How teaching a writing class to incarcerated woman changed this author's life.
How teaching a writing class to incarcerated woman changed this author's life.

‘What I learnt volunteering in a women’s prison’

KATIE, (my writing-workshop co-facilitator), and I walked out of the MTC Lockhart Correctional Facility for Women last evening, after our final class of the term.

We passed roses planted by the razor-wire fence, and looked up at a crude and blessed-out Texas sky.

The bright orange disc there was either dropping or rising.

"Wait - is that the sun or the moon?" I said, like an idiot.

Katie took a second to answer: "The sun."

It's easy to get backwards after spending just a few hours in a prison. Inside, outside, freedom, power, day, night. But you just reorient yourself, and watch the horizon burn into darkness.

In 2015, I was invited to "witness" a graduation from this Truth Be Told program, a curriculum that guides incarcerated women in telling the stories of what led them to prison.

The women stood in their white jumpsuits, nervous and empowered, and talked about growing up in small rural towns, talked about being mums, talked about swimming and baking and driving trucks and falling in love. They also talked about being sexually abused as girls, talked about meth, about money, about shame, about fear.

Jardine Libaire. Photo: Justine Gilcrease
Jardine Libaire. Photo: Justine Gilcrease

Truth Be Told is based on the simple idea that storytelling in a safe community is healing; that getting all the details out, having them respectfully heard, and being loved more not less for gathering the courage to speak, metabolises the past into good fuel for a new future.

And for someone to be released in a better mindset than when she was convicted is good for everyone.

Entering the facility that first time, I felt overburdened with what I thought I already knew about prison.

I'd absorbed ideas and mythology from TV and films.

I'd read a spectrum of complex arguments by scholars and prison-reform activists and politicians about exactly how the American prison system has gotten so corrupt, so bloated, so racist, so counter-effective.

I'd heard a rainbow of common opinions. That a "criminal" can't really be rehabilitated. That private facilities are evil, or that state facilities are evil. That prison teaches incarcerated people to be more criminal, or that all prison staff prey on the vulnerability of the incarcerated people.

So when I signed on to facilitate the class (after the graduation moved me to tears and shook me up), I decided to try to walk in clean, pockets empty of preconceived notions.

I'll tell you what I found out in my first three terms.

The building has the perfume of institution - like a nursing home, or rehab - any place where people live out all 24 hours to each day. Women who wear nice white sneakers have higher status.

'What I Learnt Volunteering In A Women's Prison'
'What I Learnt Volunteering In A Women's Prison'

Your "time sheet" is a calculation of your sentence, plus or minus good time or bad. "Pulling chain" is leaving the unit. Every single woman in my class was a mother. The class was one of the most trust-building and most life-changing experiences I've ever had.

And beyond that, I have no better understanding of our judicial and penal system here in America. Well, I have a couple more strokes to fill in the big picture. And I still know the system is wildly inefficient, biased, necessary, and harmful. But I would need to get a PhD to be able to see the right solutions, to process the data and the dialogue.

Especially since no two facilities are the same, and no two of our 50 states are the same, so most of the time people are talking about apples and oranges when they try to reformulate national policy.

What is real: inmates who on the first day of a new semester listened sceptically, arms crossed, and ended up weeks later telling this room of women things they've never told anyone at all, never even allowed themselves to think about.

Things they've done, things done to them. Terrors, dreams. We don't fix or chastise each other. We don't recommend a god or a doctrine. We listen. We witness. We don't claim to know what's best for anyone.

And I've had many women tell me the class changed her life.

Reality in general seems upside-down these days in the U.S., to many of us. Rights we thought were won are being taken back, legislation we thought was impossible is passing. What's getting me through this political fog is focusing on pure things: I believe in storytelling, I believe in women's rights, and I believe in respect for every human being.

So I can stay confounded by everything happening and not happening in this beloved and troubled country of mine, but that won't stop me from offering what precious little I have to whoever wants it. It won't keep me from accepting the kindness and illumination and education that these women are giving to me.

This article originally appeared on Whimn and has been republished with permission.

Truth Be Told is a non-profit organisation headquartered in Austin, TX, U.S., that provides transformational programs through self-discovery for women who are or have been incarcerated resulting in increased self-worth, accountability, and positive contributions to society. Jardine Libaire is the author of White Fur (Hachette Australia, $29.99), out now.

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