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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.
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.