Tag Archives: alternatives to incarceration

Meeting the Woman, Not the Crime

24 Jan
by Peggy Lamb
About the guest blogger: Peggy Lamb organizes Truth Be Told’s Exploring Creativity program. Truth Be Told is an Austin, TX based non-profit organization that provides transformational programs for women who are or have been incarcerated. Exploring Creativity classes use expressive arts to enlarge the women’s sense of themselves, release pain and express despair and without harming oneself or others. Leaders vary from storytellers to singers to visual artists to dancers – to quilters and yoga teachers and writers.

Twenty-eight women in dingy white uniforms file into the chapel at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville. Most of them know me and gift me with big smiles. I feel a flood of joy circulate through my body and my heart opens wide.

These women are all in the Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP), an intense 18 month cognitive therapy program. They live together in a special dorm in which community is emphasized. Each of these 28 women has committed a crime which will brand them for life as sex offenders.

Most people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the concept of female sex offenders. I certainly did. A Google search brought me to a research paper entitled Female Sex Offenders: Severe Victims and Victimizers. It was hard to read about women sexually molesting children, even harder to grasp that some of the women of SOTP had committed similar crimes. Women don’t do such things, men do, right? Wrong. Both genders are capable of unspeakable and horrifying crimes.

I do not know the specifics of these women’s crimes. I could find out via the TDCJ web site but I’ve made a conscious choice to remain in the dark. I meet them, woman to woman, outside ideas of right and wrong. I, or the artist I bring, share tools of discovery and encourage the creativity of these deeply wounded women, who themselves are victims of sex abuse, to take root and blossom. I passionately believe in the power of creativity to heal and re-define oneself. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am Large, I contain Multitudes”. I want these women to know in their bones that they are more than just sex offenders; they are more than their crimes. They are writers, poets, dancers, singers, actresses and visual artists with gifts to share.

When I learned that the Hilltop unit had a SOTP program, I was deeply drawn to teach there. I do not know why but I have learned to follow my soul urges. It’s been almost four years that I’ve been going up there once a month – it is work that deeply feeds my soul.

Today I’m teaching a movement and writing class I call “Elements”. Chairs are moved out of the way and we circle up for warm-up exercises. The sound of African drumming fills the room breaking down barriers and inhibitions like a magic wand. Hips sway, shoulders shimmy, toes tap and heads bob. We boogie and rock out. Movement is generated from the core – pelvis and torso. In the Soul Train section, I encourage the women to get down and shake it out. Shake out anger, despair, loneliness, frustration and resentment. It is deeply satisfying!

My first writing prompt is five minutes of free-flow writing on “I am Earth” Then I ask the women to create an earth gesture – a movement that symbolizes groundedness, stability, nature, etc. Each woman shares her gesture and the rest of us repeat it. I play just the right earthy music (usually another cut of African drumming) and we go around the circle dancing each women’s gesture. We’ve just choreographed our first dance! 

We repeat that process with three more writing and movement prompts: “I am Air”, “I am Fire” and “I am Water”. By the end of the class we’ve created four dances and the women have four pieces of creative writing they can be proud of.

The chapel is filled with the divine energy of creativity and community. One woman comments “I didn’t know I was creative!” Another says, “This is the deepest sense of community this dorm has ever had.” One that touches my heart so deeply is “In the twenty years I’ve been locked up, this is the most fun I’ve ever had.”

I am filled with awe at their willingness to step outside their comfort zones. I LOVE this work – my soul is filled with joy and gratitude.

 

 

 

 

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The Restorative Revolution

11 Mar
This essay by Elaine Shpungin, Ph.D. was originally posted on 2/15/11 at http://www.improvecommunication.net/. We hope it will inspire some dialogue about the intersections of prison arts and restorative practices. Please share your thoughts.

Call me crazy – but I think we are ready for a Revolution.

I’m talking about a revolution in the way we approach justice, transgression, punishment, crime, and every day conflict among ordinary people. I am talking about the way we treat each other after we hurt each other – even in very deep ways – and the way we treat those who are less powerful than us when “justice” is placed in our hands.

I am talking a transformational, society-wide, lens-shifting, all-affecting revolution the scale of the 1960’s civil rights and women’s rights movements, a revolution in how we think about who we are and how we live, work, and love together.

Not a solution to everything. Not panacea, utopia, peace and love for all. But a fundamental shift in the collective understanding of what might be possible.

