Women On the Inside
by Rachel Williams

 personal-narrative  poetry  programs-in-prison

A Line of Words

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a wood-carver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year. (Dillard,1990, pg. 1).

Since 1994 I have been teaching art to women in prison. During my classes I always noticed that it was not the painting and drawing that the women spent the most time talking about, instead it was their lives. Their conversations were part of what made the classes so enjoyable for everyone. In order to keep their sanity, most women also discover, once they enter prison, that they must find someone to trust, to confide in, to listen. The atmosphere in art class was similar to a group of close women friends getting together over steaming covered dishes and candlelight free from their partners, children, and worries to talk for one evening. In 2001 I traded in my painting clothes and clay covered apron for grant money from Humanities Iowa, a laptop computer, a cassette recorder, and an incredible reading list. I started teaching “Women on the Inside”, a group where women at Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW) could share stories and read the words of other women every week for two years.

It is no wonder that women in prison have lives filled with stories. Almost half of all incarcerated women have or have had someone in their immediate family in prison, one third had a parent or guardian that suffered from addiction to drugs or alcohol, 57% were subjected to physical or sexual assault at some point in their lives, 65% are mothers, and one in five receive medication for psychological or emotional problems (Greenfield and Snell, 2000). Most of the women have also witnessed things that the average citizen might never see.

Personal expression through the arts and writing is an important part of how women find peace and joy inside the prison. Writing about their lives in letters to their loved ones, telling their stories informally, expressing their creativity, and finding others in places like art class who have similar tales helps women to cope, gain perspective, share, heal and feel a sense of belonging.

To find women that were interested in participating I put up flyers in all of the units. There were over thirty applications. Ten women were chosen to participate in the first class. The women I chose have spent a significant amount of time at ICIW; all of the women have long-term sentences ranging from fifteen years to life. Their ages vary from 22 to almost 60 and they are from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds and ethnicities. Some of the women have taken classes beyond the high school level. All of the women are literate and interested in reading and writing.

Voices from the Outside

How much it takes to become a writer. Bent (far more common than we assume), circumstances, time, development of craft—but beyond that: how much conviction, as to the importance of what one has to say, one’s right to say it. And the will the measureless source of belief in oneself to be able to come to, cleave to, find the form for one’s life comprehensions. Difficult for any male not born into a class that breeds such confidence. Almost impossible for a girl, a woman. (Olsen,1978, p.27)

Examining literature by women was one of the most important components of “Women on the Inside.” Reading the words of other women who had stories to tell that were similar in some ways to the participants’ experiences opened our discussions and helped the group determine how they could write about their lives. We read the work of notable women authors like Audre Lorde (1982), as well as new voices such as Barbara Robinette Moss. There were books written by women such as Jung Chang (1992), author of Wild Swans, and Loung Ung (2000), who wrote, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, about women’s lives that were intertwined with powerful and tragic political histories, light and comic books such as A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel (2001) and even Rebecca Wells’(1996) now famous, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. We read The Liar’s Club, Change me into Zeus’s Daughter, and Boys of My Youth, books written by women about their childhoods and the painful process of growing. Books about prisoners and prison life such as The Farm and Couldn’t Keep It To Myself were also part of our reading list. One of the women said about the reading, “It opens up a lot of things that you don’t think about adding to your story. It helps in that way.” From other writers and each other they learned about voice and refrain. They learned how to tell a story within a story and they also became connoisseurs of contemporary women’s writing. They began to discover what they liked and why; using this knowledge they crafted their words into extended essays and stories.

Paul Ricouer in the third volume of Time and Narrative writes, “...all forms of writing, including historiography, take their place within an extended theory of reading” (Venema, 2000, 107). Venema states, “Both historical and fictional narratives refigure experience…, that is under the rule of enplotment governed by the logic of metaphor that reconnects art to life through the transformation of “seeing as” into “being as”.” The women found parts of their lives reflected in the books we read. Many remarked that they had lived the books they were reading. They discovered that within each person lives the potential to write a compelling story. They began to see themselves not just as readers, but also as writers.

For example, in Mary Karr’s, The Liar’s Club there is a great deal of abuse inflicted on the main character. One of the women said, “This could have been my life.” Later in the workshop she began to write about the abuse she faced at the hands of her own mother and how this abuse was part of their relationship. Relating to the work that they read helped the women envision how they could write their own stories.

