(WOMENSENEWS)--Something pulls me to return, and this time it's not out of curiosity about my prison mom or desperation about my roots. This time it's because I'm grateful for my freedom, my transformation. I'm also conscious that it could've been me who was locked up for the rest of my life. After all the hurt I've inflicted on others, I'm called to give back, to reach out where I'm comfortable and welcomed with open wide arms: women's prisons.
It's as if I'm on autopilot on a path I was born to stomp along. As if born with a job.
Untreated mental health issues can take a person down along with others around her. I lived it. Mental health support averted my future violence and curbed my addictions. In my previous life I tick-ticked inside, a time bomb ready to blast anyone in my path with the shrapnel of my anger. I hate to admit that if I'd refused to confront my disturbed self, I would've been a prime candidate for committing the kind of tragedy we read in the front-page news.
I return to prisons, my birthplace, and address the inmates there. My story is a natural fit for the women, and I share what I've learned, how life is less about what happens and more about what we do with what happens. Not a new idea, just one that takes practice to believe and to live day by day. I use my life to show how we're all more than the sum of our parts.
Aren't we all more than the worst things we've ever done? It's possible to fulfill this any time we choose to walk out of our history and begin new, whenever we want to transcend and triumph. I'm proof of this. Of course, we can't do it alone, but if we search, we'll find others willing to help. One of the best influences we can have on our communities and the world at large is to grow in self-awareness.
Every Head Nods
As I speak in prisons, almost every head in the audience nods, incarcerated and staff alike. The women smile, show me I'm meant to follow this vision. On occasion I'll conduct a writing workshop with women in prisons, and in one of my first, in a high-security unit, an officer leads me into a double-paned, glass-enclosed classroom with a guard stationed outside. Twenty women lean over their blank papers at two long folding tables, the same tables they use in the mess hall. Everyone calls them "girls," no matter if they're 17 or 70. They call me Teacher.
We open with an informal talk session. We chat and laugh, and some cry. Then they begin to set their thoughts down on paper, and most times no one knows what to write. The women shuffle their pages as I fire out story-starter ideas.
On the second workshop day, they write about their parents. One inmate blurts out in the middle of the workshop, "When I was 6 I tried to run away from home because a neighbor, a friend of the family, forced me to eat human waste and no one did anything." I ache for her.
The women feel safe telling their stories in this circle. A corner of their filters drops--they know I won't judge. The woman goes on. "Then my mother pointed her pistol and shot at me. She pulled the trigger, and I didn't know if the gun was empty or not."
My life hasn't been so bad after all, I think.
Another woman looks straight ahead, listening. She's the self-proclaimed in-house prison preacher and always quotes Bible verses to get everyone else into her religious groove. She's also the queen of plucked eyebrows, arched to give herself a surprised look. A clunky cross hangs on her neck. "Sounds like a crazy woman," she says about the inmate's mother.
The woman goes on and on. "My mother whipped me with coat hangers, extension cords, or twigs off trees. Did I already mention the crow bar? But she didn't ever shoot when she held a gun on me."
I'm taking this all in, letting the stories roll.
Another woman, sprawled in her chair, interrupts the woman's story about her mother. "You think God's watching over? I'd say your spiritual bubble is gonna bust." Just then a woman turns to me and says, "Hey! You're talking to a bunch of women with low self-esteem."
I said I know, but I haven't been the one talking. They have.
Once the group settles down, I say, "Now write a list of things that make you mad. Not only what's pissed you off in here but also in your own lives."
That's all it takes. Everyone dives in. No one's ever asked them before to detail what makes them mad. They all scribble page after page and rack up lists of unjust events. Then I suggest they pick one event from their list and write a story about it. It gets wild then! Topics like war, hunger, injustice.
It gets big. They go around the tables and start to read their stories. They cheer and hoot--until the preacher woman's turn.
Her list turns out to be what's important to her: "God, guitars, women and cowboy boots."
"I just got outta 30-day lockup," she adds, "for stealing someone's cigarettes and then lying and picking a fight about it." She says she's also angry I'd had to cancel two earlier workshops.
I tell her she would've missed out anyway because of her lockup time in segregation.
The women fall silent. No one has ever talked back to the preacher woman.
It turns out she had more lockup time than I had with my scheduled workshops. She never shows up again in one of my workshops.
These prison workshops show how redemption is made possible by hope. Hope alone won't solve anything. Yet without hope, nothing's possible.
I take myself into a bigger dream, visiting prisons in New York, California, Connecticut, on both coasts, North and South. I zigzag around the country, and women line up to fill metal folding chairs in prison gyms, and we shake hands, hug if allowed, and dig deep into our souls. Their openness moves me like nothing else I've ever known.
I traveled from prison to prison, across the country, to lead basic writing-skills and creativity workshops with incarcerated women, thrilled to witness hidden talents emerge. It took me this long before I was comfortable in front of people. At last I stepped out of my solitude.
Deborah Jiang Stein is a national speaker, writer and founder of the unPrison Project, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that serves to build public awareness about women and girls in prison and offers mentoring and life-skills programs for inmates. Follow her on Twitter.
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