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by Katie Ford
The image of his slender, ebony fingers writing words of support to Brenda brought the hot sting of tears to my eyes.
How different these hands are from the ones that used to touch Brenda.
I first met Brenda in prison in the fall of 2013 when she enrolled in the Talk to Me Writing class I was volunteer facilitating for Truth Be Told. She spoke very little and mostly kept to herself. I remember finding small joy in the moments she would make eye contact with me or offer a quick smile. Over eight weeks in Talk to Me, she and the other women in her class learned how to write and share the story of what they believe led them to prison.
In those same eight weeks, I was also learning.
I learned how hands can break bones and the human spirit.
I learned how hands can violate and reduce.
I learned how hands can leave scars undetectable to the eye.
I learned how hands can erect walls around the heart.
I learned how hands can pave roads to very dark places.
I learned how hands can self-inflict pain, because pain is most familiar.
I also learned — with certainty during that semester — that my hands are capable of holding space for sharing difficult truths. My hands can build a foundation for safe community. My hands can plant seeds of hope in soil long left unattended.
I witnessed Brenda and her fellow classmates using their hands to remove the masks that no longer felt true in their hearts and to unearth the wisdom in their stories. I witnessed Brenda letting go of what haunted her and gathering the courage to write new chapters in her life story.
At graduation, she took my breath away. In an unscripted moment, Brenda stepped up to the microphone and read a thank-you letter she had written to her classmates and me. I remember my heart knocking against my ribcage as she spoke. Here stood a woman who, only eight weeks before, admitted to me that she was learning to read and write and wasn’t sure she could participate in the class. Here stood a woman who, only eight weeks before, did not speak unless spoken to.
Here stood a woman who, only eight weeks before, was invisible to me but now stood before me as one of my greatest teachers.
Brenda helped me to see what I am capable of evoking in others. She ignited in me a fire that continues to burn. Through witnessing her journey, I gained clarity about the path I am to walk in my life.
So, last week, when I saw the image of those slender, ebony fingers writing words of support to Brenda, I broke down and cried.
Those hands belong to Edwin Medearis, a Truth Be Told board member. Edwin is one of many in Truth Be Told’s “beyond bars” community who signed a quilt made especially for Brenda, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in October and started chemotherapy in November.
Because of the choices she has made since being released from prison in 2014, Brenda has a very different kind of community surrounding her now. She is not alone as she fights the cancer that has spread to her lymph nodes. She has her Truth Be Told community, her church community, and her school community. She has people who uplift her, who remind her of how far she has come, who support her sobriety, and encourage the changes she wants to see in her life. She has people who will hold her hand, pray with her, laugh with her, and listen.
Yes, these are very different hands that touch Brenda’s life today, and she is the one who made it happen. She used the tools that were offered to her to create a life worth living … and now worth fighting for.
On October 17, 2015 the board members, volunteers, and graduates of Truth Be Told came together in celebration of our community. Because no one can properly celebrate on an empty stomach, a light brunch was served — including coffee, juice, pastries, and breakfast tacos (in true Texan style).
The Journey Imperfect Faith Community graciously let us use their space for the event. It was just the perfect size for our little soiree, cozy but not crowded. As people milled in, the room filled with a positive energy that was palpable, and just as invigorating as the coffee.
Board Member and Facilitator Donna Snyder took on the additional role of MC for the affair. She kicked off the event with a warm introduction for the first speaker, the “heart and soul of our Beyond Bars program,” Director of Programs Carol Waid.
Carol told us about Karen, a Truth Be Told graduate that has written Carol enough letters from prison to fill a book. Literally. Karen plans for the letters to form the bulk of a book she’ll write called Against All Odds. The letters are especially beautiful, not only because of their written content but also because each is also a piece of original artwork. Karen drew incredible pictures on the backs of each page.
Karen was released from prison October 2014, and is still in touch with Carol. She jokes that she now has “high class problems,” like having to get up late at night to change her grandson’s diaper. Those are the kinds of problems we love for our graduates to have!
After Carol told Karen’s success story, Elizabeth, whom Donna called a “star graduate,” took to the podium to tell hers. Elizabeth signed up for the Truth Be Told public speaking class when a judge mandated she deliver speeches as part of the terms of her release.
Elizabeth said the class, “changed me, or it reminded me of who I’d always been. By the time I was done with their class, prison wasn’t a prison anymore. I was freer in my life than I’d ever been.”
