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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.
Two upcoming events will be donating a portion of their proceeds to Truth Be Told!
Art for the People Gallery
Art For The People Gallery exhibit Human/Nature opens July 9 and runs through August 16 and features Liberty Lloyd and Jules Buck Jones. Artist Liberty Lloyd was so moved by our Truth Be Told mission that she is donating a percentage of her exhibit proceeds to us. A centerpiece of the exhibit is Liberty’s three beautiful watercolor portraits of women who were executed in Texas.
Art For The People is a new gallery and workshop whose purpose is to use the arts to help change lives for the better. Deanna Serra, the founder, says, “Art is a global language. It builds bridges and unites people.” The renovated space is located on South First Street, the iconic neighborhood that really is keeping Austin weird. They strive to be a place where artists and art lovers connect and come together as a community that inspires hope. Hope that empowers change in the world.
What a beautiful connection for Truth Be Told! Creativity is one of the Four Cs practiced in Truth Be Told programs: Creativity, Communication Skills, Community Building and Caring for Self. Our Discovery classes and Exploring Creativity workshops engage the women in creative self-expression to better understand their past and reimagine their future. Using expressive arts is a time-honored way to release pain and express despair without harming oneself or others.
Please join us at the Art For The People Gallery Human/Nature opening Thursday, July 9, 6:30-9:00 p.m. Or visit the gallery at 1711 South First Street before August 16.
Body Stories: An Exploration in Authentic Movement and Expressive Writing
This workshop will be held on Saturday, August 15, 2015, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Body Stories is inspired by the work Ginger McGilvray and Katie Ford do as volunteer facilitators for Truth Be Told. This co-ed workshop, hosted at a rural art studio, explores authentic movement and expressive writing as creative practices for unlocking personal wisdom and creative potential. No experience required. Enrollment is limited to 12 participants.
What you get:
- 4 hours of guided exploration in authentic movement and expressive writing
- An opportunity to meet others who are drawn to these types of experiences
- A journal and pen
- Drinks and dessert to accompany a BYOBB (bring your own brown bag) lunch
- 10 percent of your tuition will support Truth Be Told program
Send an email to Katie Ford at email@example.com to add your name to the roster, and she will provide you with payment options. Cost: $150.
Questions? Email Katie firstname.lastname@example.org or Ginger at email@example.com. Full refunds are available through August 7.
A professional writer and editor since 1993, KATIE FORD discovered her love of teaching five years ago when she began leading writing classes for women in prison. Every semester, Katie witnesses how the simple acts of writing and sharing from the heart can awaken personal wisdom and plant seeds of empathy and compassion among strangers. She aspires to bring these experiences into the community by hosting similarly inspired workshops in the free world. When she’s not going to prison, she enjoys taking walks with Martha, her three-legged cattle dog.
GINGER MCGILVRAY is a movement instructor and massage therapist. Her experience working with women in prison has ignited her life-long interest in justice and reconciliation, which recently led her to become a certified conflict resolution mediator. “Embodiment” is a good word to describe her approach — an invitation to come back home to ourselves and, from there, rediscover how to live in truth with others. She is grateful for the love, encouragement and creative inspiration she shares with her fiance, Nathan.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We 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.
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.
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.