Prison Stories Visits Pine Bluff Men's Facility
An article from the December 2014 issue St. Paul’s Episcopal Episcopal Church Communicant. Transcribed from an article written by Katie Nichol.
In early November, the Northwest Arkansas Prison Story Project visited the Randall L. Williams Correctional Facility in Pine Bluff for a staged reading of the best of the last four “Stories from the Inside Out” scripts. It was our first forqy outside of the NWA Community Corrections Center here in Fayetteville, and our first attempt working with men. We didn’t know what to expect, but we needn’t have worried… the 140 men we presented to made the perfect audience, with thoughtful questions and sweet compliments at the end. The following day, members of our team returned to the prison to lead an intensive, five hour writing workship with twenty inmates.
This was one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had as a writer and a teacher. When the idea of this trip was first conceived, we were eager to share the stories of incarcerated women with incarcerated men, and the possibilities for healing this might allow. We weren’t sure how the women’s stories, many of which deal with intense abuse by men, would be received by this new audience. And we weren’t sure how open the new group would be to sharing their own lives. What we found was that by opening the door and inviting men to hear the stories of their women– their sisters, their significant others, their mothers, and their daughters– there grew a hunger in them to tell their own stories. But it wasn’t just that they wanted to tell their stories; they wanted to be heard.
The writing that was produced in just five hours was filled with an enormous amount of honesty and heart. In Suzanne’s sermon this past Sunday, she quoted one of the writing samples we received. In it, the writer is telling his deceased grandfather things he wishes he could say:
Everything changed when you died. Dad changed for the worst. We don’t come to visit Kentucky like before. I don’t get to see my cousins. We all fractured when you left.
This excerpt is from the first writing exercise we did, with very little instruction. It represents a common theme of the day, and one we spend months working to identify in a typical Prison Stories class– What is the moment when everything changed? When everything that happened seemed to lead you to where you are now? Perhaps it was the death of a loved on, your first experience with severe abuse, or a change in one of your parents’ lives. By getting to the root of that question, participants are able to begin to explore, in a new way, both what led to their incarceration, and, hopefully, what can lead to their successful lives outside of such.
The day was filled with stories, both oral and written, of childhood, families, things not said, things wished said, love, crime, betrayal, feelings of failure, and the utter magic of a new kind of fellowship and understanding. Men who are daily at odds with one another opened up and shared deep truths openly and honestly. Out of twenty participants, not a single one asked to pass when it was time to share what he’d just written.
The performance on Monday concluded with the refrain, You are not alone. You are not alone. You are not alone. I am not alone. And then all actresses looked up to the audience and repeated in unison: You are not alone.
In two days, in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, on an election day, something incredible took place. What if changing the world is as simple as inviting folks who have never had the opportunity to be heard tell their stories, and then listen to the stories of others, to feel as if they are not alone?
We are so excited about what this project will lead to. Stay tune, either here in the Communicant, or by following the NWA Prison Story Project on Facebook, for more details on what’s to come.
Thank you so much to Jonny Schremmer, our theater director, and to our wonderful actresses– Suzanne Stoner, Jonny Schremmer, Jocelyn Morelli, Arianne Ellison, and Jules Taylor, and to my partner in poetry– Matthew Henriksen. Thank you to Kathy McGregor for her inspiring dedication this project and for organizing everything, always. We are especially grateful to the Arkansas Episcopal Diocese for funding provided through a Keller Fund grant, and to our friend and benefactor, Crosby Cromwell.