A Program for Hope
Edna Mahan, one of the first female correctional superintendents in the country, experimented with innovative approaches to rehabilitation. In 1928, when she started her work, Clinton Farms was the New Jersey reformatory for women outside Clinton. Mahan stayed there for forty years. It is now known as the Edna Mahan Correctional Institute for Women, under Superintendent Charlotte Blackwell and her assistant Bill Hauck, and it houses around 1,200 female inmates.
There are over 90,000 women in prison today, and 90 percent of them are mothers. According to the statistics on prisonactivist.org, the typical profile of the female inmate is that of a young, single mother without much education or many marketable skills. More than three-fourths of these women are between the ages of 25 and 34, and many have experienced sexual or physical abuse. Typical convictions are for property crimes or for defending themselves against abuse, and men tend to serve less time for the same crimes as women. Men also get to spend more time on average outside their cells. Contrary to common notions, 80 percent of incarcerated women are nonviolent.
In the spring of 2001, English professor Michele Tarter from The College of New Jersey in Ewing, volunteered to start a 10-week literature class there in the maximum security unit as a way to give incarcerated women their voicesand some hope. "I felt a very strong leading to do this," she said, and she calls it WOMAN is the Word! Using the stories of powerful women who have endured and transcended hardships such as slavery, captivity, rape, and disability, Dr. Tarter urges her students, 14 at a time, to think about those stories and express whatever impact they feel on their own lives. That way they improve their skills, but they're also encouraged to contemplate their own situations.
Tarter, a scholar in Early American literature and women's studies, had once devised a similar program in a correctional facility in Illinois, and she's quite amazed by the creativity and vision she finds among those who are locked away. "When I walked into a prison for the very first time," she recalled, "I felt a surge of light and energy."
Inspired by books like The Handmaid's Tale and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the women discuss the stories in an intimate circle and then write poetry, fiction, and short autobiographical accounts of their feelings and their growing self-awareness. These they read to one another, and Tarter then collects them into a booklet for the women to keep. Among their assignments are exercises from Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, in which they may write for 15 minutes about a frightening incident or about a special place. Reading Audre Lorde, an activist and author who died of cancer, they learn about the importance of finding a voice. "My silences have not protected me," Lorde writes. "Your silences will not protect you." She urges them to be warriors, and they hear the message.
The educational director's assistant, Cathy Morgan, provided observation in the prison one afternoon as five "graduates" agreed to talk about how important the program was to them. Because they have discovered the joy of reading and personal expression, they now hope they can inspire others to start similar such programs in other places. Maria Szivos, Robin Easterling, Delitha Hull, Margaret Deluca, and Tina Dixon-Spence were quite vocal about why such programs are beneficial for women behind bars.
"It made us feel like women again," said Margaret, who wrote about the importance of expression in the prison newsletter. She liked the character of Sara from Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers, because through another woman's experience with a controlling father, Margaret sorted through issues with her own father. "I did everything wrong in his eyes," she explained. Yet she found the courage to write him a letter. She's 53 and looking forward to getting out within a month. In fact, reading and writing gave her both the self-esteem and the cognitive tools needed to craft a plea for parole to the judge when her lawyers did little but suck up her money. "I represented myself and told my story," she said with pride. The judge was impressed with her articulate account, and accomplishing what her lawyers could not, she beat the odds that said she would remain in prison for many more years.
"It validates me," Tina insisted about the program. She was quite passionate about continuing to learn. "I know that there's no human pain that another woman has not endured and it connects me. I find out things about myself that I wouldn't otherwise have realized." She has postgraduate training and knows how important it is to learn the right way of thinking to avoid being among those who recidivate. She'd rather be on the outside working as an advocate for better conditions. Gesturing toward her tan prison uniform, she said she was tired of feeling like an overgrown peanut with a number and no identity. Recently, she had made integrity a central issue in her life, and reading about other women with similar struggles helped her. "I've had to find value in being here, and through this group I've learned that integrity is about responsibility. It's ironic that I feel the best about myself in prison, because I've learned that values come from within."
Robin, alert to the needs of others, likes Celie in The Color Purple. "I can put myself in her place and see that, oh my God, I'm going through that. This is what she did, so this is what I have to do. I learn from these books. It's changed my life. I hold my head up high now." She wants to help women in prison who can't read, and she has encouraged one friend to learn to read better so she can tell the stories to her partner. All of them liked the idea of "paying it forward," taking what Dr. Tarter has brought to them in prison and giving that joy and sense of hope to others.
Delitha, trained to be a literacy teacher and paraprofessional, mostly listened to the others, but when she spoke, her opinions were strong and clear. She watches girls in the yard, and when they come into the classroom and learn some skills, it makes a significant difference in how they behave. "They become a different person. They want to learn."
The program is not just about reading and writing; it's also about sharing and creating connections. "You read a book in this group and you hear ten points of view on it," Tina explained. "You find you share a link and now you have something among you that grows and grows." In fact, all of the women spoke excitedly about how they've shared the books from the program with other inmates, encouraging them to experience the same joy of reading that they have. "Every time one person returns my books," said Robin, "someone else asks, can I read that next?" Some of them want to become mentors to the juvenile girls that come in, to provide them with better role models.
They all know how hard life can be, and being in prison is harder still. "Sometimes our strength just collapses," Robin admitted, "but these books help us keep going. We know we're not alone."
In fact, for a long time, they had only a few books to read there, but that situation has changed. When Tarter learned that the women in "max" had a limited library, she organized a book drive. "They were pleading with me to get books," she recalled. In only a month, the students at her college collected more than 3,000 donations, and Tarter hauled them all to the prison. "I did it to keep the fire going."
Maria, who works with inmates who have severe mental or emotional problems, talked with careful deliberation about the lack of funding for educational programs in state prisons and about the fact that college credits are available only to women under 25. She would like to work to change this policy"you need positive structure in your life"but in the meantime, she hopes that more people like Dr. Tarter may think about volunteering. "She gave us a program that allowed us to open up and associate our voice with our feelings," she explained, going on to say that without a voice, women fall into a lethargic state and their problems are then multiplied. "We need people who believe in us to help us with skills that will build our self-esteem."
It's clear from the animated discussion that, thanks to reading and writing in this manner, these women have found a new sense of self and a more positive direction. "I didn't think I'd take something good from being in here," said Margaret as the meeting came to a close, 'but I have."
They like the feeling that they've become "wise women," as Tarter referred to them each week, and they hope to pass that on to others. Edna Mahan would be pleased.
For those interested in starting such a program elsewhere, Dr. Michele Tarter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.