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From Behind Bars to Beyond Bars: Dream Big

Introduction: Truth Be Told facilitators met Karen in 2010 at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville. She enrolled in the two classes Truth Be Told offered at that prison, Talk to Me–Circle and Talk to Me–Speaking, multiple times, and then she served as an excellent class mentor.

Karen used to say how much she loved the women in white [the uniform at Gatesville], and she was the mother wisdom of love, acceptance, and appreciation for her classmates.

Karen was released in October 2014 and has stayed in touch through our Beyond Bars program. She loves to express herself and her big dreams through writing and drawing.

By Karen

Truth Be Told came to me by way of a huge miracle against all odds. I came into the prison system desperate and broken. Fear, bad choices, and booze trapped me long before a prison cell. Little did I know that God had already forged a plan, and that faith, hope, and love would set me free.

The TBT facilitators, Carol and Nathalie, taught me to never give up, that I had my own story to tell, and that I had a vision and a special purpose on this earth. I had to let go of the idea that I could have had a different past. I began to believe that what the enemy meant for harm, God was causing to work out for my good.

TBT is a safe and trusted community that taught us to use our voices and experiences to inspire a healing power of restoration in body, mind, and spirit. I am convinced that we overcome by telling and owning our own stories; the good and the bad are interwoven to make us who we are. TBT is living out loud: building integrity and character with expression of genuine heartfelt experiences using words, body language, respectful listening, arts, music, and dance, but most of all our voices.

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Daring to be true, to speak and believe the truth, says it all for me. Life and Death are in the power of the tongue. TBT has taught me a better way of making decisions and to use my talents and abilities to bless others, to make a difference in our world today. I especially love when we combine our creative gifts to inspire and encourage and set a standard of excellence that states that the little things are big things. Both behind and beyond bars, the moments are unforgettable!

There are no limits or boundaries to what we can accomplish together. TBT brought light and love into a dark place, and the light shone so vividly and gloriously that it changed my life forever. I knew for the first time that there was still good in the world and that I should prepare to win because I was in the midst of winners! God put the perfect people in my life.

I am determined to make the most of the opportunities I’ve been given and to capture the dream that the Lord planted in my mind and heart. TBT pays it forward by letting us know that are not forgotten with the most profound love and generosity. The untamed gratitude I feel spills over into every area of my world, making the destination well worth the journey. The transforming truth we tell allows us to savor life’s sweet moments and to rise above the bitter ones with grace and power. We embrace this new beginning as brave and courageous Princess Warriors with a fearless passion that is bold and beautiful.

It’s your day to do something powerful! To Connect, To Relax, To Learn, To Experience, To Grow, To Create, To Enjoy, To Celebrate, To Love! The extraordinary inspiration and TBT are very good medicine.

A Singular Grief: Losing a Parent While in Prison

Our most recent post on this blog, A Day In My Life in Prison, dated June 15, was written by Lori, a participant in Talk To Me – Circle. Katie Ford was the facilitator for Lori’s class.

During a classroom exercise, Katie learned that she and Lori shared a bond in the loss of a parent. Lori’s father had died just two days before. Losing a loved one under any circumstances breaks us open with grief, but the incarcerated women we serve have the added challenge of facing a loss while separated from their families and others who would be most supportive of their grieving process.

In Movement Piece No. 5, The Reunion, Katie describes her experience in class with Lori and reconnects with her own grief.

“Lori. My dad. Tuesday.” 

It is Thursday.

Her words hang in the air and, for a moment, we are all like statues. Then the woman to Lori’s right places a hand on Lori’s back and rubs a slow circle. It undoes something inside, and a sob escapes Lori before her hands can cover her mouth.

A Day in My Life in Prison

In Truth Be Told’s Talk To Me – Circle class, one of the assignments for each of the participants is writing a description of a day in her life in prison. Lori, who graduated from our Talk To Me and Discovery classes, shared her experience of being imprisoned.

By Lori

I wake up listening for the sound of keys, because 6:30 a.m. isn’t just when my day begins, it is count time and I need to know which officer is working my floor. This is probably the best predictor of how my day will go. The roving officer manually counts us in our cells and the sound of keys gives her away. She will set the tone for the bulk of my day.

There’s one, for instance, who is loved by us all. When she works, I can be assured of a couple of things: things will happen on her time and her terms and I’ll be late for work because of it. The payoff with her is she’s much more laid back, much nicer, and much more permissive than the rest.

