Woman aspires to change treatment of prisoners

By Corene Brisendine

Dropping out of high school and spending time in jail changed one Manhattan woman’s life for the better.

Marilyn Ortega said her experiences helped her develop a passion for changing how society deals with people who have made bad decisions in their lives. She said she plans to work on that change after she graduates from K-State.

Ortega, 30, said growing up in Manhattan influenced how she views the world.

She said she was “academically successful” until 10th grade. At that point, she dropped out of high school, and things got worse long before they got better.

“I actually dropped out of high school when I was 16,” she said. “I dropped out because I felt that Manhattan High had some issues and didn’t support me as an individual.”

Ortega said she had been an honor-roll student, on track to graduate early, and had great support from teachers — so studious one might have called her a teacher’s pet. Then her grades started slipping. Ortega said she began befriending people who were looked upon as “criminal types.” She said the culmination of those two things led to the school no longer playing a supportive role and becoming dismissive of her and her academic career.

After dropping out, Ortega’s life spiraled downward. She began drinking too much. She was arrested multiple times for DUI and spent a couple of days in the Riley County Jail.

“Five minutes in those cells is very degrading and dehumanizing,” she said. “Society creates these systems of oppression.”

She said that rather than helping her get out of the situation she had put herself in, the judicial system helped keep her in that place of self-destructive behavior.

She said spending 48 hours inside a jail cell helped shape who she is today and gave her insight and understanding into how we treat criminals.

“The way society deals with these issues is a problem,” she said. “Punishment does not help them come out of that space they are in. It’s not about making you safer, it’s about social control. It breaks my heart that society wants to throw these people away.”

She said she is disturbed by the fact that many people in prison are there for “victimless crimes,” that is, drug abuse and addiction. Rehab programs and counseling are more constructive solutions, she said.

She also said there is a problem with the disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics in jail compared with the number of whites, which she said demonstrates widespread prejudices within society.

Ortega said she herself is half white and half Mexican, but she does not consider herself white.

As “a woman of color” she said she felt society had turned its back on her after she went to jail rather than helping her get back to a better “space” where she could be a positive, contributing member of society.

Ortega left Manhattan and spent a few years living and working in San Francisco. She said she enjoyed the new life she made there but returned for her family. She came back to Kansas with a new outlook on life.

She decided to finish high school and go to Kansas State University. Once there, she took a couple of American ethnic studies courses and found her passion and her major. Then, while on track for that degree, she took a couple of women’s studies classes and chose to pursue a double major.

Ortega said she plans to graduate in December. After that, she said she is not certain where she will be, but wherever it is, she plans to be working with people and pushing herself to change the world she sees.

She said the focus is not to change society as a whole, but the individuals within it. She said everyone — black, white, and every other ethnicity living in the United States — has prejudices. She wants everyone to be able to identify those and change their thinking about them.  She said she still struggles with her own, but that does not stop her from wanting to help others.

“It’s really time we take a look at ourselves and push to be a better place,” she said.

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