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The Holidays Behind Bars

8298495781_71bf569ed7_mThe holidays are a difficult time for the incarcerated women Truth Be Told serves. At best, they are able to communicate with their loved ones or maybe even get a visit. At worst, they are estranged from their families and friends. Year round, our classes offer tools to help them uncover their inner strength and find peace. To reinforce our message of healing and hope, we bring God in Human Form, our annual holiday performance, into the prisons. Local performing artists volunteer their time and talent to share their experiences of and encounters with a higher power and the human condition.

For the first time this year, Conspirare brought their Christmas Concert to the Travis County Jail at Del Valle. We were so pleased to help coordinate Conspirare’s outreach to the jail. The audience included the women who attend our weekly classes, jail staff, and volunteers. The performance connected with and moved the audience in a way that is almost beyond describing.

We are so grateful to performers who volunteer their time behind bars at this busy time of year. Two of them describe their experience.

Paul Melroy, the Managing Director of Conspirare, reflects on their jail performance in his post:

“I am still trying to wrap my head around the myriad thoughts and feelings that have bubbled up during the course of our run of Conspirare Christmas over the past week-and-a-half. The program that Craig created this year somehow was even better than years past, a seemingly impossible feat. Our collaborator, Ruthie Foster, knocked everyone’s collective socks off. The performances were all gems….We wrapped up the run this past Tuesday by performing at the Travis County Correctional Facility (the county jail) to a group of women inmates.”

Anne Ramsey of Simcha Theatre Group describes their First Prison Performance:

On a misty, mid-December morning three of us from the Simcha Theatre Group met up early and drove to a designated parking lot and waited. Simcha Theater Group was formed three to four years ago by Sue Bilich and Dianne Dorrman, two highly talented ladies with lengthy ties to amateur theatre and audio book presentations in Austin. Sue and Dianne gathered around them a group of people, some connected with local synagogues, others not at all; but all had a hankering for the form of self-expression that dramatic readings offer. The main appeal is that all the readers use their scripts so that the fear of ‘forgetting lines’ is a non-event. Sue learned of the Truth to Told prison programs and came up with the idea that Simcha Theater Group could make a presentation to the ladies at the GEO Lockhart prison.

So there we were, early enough to spend time looking in a nearby store and wondering just what was ahead. More arrived, another four or five whom we didn’t know but soon would. And finally our number was complete. Thirteen women and two men, each there with a conviction or at very least the hope that she would discover her conviction, her purpose along the way.

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We set off, in a convoy – three cars traveling south to Lockhart, a small town thirty miles from Austin. However, it wasn’t the town but the prison to the south of it that was our destination. We had been told to wear no jewelry and to wear plain black outfits. Only our driving licenses could accompany us into the prison, everything else would be locked into our cars in the visitors’ parking lot.

We lined up, passed out ID’s, removed coats, jackets, shoes and passed through the metal detector, were frisked up and down and finally permitted to follow our leaders down echoing hallways to the gymnasium. Once in the huge space we set to work erecting microphones, music stands, chairs and a few props – all to be ready for our audience when they were finally permitted to file in.

The chairs were arranged in a semi-circle and we were told that, yes, we could talk with our captive audience. In they came, 88 women of many ages, several races, tall and short. Some bore tattoos, some had intriguing hair styles. If they wondered what they were going to see, they were in good company, for so did most of us.

Nathalie explained that for many years she felt strongly that she was doing God’s work in reaching out to the incarcerated and she wanted each and every woman there to know and feel the Divine presence. The Truth Be Told program is God in Human Form (GIHF) so we were mindful that God was working through us.

Who were we?  Our three Truth Be Told leaders and organizers were Nathalie and Carol, the founders, and Barbara, the GIHF coordinator.  Our troupe was made up of volunteer performers. Sarah Alarcon is a slam poet of immense talent. The only male was Greg Downing, who under the non-de-plum of Betty Be Good, gave a hilarious drag act that also moved his audience. Lynn Kindler told amazing stories. The Simcha Theatre Group with five actors performed a short play that clearly caught the imagination of all in that vast hall. Sara Hickman, a noted Austin song writer, is performer and raconteur of wonderful songs and tales.

The audience of incarcerated women responded so well to this variety of entertainment. They cheered, laughed, sang, some even wept when emotions caught fire. All seemed to beam that it had been a wonderful afternoon and a meaningful break from their routine.

We felt that it had been wonderful too. Our initial trepidation was replaced by feelings of such joy and fulfillment from our audience. We had found our conviction, our purpose in coming to Lockhart. We took away something special from that place that perhaps we could not have discovered elsewhere.

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About Shelley Seale

I'm Shelley, a journeyer and learner of the world, freelance journalist and author, yoga chick and dog lover. I pound the keyboard from home barefoot every day, and while my boss is demanding she also occasionally lets me have the early afternoon cocktail. I think not going into an office or collecting corporate paychecks are very good ideas, though not always profitable. I have written for National Geographic, USA Today, The Guardian, Texas Monthly and CNN, among others. Neither the New York Times nor Johnny Depp have answered my letters yet. I love yoga, indie movies, wine, and books, though not necessarily in that order. I believe in karma. Mean people suck. If I could have any dream job I would like to be a superhero. I have performed a catch on the flying trapeze, boarded down a live volcano and was once robbed by a monkey in Nepal. But, I don't know how to whistle. My mantra is "travel with a purpose."

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