From other women’s work they drew courage. In Change Me Into Zeus’s Daughter they saw that Moss was not afraid to open up her family closet full of skeletons. Moss graciously visited our group at the prison as a guest speaker. The women were full of questions. One question the women asked was, “Weren’t you afraid that your family would be angry with you?” She drolly replied, “At first they were, then they realized that no one really cares and that everyone’s family is crazy in their own way.” The women saw that in order to tell their stories they could include the stories of others. They also learned that research is an important part of writing any good story. Moss recalled calling her siblings and asking them endless questions about the minute details of their childhood like the color of her brother’s car. Our group was amazed to discover that she did not rely on her memories alone to write her story and that her detailed descriptions were the result of a compilation of her sibling’s memories meshed with those of her own.

Her visit inspired the women to reach out to their families and friends and ask about events that they remembered. Kristie wrote a story about a traumatic incident that occurred when she was nine. The incident involved her best friend, Cindy. She finished her story and then wrote her old friend a letter asking her what she remembered about the incident. A few weeks later Cindy sent Kristie a reply. Enclosed in Cindy’s letter was a story about Cindy’s memory of the incident. Krisitie was amazed to learn more about Cindy’s point of view. Their accounts were consistent but different in their recollection of details. Kristie said, “I did not even remember what I was wearing that day until I read the letter.” The experience of reading her old friend’s letter made her re-visit the incident and realize how it affected her life and the life of her friend. It also flooded her memory with long forgotten details. She returned to her story and re-wrote it using bits and pieces of Cindy’s account to further flesh out the details and add a layer of depth that was missing in the first draft.
Writing a Woman’s Life

The women in our group each have their own particular voice. Some write about their day-to-day life in prison, others write about their childhood. Some write a mixture of fiction and poetry, and others address important social issues. Through our weekly readings each one has discovered that there are many ways to write about their lives as well as live them.

Carol G. Heilbrun (1988) writes:

There are four ways to write a woman’s life: the woman herself may tell it, in what she chooses to call an autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, a woman or man, may write the woman’s life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process (11).

The women in our group have each chosen their own way to write about their lives. Rahima, a beautiful, mature, mixed race woman who has lived all over the mid west writes satirical essays based on characters who lived in her childhood neighborhood. Her writing is humorous. She has tells her stories in a straightforward way. She writes stories to be read aloud. One evening she read, “King George”; she prefaced the reading:

I was raised up in Council Bluffs, we used to go over to Omaha for a lot of the dances and parties and stuff like that and, on 24th street, which was like the main drag on the north side, you know, there was this old wino-King George…King George, it was said, had a master’s degree, and his wife left him and after that he pretty much just drowned his sorrow in the bottle… we would see him all of the time.

Dramatically speaking in the slurred voice of King George she read a short essay about the racism of the criminal justice system.

Where Am I at in the System? Man, I am a pawn on the E-stablish ment’s chessboard.

I make a move, and somebody gonna sho’ nough jump me.

Man, they keeps on bringin’ us back, so’s they can make mo’ money. That is the name of the game.

Yeah, I knows folks commit crimes. You think I’m a fool? But check this out. Why don’t people with the same “rap” get the same time? Tell me that!!

A while back these two white boys was ah dropping Ceee-ment blocks offa the freeway. Caused a semi to wreck. The driver got his head and eyes messed up bad. Them boys was 17 years old!!! Them fellas went to court and they got’s probation, fines and Co‑ mmunity Service.

Bout the same time, this lil’ brother got arrested for shooting a bb gun at a dude that was hay-rasin’ him. The lil’ brother was nothin’ but 13 years old. Man, they took him and put him in a home until his trial. Then sent him to a Trainin’ School for 3 years.

Excuse the hell out-ta me my man, but ain’t a 17 year old sposed’ to be mo’ reee-sponsible than a 13 year old?

This ain’t just started man. Ever since the U.S. of A. decided to give black folks the rights that they’s already sposed to have cause they was born in America. And they had to find a ways to legalize lynching. They comes up with “civil rights.”

Y’all children, listen to me now. My man, what is the use ah sitting at the lunch counter, when youse ain’t got no money to buy the hamburger with?

Yep, taking advantage a them rights is a bitch, man.

