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Reading and Writing as a Ticket Out of Solitary Confinement — and Prison

This week, Huffington Post published an essay by a young man who left prison at 27 after being incarcerated for 10 years. The story is part of their What’s Working series that came out of the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform. Phil Mosby credits a book club and writing workshop with changing his perspective and introducing him creative self-expression.

In our weekly sessions, I felt comfortable enough to take off the hard mask I wore and show my true feelings. Our small group became a brotherhood as we left the street beefs behind to discuss books. The authors were people that looked and acted like us. I will never forget the first book that really hit me, “Makes Me Wanna Holler,” by Nathan McCall. He was a young guy who was incarcerated and became a journalist at the Washington Post. I thought, “If he can do it, then maybe I can.”

His story of a small nonprofit program that set him on the first steps of a winding path to change sounds so much like the graduates of our Truth Be Told classes. Read Mosby’s inspiring story: Reading and Writing as Ticket Out of Solitary Confinement — and Prison

Writing Your Way to Happiness

A New York Times article, Writing Your Way to Happiness, collects recent research on the powerful effects of writing personal stories and journaling. Truth Be Told programs have always incorporated these tools, so we love seeing the scientific validation. Talk To Me, our basic eight-week prison program, leads the women through a process of understanding, owning and sharing their stories.

Photo credit: Chris Gash

The article quotes Dr. James Pennebaker, a University of Texas psychology professor who has led much of the work on expressive writing, “The idea here is getting people to come to terms with who they are, where they want to go. I think of expressive writing as a life course correction.”

The article continues…

The scientific research on the benefits of so-called expressive writing is surprisingly vast. Studies have shown that writing about oneself and personal experiences can improve mood disorders, help reduce symptoms among cancer patients, improve a person’s health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits and even boost memory.

Now researchers are studying whether the power of writing — and then rewriting — your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness.

The concept is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health.

Why Your Worst Deeds Don’t Define You

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In 1991, Shaka Senghor shot and killed a man. In this 12 minute TED Talk he says he was “a drug dealer with a quick temper and a semi-automatic pistol.” Jailed for second degree murder, that could very well have been the end of the story. But it wasn’t. Instead, it was the beginning of a years-long journey to redemption, one with humbling and sobering lessons.

He describes the four things that aided his personal transformation: mentors, literature, family and writing. This journey led him to understand the three things he needed to do, the things he now shares with other former offenders: acknowledging the hurt he had caused and that which he suffered, apologizing to the people he harmed with no expectation of acceptance, and atoning through service work. The beauty of this brief talk is surely an act of atonement.

Watch the full TED Talk video here

The Invisible Population and Their Children

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Women prisoners are called the “invisible population” because they aren’t what comes to mind when most people think of prison. But they aren’t invisible to their families. The Sentencing Project reports that 64% of women under correctional supervision are the mothers of minor children. About 12,000 women are in Texas state prisons and jails. This doesn’t count the Texas women who are in county jails and federal prisons. The trend is disturbing; the female prison population is growing at twice the rate of the male population. We are grateful for other sources that bring attention to the stories Truth Be Told hears in every class.

In A Nation of Women Behind Bars, ABC News Anchor Diane Sawyer takes you on a journey into the world of women living in America’s prison system today. She visits four maximum security prisons, including an interview with the two youngest women on death row. She reports, “The U.S. is incarcerating more people than any other country in the world, people serving long sentences. And women are coming into prison at a faster rate than men.”

photo credit: Thomas Hawk

In Sesame Street’s Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration, Alex talks with Abby Cadabby, Rosita, and Sofia about his dad’s incarceration, real families with young children share their own experiences with parental incarceration, and an animation shows a family’s trip to visit a parent in prison.

Margaret Mead so wisely stated,  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  Thank YOU all for being in our community, helping to change the world.

 

Living Deeper and Freer: New class at Lane Murray Unit, Gatesville

by Carol Waid

We are grateful and humbled by the 225 people who contributed to Truth Be Told during Amplify Austin. You contributed more than $24,000 to delivering programs to incarcerated women who are hungry for change. Your participation supports our belief about community helping to change the world.

Community. Connection. Empathy. Compassion. Respect.

These nouns bring a community of women together, seeking a safe place to bring forth the TRUTH of who we really are. We meet in a sacred space each Thursday night, from 5:30 – 7:30 p.m., for a class called “Living Deeper & Freer.” Most of the women in this community have been in prison for over 10 years.

I have been going into prison for 15 years. I have never been incarcerated, but I have lived much of my life being incarcerated by my fears, stuck in stories of loss and tragedy, searching for a place that I felt like I fit.   I have met hundreds of women, who like me, were seeking a different way of living their lives, seeking a way to fit in, seeking a way to belong.