Worst case scenario is an officer many offenders detest, and I used to be one of them. She comes in the dorm yelling and if we aren’t ready at the door, she’s liable to slam it on us or worse, come in our ‘house’ looking for compliance violations. It’s best to shut the door, which also locks it, before she gets there.

TBTwomeninprisonWe know these officers better than they know themselves. Ask any offender and she will tell you that life in prison is about maneuvering. It’s almost a game. Being able to get from point A to point B without being stopped by the law—eyes down, head down, and moving with purpose—that’s most of the battle. We’re trying to get somewhere legitimately—supply, the library, the mailbox—and the law is trying to stop us.

To get anywhere of substance (for me that is getting to work), we get stopped, questioned, and patted down thoroughly and invasively. I worked hard for my job in the print shop, and I knew the right offender who put in a good word for me at the right time. You know, kind of like in the free world. Competition for jobs here is fierce, and the more demanding the work or the fewer women you are employed with, the higher the status, though the pay is still the same: nothing.

I work in the print shop, which isn’t really a print shop. It’s the copy and file room. When I started, there were three of us, but we do fine with just two. We make copies, print booklets, and file for the education department. It’s easy and I like it. I work Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. We get stripped naked, complete with a squat and cough going in. Depending on who else is around, it could be me alone or a group of us. Prison is no place for modesty or dignity. I left all that behind. Now it’s all about speed.

Back to the dorm for lunch where I sit with the same three women every day. We get together and trade stories and gossip but not in a mean-spirited way. We thrive on information in prison and treat it as valuable. Who moved in? Who moved out? Raids. Shakedowns. What they have at commissary. What they’re out of. Who got put in segregation? Who got a case? Who got a girlfriend? We tell it all!

We are counted about every four hours day and night, and it is serious business! If we’re in the dorm, we must ‘rack up’ which means being locked in our cells. If we’re out of the dorm, we’re counted where we are and have to stay there until ‘count clears’. Every offender on this unit must be accounted for, and we don’t move until they are. Trying to maneuver around count takes strategy and precision and even then we might miscalculate. Every choice we make we weigh against whether it could get us caught in count because most times that means we stand and wait silently in the hallway. That will invariably be the time it takes them two hours to clear count.

Once work is done, I’m in, showered, and waiting on the evening meal. That’s about it for me. I head to my cell after counts, listen to the radio, and do bible study or homework from the seminary program I’m part of here. We have teachers who come in on Tuesdays and Fridays, and in between the members of my dorm have homework and studying in addition to our individual daily obligations.

Once we are all in for the night, the noise level rises exponentially. That’s my cue to go to bed. I created a schedule that works for me. Most of us do. I guess it provides a bit of comfort here.

At the end of the writing assignment to describe a day in our lives, there were questions. These are my answers:

What has been the hardest thing about living in this environment?

I’m an intensely private person and there is no privacy in prison. And I’m not just talking about officers either. Whatever you do, someone is watching you.

What have I gotten used to that I never thought I’d survive?

Stripping naked in large groups and being yelled at all the time.

What has this experience given me in a positive way?

My life. I’d be dead were I not imprisoned.

How do I make friends?

Slowly. Carefully. Rarely. In the free world, I trust until given a reason not to. I have to dampen my optimism here. It makes me sad.

How do I avoid enemies?

By doing my best not to create enemies. I try to live with integrity…even here. People generally don’t mess with me, probably because I don’t mess with them.

What is the most unexpected consequence of being in prison?

First, I have little fear. I am surprised by that. Second, I’m mostly comfortable here and that is weird. I have food to eat, friends who write, a mom who loves me, and a clear head. I’m blessed.

What keeps me going every day?

I honestly didn’t know I had a choice.

REFLECT: Convicts’ letters to their younger selves

Photo by Corey Desrochers

Trent Bell; Photo by Corey Desrochers

At Truth Be Told, we love hearing about other prison projects and are particularly pleased when they validate our efforts and experiences. Photographer Trent Bell was moved to create a prison photo project in response to one of his friends receiving a thirty-six-year sentence.

His friend, who was in his twenties, was an educated professional with a family and Trent couldn’t stop thinking about him. In the introduction to REFLECT: Convicts’ letters to their younger selves, Trent says:

“Our bad choices can contain untold loss, remorse, and regret, but the positive value of these choices might be immeasurable if we can face them, admit to them, learn from them and find the strength to share.”

We couldn’t agree more! Our Talk To Me classes lead women through the process of understanding and then sharing their stories.

