The walls are white, the chairs are plastic, and the smiles are few. As you head down a hallway, cell blocks to the left and a gated recreation area at right, hearing bursts of laughter and lively chatter coming from a small room in front of you is slightly jarring, especially seeing as the boisterous classroom is inside Estrella Women’s Jail in central Phoenix.
The women creating the commotion are inmates. Some are un-sentenced and awaiting trial; others have already been sentenced and are serving their time. All are performers in “Journey Home,” a program presented by ASU Gammage in which inmates participate in six weeks of creative writing, dance, visual arts and storytelling workshops designed to help them discover a deeper sense of self.
They’ll share what they’ve learned in a performance open to the public on March 30.
Gammage has supported this project since 2001. After being inspired by Pat Graney’s “Keeping the Faith” prison project, a team was formed to replicate what Graney had done in the Washington state area.
Teniqua Broughton is both the Journey Home administrator, handling the business side of the project, as well as the movement specialist, teaching the women how to dance. Fatimah Halim helps them write poems and create stories that express their feelings. Imani O. Muhammad, a licensed psychotherapist, was brought on to help the women discuss and process their emotions.
“Every time I walk into that jail,” says Halim, “I say, ‘There, but by the grace of God, walk I’…Every time I walk in there, I see myself. I see myself through my sisters, and I say, ‘Thank you, God, (for allowing) me to share with them anything that I can, that I’ve been blessed with, to help them change their lives and make a difference for themselves.’”
Halim came up with the theme for this year’s performance: “Sacred Woman.” She chose it because of its relevance in the lives of all women, incarcerated or not.
“A sacred woman is one who recognizes who she is, one who is whole, one who stands in her truth, one who is filled with integrity,” says Halim. “I thought it was important that we bring this thought process, this idea of who they truly are, to the women who have landed themselves in the position that the women in Estrella have landed themselves.”
Many, if not most of the women in the program, have never thought of themselves as a sacred woman, says Broughton.
When they begin the six-week journey, they come in not knowing what to expect. Although they volunteer to participate, some are wary of the writing aspects, others unsure of their dance moves, says Broughton. But, with the help of the specialists, the women start having fun and gain confidence.
“In the pods, we’re constricted on what we get to do, when we eat, where we eat, when we’re allowed to get off of our bed,” says Janay Mendez, an Estrella inmate. At 20 years old, she is the youngest participant in “Journey Home.”
“We’re all adults, but we still have restrictions that we have to abide by,” says Mendez. “But, (when attending workshop sessions), we can be ourselves. We can laugh, we can giggle, dance, make jokes with each other, things we can’t do (in the jail, outside of the workshops).
Aside from the sense of freedom the women experience during the sessions, the real benefits that program coordinators see in “Journey Home” is a renewed sense of self-love. It’s something they hope will be a strong force in the women’s lives long after their stint in Estrella.
Mohammad says that the women start to realize, through this self-esteem boost, that they have the ability to make changes in their lives. She also says that with many of the women’s issues stemming from toxic relationships, understanding that real love starts with loving themselves first is vital to their growth.
“By doing the arts or writing or singing, just all of sudden (they have an) understanding that they’re these great orators,” says Mohammad. “What we do is try to give them tools that they can use to help them bring what’s inside out in a more positive way. And, to have the strength to know that they can make better choices, and that they can live their lives without having to be controlled by someone else.”
Coming to this realization was important for inmate Robina Sullivan, 35. She has only attended two classes, but is surprised already by the changes in her mindset.
“Coming from all the destruction I’ve caused myself growing up, the choices that I’ve made, (the workshop classes have) definitely brought a different person out of me,” says Sullivan. “I used to be a negative person all the time. Now, I refuse to be negative…I see the good in everything that I do instead of always putting myself down.”
Those who come to the show on March 30 will get to see the women pour into a performance all the things they have been working on over six weeks of sessions. Their artwork will be on display, and they will perform original dances, read poems and tell their life stories.
For the women and audience members alike, it can be an emotional experience.
“When I see audience members there, and they’re crying,” says Broughton, “I think it’s because they can relate to the stories. They can understand, they can empathize, and they know that it takes definitely a number of us to come together to help us survive and strive.”
If you go
What: Inmates at Estrella Women’s Jail will display their art and creative writing, as well as perform original dances that they have been working on for the past six weeks
When: 5 p.m. Saturday, March 30.
Where: Estrella Women’s Jail, 2939 W. Durango St., Phoenix
Information: RSVP by Monday, March 25, by phone at (480) 965-1884 or email to email@example.com
• Ellen, a junior studying at Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, is an intern for the East Valley Tribune. Contact her at (480) 898-6514 or firstname.lastname@example.org.