Mother’s Day was the farthest thing from my mind as I drove into the parking lot for visitors to the Estrella Jail in Phoenix, which is temporary home for “approximately 1,000 inmates, predominantly female.” I’d been invited to see a performance by women participating in Journey Home — one of many community outreach programs of ASU Gammage in Tempe, which is headed by executive director Colleen Jennings-Roggensack.
We use lots of labels to describe people who’ve been incarcerated. Criminal. Loser. Nobody. And worse. We rarely think of women in jail as women first. Or mothers. But plenty of people living behind bars are parents, including two mothers I chatted with after this year’s Journey Home performance.
They’d gathered with other inmates in a small room filled with several desks — the kind with seat and surface attached, like those most of us used in grade school. A long table at one end held two-liter bottles of soda, plus plastic plates and cups. Also the cake that’d been cut and served in celebration of completing the Journey Home program.
As I celebrate Mother’s Day with my family, I’m mindful of the women I met that day — especially the two mothers who spoke proudly of their children. One has custody of her children. Another does not, though she’s hoping to regain it. Both beamed when asked about their children, sharing their children’s accomplishments like so many of us do. Doing sports. Playing violin.
After arriving at Estella Jail, I joined several folks from ASU Gammage plus those who’ve worked with Journey Home participants, in a waiting area that’s perfectly welcoming but still feels a bit like the bland interior of a shoe box . I chatted with a woman seated next to me, a mental health provider who told me she wished more Journey Home programs were out there to curb the hopelessness that makes life after incarceration so tenuous.
Officials checked our identification before leading back to the room where 25 women, ages 23 to 50, would be performing and sharing a bit about their Journey Home adventures. We’d already been told to leave purses and other personal effects at home. Audience members filled several rows of chairs, admiring a line of self-portraits that ran across the wall while waiting for the women to arrive.
Soon they entered, all wearing jail garb with wide horizontal black and white stripes, plus pink socks. The women performed several pieces featuring movement, stories and more — all met with warm and genuine applause. For six weeks prior to the performance, they’d met weekly for training in movement, visual arts, creative writing and storytelling.
The Journey Home program was inspired by a national prison project called Keeping the Faith, started by dancer/choreographer Pat Graney. It’s sustained by the partnership between ASU Gammage and Life Paradigms, a non-profit working to “educating and empowering women of color and their families.” Journey Home focuses on helping inmates to “develop tools to make positive choices” while encouraging them to “break the negative patterns of their lives.”
After the performance, several women spoke about the transformative nature of the Journey Home experience — and a common thread emerged. These women feel more confident, capable, caring and compassionate. They’re learning to believe in themselves and to imagine a future free of incarceration. The Journey Home program has served nearly 300 inmates during its first decade.
“Journey Home allows these women to develop creative tools that can help them make positive choices, and encourages them to break the negative patterns that lead to incarceration,” says Jennings-Roggensack. Ruth Acuna, an officer with Estrella Jail, says the program gives inmates a better understanding of their self worth. “We have seen the recitivism rate for the women who participate in this program significantly decrease.”
Journey Home participants work with several folks from Life Paradigms, including executive director Fatimah Halim, who administers the program and works with inmates on creative writing and storytelling. Also program director Teniqua Broughton, who specializes in movement and theater arts — plus psychotherapist Imani Muhammad, who does visual arts.
After Journey Home participants finished their performance, those who’d been watching had a chance to share their reactions. Many, including Michael Reed, senior director of cultural participation and programming for ASU Gammage, spoke of being truly moved and inspired by the women’s journeys. Before the event drew to a close, each woman was asked to stand next to her own self-portrait.
Many described their paintings, sharing both traumas from their past and dreams for their future. Then several of the women, now artists, handed their painting to a person in the audience whose earlier comments had stirred them somehow. It was a moving gesture, a gift genuinely appreciated. I hope so much for all the mothers of the world today. And for the mothers and daughters who shared such beautiful pieces of themselves with us that day. May they have a safe journey home.
Note: A 2006 report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that 61% of people in state prisons and 44% of those in local jails have a mental health problem. Click here to learn more about mental health and prison policy.
Coming up: Silver linings
Update: I’m now blogging as “Stage Mom Musings” at www.stagemommusings.com. Please find and follow me there to continue receiving posts about arts and culture in Arizona and beyond. Thanks for your patience as the tech fairies work to move all 1,250+ posts to the new site. For the latest news follow me on Twitter @stagemommusings. 6/13/12