the aftermath of the riot, May retired, and at first, her days were isolating and wrought with tremendous PTSD and depression. When she looked back on her career – one filled with compassion for others – she saw that it was met with unprecedented resistance. For the next year and a half, May retreated to her Hockessin gardens, but nearby, an opportunity that was tailor-made for her was popping through the soil in nearby Wilmington.

Local entrepreneur Ajit M. George began to consider how the community could find methods to fight the recidivism epidemic facing this nation while simultaneously addressing other serious threats like water pollution, environmental damage, unemployment, poor quality produce, and food deserts.

Part of the solution to the problem lay in hydroponic vertical farming, and so George created and founded Second Chances Farm, which will be an indoor vertical farm that hires exclusively men and women returning to society after serving their time in prison. All crops and produce will be fresh, organic, nutritious, completely free of pesticides and herbicides, and grown within 150 miles of anywhere it is available for consumption, seriously cutting down long-haul shipping costs and pollution. Since it is indoor and light and temperature controlled, it will be fresh and available 365 days a year, no matter what the weather brings.

On July 24th, 2018, the founding members of Second Chances Farm had lunch with May, and after a long and passionate discussion about the concept of Second Chances, May was asked to join the team.

May immediately became a valuable member of the Second Chances team as the Restorative Justice Program Coordinator, where she now handles all programming related to re-entry, therapy, and other employee related issues. Second Chances will be the first vertical farm in Delaware, and the first vertical farm anywhere to exclusively hire men and women returning from prison.

For the farm, it is a chance to not only provide jobs for those returning from prison, but also to harness entrepreneurial skills and allow farmers a chance to become compassionate capitalists and business owners.

For May, it is the next, serendipitous chapter – a second chance — in a career that has been spent advocating for the second chances of others.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

To learn more about Second Chances Farm, visit www.secondchancesfarm.com.

Three chili peppers, some rocks, a honeybun and three cigars

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 11.55.53 AM

Words and Photographs By Alessandra Nicole, As appeared in the spring edition of Landenberg Today, April 2015

filming of White Deer, Photo © Alessandra Nicole 2014

Three chili peppers, some rocks, a honeybun and three cigars. Four white plates containing these objects were lined up on the hardwood floor in front of a fireplace in a cozy Landenberg apartment all awaiting their screen debut and their sacrificial destiny — on the strikingly cold and misty Saturday morning when I performed in a music video, on assignment from Landenberg Today.

I was greeted at the door by the broad Cheshire Cat smile of writer/film director/musician /Renaissance man Chris Malinowski, who was creating a music video titled “White Deer” that would soon serve as part of the soundtrack for his latest film, “Yes, Your Tide is Cold and Dark, Sir,” which has been screened at several festivals around the nation and is now available through Amazon on DVD.

I stepped through the doorway of his cottage, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, that simple step forward was as good as signing my name on the dotted line of a contract issued by a distant and unknowable Supreme Creator. Stay with me here.

After returning Malinowski’s smile, I very shyly offered my own to a small group of five other women, all strangers. Gathered to one side of the virtually empty living room, they were completely clad in black just like myself, as Malinowski’s email a week prior had requested. On the room’s other side, a man with a camera adjusted a rig, holding it belted firmly around his waist.

Filming of White Deer, Photo © Alessandra Nicole 2014

In the rain, still others were positioning a large light just outside of a bank of windows that led into the living room. A flick of a switch and Ahh: Instantly the cold, misty Saturday morning was transformed into the fantastical mind trickery that was a perfectly realistic sunny afternoon. The “sun” streamed luxuriously across the floor of the room and the women flocked toward it, smiling.

I knew little about Malinowski, beyond his unapologetically gregarious and dramatic stage performances (at times in full makeup) at the Deer Park Tavern in Newark, with his band, The Collingwood. As frontman and lead guitarist, he seemed to be a man possessed. His eyes would roll back into his head in an inner-lighted bliss.

A well-known fun fact about Malinowski is that his favorite place on earth to visit is New Orleans, and that not only does he bask in the well-known undercurrent of ・voodoo・ central to the core of the city, he channels it, often, in his creative work.

For me, it wasn’t the most absurd thing to agree to show up to the set of a music video. Years ago, I was an art student at a college in Savannah, Ga. There, I found myself participating in courageous filmmaking and acting projects, convening with my fellow students in basement coffeeshops until the small hours, fleshing out their visions. We all worked tirelessly on film shoots, propelled forward by the natural electricity of inspired artistic discourse and execution.

