Tag Archives: creative writing

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.

 

 

 

 

New Issue of BleakHouse Review Now Available

9 Apr

BleakHouse Publishing is proud to release our annual BleakHouse Review, an online literary magazine that serves as an outlet for original perspectives on the criminal justice system. BleakHouse Publishing devotes itself to the creative voices of the voiceless. You will hear from an array of talented American University students, as well as former inmates and current prisoners.

Blending shades of cynicism and hopeful feeling, these poets and storytellers will show you a side of justice you’ve never seen.  Alongside these short pieces are stunning (and often unsettling) photographs that capture in images what the writer captures in words.  These works will change your mind about the criminal justice system and what it means to be a criminal; ultimately, they will change your heart.

People are trapped by prison walls.  Prisoners and others are constrained by personal limitations they build for themselves.  The goal of the BleakHouse Review is not to make excuses for terrible crimes, but rather to shed a humane light on the very human men, women, and children who feel the brutality of a broken system every day.  In this magazine, you will also read “Momma” by Allison Kroboth, a prisoner at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women.  She adopts the perspective of a child, drawn from her own childhood, remembering in touching clarity the startling arrest of her mother, a caring woman with bad habits.

For many contributing students, this is their first time as published writers.  BleakHouse Publishing wants to uplift aspiring artists, propelling them in many instances to their first successes and urging them to use their creative gifts to generate awareness for social justice issues.

BleakHouse Review is edited by Dr. Robert Johnson, a Professor at American University, (literary content) and Carla Mavaddat (art and design). For the 2013 issue, we gratefully acknowledge the assistance and support provided by associate editor Jada Wittow.

A copy of the BleakHouse Review is available online for free on our website for a limited time.

tacenda

New Ways to Look

18 Mar

By Joe Donovan

About the guest blogger: Joe Donovan loves words, dislikes shoes, and would probably rather be in a tree right now. He is passionate about prison reform, restorative justice, and peace education, as well as about writing and other forms of creative expression. He is currently a senior at Georgetown University.

Joe interns with Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop, which serves juveniles who have been sentenced and incarcerated as adults in the Washington, DC jail. Participants take part in a poetry and creative writing workshop, through which they use writing as a tool for self-expression, reflection, and personal growth. Free Minds continues to offer services after members age into the federal system (because DC has no state prison system, incarcerated youth are funneled into federal prisons around the country after turning 18) and provides reentry support when members finish their sentences and return to the community. Free Minds also connects members and their writing with the community through its outreach programs, On the Same Page and Write Night. For more information, visit freemindsbookclub.org. To read and offer feedback on poetry written by the incarcerated youth of Free Minds, visit their blog.

I’ve had the joy and Second Semester Senior privilege of taking a sculpture class this semester. It’s been incredibly refreshing and has reminded me just how important creativity is to feeling like myself. Pushing my need for creativity and expression to the side has been too easy for me throughout my time in college, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to rediscover that side of myself. Just as importantly, it’s been a chance to explore the connection between creativity and the process of working for dignity, solidarity, and social justice.

For our first assignment in the class, each student constructed a “space frame,” a hollow cube/rectangular prism made by gluing wooden rods together. Then we had to fill the space with Art. The class started just as I began my time with Free Minds, and I was (and remain) hugely inspired by the strength and beauty of the members’ writing and stories.

I had been particularly touched by a poem written by young Free Minds poet DW, “They Call Me 299-359,” the title poem for Free Minds’ literary journal. The poem captures both the dehumanizing force of the prison system and the power of self-expression to overcome that force, and so I decided to base my sculpture around DW’s words. Here’s what came out of it:

It’s easy to look at a person in prison and see nothing but the cell they’re in.

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We can fool ourselves into thinking that’s all that’s there – it’s easier to put a human in a cage if you don’t see the humanity.

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But if you’re willing to change your perspective even a little bit, what you see starts to change. And things get more complicated.

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There’s always a story there if you look for it. Here’s DW’s poem They Call Me 299-359, which tells a little slice of his.

“Orange jumpsuit, shower shoes and an armband / Guilty by appearance and judged by my race / Guilty until innocent in the words of a DA

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Lost in a cold dream called prison / Four sharp corners, eggshell paint, dusty gray floor

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They call me 299-359

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Correctional officers view me as a stupid savage / I push the pen so that I remain happy

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Mama and Daddy, these are the unwritten words of your baby’s diary

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My orange jumpsuit and number are only the book cover / So please don’t judge / My words are pure as gold / Not aware of the success that these lines hold

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I operate this pen to fight the war mentality / So please understand me

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They call me 299-399 / Orange jumpsuit, shower shoes and an armband”

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Words can build new, beautiful realities even in the ugliest places

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But the work of seeing people for who they are is never completely finished

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We have to keep finding new ways to look

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Because seeing beauty requires standing on the right side.

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Since writing this poem, DW has served his sentence and returned from prison. He is taking college classes while holding down a job, and likes to be known as The Poetry Man.