RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Behind Bars

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.

 

Advertisements

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?

donnanorman

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.

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 8.27.15 AM

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.

holdinghands

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Back to the Classroom

Posted on

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.

Lady Lifers

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.

 

From Behind Bars to Beyond Bars: Dream Big

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.

By Karen

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.

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 1.34.08 PM

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.

A Singular Grief: Losing a Parent While in Prison

Our most recent post on this blog, A Day In My Life in Prison, dated June 15, was written by Lori, a participant in Talk To Me – Circle. Katie Ford was the facilitator for Lori’s class.

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.