Chair of the Board Autumn Schwartz then spoke about her introduction to Truth Be Told as an internal auditor. Autumn ended up falling in love with the organization, becoming a full time volunteer, and picking up the reins as passionate Chair of the Board in 2013. She expressed her excitement for the future of Truth Be Told and for those involved in the mission.
Following Autumn was graduate Sandra. Sandra’s been out of prison a little less than six months. She shared the story of how another graduate at the event, Rutanya, recently helped her find employment. How wonderful that our community could support Sandra in such a tangible way during her transition to life outside of prison!
Next facilitators Sue Ellen Crossfield and Becky Deering spoke about how much they’ve gained from their experience teaching classes in prison. Becky told us teaching her classes each week gives her strength; the women inspire her. Sue said, “The women who have been inside tell us how much we give them, but it’s really them who give so much to us.”
Donor and Mentor Margaret Kahn was the last official speaker — though her mentee, Dara, jumped in with heartwarming words of love from the audience. Margaret talked about how she met Dara, and how their relationship has strengthened and changed them both over the years.
In summation Margaret said, “This is the most powerful thing I have ever done in my life.”
The event closed with a community circle honoring Co-Founder Nathalie Sorrell, who retires from facilitating this year. Nathalie will remain a strong advocate for the cause — and will always remain in the thoughts and our hearts of the people she’s touched within our community. Everyone held hands around Nathalie and shared impressions the days’ stories had left with them. There were smiles, some tears, and lots of laughter.
We said our goodbyes, and though we left in separate cars, we left as a strengthened community, excited to look down the road ahead.
On Oct. 13, Truth Be Told program graduate Dara Musick and volunteer facilitator Katie Ford gave a presentation at the 16th Biannual Adult and Juvenile Female Offenders Conference in Hartford, Conn. It is the only conference in the nation that focuses exclusively on programs and policies tailored for women and girls involved in the criminal justice system. The conference addresses mothers and child care, financial stability and income, prostitution and human trafficking, domestic violence or intimate partner violence, trauma, and different pathways to criminal behavior.
In their presentation, Dara and Katie spoke about Truth Be Told’s Talk to Me Series and the tools we call the 4 Cs: Community building, Communication skills, Creativity and Caring for Self.
We invite you to visit Katie’s website to read a summary of their experience in Connecticut and what it was like to share their stories with a national audience.
We should never doubt the power of our stories!
by Jardine Libaire
Last week, I was so lucky and happy to be a witness at the Truth Be Told Talk to Me graduation at the MTC Lockhart Correctional Center. This was my introduction to Truth Be Told (TBT)—looking at Katie Ford’s website one day, I read about the TBT program and wanted to know more. The potential of a writing workshop in prison has always seemed massive to me—incarcerated people (and subsequently society) are better served if they’re offered tools for reformation and introspection even while they experience the punishment of being imprisoned. Living in prison might also be a person’s first chance to slow down and take stock, especially if they’re coming from a chaotic and rough life.
The writing process (which of course begins as a thinking and considering and remembering process) has been the backbone to any spiritual, moral, and emotional growth I’ve made in my own life. I’d be lost without a pen and paper. Stranded. A phenomenal teacher taught me when I was ten to write—not to echo ideas I’d heard, or create tales I thought people would like to read—but to start with the building blocks of my own visions and memories and my sensory life and my dreams and my observations of my immediate world, and to think, and to make something out of all that, to treat it like valuable material. To head into the process without guarantees, to explore, and to see what I could discover. I’m forever grateful to him, and to the teachers who followed.
I’d never been inside a prison, and TBT co-founder Carol Waid kindly sent me guidelines for volunteers coming into the facility. We could not bring cell phones, or tobacco products, or handguns (of course). We couldn’t wear all white, or revealing clothes, or short skirts, or sweat suits. No facial jewelry. Our shoes had to be closed toe, with a back. We shouldn’t mail letters for an inmate, or hug them, or ask when they’re getting out. We couldn’t have more than $25 on us, or a bottle of prescribed pills. I kept rereading this list, worried I would mess something up.
Our group of guests, volunteers, and workshop facilitators signed in that afternoon and met the women who were graduating in a big room with fluorescent lights, plastic chairs, and a scuffed floor. The women sat with us, fidgeting with the sleeves of their jumpsuits, grinning nervously, and we all introduced ourselves to each other.
The graduation wasn’t just a ceremony of passage, but a reading. The women had worked all session to discover their own stories, to write them out, and then to deliver them to an audience, which is what they did that day.