Trent photographed twelve convicts against a background of the letter each one wrote to his younger self. During the photo shoot, filmmaker Joe Carter produced REFLECT, video interviews with the men sharing what brought them to prison, what they miss the most, and how they have changed.

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Click photo to see a video of this project in a new window

In Donna Sapolin’s nextavenue article, 5 Things Older Prisoners Want You to Know, she shares how the stunning REFLECT photo project mines critical wisdom from regret.

If you see an inspirational prison project that might be appropriate for this blog, please share it with us at office@truth-be-told.org.

Food Trucks Give a New Future to the Formerly Incarcerated

Posted on

A high school English teacher quit her job to run a food truck. But this isn’t an ordinary one, reports Upworthy.

What if we could help people who have been released from prison actually stay out of prison?

Jordyn Lexton, founder of a nonprofit called DriveChange, used to teach high school English to incarcerated 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds — all of whom were convicted as adults — at Rikers Island in New York. When she saw how bleak the future looked for them once they were released from prison, she decided to do something about it.

She left teaching behind and started the nonprofit. What makes the organization special is that it hires formerly incarcerated youth to operate the trucks, giving them an opportunity to earn money and gain job skills. Both of these things help keep people who have been incarcerated from returning to prison.

The Snowday food truck, Drive Change’s first, makes $15,000 a month.

The profits are put right back into Drive Change, which hopes to expand its operations to help more people. Drive Change’s eight employees, all of whom start at $11 an hour, operate the truck, selling food inspired by maple syrup. (Yum!)

Awesome, right?! This is a case of someone seeing a problem, coming up with a solution, and taking action.

“Our plan is hopefully to make this a national model … because unfortunately, there is not a shortage of formerly incarcerated youth across the country.”
— Drive Change head chef Roy Waterman

Read the entire Upworthy story here, or watch the video below to see how Drive Change is making a difference.

My Day in Prison

Note from Carol Waid, co-founder:

Jenny attended the April 17 graduation at the GEO Lockhart facility. She was one of 20 respectful witnesses to hold the space for the 24 women that graduated from the eight-week Talk to Me classes. All 24 went on a journey of discovery looking at what led them to be incarcerated. This focus isn’t honed in on just their crimes, it’s looking at their individual lives to discover what events and experiences happened to them and what choices they made that led them to be incarcerated. This work is intense, courageous, vulnerable, brave, and so often freeing. To be a respectful witness holding the space with kindness, gentleness, and respect is a landmark in time for these women and most often for those that are willing to come in and share the gift of their time on this huge celebratory day. Read more about Jenny’s experience.
We have three more graduations on May 6, June 4, and June 5, but all of these are full and have waiting lists.  We hope you will want to join us for our fall graduations. Watch this blog for announcements.
From all of us at Truth Be Told, we thank you for helping to make a difference.

My Day in Prison

by Jenny Robertson

“Have you ever been to prison before?”

Tall, quiet but confident, Lisa asked me this as we sat talking before her graduation ceremony started. Dressed in navy blue prison scrubs, she smoothed the notebook in her lap and chuckled when I confirmed this was my first time in a prison.

“Everyone stared at you as you walked in, right? It’s so bad — we all stare, but we can’t help it. Everyone wants to know who you are and why you’re here.”

On a stormy Friday about an hour outside Austin, Texas, I and a group of 20 other volunteers spent an afternoon in the GEO Lockhart Unit with Lisa and roughly two dozen female inmates: listening to their stories, sharing our responses, even dancing with them. (Well, okay, others danced. I stood frozen awkwardly in place, because it turns out public dancing is just as uncomfortable for me inside a prison as it is in any other venue).

The day was organized by Truth Be Told, an Austin nonprofit that provides tools of community building, communication skills, creativity, and self-care for incarcerated — and formerly incarcerated — women. The idea is that, through writing, public speaking, and movement, these women can begin the healing process by confronting what has led them to prison. They explore the dark places — who has hurt them, whom they have hurt — in an honest, judgment-free zone.

women writing with katie and carol

They were graduating after eight weeks of class, and we served as an audience of respectful listeners. The stories they shared weren’t necessarily surprising, but were nonetheless horrifying and sad — stories of sexual abuse, drug use, of continuing the cycle and inflicting trauma upon their own children. One woman robbed several pharmacies in hopes of being arrested and finding a safe place in jail. Another spoke of her father plying her with alcohol to the point of blacking out the night of her high school graduation; as she crossed to the dais to pick up her Truth Be Told certificate amid standing applause, it occurred to me how different and positive this graduation must feel to her.

