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Category Archives: Behind Bars

Journey to Self

by Peggy Lamb, Exploring Creativity Coordinator for Truth Be Told

Rca, Krystal, Brandi, Kathy, Linda, and Nancy: six women in the white garb of inmates and I sit in a circle in the spacious chapel at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville, TX. They are in the Female Sex Offender Treatment Program. We are here to do a deep dive into creativity – to collaboratively create Journey to Self, a dance/theater piece they will perform in Truth Be Told’s Miracles in Human Form show for their fellow inmates.

I look at their nervous and expectant faces. These six women have been chosen to participate in this project by their therapists because they have demonstrated a commitment to their recovery.

I reassure them that my intention is to create a divinely inspired, perfectly-imperfect piece. I see their breathing deepen and faces relax a bit but still they are nervous and insecure. They are not professional dancers and have never performed. Who wouldn’t be nervous?

It’s time to move, to quiet the monkey-mind, and to feel our feet! We start with saying our name and doing a movement, then Whoosh-Bang-Pow (a movement game that gets even the most uptight person laughing.) After Whoosh-Bang-Pow I lead them in Flocking, an exercise that culminates in the group walking together at the same tempo (which is harder than it sounds.). We’ll use this in the final section of our performance when the women-in-white form a procession and walk slowly downstage to Alison Krause’s Down to the River to Pray.

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We gather again in a circle — now we are a much more relaxed and embodied group of women. We read a couple of poems I’ve selected: Wild Geese by Mary Oliver (tell me about despair, yours and I will tell you mine), The Healing Time by Pesha Gertler (the old wounds, the old misdirections, and I lift them one by one close to my heart and I say holy holy), and that powerful quote by Maya Angelou, “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.”

I ask the group if they are familiar with Maya Angelou. Most of them are through her Phenomenal Woman poem. Brandi, a white thirty-something mother of six says, “I named my daughter after her.”

Through writing prompts such as “Write a ten-word memoir,” we create the written material that serves as a springboard for dance material. I ask the women to create three movements that symbolize the parts of their lives they chose to write about. This is the hardest part for most of them. They want to do pantomime. Eventually their robotic, pantomimic movements slowly become imbued with the core of their being, as much as these deeply scarred and wounded women can deliver at this time.

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I call this section of the piece “I could tell you a story” and it is the heart of Journey to Self. The body, in its cellular wisdom, can express that which we do not have words for.

One woman’s movement is simply opening her mouth and arms wide. She has been in prison for over 20 years for molesting her children. Another woman’s movement is simple side-to-side sways — a beautiful movement. For her it meant how she was influenced by other people and did not have her own sense of self.

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The warden has allowed us two three-hour slots of rehearsal time — a miracle in the world of TDCJ. By the end of our second rehearsal, these women and I have created a beautiful heart-felt dance. I am stunned and awed by their courage, their willingness to step outside their comfort zones, their vulnerability and discipline.

As one woman said during our debrief, “In the free world I dressed in wigs, make-up, heels and sexy clothes. I didn’t know how to be just me. In this piece I was more naked and vulnerable than I’ve ever been. And yet, I feel more peaceful than I’ve ever felt.”

As for me, this deep dive into the holy water of dancing with incarcerated women leaves my body heart and spirit vibrating with gratitude. I shake my head in wonder and awe at how I stumbled into this divinely choreographed and divinely designed volunteer work.

Beauty Behind the Fence

 

by Lindsey Lane

In January 2016, I travelled to the Gatesville Prison with Carol Waid to be a facilitator in training for Truth Be Told’s Talk To Me Writing Class. I was familiar with the prison system as I had gone behind the fence as a journalist and novelist, but this time, with TBT, I would be in service to the women of the Lane Murray Unit by helping them tell their stories. (In the classroom next to ours, Christina Wisdom and Julie Wylie were facilitating the Talk To Me Speaking class.)