We find each other in our sacred space. How can a prison classroom become sacred, you may ask? You begin slowly with the idea. You set the intention, and the silence is held as we are serenaded by Karen Drucker’s song “Gentle With Myself.”   Closing your eyes and letting your walls soften is palpable. I often hear sniffles, because the gentleness of the music releases the tension of everyday life in prison.

We slowly, ever so gently, open our eyes, and the connectedness sets in, deeper each week. Each week we begin our community together in this way. This is much like the community that I belong to on Tuesdays in the “free world.” I consider the Tuesday space sacred too.

 

I feel the earth move in my weekly classes. Two weeks ago a woman shared about how in the last 16 years she had become desensitized. She shared an experience of seeing herself being unable to feel empathy. She knew what was missing, and she is readying herself to come back into the world this June. In three months she will walk out of the barbed wire world, she will step back into the “free world,” and she wants to not be desensitized.

This was exciting to me, because in the moment of her being aware of this, she was reconnecting with the true self.

Her discovery also was the story of the other 18 women, who said, “Girl, you are telling it.” They were so grateful that she was able to so beautifully articulate their own knowing from the years of their own incarceration. This caused a beautiful ripple of connection and a stronger community. That day was no different than the weeks that I have gone behind bars to be real with women.

Today I called a young woman who has been out of prison for 126 days. This is not her first time to be released to the free world, but it’s this time that is important. This time she really wants to be an active parent, and in the short time of her reentering she has had the same job. She has her daughter living with her and the son that she hadn’t seen in six years is spending weekends with her.

When we checked in she got real very quickly, because this is our practice in our classroom. We moved the small talk aside, and she shared what was really going on.

I talked to her for 10 minutes, and in that time I heard important truths. We ended connected, even though when we got off the phone she was weeping, because she was reminded of who she is.

Within three minutes, she texted this message,

“Thank u Ms. Carol. It’s almost spooky how right on time u were calling me. LOL. I luv u lots.”

What I believe is that in that 10 minutes she was reminded of the community that she built for herself behind bars, but it’s hard out here to stay connected. She works 12-hour shifts at her job, is raising a daughter, paying bills, and continuing to live her life in integrity.

As I said, I feel the earth move, and my heart responds in gratitude as I say thank you to Truth Be Told and how my life has changed because of it. I have found important work that I belong to – it is a purpose and it is a passion.

imagineTBT

 

 

The Oxygen of Inspiration

by Kathleen Littlepage

Kathleen Littlepage

Kathleen Littlepage

We are at the end of a month of fundraising efforts for Truth Be Told and some of us get worn down by the energy it takes. I could try to hide this truth about myself, but that would belie our belief that the truth is always important and there are no “perfect people” only people who are traveling the path of personal growth. When Carol and I get tired, we seek out what Carol calls the “oxygen of inspiration” and we don’t have to look far for that. Here are some stories that remind us what a difference our programs make. I invite you to share our inspiration and remember that Amplify Austin ends at 6:00 p.m. Friday, March 6, but our work to support incarcerated women continues.

Inspired Quilts

11004817_672572826205046_1759662122_nCarol’s parents, Doyle and Peggy Chandler, lovingly make and donate a quilt for each program graduate who stays involved with our Beyond Bars activities for three years after being released. Some of Peggy’s beautiful designs come to her in dreams and recipients often express how the quilt she received is perfect for her. Sending or delivering those quilts is Carol’s most joyous job responsibility. Carol mailed quilt number 42 to Donna (learn more about her story) and got this response: “When I got home last night, I had the best surprise on my door step….MY 3 YEAR QUILT! I’ve waited for this day since I first walked into my Truth Be Told class. It means so much to me because it is a symbol of how far I have come and all the accomplishments I have made in the three years since I’ve been home. But most of all it is a symbol of the love and dedication and support of Truth Be Told. Since the first day I walked into class, they have wrapped me up in their love and support and have stood by my side helping me find myself and guiding me every step of the way. So receiving this quilt is perfect because as I wrap it around myself, I feel them wrapping me in one of their famous hugs. I can feel their love and support as if they are right here with me.” Right before Willa received quilt number 41, she said, “Ms. Carol it’s 5 days until my 3 year mark. I have held on to the memory of that quilt. I think about your momma and your daddy making those quilts and I say ‘girl, I am gonna get me one of those quilts’. Ms. Carol it’s real hard out here, but I don’t even turn my head wrong.” Willa always finds a way to stay connected even though she regularly has a different phone number and has been living without electricity for three months.

Each Other’s Miracle

Katie, a longtime facilitator at Lockhart prison, wrote in her blog, La Querencia, about a woman who helped out a classmate and how it affected them and everyone else.

“All of us in the room could feel it. We felt proud of Stephanie, compassion for Jessica and honored to have witnessed it all. We were a circle of women who had, inside a prison, successfully built a community of trust, of love, of compassion, of authenticity, of truth, of integrity, of hope, of healing, of new beginning.”