And I was just floored, jaw hanging, eyes wide, eyes wet, heart beating. I know this could sound melodramatic, but these ladies crushed it. Their stories were radioactive with honesty, dark humor, bravado, tenderness, bloody pain, maternal pride, rage, old-fashioned gratitude, and that very delicate and intricate thing—hope.
They hadn’t pasteurized their memories; they used raw material to create real portrayals. Their details were vicious, vivid, unexpected—and hard-won, because all good writing is hard-won. The women had ventured past safe and comfortable tropes and clichés and bush-wacked their own paths to their own true story. No one is ever the same after doing that kind of expedition. You better understand yourself, the way you function, the world you came from, how it affects you; knowing this personal territory, you have leverage in future situations. At least that’s been my experience, and I heard the premonition of it in these women’s stories, too.
But these stories weren’t just illuminating to their own authors. They filled in abstract reports we all hear on poverty, crime rates, domestic violence, disability. These women used details like a ferris wheel seen in a dream, smelling faint perfume on a sister’s letter, stolen makeup, and basketball courts to make their lives real to everyone listening.
Statistics often seem simple, but it’s harder to reconcile (and impossible to forget) the personal account of someone who as an 11-year-old sold crack to her mother; or a girl who knows love mainly from being sexually abused by her father; or a mother dealing drugs to give her kids a childhood free of the violence and hunger she lived through, but getting busted and losing her family entirely.
I looked at the facilitators with great respect since writing like that just doesn’t come out of typical workshops!
There was a dearth of self-pity or blame. Ambition and self-knowledge took up more space. I only fear that the outside world, when a woman is released, will threaten her sense of self and her goals, but, as Katie said in a closing moment, the best thing anyone can do is believe in these women. Fear isn’t useful.
And so we left the prison, exiting into the parking lot, past the razor-wire fencing. We didn’t take anything concrete with us, but I definitely left richer, laden with new knowledge and insight, carrying stories into the world beyond. It made me think for the first time in a firsthand way about oral storytelling traditions and how they’ve saved and protected cultures and individual souls from extinction in the collective consciousness. Stories don’t trigger metal detectors either, and they can go wherever there is life.
Today we have a guest blog by Christina Wisdom:
In my life, I have graduated four times. In 1993, I graduated from high school in a packed coliseum where my parents and family could hardly pick me out of a crowd, much less really see me as I walked across the stage to get my diploma. In 1997, I graduated from a prestigious, small liberal arts college in a more intimate setting, surrounded by my family and some of the best friends I had ever made. In 2003, I graduated from law school and in 2004, was sworn in to practice law with my fellow graduates who had also passed the bar exam. Once again, I was in a packed auditorium, but this ceremony had special meaning as I raised my right hand and pledged to uphold the laws and ethics of the State of Texas. My father had passed away while I was in law school and my siblings were scattered around the country, so my mom witnessed my accomplishment and we had a wonderful lunch afterwards, followed by a big party thrown by some close friends.
In 2015, I graduated from the Truth Be Told (TBT) Speaking Class as a Facilitator in Training. This time, my fellow classmates were female inmates serving time in a state penitentiary. They were dressed in all white, and our ceremony was in a large prison gymnasium where we sat in plastic chairs, surrounded by warehouse equipment, with a spotty (at best) sound system that kept going in and out. My family wasn’t there. Most of the witnesses for my graduation were women I had never met who, like me, were interested in working with women in prison. It was an emotional day, and I struggled to keep it together as our class-elected speakers told the stories of their lives. We had been practicing for this; it had all been rehearsed and planned. What I did not plan for was the feeling that this was the most important, meaningful graduation day of my life.
I became a TBT volunteer only a few short months ago. I found TBT through a series of acquaintances that led me to meet the founders of the program, Carol and Nathalie. After a few conversations, they invited me to join Nathalie’s TBT Speaking Class at the Lockhart facility as a Facilitator in Training. It was explained to me that my role would be to help Nathalie in the classroom, but that above all else, I was a student. I was there to learn along with the inmates who signed up for the class. Nathalie was going to teach us how to write and tell our stories in just a few short minutes. Having done a lot of professional speaking, in addition to sharing my story multiple times in my recovery program, I entered this experience thinking it would be a piece of cake. I couldn’t imagine that I would learn much more about myself than I already knew.