After college, I was a production designer on several short and lengthy projects, grim horror stories, high-concept dramas and dark comedies. I lost hours and days without realizing it while in production.

In Landenberg, I was totally in my element.

Filming of White Deer, Photo © Alessandra Nicole 2014

The six of us sat cross-legged on the floor around the white plates. We held hands. Malinowski sat in a wooden chair in a corner of the room with one more statuesque and masked woman standing at his shoulder. We fumbled with our ill-fitting masks, offering one another rolled bits of paper to keep the masks from chafing our faces.

Someone pressed ‘Play’ on a boombox that sat on the floor by the door, and suddenly, the room was filled with the haunting, melodic sound of Malinowski’s guitar on the track “White Deer.” It was the first time I heard the tone of the song, and the first time I would get a real feel for what our director was looking to achieve. The song was played with saturating volume, the tempo slow, and it cast a spell over us. I am a hyper-aware introvert and holding hands with a stranger of the same sex was a hyper-real experience on its own, but I barely noticed the camera hovering around us.

Filming of White Deer, Photo © Alessandra Nicole 2014

At first, we were to sit as still as possible. Severals takes were made. In between, we smiled, and fixed one another・s hair and masks. I was in the company of extraordinary women; it was as if the setting and the music had peeled off our earthly bodies and we were these radiant young souls. The more vulnerable and transparent one of us became about a wrinkle or an ill-placed strand of hair, the stronger we became, and the greater we were as a formed circle.

When I stole looks across the plated offerings at our knees to the ladies facing me through the ill-aligned holes in my Zorro mask, I saw our manufactured golden sunshine creating angelic halos around their heads. Something quite special was happening to us. Soon, we were on our feet, dancing in slow motion, hands waving around.

Malinowski coached us in that the footage was going to be slowed down so that we would appear to be in slow motion, but I felt that it was already happening, in that way you feel when you are aware that you・re going from merely buzzed to full-blown drunk. Although we were all clearly sober, time was slowing in the most peculiar and special way.

There was one part to the shoot left. Alhough it was raining, Malinowski asked if we would be willing to go outside and dance in the elements. I looked to the other women, and it was a universal understanding that this was the perfect evolution of the day — to ground our collective heightened spiritual experience by dancing in the rain in the cold Landenberg afternoon.

A few of us removed our shoes and decided to dance barefoot. We ran outside and gathered at a tree behind the cottage, and without any external music guiding as at all, we danced together, slowly, beneath an overcast sky while rooted to the earth beneath our tender feet. The more I trampled the frozen world beneath me, the more I felt vested by the women around me, and existence itself, to stay vibrant, new, open.

a frame from

a frame from “White Deer” by cinematographer Robert James Stuart

I left the set of Malinowski’s music video feeling transformed. His cottage and his song provided the backdrop to such a special synergy that I will not easily forget. It’s wondrous when you’re open to brand new experiences to begin with. My own reaction to life prior to this had been one of isolation, but to meet creative women who are all on the same stage, was like seeing the glow of a lighthouse after having been at sea for too long, and getting to dance with that beam of light.

I want to live in that light, to bask in that light.

Still from

a frame from “White Deer” by cinematographer Robert James Stuart

Alessandra Nicole is a writer and photographer. Her essay, “Like a Ballerina in the Air,” appeared in the Fall 2014 edition of Landenberg Today. To learn more about her, visit www.alessandranicole.com. Other published essays include: “Sunlight, Held Together by Water,” which appeared in Fall 2014’s edition of Kennett Square Today magazine, and “Requiem for a Tree,” which first appeared in the Fall 2013 edition of West Chester and Chadds Ford Life magazine.

To view the “White Deer” video, visit: The Collingwood: “White Deer” Official Music Video, on YouTube.

Alessandra's article in Landenberg's 10th Anniversary edition, spring 2015

page 3 of Alessandra's article

Landenberg Today Magazine, Spring 2015

Such Great Heights

Today, for a magazine piece, I climbed into the cockpit of a restored 1946 Fairchild 24. Google it. It’s special.

What most don’t know is that some 13 years ago, I was quietly studying for my pilot’s license at a small airport outside of Annapolis, MD on rt 50. I had a career in Washington, DC at the time. Very soon into my flight training, 9/11 happened and my school was shut down for a federal audit, and my job in DC got pretty busy (overwhelming, actually) so I didn’t have time to continue training anyway.

I flew out to the Chesapeake Bay today from PA.. We landed a little over 3 hours ago and I’m STILL trying to come down!

20140721-222134-80494218.jpg