Read her story.

In Their Words

Karen Cantrell Jan 2014Karen was released October 30th, 2014 and contacted Truth Be Told three days later. She shared why Truth Be Told classes are important: “The principles, the ideas, the creativity, the events, the listening, and most of all the being seen, heard and loved. These things spread throughout generations. The people that y’all touch on the inside, we take it home with us and we take it to our church, to our family and friends, to AA meetings, and everyone we meet benefits. I look at people differently now. I am better able to listen and have compassion for others. It changes lives more than you can even dream.” After 15 years in prison, Monica was released July 2, 2013. She regularly checks in to share:

“I am doing good and I am staying out of trouble.” She says, “I found Truth Be Told so that I could find the real me.”

Kasey has been free for less than three months. “Prison is not a place to rehabilitate, it teaches you to be a better criminal. When I joined Talk To Me Circle, that was my first step into recovering.” Kasey was incarcerated at 22 and released at 27. “I grew up in prison.” Upon her release, Kasey chose to live in a home where she knows no one, “changing people, places and things.” The hardest things for her have been not seeing her twins at first and watching her father’s funeral on a video because she was in prison when he passed away. Because Kasey learned the importance of sharing your story in her Truth Be Told class, she already has spoken at a local jail and to a 4H group. You can donate to a graduate’s Amplify fundraising page Cara, Dara, Kimberly, Kay.

Karen CantrellMay2013

We Are Changed by the Change

By Kathleen Littlepage, Executive Director

Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

I always understood that quote to mean that if you want the world to be more peaceful, start by cultivating your inner peace. I have come to understand that saying in another way. I suspect that Gandhi knew something that I have discovered through my work with Truth Be Told — that when you work towards change, that work changes you. You will be the change.

For fifteen years, volunteers have facilitated all of our programs. Recently, a wise woman who started several nonprofits told me that she believes having all volunteer facilitators ensures a level of passion in our programs. For a lot of us, that passion or commitment is engendered by how much we learn from being with incarcerated women, how much we are changed.

A few years ago, Katie Ford, one of our long-time dedicated facilitators, spoke at a fundraiser about how working with the women in prison altered the course of her life. A guest at the event became involved with Truth Be Told and a donor because he looks for organizations that promote personal growth for the people doing the work while they also serve a cause.

Even after years of facilitating, the insights of women in my classes surprise me and stretch my perspective on topics I thought I had exhausted. Training new facilitators also makes me see through “fresh eyes”. Once when I was leaving the jail with a new volunteer, she asked, “Do you ever tell people how much fun it is to do these classes?” I laughed because I’ve thought it often but never expressed it that way — probably anticipating the looks I would get.

Two of our facilitators-in-training created personal fundraising pages for Amplify Austin that express how this work has affected them. Please consider supporting this work that serves all of us by donating to one of them.

Lauren King is co-facilitating Talk To Me – Circle at the GEO Lockhart Unit. Lauren wrote:

laurenkingThe Truth Hurts. I always took this sentence to mean that the truth can sting on a very superficial level. After months of volunteering at Truth Be Told it means the headache I get after two hours of difficult, emotionally draining activities. It’s the full body ache I get the next day that I call my ‘emotional hangover’. It’s the pain I see in women’s eyes from years of living with truths they could never say because it wasn’t acceptable. It’s the silence of abuse and the shame of living in hiding. The truth can hurt to hear, sure. But truth does the most damage to lives when it is never spoken.

Every week I go to prison knowing it will be intensely emotional and powerful to hear women tell their story, yet I leave staggered by how extremely powerful it is. I’m grateful for every headache and body ache, because I get to witness and be a part of the very human experience of connection. I get to watch as that connection transforms women’s lives. It’s an experience that changes my life just as much as the women in prison. Best of all, I leave with hope and a better understanding of forgiveness and a full picture of what compassion truly is.

Rebecca Deering co-facilitates a weekly class at the Travis County Jail in Del Valle. She writes:

rebeccadeeringA year and a half ago, I was desperate to change my life, the way I felt about myself and where I fit in the world. I set out on a journey that required me to see the hard truth about my life, and pushed me to take the steps to regain my mental freedom. Eventually, I was ready to share the idea that I am the one that can bring a positive change in my life by seeking the truth and using simple tools to live a better life.

When we sit down with the women at the Del Valle correctional facility, we present a topic and then we discuss: How can this particular tool, be it love, compassion, or forgiveness, help you today? How will it help you when you go home? How will this tool make your life a bit easier, a bit more peaceful, a bit more joyful?

Please help me help “my ladies” by supporting my work facilitating on behalf of Truth Be Told. I so look forward to seeing them every week. They encourage me to continue my journey while they begin theirs. This program is one of love, of hope, of truth, of beauty, and the possibility of a better life. Please donate today so that I may continue to empower myself and help these women empower themselves.

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