And what is this mess about drugs? A drug is a drug, man!! If I gots some crack cocaine, I’m a bigger junkie than the one’s that doin’ powder? If youse a junkie boy, you doos what ya gotta do to gets them drugs. Why you think these young girls is out there selling their bodies, and young folks out robbin’ and stealin’ and hittin’ ole pensioners in the head to gets they checks?

Boy, youse can be aye-dicted to anything. Folks gambles, drinks coffee, smoke cigarettes and ci-gars (boy them is some nasty things).

Some folks is aye-dicted to sex. Fool with anything that lays still long e-nuf.

Man, I reads the paper, So’s I know what’s goin’ on. Them papers is full of contraaadiction.

This white gal, work for the U-nited Way stole a whole gue gob of money from her job so’s she could gamble. Then another white gal imbezzled almos’ a half million dollars. Don’t know what tha girl done with it, but look here. The fella she married to is a Regional di-rector for the D.O.C., so can ya guess what her sentence was? She gots’ probation and if she don’t steal no mo’ money of a while, she gets her re-cord ex-punged.

I’se wonder if she gonna get her pro-bation pulled for partying at the bar with her husband and they friends?

A couple a weeks ago, I see where this black gal done stole $3,000 from where she work, the Make-A-Wish Organization… I wants tah see what that ole gal gets. I wonders how that ole jew-dicial system is gonna maneuver the law, so’s they makes sure she gots a felony re-cord.

You knows’ they revokes people’s paroles, too. I knows this white woman who left the prison and 3 days later man, she drunk and disorderly and when the police comes. She shoots at um. They didn’t bring her back.

Another white woman moved to another state, so you knows she wasn’t followin’ noooo parole plan.

But man! A sister can be waiting for a bus on the corner, and a bar can be across the streets. Don’t you knows theys gonna revokes her for prostitution or being around folks that’s drinkin’?

Tell me somethin’ boy, what they calls a bunch of young, white guys that’s running the streets?

Black boys, your Hispanic and Asian and even the Native American Boys is called “gangs.”

If a young white boy gotta knife in his pocket, he needs it to open boxes. If itta black boy… Hot damn!!! You gots a lethal weapon.

Oooou ee!! Boy, you know, just being black on my daddy’s side makes me a statistic for the Department of Co-rrections. —I am here to make sure thats the Correctional officers has a job, so’s they don’t goes out an robs the Casey’s Sto’ up yonder at the crossroads.

I’se even helping them gal Co-rrectional officers, who have a habit of running after folks’ husbands and sleepin’ aroun’ from being labeled prostitues.

Last of all, I’se here So’s that Great State of Ioway can claim that they needs mo prisons for us vicious criminals.

This was the second draft. Her first draft was a straightforward essay. She said, “After I read it the first time, King George just popped in my head. It was something he would say. So I re-wrote it using his voice.”

Rahima has written about the women in her church choir, her wild youth in the sixties and seventies, and bits and pieces of her childhood such as the brutal beating death of her mother’s best friend. I asked her what she thought about the act of writing and the workshop. She said,

I like it. It’s relaxing… if I wrote before this it was creative writing in grade school, but nothing extensive. I think a lot of it is memories. There have been so many people I have known over the years. Sometimes just thinking about different people I know and different situations…people used to come down to my house and have coffee and talk. There were so many things different people would tell me… I would put it back on a shelf to think about later, and lately I don’t’ have much else to do…

Paul Ricoeur (Buss, 1997) divides narratives into two categories, fictional and empirical. Empirical narratives, such as historical accounts, autobiographies, etc. are created from historical archives and documents. Fiction is created from archives that lie within a writer’s imagination. Empirical narratives and fiction complement one another even though the sources of inspiration differ. Within the workshop most of the women write non-fiction. With one or two exceptions we have focused our reading on autobiographical accounts. There are a few women who have written fictional stories and even poetry.

Sal writes nothing but fiction. She works hard to stay in shape, loves to paint and draw, and is an avid reader. When she asked about joining the class she said she would only become part of it if she did not have to write about her life. When I asked Sal why she does not write about her life, she became very evasive and quiet, “There is nothing back there that I would care…” her voice trailed off and she looked at her shoes underneath the table. She has said many times that she is ashamed to be in prison. I have known her for almost five years and in that time I have learned very little about her past.

