Written by Leigh Camp
I attended Truth Be Told’s most recent graduation as a respectful witness. It was my second time to be a respectful witness with Truth Be Told, and my second time in a prison, ever.
Both events took place at Lockhart Correctional Facility. When I went to the first graduation, the prison had just undergone a management change and was in the process of receiving a major facelift.
At this second graduation, the improvements were markedly visible — inspirational quotes cover the freshly painted walls, creating a warmer, more cared-for environment than the prison I’d entered on my first visit.
Lockdown lifted just in time.
The prison had been in lockdown the past few days. Lockdown is a “surprise” routine procedure that happens a couple times a year. During lockdown, the inmates have to remain in their cells (except to shower) while the officers search the entire facility for contraband.
We’d been in limbo about whether or not the event would take place for a couple of days. As co-founder Carol Waid pointed out via email, it was a great exercise in experiencing some of the uncertainty and lack of agency the women who attend TBT classes face every day.
We received word from the warden around 1 p.m. — Lockdown was over and graduation was a go!
Settling in and making introductions.
About twenty-five witnesses attended the graduation with me. We waited for the graduating classes in a room usually used during visitation hours.
Katie Ford, a longtime TBT volunteer who taught one of the graduating classes, instructed us to leave empty chairs between us so that the women could sit with us in the audience. That way we’d all be in it together, experiencing the moment as one group.
The woman who sat next to me told me that she was nervous. Because of lockdown, she and her reading partner hadn’t had as much chance to practice. Her partner walked in about then and sat down in the chair in front of me.
“Can you copy this out?” she asked my neighbor.
“Yes, now, I want us to both have a copy to read from! Please.”
It was clear they were close friends. The woman sitting next to me just rolled her eyes, grabbed the sheet of paper, and started writing. When she was done, I asked her if she’d known her friend long.
“Oh, yes. We’re both diabetics, so we go to a lot of stuff together.”
Katie announced it was time to start and the sound of conversation was replaced by a silence filled with a combination of anticipation and nervous energy that was palpable.
The pair in front of me were fifth on the list, but the time passed quickly and before they knew it they were up! I patted my neighbor on the back as she walked by. “You’ll do great!”
And they did. Theirs was a side-by-side titled “Letting Go.” In it they alluded to the painful experiences they had endured that eventually led them to prison, and described the freedom they had found by accepting those realities and moving past them, into the present.
Other stories had titles like “Live Day by Day,” “Shy No More,” “Fear,” “End of the Road,” and “Phoenix Rising.” Each described the women’s personal journeys of reflection and growth through creative expression and connecting with their fellow inmates in a way that was vulnerable, and inherently not how relationships in prison typically work.
I was in turn moved, saddened, and strengthened. One woman chose to sing her story, taking the mic and belting it out with true feeling that I’m certain reverberated in each of our beings.
The audience punctuated the end of every reading with resounding applause and the women returned to their seats with sounds of “good job!” “well done!” “way to go!” echoing in their ears.
At the conclusion of the stories, the women lined up to receive their certificates. Every one of the women had completed all sixteen-weeks worth of classes, along with extensive coursework after hours.
That coursework included the very difficult task of self reflection, digging up painful past experiences, examining them, and acknowledging them while not letting them define the course of what happens next.
To graduate was truly an achievement, and the pride showed in their eyes as they returned to their seats with their certificates in hand.
At the end of the graduation, the respectful witnesses are invited to share how the women’s stories have affected them. We circle up, and one volunteer stands in the middle of the circle at a time and talks into the mic.
We took turns talking about how touched and humbled we felt by the women’s stories and commended them on the bravery required to share such deeply personal emotions and experiences.
Once it was our turn to be on the mic, we experienced some of the same jitters and butterflies the women had had to overcome as part of their graduation ceremony.
It takes guts to speak to a crowd of strangers. If, as volunteers, we didn’t fully realize it while the women were performing, we were made aware of it while we ourselves were the focus of so many eyes.
What they gave to me.
The graduation ceremony is for women who have made a commitment to complete a course that’s not only difficult, but darn near impossible. They’re asked to be open fully with one another, to expose their deepest fears, lowest moments, greatest hopes…all in an environment that’s constantly telling them to let no one in, to keep their heads down and their guard up.
As a respectful witness, my job was just to listen to the product of their journeys and demonstrate my support of their efforts to become the greatest version of themselves. But in doing only that, I gained so much that I feel guilty it may not have been a fully even trade.
Meeting these women and hearing their stories gave me a deep appreciation for everything I take for granted. We’ve all made mistakes. We are imperfect people. The difference between their mistakes and my mistakes is that mine have not yet taken away my freedom.
On the drive back, I thought about how nice it was that I could drive from Lockhart to Austin, listening to whatever I chose, and arrive at my apartment, and take a bath or read a book or do laundry or do all three without asking anyone’s permission. And all of those ordinary things became extraordinary to me.
I was both humbled and inspired by the women who graduated. Humbled by their bravery, and inspired to dig deep into my own story and come out more whole on the other side.
Interested in being a respectful witness?
If you would like to attend a Truth Be Told graduation as a respectful witness, please contact Carol Waid at firstname.lastname@example.org.