Because I was completely new to TBT, Carol asked me to experience the class as a newcomer, like the women did: Doing the homework, telling my story, sharing my life. At first, I felt like I didn’t belong. I’m outside the fence. I have freedom. But I am also a woman an a mother and, just as I was hungry to hear their stories, they were eager for mine. We wanted to connect. We wanted to understand one another. We wanted to share. We wanted to heal through telling the truth about our lives, however different they are.

One of the most beautiful parts of the Talk To Me Writing and Speaking classes comes near the end of the eight weeks. Our homework is to write one or two sentences about each member of our class and how we see them. It is an opportunity to reflect on how each person has revealed their hearts over the last eight weeks.

screen-shot-2016-09-07-at-11-23-19-pmThis is what I said about one class member named LaVerne:

I can imagine coming to Miss LaVerne’s home (that’s what I would call her: Miss LaVerne) and drinking slightly sweet tea with a hint of lavender, I think. I try to get her to tell me what the secret ingredient is but Miss LaVerne only smiles. We talk about the weather and other sweet things, “The Blessings,” she calls them. Miss LaVerne knows there is plenty of meanness in the world but she likes to talk about “the blessings that bind us.”

After the Speaking and Writing classes were complete, we joined the two communities together. In the first eight weeks we were looking into our pasts and focusing on how we got to our levels of incarceration. The next six weeks is called Discovery – discovering the women we want to become. Near the end of Discovery we began planning our graduation. Each of us would share something we created as a result of being in the classes. LaVerne was stumped about what to contribute. Someone in the class suggested she write a poem. LaVerne said, “Can it be about lavender? I like what you said about lavender.”

Here is what she wrote and shared with us at graduation on May 26, 2016.

Lavender

by LaVerne F.

True happiness only comes from fearing God and keeping His commandments. Our happiness depends upon the habit of mind that we cultivate. I say let’s practice happy thinking. Every Day. Again I say let’s practice happy thinking every day. Let’s cultivate the merry heart. Let’s develop the happiness habit, and I believe life will become a continual feast for us. Lavender, to most people, is a color. To me, Lavender is beautiful and fragrant, and it is widely known as an essential oil that brings about calming and restful energy as well as evoking a feeling of happiness…Lavender, again I say Lavender.

As a result of experiencing this work, I signed up to return to the Lane Murray Unit with Carol Waid to co-facilitate Living Deeper and Freer, which is a continuation of TTM Writing and Speaking classes. Twelve women from the original twenty-eight (some were released, some were transferred to other prisons, and others went to the faith-based dorm) continued on with us. We are a tightly woven community committed to exploring how to live deeper and freer on both sides of the fence.

There is so much beauty behind the fence. Truth Be Told allows the women to become more than the crime that put them there.

And the next time you smell Lavender, think of LaVerne and cultivate the happiness habit.

 

Donna learns to tell her story

“Loving ourselves through the process of owning our story is the bravest thing we will ever do.” ~ Brené Brown

Thank you for being a part of our Truth Be Told family! Your commitment to our work enables us to change the lives of incarcerated women, their families and their communities. We thank you for your generous contribution and encourage you to read the powerful statement of one of our graduates, so you can feel first-hand how your support impacts these women.

by Donna Norman

Almost five years ago, I was lost and broken. I was facing my freedom, and it was coming fast. I was so hurt and so angry with everyone and everything, but most of all myself. The choices I made cost me my freedom and the loss of everything that meant anything to me – including and most importantly, my children. I wasn’t ready for my freedom or to face the memories I had to go home to, memories I ran from for seven years. What if I made the same mistakes? What was my purpose going to be now? What did I really have to live for anymore?

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Then I saw the posters for the Truth Be Told class. I even knew some of the people who had taken the previous class. Everyone loved it and talked about how it made them feel. I didn’t want to open up to strangers, but I was still facing going home with no answers and a broken heart. I thought that this might be my last chance, so I signed up.

I was touched by how loving the women of Truth Be Told were; I just wasn’t ready to let them in. I was in Ms. Nathalie’s class, so I had to give a speech on my story. I was dreading it and even thought about dropping out, but that would leave me with my broken heart.

I asked myself, “What did I really have to lose by telling my story?” So I started working on it, piece by piece. Surprisingly, I started understanding myself by looking in from a third party perspective.

