Tag Archives: prison poetry

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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Incarcerated Women and the Transformational Power of Poetry

5 Mar

by Leah Thorn

About the guest blogger: Leah Thorn is an artist/activist, using spoken word poetry for the autobiographical exploration of identity and liberation. She frequently performs in collaboration with dancers and musicians and her work is published through performance, film, anthologies and magazines in England and the United States. Leah also leads poetry-as-empowerment workshops, primarily in prisons. In 2013 she received a Royal Society for Public Health Special Commendation Award for her contribution to Creative Arts and the Criminal Justice System.

I was recently invited to give a talk at a TEDxWomen event on a subject in some way related to women’s liberation. The event was part of the TEDWomen initiative that started in San Francisco at the beginning of December ’13 and inspired day-long events in over one hundred countries. 

I chose to focus my talk on incarcerated women, feminism and the transformational power of poetry, mostly because issues of sexism and male domination are so starkly apparent within the setting of women’s prisons.

I go into women’s prisons as a spoken-word poet and as a women’s liberation activist. The starkness of prison keeps me rooted and alive to the rawness of sexism, male domination and misogyny and to the lived experiences of working-class Black and white women. I have had a two-year writing residency in a high security women’s prison and I undertake short projects, for example with women who self-harm or with older women. In my workshops and one-to-one sessions I enable women to express their thoughts and experiences through talking, writing, publishing and performance and provide a safe place where they can release pent-up emotions. This can lead to a sense of empowerment and agency and a development of trust and openness. Although the focus is not to produce crafted work, many women do. I also speak out as a poet/performer on issues of women’s liberation and incarceration. It often feels that this is a deliberately well-hidden subject.

in a naked state
the women who name
those women have to be contained
those women who disclose, expose
those who show, too eager to show
show scars, who hurting
hurt others
take them, scapegoat,
away

I write from the perspective of living in England, the ‘lock up capital’ of Europe, where 45 out of every 100,000 of the general population are in prison. I have also had the opportunity to see first-hand the female System of Corrections in the United States, the carceral nation of the world with 724 per 100,000 of the general population in prison. The situation for women in the two countries is very similar, understandably so as sexism is sexism and there is a universality to women’s narratives. The stories and poems I heard were interchangeable in the similarity of their detail and emotion. Once a safe creative space is made, women tell hard stories, eager to share with each other, often for the first time. In both countries I have been audience to poignant poems and monologues on themes of domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug and alcohol addiction and involvement in prostitution.

A woman’s pain is universal.
A woman’s tears are global.
We love the same. We cry the same.
We lose the same. We all settle for less of the same.
We prostitute our minds. Sell our emotions short.
Sometimes at no price at all.
We trust the same, fallin’ prey
as victims of abuse and misuse.
We are all the same. Our struggle the same.
Universal

Extract from a poem by Star

However, there are also some stark differences between the US and the UK in the treatment of incarcerated women. In the UK, there is a groundswell of alliances to end the incarceration of women. For example, the Corston report was commissioned by the then Labour government in the wake of a series of deaths of women in custody, with a remit to address the need for ‘a distinct, radically different, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach’. One of the successes of the report was to stop the regular strip searching of women – “Regular repetitive unnecessary overuse of strip searching in women’s prisons is humiliating, degrading, undignified and a dreadful invasion of privacy. For women who have suffered past abuse, particularly sexual abuse, it is an appalling introduction to prison life and an unwelcome reminder of previous victimisation.” Strip searching is still common practice in most states of North America.

Unlike the States, there is no regular shackling of women in the UK, nor a blanket use of uniform. There are also routine schemes in UK prisons that, although very limited, do go some way to supporting women – eg Storybook Mums, where women write, illustrate and record stories for their children; Toe By Toe, a peer literacy scheme; Listeners, offering emotional peer support; and programmes to support women who have experienced domestic violence or prostitution.

I hope the talk shows in some way that the community solutions for non-violent women offenders should be the norm. More needs to be done to divert women not just from court but also from prosecution and to divert young women away from criminal activity before they start offending.

The City Inside

2 Feb

By Hakim Bellamy

About the guest blogger: Hakim Bellamy became the inaugural poet laureate of Albuquerque on April 14th, 2012, at age 33. He was the son of a preacher man (and a praying woman). His mother gave him his first book of poetry as a teen, a volume by Khalil Gibran. Many poems later, Bellamy has been on two national champion poetry slam teams, won collegiate and city poetry slam championships (in Albuquerque and Silver City, NM), and has been published in numerous anthologies and on inner-city buses. A musician, actor, journalist, playwright and community organizer, Bellamy has also received an honorable mention for the Paul Bartlett Ré Peace Prize at the University of New Mexico. Bellamy is the founder and president of Beyond Poetry LLC. For more information on the author, please visit www.hakimbe.com.

The City Inside Me

I want to think about my future.
I want to put my past behind me,
but my heart is in the streets.
I am away from my seeds,
aggrieved,
praying to God on my knees .

I want to succeed.

I am tired of making mistakes.
My mind is in a place it cannot escape.

My son looks me in the face.
Is it a man he sees?

I tell him about the streets and the damage it brings.

Rochester, New York is where you find me.
Rochester,
filled with so much pain.
Rochester, the city inside me.

Manuel, Monroe Correctional Facility

Courtesy of the New York State Literary Center

It’s a simple prompt, or so I thought. Describe the city inside of you. What is the weather like in that city? What are the people like in that city? What are you like, in that city? Having served on the Governing Council of Gordon Bernell Charter School inside of Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) I have a fairly nuanced understanding of corrections and incarceration in this country. Enough to know that many of these men at Monroe Correctional Facility where probably not even from Rochester, NY. They’d likely been displaced from their hometowns and families, moved like chattel, but no matter where they go there is a piece of their city inside of them.

I was so fortunate to be invited into the Monroe Facility by Dale Davis of the New York State Literary Center and poet John Roche. I had roughly 90 minutes to work with about 30 men. At 35, I was one of the youngest Black men in the room. And most of these men were black. Incredulously, I find the same overrepresentation of Black bodies in the pods at MDC in New Mexico. The only difference being that New Mexico has a 2% African American population per the last Census.

So we went to work on that right away. When teaching artists go into correctional facilities we are not there to entertain or be part of some enrichment programming, we are there to transform. We are transformed. Because the best way to teach is by example, so I shared with them some tough poems about identity and a rap or two about fear and fatherhood. I used the first 30 minutes to tell them Where I’m From (sans the poem prompt by George Ella Lyons), and also share with them this transformational arc in my own life, that I document through my practice of poetry. And for the last hour of the workshop, I give them that practice. Together we remember, reflect, write, reflect, share, reflect and let that resonate.

Sure, they learned (or were simply reminded) that the weather inside them, is changing. Just like weather is always changing in a city, just like people are always changing in a city. That’s inspiring when you are inside and “outside” is something that is rationed to you. But what they really learn is community. As a group they took a risk with me. They decided to share some of where they are from and some of who they are inside with each other and some dude they barely met (me). In that short period of time, we established a space where folks felt safe to take risks (whether that be reading in front of the group or sharing personal thoughts) and we brought people together through the practice of listening. Frankly, adults on the outside need these skills as much as these men did. And skills like these, like empathy, like compassion, like communication and understanding, take practice.

My job is not just to help Manuel imagine a city inside of him, my job as a teaching artist is to help him create that world around him. Poetry is just one tool to help that process of reconstruction.

Hakim Bellamy at the Monroe Correctional Facility.

Hakim Bellamy at the Monroe Correctional Facility