Boy, was I wrong! I can honestly say that the work I have done in the last nine weeks has been some of the most transformative in my recovery and in my life. Doing the work was hard – going back in time and reliving things I did not want to face was tough enough – but to do it with complete strangers who had a much harder time in life than I had was extremely intimidating. I often thought, “What do I have to complain about? My life wasn’t hard compared to the lives these women had. And, I get to do this work from the comfort of my cozy couch with a cup of hot tea in my hand.” But what I learned in the process of doing this work astounded me.
I realized that we are all in prison, some of us literally, but all of us emotionally and spiritually to some degree. Through the work, I was able to see patterns of behavior in my own life that have kept me locked up inside, and my classmates surrounded and supported me through my journey. When it was my turn to tell my story, I saw nods of encouragement and big smiles, and when I was done, I received enthusiastic applause. We were all in this work together, and I felt a sense of community and solidarity that I have rarely found in the free world.
The eight women that I graduated with on October 2, 2015 in Lockhart prison will always hold a very special place in my heart. They are some of the bravest, strongest, kindest women I have ever, and will ever meet. They are not different from me. We have all made bad choices; their choices have just had different consequences than mine. I think of them often and pray for them constantly, as I believe they are doing for me. Because of this work we did together, we will always be united. And, hopefully, at some point, we will all be free.
Carol Waid is one of the founders of Truth Be Told and serves as our Director of Programs. She says that connecting with our graduates when they are released and participating in our Beyond Bars Program is the work reward that makes her heart sing. After an early morning check-in call with a graduate, she shared what determination and success look like.
Seven months ago, Tara was released from the Lockhart Unit. This morning she set her alarm so that she could check in with me before 8:00 a.m. When she was in our prison classes, she was loyal, dedicated, enthusiastic, willing, hard-working and determined. She graduated from both Let’s Get Real and TTM Writing. In Let’s Get Real, I give certificates for perfect attendance and Tara set her mind to getting that certificate. One day, she came to class with a fever (which I don’t recommend) and another day, with her jaw bulging from a tooth ache when she wasn’t able to say much more than, “I am here.” My heart aches and my tummy rolls when I think about how she did that.
Before being released, Tara made the decision to set boundaries with her abusive husband. He was also incarcerated and she let him know she would not stay in her violent marriage. Her poem below, Letter From My Wise Self, that she wrote as one of the TTM Discovery exercises expresses that she came to know who she is and what she wants out of life. Tara’s soon to be ex-husband has been released and she has continued to keep her boundaries. This is so huge!
Since her release, Tara has been living with a woman who gave her a safe place until she can go back to her home state. She hasn’t seen her mother and son since 2010, but her parole officer just gave her permission to go home for five days at Thanksgiving. She is so excited! She talks to her mom several times a day and she always reminds Tara to connect with her support system. At the end of our conversation she said, “I will talk to mom later and tell her that I checked in with you.” This made me smile and it’s one of the reasons that TBT’s Beyond Bars is important to all of us.
Tara’s personal transformation was internal but she is demonstrating it by her accomplishments:
- She has been working at McDonald’s since June and got a raise after three days.
- She was employee of the month and was given a $25 gift certificate.
- She likes working long hours because she has made enough to pay rent and still send some to her son.
- Tara is active in her Narcotics Anonymous group.
- Her parole officer has removed her “high-risk” status and is considering her for early release. He says she is the “poster child” for how to be a parolee.
Tara has checked in with me six times to fill me in on how she is doing and fulfill her commitment to our Beyond Bars Program. Just like her perfect attendance, she now has her sight on the quilt that she will receive after three years of being released, not reoffending, and staying in touch.
I asked her how it felt to be the employee of month. “It felt deserved. I have worked hard to prove myself. The other employees, well they can find jobs a dime a dozen, but with my background I have to prove myself. I love my job, where I work the night shift.”
My morning has been blessed by Tara. I love it when these calls come in to remind me of the importance of our work, but also how important it is for our graduates to have beyond bars emotional support. Cheerleading is awesome!
Letter From My Wise Self
You have come a long way from where you use to be.
You know now not to let men abuse you.
You have come very wise to this.
So you know not to go back.
You know now you can be a leader, not a follower.
You have come wise to this.
You know things are going to be different for you now.
You have come wise to this.
You know you will be accepted in life.
You have come wise to this.
In all in all, you are a very wise lady.
Don’t ever forget that.
