Women's Prison Program: Dartmouth, Massachusetts
by Kelly DeSouza
When I stumbled upon Changing Lives through Literature (CLTL), I thought it was a great program. My immediate reaction was that I must get involved, so I did. I can honestly say, it is one of my better decisions.
The group I facilitate, along with co-facilitator Terry Moore, is in the women's jail in Dartmouth, MA. Initially, I was not sure how I would be received, but right from the get-go, the women and I have felt quite comfortable with one another. Our group is a running group, which means that there is a constant flow of women passing through. The maximum number of students is kept at around 13. Sometimes the class is full and other times we have a cozy group of, say, five. I have since asked that the women have at least three months left to serve to join the group.
The interests of the women are always considered first and foremost; after all, the program is for their benefit. We choose, as a group, which stories we will read. The first story we ever read was "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker, which is found in Changing Lives through Literature, edited by Professors Waxler and Trounstine. At one point, there was an older woman in the group who was of Native American and African American descent. I remember how fond she was of the story. She mentioned how she had items that were handed down to her and how even though she did use them, she still cherished them. I had to laugh because she actually had a quilt from her grandmother, made from old skirts and dresses, just like in the story.
It is nice having a group with women because it creates a sisterhood. We have all bonded through our stories, whether authored or personal. The group shares a connectedness that is woven through compassion and sharing. I must admit, there are times we do not actually get to the stories. Sometimes, we talk about our children, the latest news, or how we are feeling about a particular issue.
Incorporated into the group are other activities. We have done a few consecutive classes on grammar and resume skills. We have also done writing and peer editing of editorials to submit to the local paper. The pride of the women shines through when they see their completed piece of work. I usually type it and return it to them. I love to watch them read their work and share their accomplishments. In one group, also made books to mail to their children. The women designed a cover, put their child's name on it, and placed poems, coloring pages, stickers, clip art, or whatever, inside. They had a great time; it would have gone a little smoother had I gotten approval first.
I often bring in my own books for the women to borrow. A few of their favorites are Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous; Dorothy Allison's Two or Three Things I Know For Sure; bell hooks' Bone Black: Memories From Girlhood; Pat Rodegast and Judith Stanton's Emmanuel's Book II: The Choice For Love; and works by various women poets. It should go without saying, but Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman" is recited quite often. The goal in all of this is too empower these women. I want them to see their worth, potential, and importance in society, but most of all, to themselves.
The most difficult part of the program is when we have to say, "Goodbye!" I do enjoy meeting new people, but we may have been with the same women for six months. When a woman completes her sentence, a definite void fills her place. I always wonder if they are all right and hope to bump into them somewhere, anywhere, other than where we first met. Every time a woman leaves, I feel a piece of me go with her; my only hope is that she uses her CLTL experience well.
The women in the group give up their recreation time to participate in our group.
They get one hour, and it sometimes falls at the same time as our class. They forfeit at least half, usually all, of the time to attend our class. I cannot believe I forgot to mention this because I am tickled pink by it. I tell them, "Please go outside, I certainly understand." They stay in. In the beginning, one woman would say, "I'm not missing my rec time for this." This is the same woman who recently said, "I don't care what they take away from me, as long as they don't take this class away. It is like my savior and I look forward to it."