Sal’s writing is set in New Orleans, her hometown. She describes sites, smells, and characters at length in her work. When our group listens to her read we can almost feel the greasy powdered sugar of a hot beignet from Cafe’ du Monde crusting over our lips or smell the early morning streets of the Quarter soaked with beer, alcohol, vomit, and waste. She has been writing about three characters for over a year: the specter, the jagged one, and the narrator. Through the interactions of these three characters, mostly in bars or on the streets of the Quarter we have caught glimpses into bits of Sal’s former life. She has re-created bartenders that she used to know, houses in which she lived, and the streets that she used to walk. Through her fiction she is able to relish her positive recollections of New Orleans and maintain their clarity in her mind.

Charlene writes poetry. When she reads the entire group is lulled by her rhythm and the beautiful images she has conjured. She writes mostly about love and relationships. The following in a poem called “Southern Night Secrets”.

Mississippi Blues, Louisiana Jazz floating through the bayou.

Rhythm hums from the juke joint way down in the woods where women of color

Sway their hips and blow kisses with a sudden motion of their lips offering

Bedtime treats ranging from legit’ love, fornication, to committing adultery

Men with African features, but of all colors like the rainbow that comes after the down pouring of a rain storm play smooth tunes on a guitar while the man on the sax, saxophone, blow powerful tunes as the Mississippi blues and Louisiana jazz floating through the bayou

Rhythm hum from the juke joint way down in the woods living up the city pulling it to its mellow gravity

The women left alone at home crying to the blues, while the men sit up in the juke joint sipping on a glass of brick

Brim hat tilted, a foxy lady at his side… a lady that doesn’t supposed to be there, listening to jazz feeling the jazziest

While the Mississippi blues and Louisiana Jazz twines away with the night as the women at home left alone at home, crying black diamonds

Other women in the group have spent time probing their bad memories and reflecting on how events have impacted their present life and future identity. Morny Joy (1997), when writing about narrative and incest victims states, “In their narratives and their search for meaning, they would appear, in the very act of confronting their past in writing, to be constituting an identity.” A few of the women have used this group to re-write their futures. Before prison they felt as though there was no way out of their abusive relationships or their struggles with abuse, poverty, drugs, or depression. They could not imagine a life without turmoil and danger. Prison has helped them to disconnect from their former lives and reconstitute their identities. Many of the women have adapted to prison and have successfully become role models for other prisoners. They struggle to maintain a positive attitude, benefit from the educational programs that are available, stay healthy, busy, and socially involved. Women who are likely to be paroled or released soon in the future, like Kristie, begin to think seriously about their life after prison before they are free.

Kristie will be released in less than a year. She draws on her past to weave stories in which she can find closure. She said, when asked about her writing, “I want to be part of restorative justice. I feel that there are things in my life that a lot of people have gone through, but not everyone speaks out about it. By writing I can get through it. And I do have to get through it in order to learn from it.” When Kristie is released she hopes to return to school and get a degree in Social work so that she can be a drug counselor.

Kristie’s childhood was filled with drugs; her parents were marijuana dealers. During one of our first classes she wrote the following piece.

Growing up for me, marijuana was a normal thing. I was three years old when I took my first hit. My father and his friends were smoking from a two-foot water pipe (bong) when a loud knock came from the door. Everyone scattered, thinking it was the police. I was left alone in the kitchen with the water pipe’s bowl still red. I was barely tall enough to get my head over it, but by watching, I had learned. I took one hit and ran into the living room where I exhaled in front of Daddy and his friends. I began running in circles and then fell down, fast asleep.

It took me 12 years to try pot again, although I loved the smell of it burning. To be honest, I do not remember that first time, but I hear about it from my parents every once in a while.

I was 15 years old and my heart was broken. I tried to ease the pain by smoking some pot. My friend rolled a joint and I lit it up. The first hit was so sweet, yet so harsh on the back of my throat. I held it in until I couldn’t hold it any longer. When I exhaled, I felt the effect already. It was such a wonderful feeling.

From that first time I became addicted. I had to have the cheeba. It was usually given to me by my father against my mom’s will. She would yell and scream at me when she knew I was high. I just laughed and denied it. In 1995 my father went to prison, and I learned just how expensive my habit was. I was spending at least $100 per week. I got to the point where I became paranoid and would not go to work or school, because they would know I was high. So I began to shoplift to pay for my addiction. Little did I know shoplifting was a rush and I got addicted to that as well.

