Shay Bennett on incarceration, transformation, and blooming

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Springfield resident and author Shay Bennett. Photo provided

“Queer people have this fight in them to not give up, that seems to go unquenched. Please, please never give up.”

Shay Bennett came to Illinois in 1999 to do a photoshoot for Calvin Klein.

During the trip, Bennett was assaulted and defended herself, resulting in the death of her attacker. Unable to afford an attorney due to the recent purchase of a home for herself and her mother, Bennett would spend the next 23 years incarcerated in a state she intended to visit briefly. After spending 23 years incarcerated, Bennett now has a BA in sociology, an MA in theology, is a public speaker, a published author, and an ordained Buddhist chaplain in the Nyingma tradition.

Shay Bennett in front of the Illinois State Capitol. Photo provided

Her first book “The Petunias Are Doing Amazing” was written and published while Bennett was still incarcerated. Now, after being freed in July 2022, she is living and working in Springfield and is sharing her gifts and her story with the community.

I spoke to Bennett recently during her lunch break. Her voice is kind and calm. Even when speaking about the harsh realities of federal prison, she speaks with compassion and composure. When asked about her story, she dove right it. Bennett used to model pre-transition for Calvin Klein between 1997 and 1999. In 1999, she came to Illinois to do a photoshoot and was here for only 6 hours before being assaulted. She fought back, and her attacker died.

“Being a queer person in prison is one of the worst things that a person could ever live through,” Bennett revealed. “I haven’t met one gay or trans person who wasn’t beaten up.”

Bennett spent 12 years angry and frustrated about her unjust circumstances. One day, she called her mother to talk, and her mother intervened. “When are you going to bloom? This isn’t who you are.” After her mother said that to her, she decided it was time for a change.

After 12 years, Bennett began a horticulture class at Pinckneyville Correctional Center. “It changed my life,” she said with a smile. “For 12 years I was behind bars, looking at the world but not being able to touch it. Now I could touch the world again and have a garden.” The ability to help something physical bloom had a powerful effect on her and catalyzed a great change.

Bennett completed the horticulture program with a 4.0 GPA and went on to complete an associate’s and a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Bennett soon developed an interest in theology through the queer lens.

“I thought that if I found a truth, I could share it with other people and save them.”

After a facility transfer, Bennett started sharing that truth with others. She worked on a volunteer basis with the peer educator and prison chaplain to teach anger management and lifestyle redirection courses. She also helped orientate new prisoners to prison life. A shift came when she volunteered to sit hospice with a fellow prisoner who was dying. Bennett felt that nobody, regardless of where or who they are, should have die alone.

The experience had a profound effect on her and strengthened her calling to this work. Soon after, Bennett got in contact with Tulku Sang-Nang Tenzin Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist lama. When she told him her story, he immediately took her on as his student.

When asked about her journey to chaplaincy, Bennett laughed “It was definitely a journey.”

Working with Tricia Myoshin Teater of the Udumbara Center, she trained to become a Buddhist chaplain through correspondence learning. While continuing her education, she taught an ecumenical nondenominational meditation class that she describes as “the most transformational thing I have ever done.” In that class were people from all walks of life, learning to center themselves together.

“What I saw in that class is what I would love to see from society,” she said. Inspired, Bennett worked with her editor to create a foundation, The Inside Outside Study Group. The program connected incarcerated people with people on the outside and allowed prisoners to realize that someone cared about them outside of the prison. Unfortunately, the program was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the connections made are still being maintained.

Bennett maintained a horticulture journal from her transformational encounter in the greenhouse. She sent it to her editor “who went nuts over it”. Initially reserved about the prospect of something so personal being published, her editor pushed her to transform the journal into the book “The Petunias Are Doing Amazing.” She completed it during her incarceration, and it was published one year prior to her release.

The book is about transformation, horticulture, Bennett’s personal journey, and how these concepts intertwine. When asked about the response to the book, she joyfully said, “It’s sold all across the world… People have reached out via emails and emotional responses and I’m so thankful for all the hope and help that people gave us.”

With no sign of slowing down, Bennett will be releasing another book next year. It’s 572 pages that she wrote “in spite of difficult circumstances.” She wrote most of the book while in prison, and after being released in July 2022, she wrote the final chapter.

After 23 long years of incarceration, Bennett was able to start hormone therapy this spring and found a place to live in Springfield. Despite her impressive resume, she says that “looking for a job was met with doors slammed in my face.”

After working a series of serving gigs, she found work at Walgreens. One day, she went into the store and told her story to the manager, Derick St. Grass. Upon hearing her story, he told her that he wanted her to work for him. St. Grass argued with the corporation to make sure that there would be a place for her at the store. Bennett was hired and was a manager by the next month.

Since her reentry, Bennett has continued her transformational work. She did a speech on the steps of the state capitol about violence against trans people. She recently completed a series of public speaking events in Chicago and has plans to complete a third book after the release of her second book next year.

@shaybennett22

This is the rally alto bring awareness to Anti Trans Violence. October 1st, 2022.

♬ original sound – shaybennett22

At multiple points in our conversation, Bennett expressed her overwhelming gratitude for the people in her life who have helped her get to where she is today. Particularly her mother, Tulku Sang-Nang Tenzin Rinpoche, Tricia Myoshin, and Derick St. Grass.

When asked about her plans she said, “I’m looking to grow with reentry. I’m good with people, and I want to get rid of the assumptions. I want to move up in the Walgreens company because there’s a place for me there… I want to continue speaking and writing.”

Bennett is a woman who transformed during great struggles. She ended our conversation with this advice for the queer community.

“Never give up, I love queer people because we are all subject to people putting us down and misgendering and slights and it can beat a person down. Queer people have this fight in them to not give up, that seems to go unquenched. Please, please never give up.”

The queer community continues to endure suffering and injustice, and people like Bennett remind us of why we must keep going and share our stories. “If you can save just one’s person life then I think that’s what I was sent here to do.”

Bennett’s first book, “The Petunias Are Doing Amazing,” can be purchased at https://www.amazingpetunias.com/

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