We have started our 2015 fall semester in the prisons, so it is a good time to answer questions we get asked frequently. “Are there differences in the prisons you go to?” “Are the women the same wherever you go?” “How is jail different from prison?”
Truth Be Told provides programs for women behind bars at five correctional facilities and each one has unique features and different offender populations. Even though the women we meet are living in different environments and facing diverse futures, from an upcoming release date to a 30 year sentence, they have similar needs. We all share the need to be seen, heard and loved. We strive to make meaning of our journeys through self-reflection and sharing our stories. We heal by being authentic and vulnerable in a safe community.
Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) gives every inmate a custody designation and each prison houses certain custody levels from the least restrictive at G1 to the most secure at G5 and then Administrative Segregation. The TDCJ Offender Orientation Handbook explains:
“On the unit of assignment, an offender is given a custody designation which indicates several things. It tells where and with whom he can live, how much supervision he will need, and what job he can be assigned to. An offender’s custody level depends on his current institutional behavior, his previous institutional behavior, and his current offense and sentence length. If the offender violates any rules, he may be placed in a more restrictive custody. If the offender complies with the rules, he may be assigned a less restrictive custody level.”
Lockhart Correctional Facility is the only privately run prison we work in. At the end of August, the Management and Training Corporation (MTC) will assume administration of the prison. In 2015, the Lockhart Unit was converted to an all-female facility that houses 1,000 inmates. We look forward to working with MTC because of their emphasis on education and training and the use of Gender Responsive practices. The Lockhart Unit is where Truth Be Told began fifteen years ago and where we have always offered the most programing. Lockhart houses the least restrictive, G1 and G2, custody level inmates and has an onsite prison work program in partnership with a private company. This is the only facility where we offer Let’s Get Real to help women with a release date of nine months or less prepare for returning to the community.
TDCJ Hilltop Unit is in Gatesville. This is a smaller facility with about 500 inmates with G1-3 custody levels. Our monthly Exploring Creativity Workshops are provided for the 28 women who are housed together in the Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP). These women really appreciate the creative aspects TBT brings to promote healing, such as writing, movement, and improvisation.
TDCJ psychologist, Anne Mooney, LCSW Program Supervisor, asserts, “Women who commit sexual offenses have a distorted understanding of emotional relationships. Within the therapeutic community, offenders have an opportunity to develop and practice healthier ways of interacting. Women gain the skills to identify and meet their emotional needs. The treatment requires tough honesty, but they agree that the healing is worth it.”
TDCJ Dr. Lane Murray Unit is another of the cluster of women’s prisons in Gatesville. It houses 1,341 women with G1-4 custody levels and is the only prison we go to that has Administrative Segregation or “Ad Seg” which the Handbook explains as:
“Administrative segregation, refers to offenders who must be separated from the general population because they are dangerous, either to other offenders or staff, or they are in danger from other offenders… These offenders leave their cells, for the most part, only for showers and limited recreation.”
Women in Ad Seg can’t attend our programs, but just walking by their building drives home the harsher realities of prisons; they call out from their windows and toss pieces of paper to get attention. The Murray Unit is where we have come to know more women with longer sentences, 20 years, 35 years, whose convictions are connected to more grievous crimes. The dynamics of working with women who are facing many years in prison are leading us to shape our programs to their unique needs.
The Lady Lifers: A moving song from women in prison for life is a video from TEDx at Muncy State Prison that expresses some of their emotions.
Federal Prison Camp in Bryan, a minimum security prison with 847 women, is the only federal-level facility we visit. It sits on a former community college campus that isn’t even completely fenced. The inmates are non-violent offenders with average sentences of five years. They know that if they left the grounds they would be moved to maximum security and have years added to their sentences. Even though the facility has an abundance of programs, the administration asked Truth Be Told to provide Talk To Me because it is unlike any other program. Facilitating at FPC Bryan feels a little like going to a community college to teach a class.
Travis County Jail in Del Valle houses about 2,500 men and women in a variety of stages with the criminal justice system. We work with women in two programs that the jail Social Services Director administers, PRIDE for the general population and PEACE for women in maximum security. Women get in the program because they expect to be there for at least a few weeks, but most are working their way through the court system and have not yet been sentenced. They are dealing with legal uncertainties (what their final charges will be, what court they will go to, and what type of plea bargain they will be offered) and emotional personal uncertainties (who will take care of their children, will their families stand by them). Because of these factors Making Connections is 20 stand-alone classes that help with emotional well being and self-management.