Those were the days of ignorance. Now I look back and realize just how stupid it all was. I sit inside this fence with razor wire around the top and think. At least I am thinking clearly in this prison. The prison of addiction definitely did not allow me to think about anything other than that next high. Those addictions brought me here. I am safe now. However, I fear leaving this safety zone and returning to the place where it all began. The demons of addiction are still with me as I am trying to remove them.

Mary Jane, you are a dirty bitch! I hate your aroma; I can’t believe I thought you were sweet. I hope I can bury you forever.

Kristie’s recollection of her early encounters with drugs and her personal history of addiction is raw. Since this piece she has written about the abuse her mother inflicted on her as a child, the sexual molestation she endured when she was young, and several poems about her hopes for life after prison. Her work is cathartic. Writing for Kristie is a way for her to confront her situation and vent her emotions. It has helped her see how particular choices in her life have been departures from her dreams and have led her to prison. Kristie’s past life of addiction and abuse is similar to many of the lives of her fellow inmates. Many have family histories of drug addiction and physical abuse; they feel that while they love their families, they can never return home for fear of being sucked back into their old patterns of self-destructive behavior.

Through this class the women have developed their identities to include not only their offense, gender, prison job, living unit, ID number, and race, but also their enjoyment of writing and reading. They have formed a tight circle of support and sharing. During the week they share what they have written individually with each other before they share it with the larger group. Their storytelling is not only a way to entertain one another, it is also a way for them to gain perspective on their past and explore events that have shaped their identity.

Storytelling has both psychological and physical health benefits. The healing psychological process associated with storytelling involves: 1) negative feelings, or a feeling of lack of control/power followed by attention or help seeking behavioral changes 2) an attempt by individuals to make new meaning of the past trauma and their lives in order to regain a sense of control, and 3) an understanding that an individual’s accounts of past events can guide their future expectations for relationships and with others and themselves (Banks-Wallace, 1999, 1998; Harvey, Orbuch & Weber,1990).Through their writing, discussions, and storytelling each of the women has engaged this process.

Vetta has written extensively about her mother and father, Kristie about drugs and her family, Katrina about her feelings for her mother, Sal about her hometown, Rahima about her childhood, political issues, and her neighborhood, Charlene about her dreams, relationships, and isolation, Tansy about her traumatic childhood and young adult life, and Amy about her teenage years. In class we have touched on sensitive subjects such as rape, homosexuality, submission to authority, race, relationships, abuse, religion, abortion, politics, and the justice system. The books we read and the experiences of each woman enhance our discussions. Some of the women have even changed their views on these topics because of what they hear and read in the workshop. For example, one of the women had a strong prejudice against Asians. After reading Loung Ung, who wrote, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, she realized the struggles that some Asian –Americans have faced. Her empathy was deepened after she discovered similarities between Ung’s feelings and her own.

The women have also begun to see themselves as part of the larger history of women. They have begun to see the patterns in lives of women such as Mary Karr and Barbara Robinette Moss and have learned, that in spite of their troubled pasts they do not have to live the same way forever. When they leave prison they can make choices that will help them to be successful.
Speaking Out

Women in prison are silenced by society. They are warehoused in remote locations away from the eyes of the public and their families to be forgotten, scorned, and demonized. When they are allowed to have their voices heard in the media they are often distorted, misquoted, or the context of their concerns are shifted in order for the public to feel safe and vindicated, and politicians to remain in favor. In the public’s eyes they are always going to be a woman who was convicted of a crime. Even after they leave prison their criminal past haunts them. People do not realize that women in prison are not just criminals but daughters, wives, mothers, sisters, and friends. Many have had careers, educations, and even success. Often their crimes are the result of addiction, economic pressure, abuse, fear, mental strain, coercion, or poor judgment. My hope is that through this program and the public exposure of their stories people will begin to understand that these women are more than just their crime. They are compassionate, funny, intelligent and worthwhile.

Our country spends roughly 35 billion dollars on incarceration each year. The United States incarcerates more people than any other country on earth. Part of the reason behind this fact is that while it is expensive to put someone behind bars it is lucrative to build prisons and support the prison industrial complex. Women are the fastest growing population behind bars. Their needs are different from that of male prisoners. Their voices must be heard in order to understand the situations of poverty, addiction, and abuse that have led them to commit criminal offenses. By telling their stories the courageous members of Women on the Inside hope to inspire community leaders to investigate alternatives to prison such as treatment, community corrections, and social support. It is also their hope that they can again be seen as women, not just as inmates.


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