Despite the dark subject matter, a palpable sense of joy permeated the room. Here we were, a group of participants and volunteers, illustrating the gift of thoughtful, open listening. I forget sometimes how powerful that gift can be in a world of texts and tweets.

I was able to attend the ceremony thanks to a new AT&T initiative providing paid time off for the volunteer project of my choice. In my daily job, I talk so much about communications — machine-to-machine technology, petabytes of data over our network, call quality, and download speeds. It’s easy to lose sight that at the center of all this activity, our business is still inherently about people making connections.

Laughing with Lisa about how, indeed, everyone stared as I walked the gray line painted through the prison halls, I made a connection I would never have imagined a few days earlier. It was short, but it mattered, and I’ll carry it with me.

Truth Be Told Spring Semester Graduations

Please join us as a respectful witness to a prison graduation. At the end of the fall and spring semesters we take about 20 guests into the prisons to serve as an audience of respectful listeners. It is so meaningful to the women who are graduating that a group from the “free world” spends the time to hear their stories and appreciate their performances. It is a powerful experience that gives attendees a glimpse of our behind bars programs and the lives of incarcerated women.

We need more attendees for both of our June graduations. Please respond by May 1, 2015 to Carol Waid at office@truth-be-told.org or 512-292-6200.

  • June 4: Graduation at the Lane Murray Facility in Gatesville. We leave Austin in a carpool caravan at 2 p.m. and arrive home at about 10:30 p.m. Please forward this to anyone you know in the Temple, Killeen, Waco, Gatesville area to help us grow our volunteer base there.
  • June 5: Discovery Graduation at Lockhart. We meet in Lockhart at noon for a barbecue lunch and are back in Austin around 5:30.

Feel free to forward this to anyone you know who might be interested in learning more about our programs.

The Participants’ Feedback

305890_10150343354189679_367013015_nKatie Ford has been facilitating the Talk to Me Circle class for the last five years. Towards the end of the eight-week class, she asked, “As a volunteer who comes to the prison for two hours once a week, I know my view of prison life is limited. I’ve always wondered what it feels like to enter and leave our classroom. How ‘big’ is the transition? How does it feel to do what we do in here (expressing our emotions and sometimes they are very strong emotions) and then to go back?”

The women responded with the following:

  • I feel free in here.
  • I never want to leave this class. I hate when it ends.
  • I look forward to this class because I can think in here. Out there it’s always so noisy you can’t even hear yourself think.
  • I am able to cry in here.
  • It’s exhausting. My friends tell me I look tired and I tell them it’s because I just came from this class.
  • I can breathe in here.
  • This class is a highlight of my day. It’s like when I get mail.
  • I have a private face and a public face. They’re not dramatically different, but they are not the same. I wear my public face out there. I can wear my private face in here.

Often the women tell us that our programs are different from other programs. One women expressed:

“Y’all let us heal ourselves instead of telling us we need to heal.” Then another said: “Yeah, we don’t like it when people come in here and start telling us what they think we need.”

Special Graduation for Nathalie

IMG_0292On April 17, Nathalie Sorrell joined a group attending the Talk To Me graduation at Lockhart and came full circle from fifteen years ago. In February 2000, Nathalie stepped into the Lockhart facility to begin a program called Telling Your Story. She advertised this program on a handmade poster that offered to guide the women through a process to share their story with juveniles in an effort to prevent the juveniles from following in their footsteps.

This program was effective and the probation officers reported that the youth spoke about the impact on their way back to their facility. However, the program was cut within a year, because of changes in the TDCJ system. But the Warden supported the program and asked that we find another audience to support the women and their stories.

The participants of the new class named the program “Talk to Me.” We now have Talk to Me Speaking, Talk to Me Circle and Talk to Me Movement – offering three modalities of the curriculum. Each semester brings a different group of faces, but the same longings…women wanting to be seen, to be heard, and to be loved. We witness courage and bravery as each participant shares the vulnerable story of her journey that led her to incarceration.

On April 17, Nathalie came full circle as a respectful witness. She shared that she had no idea that her first tentative steps would lead to fifteen years of programs that are now offered in five facilities. One woman’s journey has sparked a transformation in many facilitators and participants. We are grateful when the women in our programs share why the programs are important to them and that this work continues to make a difference.

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