I feel it in my bones, like the rumble of a train coming down the tracks way before you see its lights appear from behind the bend.

People are sensing the heavy creaking of the current justice system, the way it is over-burdened and under-humane, the way it takes our sons and daughters and nieces and nephews and puts them back into our communities more hardened and less integrated than they were before, the way it creates rifts among us, decreasing rather than increasing the sense of safety for which we all long.

And people are becoming dissatisfied with the way we inadvertently replicate that same model in our homes, with people most precious to us, and in our communities, the places where we spend our waking hours.

I work with a lot of communication modalities and I have been talking to people about empathy and healing and dialogue for a long time.

But when I mention the restorative practices work in which I am involved, people respond with the kind of excitement, the kind of energy I have not seen before. Their eyes light up. They smile.  They want to learn more. They want to get involved.

I am talking about people across all economic, class, age, and race differences: administrators working in the formal justice system and grandmothers of boys in the local jail, academics and activists, rabbis and conservative ministers, teachers and parents, college students and poets. When I share what might be possible, there is a spark, an electrical surge of hope.

And what is possible is a way of doing conflict and justice in which each voice and each side gets heard, in which people who have been hurt get to ask their toughest questions and those who have caused pain get to experience the impact of what they have done and come out feeling more human, not less. What is possible are solutions to conflicts that are not believable until you hear them, that stem from human creativity that is untapped by the current way we do things, and are agreed upon by everyone who is impacted by the conflict.

Restorative practices, as ancient as human society, have been making their way back into our collective knowledge. Some of them, like the Restorative Circles practice which I have been learning, are laced with a modern edge, an edge forged in the fires of inner-city Brazilian favelas where drugs, gun violence, racialized tensions and numbing poverty overlay the struggle for daily survival.

And that is what makes the possibility so palpable. There is another way and it works. It works to re-humanize people to each other in the most trying of circumstances across deeply etched lines. In a place where unbelievable beauty and unbelievable disparity go hand in hand, restorative practices are growing and being embraced by school districts, youth courts, youth prisons, neighborhoods and homes, presidential candidates and major news networks. Restorative Circles are winning awards and changing circumstances, changing lives, changing how people think about and live with conflict.

Not a solution to everything. Not panacea, utopia, peace and love for all. But a fundamental shift in the collective understanding of what might be possible.

A Restorative Revolution.  It’s coming.

Wanna get on board?

CASES Insight Project Begins a New Cycle

18 Feb

CASES–THE CENTER FOR ALTERNATIVE SENTENCING AND EMPLOYMENT SERVICES, INC.

The Insight Project is a comprehensive theatre-making class offered by the Court Employment Project (CEP), an alternative-to-incarceration program addressing the needs of court-involved youth at CASES. Following the success of the company’s first and second cycle productions of the original plays Bird’s Eye View and Brazil at Theatre Row Studios on 42nd Street, the Insight Project will focus its next cycle on bringing these productions into the community.

Bird’s Eye View raises challenging questions about becoming an adult while negotiating family loyalty, ethical and legal behavior. Brazil explores the impact of a single act of violence and the struggles of those affected to make sense of the incident. Both scripts are original pieces, written in the course of the Insight Project’s work by the participants and Writer-in-Residence Todd Pate, and inspired by the participants’ life experiences.

The Insight Project’s third cycle will bring project alumni together with professional actors and new CEP participants to revive these two powerful performances as a repertory company. Our goal is to use these performances to engage communities in a conversation on the underlying issues of offending behavior and a dialogue on the value of community-based alternatives to incarceration. Accordingly, performances will be accompanied by a curriculum guide for interested high school and undergraduate institutions, and will be followed in all cases by a talkback, in which audiences will engage directly with performers about the play’s content and their individual perspectives on these issues.

Institutions interested in hosting a performance of Bird’s Eye View or Brazil in May or June of 2009 should contact Insight Project Director Dan Stageman. There is no charge for the performance – an appropriate venue (with minimal production values) and an engaged audience are the only requirements. Performance scripts and curriculum guides are available upon request.

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CASES–THE CENTER FOR ALTERNATIVE SENTENCING AND EMPLOYMENT SERVICES, INC

The mission of CASES is to increase the use and understanding of community sanctions that are fair, affordable, and consistent with public safety.

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Contact Information:
Daniel Stageman
Director, Insight Project.
Telephone: (347) 885 8222
Fax: (212) 571 0292
dstageman@cases.org
www.cases.org