Then the day came for my speech. Ms Nathalie brought some Toastmasters in to critique our speeches, and one of them happened to be her husband [Jim Walsh]. I wasn’t comfortable with a man being there while I was so vulnerable, but I had already come this far. I stood up and started telling my story, although it took every piece of strength I had.

Ms. Nathalie’s husband then had the honor of judging my speech, but I feared he was really judging me. I could feel the defiance boiling up inside me, not wanting to hear a man tell me I’m not good enough after hearing me talk about all the other men who have hurt me in every way possible.

But to my utter disbelief, he stood up in front of me, looked me dead in my eyes, and apologized for everything those other men had done.

Hearing that touched me deep down in my soul. The wall I built so strong to keep everyone else out shattered and the tears wouldn’t stop. I wasn’t being judged… I was being heard.

donnaquiltThat was when the healing began. Truth Be Told gave me my life back. They helped me understand why I made the decisions I made, not blaming others but understanding them. They helped me change my thinking and be a better, stronger person.

I have been home for four years now. I use the tools I learned from Truth Be Told in my everyday life. Although things are hard at times, I haven’t failed or given up, because of what the women of Truth Be Told have given me…my truth. We are a true community of women. In my times of weakness I reach out to them, and they never let me down. I keep my three-year quilt close. Anytime that I need to feel supported I wrap it around me and I see all their smiling faces.

The world needs more selfless people like the facilitators with Truth Be Told. They are my angels.

~~~

Thank you so much, Donna, for sharing your beautiful story, and thank you, Jim Walsh, for being the kind and loving man that you are.

Readers, we thought you might want to see a poster that Truth Be Told used to invite women in prison to learn about and sign up for Talk To Me classes.

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Amplify Austin Is Over – Here’s How We Did

By Leigh Camp, Truth Be Told Volunteer

First, a huge thank you to each and every person who contributed to our Amplify Austin fundraising efforts this year. We’re still receiving checks in the mail, but it looks like the grand total will be around $23K — just shy of our goal of $25K.

We’re thrilled to have earned that level of support from our community. Your efforts are making a difference in the lives of women both behind and beyond bars.

If you missed the chance to donate during Amplify, don’t worry — we accept donations all year long! Donate now to help us make a positive impact on our community.

Here are some words from a few Truth Be Told graduates to give you a fuller illustration of the powerful, positive changes your donations make possible.

Karen I“I never knew that people you never knew could feel like family until [Truth Be Told]. My own relations didn’t ever feel like family. There is an amazing power with these women. We have been through some of the worst and made some really bad choices, but we also rose up from that, and continue to every day. It’s all thanks to the love, dedication, faith, and the skills given to me in this program that I am alive and moving forward.”

Karen, released Oct. 16, 2015

 

 

ann williams (1)[Truth Be Told] helped me remember I was still a Human Being not just a Felon… The Love and Spiritual aspect of all of it gave me a Love of Service to all Women trying to better there lives and not return to Prison […] Truth Be Told saved my life in so many ways!!!”

Ann, released in 2003

 

 

Tory

“TBT changed my life for the better. I am a more open and upfront lady now. I am able to express my self like never before […] Because of TBT I am stronger more stable and more confident in me. A special thank you to Miss Carol and all the women who came to Lane Murray. You are our Angels.”

Tory, released June 22, 2015

 

 

 

Karen Cantrell_N&C

“It has been my greatest pleasure exploring the talents and abilities of women truth tellers who have impacted my life in such a beautiful way behind, and now beyond, bars. I have learned through the process and connection with powerful influential people that it’s not about how much I have, but about how much I give.”

Karen, released Oct. 30, 2014

Thank you again for all of your valuable support. Your donations give us the means to help these women change their lives. We’re so very grateful for that precious opportunity.

Hands make the world each day

writinghandsby 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.

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Learning What You Can Take Into Prison and What You Can Take Out

by Jardine Libaire

jardine libaire_gold shirtLast 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.

Graduation Days by Christina Wisdom

Today we have a guest blog by Christina Wisdom:

Wisdom

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.