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Truth Be Told’s message goes nationwide

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IMG_1976On Oct. 13, Truth Be Told program graduate Dara Musick and volunteer facilitator Katie Ford gave a presentation at the 16th Biannual Adult and Juvenile Female Offenders Conference in Hartford, Conn. It is the only conference in the nation that focuses exclusively on programs and policies tailored for women and girls involved in the criminal justice system. The conference addresses mothers and child care, financial stability and income, prostitution and human trafficking, domestic violence or intimate partner violence, trauma, and different pathways to criminal behavior.

In their presentation, Dara and Katie spoke about Truth Be Told’s Talk to Me Series and the tools we call the 4 Cs: Community building, Communication skills, Creativity and Caring for Self.

We invite you to visit Katie’s website to read a summary of their experience in Connecticut and what it was like to share their stories with a national audience.

We should never doubt the power of our stories!

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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.

Back to the Classroom

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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.

 

REFLECT: Convicts’ letters to their younger selves

Photo by Corey Desrochers

Trent Bell; Photo by Corey Desrochers

At Truth Be Told, we love hearing about other prison projects and are particularly pleased when they validate our efforts and experiences. Photographer Trent Bell was moved to create a prison photo project in response to one of his friends receiving a thirty-six-year sentence.

His friend, who was in his twenties, was an educated professional with a family and Trent couldn’t stop thinking about him. In the introduction to REFLECT: Convicts’ letters to their younger selves, Trent says:

“Our bad choices can contain untold loss, remorse, and regret, but the positive value of these choices might be immeasurable if we can face them, admit to them, learn from them and find the strength to share.”

We couldn’t agree more! Our Talk To Me classes lead women through the process of understanding and then sharing their stories.

Trent photographed twelve convicts against a background of the letter each one wrote to his younger self. During the photo shoot, filmmaker Joe Carter produced REFLECT, video interviews with the men sharing what brought them to prison, what they miss the most, and how they have changed.

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Click photo to see a video of this project in a new window

In Donna Sapolin’s nextavenue article, 5 Things Older Prisoners Want You to Know, she shares how the stunning REFLECT photo project mines critical wisdom from regret.

If you see an inspirational prison project that might be appropriate for this blog, please share it with us at office@truth-be-told.org.

My Day in Prison

Note from Carol Waid, co-founder:

Jenny attended the April 17 graduation at the GEO Lockhart facility. She was one of 20 respectful witnesses to hold the space for the 24 women that graduated from the eight-week Talk to Me classes. All 24 went on a journey of discovery looking at what led them to be incarcerated. This focus isn’t honed in on just their crimes, it’s looking at their individual lives to discover what events and experiences happened to them and what choices they made that led them to be incarcerated. This work is intense, courageous, vulnerable, brave, and so often freeing. To be a respectful witness holding the space with kindness, gentleness, and respect is a landmark in time for these women and most often for those that are willing to come in and share the gift of their time on this huge celebratory day. Read more about Jenny’s experience.
We have three more graduations on May 6, June 4, and June 5, but all of these are full and have waiting lists.  We hope you will want to join us for our fall graduations. Watch this blog for announcements.
From all of us at Truth Be Told, we thank you for helping to make a difference.

My Day in Prison

by Jenny Robertson

“Have you ever been to prison before?”

Tall, quiet but confident, Lisa asked me this as we sat talking before her graduation ceremony started. Dressed in navy blue prison scrubs, she smoothed the notebook in her lap and chuckled when I confirmed this was my first time in a prison.

“Everyone stared at you as you walked in, right? It’s so bad — we all stare, but we can’t help it. Everyone wants to know who you are and why you’re here.”

On a stormy Friday about an hour outside Austin, Texas, I and a group of 20 other volunteers spent an afternoon in the GEO Lockhart Unit with Lisa and roughly two dozen female inmates: listening to their stories, sharing our responses, even dancing with them. (Well, okay, others danced. I stood frozen awkwardly in place, because it turns out public dancing is just as uncomfortable for me inside a prison as it is in any other venue).

The day was organized by Truth Be Told, an Austin nonprofit that provides tools of community building, communication skills, creativity, and self-care for incarcerated — and formerly incarcerated — women. The idea is that, through writing, public speaking, and movement, these women can begin the healing process by confronting what has led them to prison. They explore the dark places — who has hurt them, whom they have hurt — in an honest, judgment-free zone.

women writing with katie and carol

They were graduating after eight weeks of class, and we served as an audience of respectful listeners. The stories they shared weren’t necessarily surprising, but were nonetheless horrifying and sad — stories of sexual abuse, drug use, of continuing the cycle and inflicting trauma upon their own children. One woman robbed several pharmacies in hopes of being arrested and finding a safe place in jail. Another spoke of her father plying her with alcohol to the point of blacking out the night of her high school graduation; as she crossed to the dais to pick up her Truth Be Told certificate amid standing applause, it occurred to me how different and positive this graduation must feel to her.

Despite the dark subject matter, a palpable sense of joy permeated the room. Here we were, a group of participants and volunteers, illustrating the gift of thoughtful, open listening. I forget sometimes how powerful that gift can be in a world of texts and tweets.

I was able to attend the ceremony thanks to a new AT&T initiative providing paid time off for the volunteer project of my choice. In my daily job, I talk so much about communications — machine-to-machine technology, petabytes of data over our network, call quality, and download speeds. It’s easy to lose sight that at the center of all this activity, our business is still inherently about people making connections.

