Congratulations to the New Graduates…in Prison

28 09 2009

A letter to the women in the Lockhart, Texas prison who just graduated from the Truth be Told program

You had no choice but to wear matching dull blue v-neck formless pullover tops and pants, white t-shirts, and tennis shoes. I had the freedom to choose to wear a peridot-green peasant blouse, black capri pants, and close-toed (a requirement) black heels. I wore jewelry. You did not. I freely came in from the outside, handed over my driver’s license, and was escorted into the gymnasium with 17 other women and 2 men who chose (and were pre-screened) to attend your graduation. You, too, were escorted there, but after graduation, you stayed in the prison. I went home.

Despite our marked differences in freedom, we came together to celebrate your graduation from the Truth Be Told program. I recognized the 10 of you in the Talk to Me Speaking Class from when I had the privilege of evaluating five of your this-is-my-life speeches. Many of you ran to me, hugged me, and said how happy you were that I was there. I felt real joy in seeing you and delight in sitting between two of you. Three of you spoke and my heart filled with pride that you so openly and skillfully shared the story of what came before that led to you being in prison.

Three of the nine women from the Talk to Me Circle Class also spoke and shared your stories and three women from the Talk to Me Movement Class delighted us with your expressiveness and impressive moves in the Michael Jackson “Beat It” number. Charlotte leaned over and told me it was the first time she’d heard music (from a loud speaker) in three years.

Walking through History - Purchased from iStockPhotoYou told us stories of being sexually abused as a child, a mother who allowed such abuse toward you and even toward your children, a father who beat your mother, using drugs to dim emotional pain, being forced to sell drugs or to prostitute yourself to support your children, being beaten by men who you thought loved you, never feeling loved, joining a gang to find a sense of belonging, having to give up children, being in and out of prison, and more.

Your stories touched everyone who attended. We gathered afterward to name our feelings: grateful, joyful, amazed at your courage and honesty, a sense of sisterhood with you, pride, recognition and acknowledgment of your pain and what you’ve been through, and honored to have had the opportunity to bear witness to your stories.

The Truth be Told volunteers who facilitate the classes are amazing: Peggy Lamb, Julie Wylie, Natalie Weinstein, Katie Ford, Mary Gifford, and co-founders Carol Waid and Nathalie Sorrell. You are fortunate to have women who are so passionate, so talented, so intelligent, so giving, and so caring guide you in walking your life toward making healthy choices and feeling hopeful for a better tomorrow.

As amazing as your facilitators are, I wonder if you ladies in the Truth be Told program realize how much you give to those who work with you. We feel your humanness, that you are our sisters, and that but for different life choices and circumstances, the roles could be reversed…we could be in prison and you could be on the outside. We see your courage, your vulnerability, your willingness to be open and honest, your admission of bad choices, and your desire to turn your lives around. We admire you, we are Truth Be Told Logoin awe of you, we are touched by you, and we take you with us as we leave.

The experience of being in prison with you and hearing your stories lasts long after we leave the facility.  We share our experience with those we care about and they share it with still others. Something changes in us. We develop an even deeper understanding that we are all one and must do what we can to lift each other up.

Thank you, dear Truth be Told graduates. Take in all the applause we gave you at the graduation and continue to give you every time we think of you. You are changing your lives…and ours…for the better. And that’s the truth.

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Truth Be Told by Women in a Texas Prison

5 09 2009

I went to prison on Thursday. Through a friendship with co-founder Nathalie Sorrell, I  had the opportunity to participate in the non-profit Truth Be Told program at the Lockhart, Texas prison. The mission of Truth Be Told is to provide:

…transformational tools for women behind and beyond bars. [Their] programs provide respectful listening and creative tools for personal and spiritual growth for incarcerated women. [They] encourage in them a deeper sense of personal responsibility and help them face the truth of their pasts and embrace the hope of their futures.

The program I attended is modeled on Toastmasters, which I attended for 13 years. In this group were ten women, whose ages ranged from around 22 to 59 and whose crimes ranged from drug dealing to violent crimes. I served as the evaluator for the speeches of five women, who told the stories of their lives and what led them to prison.

PrisonAs I listened, I was struck by how these women could have been any of us…and how any of them could have been living lives of freedom if they had been blessed with emotionally healthier parents, gotten a good education, had not been so desperate for love from the wrong men, and had made better choices. Each woman gave me permission to tell her story…they want others to understand the consequences of bad choices. I promised to change their names. Here goes.

