Excerpt from Introduction – Hear Me, See Me: Incarcerated Women Write
It’s Thursday evening inside Vermont’s sole women’s prison. We facilitators, Sarah and Marybeth, sandwich together mismatched tables and chairs in a windowless room inside the caverns of the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, Vt.
Women of all ages begin to enter in chatty clusters, converging from various units throughout the facility. Most are dressed in sweats, tees, athletic socks and flip flops, clutching their crimson folders that overflow with previous writings. One by one, they sign in at the doorway so correctional officers can scan this sheet conveniently during the 7 p.m. head-count without interruption.
Scanning the now-silent circle to greet the 12 to 18 incarcerated writers assembled, we notice that ‘Annie’ is back from the ‘hole.’ Isolation is the main sanction used for acting out in prison. This 40-something woman with a floral tattoo covering her right arm suffers significant mental health issues, which manifest in periodic outbursts and assaults of officers and inmates. Her group attendance has been checkered lately, as a result.
But tonight we learn something that earns her heartfelt affirmation from us all. ‘Annie’ writes, “My gratefulness for this writing group has grown. To miss it was as heartbreaking as I thought it would be… I cried (in the hole) every time I knew it was Thursday.”
This very night, ‘Annie’ is present in the circle because she has advocated for herself, telling prison staff how important writing is to help her process intense negative emotions in a healthy manner. As a result, she is now cleared for writing and mental health groups even when housed in segregation, and has negotiated a staff escort to get her there regularly.
Such an accommodation tells many stories in one. For writinginsideVT, it signals the value imprisoned women place on the positive personal and communal experiences we nurture by our regular presence writing inside with them.
For the Vermont Department of Corrections, it attests to the gender-responsive approaches being utilized more regularly with female inmates under new leadership at the Chittenden Facility.
And for the women themselves, it exemplifies the impact that positive role models, respectful listening, and inner reflection through writing can have on resetting their life priorities going forward.
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SAMPLE WRITINGS from Hear Me, See Me:
From EXPERIENCE – “. . . Women write of the real challenges to body and spirit they have faced, stories frank and revelatory in their stark telling of addiction, abuse, betrayal. These are their roots, the ground from which these women spring for better and worse. . . “
IN BED AT NIGHT
I lay in bed at night and I stare at myself. My reflection broken up by thick metal bars. I stare awkwardly and persistently trying to force myself to recognize the person staring back. At me. I’m not sure who I am anymore. Most times I avoid my reflection. I wanna avoid who I’ve become. I see betrayal and defeat staring back at me. A lifetime of pain. In my reflection I see infinite street wisdom, loyalty, honor. All my street morals slappin’ me in my face. The games ethics laughing at me. If only I had known there wasn’t any rules to this game.
My throat cut wide open. I’m bleeding, but no one cares. I’m alone. A goldfish among sharks. A sheep in wolf’s clothing. I try to blend but my heart gives me away. She is scared. She’s confused, forced to be someone she wasn’t. Made to believe it was the only way.
I would give anything to show her different, to keep her safe. I would give anything to go back to her to save her from him, from herself. She looks so scared, but I know she is brave. I know, ‘cuz we survived. Only now my hope is fading, and I’m accepting of my life amongst sharks. I know how to take care of us now.
From REFLECTIONS – “Relationships are re-seen from the distance of incarceration, with its many hours to ponder, worry, question and yearn. . . . Toward the end of this section, growing self-understanding is pitted against challenges of often dysfunctional relationships . . . As a woman prepares for release from prison, she often shares a strong connection to the natural world . . . [and] newly discovered faith and spirituality, often in the form of prayers, dreams or visions for her future.”
Long before the alcohol, the nicotine, the needle, I escaped and soothed with macaroni and cheese, hot dogs and Egg McMuffins. I would fill the pain with pasta, escape with eclairs, de-stress with Doritos.
It was my first addiction; not unlike my first words or my first steps, it was the building blocks of my shack of isolation. It was my first magnificent plan to hide from the world by getting bigger.
I would immediately follow this up with crash diets, thinking that if I could get control of this, I would have control of my entire life.
What a twisted little game of indulgence and instant gratification that would continue into my adult years, only the stakes became much higher than gaining ten pounds. The stakes became life and death, Russian roulette with a syringe.
Win or lose, there was no end until one day, as in Monopoly, my Chance Card came up – go to jail, directly to jail. I did not pass “Go” and certainly did not collect $200 … instead I got to stop playing the game. And what a marvelous error it has been, to retire my jersey, to step to the sidelines, to sit back and stop playing. Yes, what a marvelous error, what a delicious mistake.
From COLLECTIVE INSIGHT – “Each week, after hearing one another’s words shared aloud, listeners ‘read back’ to one another phrases that resonated with them during the readings . . . These phrases are then woven together . . . to create ‘found poems,’ raising all the voices in one collective piece. . . packed with poignancy and insight. . . .”
A JOURNEY STARTED, A SPARK OF HOPE
I wasn’t arrested, I was rescued in a lot of old fashioned ways.
15 months on the inside demanded small but important repairs:
open heart, changing my ways to control what I think and feel;
to be myself in my entirety – wisdom walker, fire woman.
After losing so much it is important to step back,
pointing to the one and only hope to keep you moving on.
Most of us could never imagine that hope hadn’t died, buried in pain.
Each tear contains a little spark of aliveness, real possibility
for a biography in the making dissipating the inky black light.
Your search for self grows better with attention,
magically produces more love no matter what,
reflected every day in what greatness you can perceive.
There is always a glimmer of gold even when the mirror sees gray.
It has come true for me.
Turn the corner of loneliness carrying hope within;
watch the lights twinkle as you pray, starting your life over again.
Keep searching. Knowing you have taken every chance
will always be your hope.
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