Meeting the Woman, Not the Crime

by Peggy Lamb
About the guest blogger: Peggy Lamb organizes Truth Be Told’s Exploring Creativity program. Truth Be Told is an Austin, TX based non-profit organization that provides transformational programs for women who are or have been incarcerated. Exploring Creativity classes use expressive arts to enlarge the women’s sense of themselves, release pain and express despair and without harming oneself or others. Leaders vary from storytellers to singers to visual artists to dancers – to quilters and yoga teachers and writers.

Twenty-eight women in dingy white uniforms file into the chapel at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville. Most of them know me and gift me with big smiles. I feel a flood of joy circulate through my body and my heart opens wide.

These women are all in the Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP), an intense 18 month cognitive therapy program. They live together in a special dorm in which community is emphasized. Each of these 28 women has committed a crime which will brand them for life as sex offenders.

Most people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the concept of female sex offenders. I certainly did. A Google search brought me to a research paper entitled Female Sex Offenders: Severe Victims and Victimizers. It was hard to read about women sexually molesting children, even harder to grasp that some of the women of SOTP had committed similar crimes. Women don’t do such things, men do, right? Wrong. Both genders are capable of unspeakable and horrifying crimes.

I do not know the specifics of these women’s crimes. I could find out via the TDCJ web site but I’ve made a conscious choice to remain in the dark. I meet them, woman to woman, outside ideas of right and wrong. I, or the artist I bring, share tools of discovery and encourage the creativity of these deeply wounded women, who themselves are victims of sex abuse, to take root and blossom. I passionately believe in the power of creativity to heal and re-define oneself. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am Large, I contain Multitudes”. I want these women to know in their bones that they are more than just sex offenders; they are more than their crimes. They are writers, poets, dancers, singers, actresses and visual artists with gifts to share.

When I learned that the Hilltop unit had a SOTP program, I was deeply drawn to teach there. I do not know why but I have learned to follow my soul urges. It’s been almost four years that I’ve been going up there once a month – it is work that deeply feeds my soul.

Today I’m teaching a movement and writing class I call “Elements”. Chairs are moved out of the way and we circle up for warm-up exercises. The sound of African drumming fills the room breaking down barriers and inhibitions like a magic wand. Hips sway, shoulders shimmy, toes tap and heads bob. We boogie and rock out. Movement is generated from the core – pelvis and torso. In the Soul Train section, I encourage the women to get down and shake it out. Shake out anger, despair, loneliness, frustration and resentment. It is deeply satisfying!

My first writing prompt is five minutes of free-flow writing on “I am Earth” Then I ask the women to create an earth gesture – a movement that symbolizes groundedness, stability, nature, etc. Each woman shares her gesture and the rest of us repeat it. I play just the right earthy music (usually another cut of African drumming) and we go around the circle dancing each women’s gesture. We’ve just choreographed our first dance! 

We repeat that process with three more writing and movement prompts: “I am Air”, “I am Fire” and “I am Water”. By the end of the class we’ve created four dances and the women have four pieces of creative writing they can be proud of.

The chapel is filled with the divine energy of creativity and community. One woman comments “I didn’t know I was creative!” Another says, “This is the deepest sense of community this dorm has ever had.” One that touches my heart so deeply is “In the twenty years I’ve been locked up, this is the most fun I’ve ever had.”

I am filled with awe at their willingness to step outside their comfort zones. I LOVE this work – my soul is filled with joy and gratitude.





I Wanted To Remind Us We Were People

by Elana Pritchard

About the guest blogger: Elana Pritchard is a cartoonist in Los Angeles.  Before she landed in jail she worked as an animator on Ralph Bakshi’s film, Last Days of Coney Island.  She is currently doing a Kickstarter to finish her animated cartoon, The Circus:

It’s been about a week since the comics I did inside the LA County jail system were first published in the LA Weekly, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the response.  People from all over the world have written to me expressing their support for what I have done and their contempt for inhumane practices for incarcerated peoples everywhere.  I have been in communication with the LA County Sheriff’s department and they have told me that due to these comics they have issued a new policy that all inmates must be given showers within 24 hours of entering the jail.  We are scheduled to meet next week to discuss further improvements.  And throughout all of this it seems the original, humble message of these comics is sticking: that we were people.  Even though we had a barcode on our wrist with a number and were called “bodies” by the staff, we were still people.

Many people in jail are still on trial and haven’t even been found guilty or innocent yet.  Many people made mistakes that you or I have made before in private, only they got caught.  There were mothers in there that missed their children.  There were kind people in there that cared about the arts and cared about each other.  I drew these comics to make us all laugh and remind us that even though there was a whole group of of people with badges and better clothes than we had telling us we didn’t matter… we DID matter and we WERE PEOPLE.

In that the comics were successful, and for that I am proud.

Elana Pritchard

All images were first published in the LA Weekly, 2015











If I Didn’t Tell Them…


Toni McConnel

I started writing stories about my experiences as a prisoner about ten years after I got out of the federal penitentiary for women in Alderson, West Virginia.  Among many intense motivations for writing my experiences was the feeling that the women I had known in various jails and prisons would never have a voice, their stories would never be told, if I didn’t tell them.  I felt a moral obligation to give them their voices, especially since there had never been a novel about prison written by a woman who had actually lived a street life (and still hasn’t, as far as I know). Many by men, none by women.

I started visiting jails and prisons to do readings or teach workshops in the mid-1980s.  It wasn’t something I had in mind to do, but Sing Soft, Sing Loud, the novel that evolved out of the stories, had just been published, and as a result of a reading I did in a women’s bookstore in Berkeley, I was invited to visit a writing workshop at the San Francisco County Jail.

In my wildest imagination I never dreamed I would ever walk back into a jail of my own free will, much less sneak in under false pretenses—the poet who ran the workshop didn’t tell the jail administration I was an ex-con because it was unlikely that I would be allowed in if they knew.  Fortunately they didn’t do background checks on visiting writers.

Even after that visit, I didn’t imagine I would continue to “go back.”  But later, back home in Utah, I met poet Richard Shelton, who has run writing workshops in the Arizona state prison system for more than thirty years, and he invited me to be a guest at one of his workshops.  I visited Dick’s workshops several times over the next few years.

Then an enlightened warden at the Utah State Prison for Women wrote to Jean Irwin, administrator of the Utah Artists in the Schools program, and wanted to know if it was possible to have a writer do a workshop in the prison.  And of course I was the writer Jean chose to send. More invitations followed and before it was all over, I had visited jails and prisons in five states.

As a result of these extremely varied experiences I wrote Creativity Held Captive: Guidelines for Artists Teaching in Prisons, which tells artists what to expect from jail and prison administrations and from prisoners, and what they need to do to prepare themselves mentally for the experience. You can read a detailed description of this booklet here.

I now know of other former prisoners who go back to teach or counsel.  They must be stronger mentally than I am.  All my visits were immensely rewarding but also extremely turbulent emotionally.  I identify too much with the prisoners and every visit triggered paranoia and despair. Now, at 77, it is just too much for me.

So my contribution these days is limited to Creativity Held Captive and Sing Soft, Sing Loud, which is still being taught at universities from time to time, so my continuing need to do something for the women I did time with is satisfied by that.