DulcineaHispanic, 35 years old, a beautiful, easy smile, corn rows on top of her head and remaining hair upswept in a bun – Dulcinea’s father beat her mother. Dulcinea had an abortion at age 18, gave birth to two children by age 28, and her father was killed by a drunk driver when she was 28. That crushed her and she began doing cocaine. From ages 29 to 35 she did prostitution and was in and out of prison. She has now discovered that God is the real “man” she needed and that he has rescued her.

CarolBlack, daughter of a Marine father and Filipino mother, 35 years old, trim, shoulder-length straight hair, serene countenance – Carol’s parents divorced when she was five years old. From ages 7 – 13 she was sexually abused by her stepfather and felt hatred toward him, her mother, and herself. Her mother, who was on drugs, blamed her and left her to take care of herself and her little sisters. At age 14, she met an older man, believed she loved him, and sold drugs for him. She was put in prison for the first time at age 17, which led to two “good things”…getting her GED (Graduate Equivalency Degree) and “giving [her] life to the Lord.” After getting out, she became pregnant by a new man, he left her, and she sold drugs again to support herself and her child. She had two daughters by a third man who sold drugs and went to prison. She took her children to her mom’s, lived on the streets, sold drugs, and met another man who she hated. She had multiple suicide attempts, he kidnapped her and raped her repeatedly, she became pregnant with her fourth child, and was sent to prison again…this time for eight years. She was released from prison in 2007, tried dating women, and was still hurt. She had her fifth child by yet another man. She wrote a bad check and wound up back in prison.

CarlottaBlack, 33 years old, curly hair, full-figured, friendly face – When she was seven years old, Carlotta’s mother ran away, her father was incarcerated, and Carlotta was sent to live with her grandmother, who was very religious and strict. Carlotta felt bitter. Looking for love, she became pregnant by a 14-year-old and went to a special school for teen mothers. Despite the separation, when her mother died when she was just 17 and her father when she was 20, she wanted to die too. She lived a life then of sexing, stealing, and clubbing. At age 23, a high-speed chase led to her arrest for shoplifting; she went to prison for a few months and received 10 years probation. She reconnected with a childhood friend, became pregnant, and suffered postpartum depression. While still on probation, she went on the run for 15 months, was caught, and was put back in prison in 2005. Now she is taking back her life.

Rosemaria Hispanic, around 23 years old, innocent looking, smiling – Rosemaria’s mother left her and her siblings in an orphanage when she was just seven years old, which led her to feel rage and hatred. At age 13 she became part of a gang. At age 15 she became pregnant, had three children by age 18, and four by age 21. She said that while in the gang, she didn’t “…feel bad about fighting. We didn’t hurt children or anyone who was innocent.  But now I see that we were hurting innocent children when we hurt their mothers, fathers, uncles….” She said that being in prison is the “biggest test of [her] life” and she now understands that what she did was wrong. She says she is still a “G“…this time God’s child.

NancyWhite, 59 years old, graying hair messily swept back in a bun, peering over granny glasses, thin – Nancy stated out right that she was not like the others. She said that both of her parents were lawyers and Ph.D.s and her mother told her over and over that she was a “loved baby.” She said that she led a charmed life until she came to prison, but didn’t know it. Her parents were in Europe, but her mother “waited to have her” until they came back to the U.S. so that Nancy could possibly be president one day. She watched prison movies and read a lot from the Bible and was determined she would never go to prison and would be the best Christian she could be. Although she says she took extraordinary measures to insure that she was indeed the owner of a house that was deeded to her, she says that her lawyer was crooked and she wound up in prison. Nancy was apparently imprisoned for real estate fraud, but even when challenged about the veracity of her story and what her part was that led to her being imprisoned, still said she is innocent and will one day see her story made into a Lifetime network movie.

Each woman in the group gave me hugs and thanked me for coming. I felt a Truth Be Told Logoreal sense of joy of being with these women who…though they have made real mistakes …are now trying to better their lives. Truth Be Told has several programs that help women build a sense of community, come to grips with the decisions they made that led them to prison, and learn to better communicate with each other respectfully and caringly.

I felt joyful from start to finish the day I went to prison. Through the efforts of volunteers like Nathalie Sorrell (co-founder), Carol Waid (co-founder), Katie, Peggy, Natalie, Suzanne, Julie, Mary, and executive director Shannon Holtzendorf, programs like Truth Be Told begin to bring some joy into the lives of women who have led hard lives and experienced little joy before coming to prison.

I’m going back to prison for their graduation in three weeks. Truth be told? I can’t wait.

Read my blog post about going to the Truth be Told graduation in the Lockhart prison

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