Laughing with Lisa about how, indeed, everyone stared as I walked the gray line painted through the prison halls, I made a connection I would never have imagined a few days earlier. It was short, but it mattered, and I’ll carry it with me.

Celebrate Our Community and Radical Transformations

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Celebrate our Amplify Austin success! Okay, it hasn’t happened yet, but we are already planning a party. Thursday, March 5, 5:30-8:30, All Saints Church, 209 W. 27th St., Austin. Our Truth Be Told community will share in the fun of watching our hard work pay off when donations start to roll in as Amplify starts. We’ll have food and most importantly, a chance to build community with the people who make our work possible. Come meet our board, founders, facilitators, donors, and graduates. If you are on social media, you can help spread updates and reminders since the 24-hours of fundraising will just be getting underway.

Personal Fundraising Campaigns. We have 28 fundraising pages! Some are still “under construction” but check them out.  More than half way to our goal of 50 and we still have 24 days before the event. Creating a fundraising page can be challenging, but we are here to help. Just contact Carol (carol@truth-be-told.org) or Kathleen (kathleen@truth-be-told.org). Once you have a page, you just spread the word to your network: email, Facebook, twitter, whatever. Or you can just talk to your friends.

Radical Transformations

Who I Want to Be. The Mask Exercise guides the women to a deeper understanding about themselves and the way they hide their vulnerabilities. They discover masks that cover up who they want to be and masks that conceal who they are. These two fabulous drawings were created during the exercise by Michelle M., a graduate of the Talk to Me and Discovery classes at the Lane Murray Unit in Gatesville, TX.

 

Who I’m Afraid To Reveal. In Michelle’s writing she expressed feeling like a “broken vessel” and “screaming to be free”.Mask 300 dpi_1

Empowering Voices

Kathryn S. found her voice in three classes at the GEO Lockhart Unit, Talk To Me, Discovery, and Let’s Get Real. She was released on December 10, 2014 and got in touch right away to connect with our Beyond Bars activities. Kathryn already has a job, has reunited with her family, and is falling in love with her grandchild. Her poem, My Wall of Masks, is her creative expression from the Mask Exercise and is printed in the Discovery class Book of Wisdom.

My Wall of Mask

I have discovered that hidden beneath my mask,

I am still me.

I am every mask that I put on.

I am every mask that you might see.

Each mask has a different face,

every moment, every time at each and every place.

They are all unique, but they are the same.

I don’t remember them all,

but they do have their own name.

My mask of laughter, my mask of tears.

My mask of courage, and, yes,

my mask of fears.

My mask of failure, my mask of shame,

my mask of accomplishment,

My mask of fame.

My mask of success. But,

what does that really show?

My mask of right now

is the only one I truly know.

My mask that I hide behind,

my mask that I embrace.

My masks are all a part of me.

I wear them upon my face.

I could go on and on about

the many masks I wear.

But right now at this moment,

this is the woman I want to share.

So when I put my mask on

for you and the world to see,

it doesn’t really matter what it looks like.

They are all and each

A part of me.

15 Years of Helping Women Behind Bars Find Their Voices

In February 2000, Nathalie Sorrell responded to a request from the warden at the GEO Lockhart Unit to teach 15 incarcerated women to tell their stories to juveniles, to inspire the young girls not to follow the women’s paths to prison. The next semester, the juvenile program was discontinued and at the warden’s suggestion, Nathalie brought in an audience of respectful listeners to witness the women’s truth telling. She invited Carol Waid and Suzanne Armistead to facilitate and invite listeners, and they added classes that incorporated writing and movement. The first participants named the classes Talk To Me. In 2003, the three founders established Truth Be Told as a 501(c)(3).

In the15 years since Nathalie agreed to that initial small volunteer commitment, thousands of women have attended programs that are offered in five correctional facilities and support program graduates once they are released.

All of the programs are still facilitated by volunteers. The organization relies on donations from generous individuals and a few small organizations and foundation grants. On our website, we recognize donors in several categories. The Voice of Melinda lists donors who gave $5,000-$9,999. Melinda was our first program graduate to donate to Truth Be Told. Her mother passed away while she was incarcerated, and she didn’t get to attend the funeral. When she was released, a small inheritance enabled her to go to school, and she made a donation to Truth Be Told. She says that most people don’t understand how vitally important the programs are to society as a whole. She has gone from being a self-described “low-bottom drunk” who committed a “heinous crime” to living amends to her family and community and starting a meaningful career.

Recently, Carol interviewed Melinda on how Truth Be Told contributed the life she has built since she was released in April 2005. Melinda did eight years on a 20 year sentence, the last three at the GEO Lockhart Unit. She was drawn to the first class out of desperation and fear of living beyond bars. She needed hope and tools to lead a different life. Once she started classes, she knew she was getting what she needed and took Talk To Me – Circle, Talk To Me – Movement, and Let’s Get Real. She describes being physically “bound up” from incarceration and needing her spirit to move and the powerful effect of sharing honestly with the other women in class. Listen to Melinda’s voice and story: http://youtu.be/P6GqD5MnJ0g

Last year, six of our graduates created campaigns to give hope to women who are still behind bars.

Please help us empower more voices like Melinda’s. Join our Truth Be Told team for Amplify Austin. Spread the Word. Create a Personal Fundraising Campaign. Make a Donation. 

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