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Photo: Cliff Grassmick
Lucy Wallace, the co-founder of Dance to Be Free, incorporates jazz, lyrical, and hip-hop into the dance classes she offers in women’s prisons.

My friend Asakiyume has been a tutor in a women’s prison for several years, where she has learned that many inmates got in trouble after suffering repeated abuse or gross failure by the educational system. Most students, she says, are grateful for any attention from outside and are determined to do better on release. I think she would like this story about a dancer serving incarcerated women in the South.

Maria Di Mento writes at the Chronicle of Philanthropy, “Lucy Wallace is a dancer who has spent a lot of time in prison. That’s because Wallace, the co-founder of Dance to Be Free, travels the country teaching dance classes to incarcerated women to help them cope with depression, despair, PTSD, and complex trauma. …

“Despite her assumption that most prisons would turn her away, not one has.

‘I’ve never had a warden say, “No, we don’t want your program,” ’ Wallace says. ‘They’re grateful to get programming, especially in rural areas that are so remote no one goes there to volunteer.’

“A former dance major who has a master’s degree in psychology, Wallace incorporates a mix of movement styles into her dance classes, including jazz, lyrical, and hip-hop, and a variety of musical genres. …

“The program involves writing exercises and group discussions that let the women talk about their lives, how they coped with their first few weeks in prison, their biggest challenges, and what they’re getting out of the classes. She provides the prisons with DVDs of the classes and has certified about 400 prisoners who can lead the courses.

“Dance to Be Free is in 13 prisons in eight states and operates on a budget of about $100,000 a year. Few prisons will pay for the programming, something Wallace would like to change. For now, the charity receives all of its funding from individual donors, raising roughly $175,000 since 2015. …

“Wallace is holding off expanding the program for the time being and is instead focusing solely on the South, especially Mississippi and Florida, where she says women’s prisons are in deep need of programs.” More here.

From the Dance to Be Free website: “Our mission is to radically improve the lives of incarcerated women through the healing power of dance. We use ‘Cathartic Choreography’ to both train the inmates and teach them a new skill. We have seen this technique help our students deal with physical and mental illness, including PTSD and complex trauma.

“During our teacher trainings inmates gain confidence as they experience leadership and responsibility, often for the first time in their lives. That sense of accomplishment flourishes as our students learn to not only express themselves through dance, but to free others to do the same.

“Throughout this transformative experience, we teach the nuts and bolts of choreography, timing and flow, and just as importantly we facilitate journaling and sharing exercises that nurture introspection and self-awareness that inmates often need.”

I found the nonprofit organization’s video very moving.

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Photo: Francis Pakes
The view from the Icelandic prison that a criminology reseacher asked to stay in.

Abusing people who commit crimes is no longer considered effective for keeping them on the straight and narrow after they serve their time. For a different approach, consider Iceland, where two of the five prisons actually have no locks.

Francis Pakes, a professor of criminology at the UK’s University of Portsmouth, took a firsthand look and wrote about his experience for the Conversation.

“Iceland is a small country tucked away on the edge of Europe. It has a population of only about 340,000 people. Iceland’s prisons are small too. There are only five, altogether housing fewer than 200 prisoners. Of these five, two are open prisons. …

“When I asked the prison authorities in Iceland if I could spend a week in each of the two open prisons they were surprisingly receptive. I got the impression that they quite liked the idea: a foreign academic who wanted to get under the skin of these places by assuming the role of a prisoner. They promised to keep a room free for me. I was grateful and excited. I was going to experience both prisons from the inside. …

“The absence of security features was striking. The first prison I stayed in, Kvíabryggja prison in the west of the country, had little in the way of perimeter security. There is, however, a sign instructing passers by to keep out – mainly aimed at tourists. I could simply drive up to the small, mostly single-storey building and park up. I then walked in (yes, the doors were open) and said hello. …

“It was clear from the outset that prisoners and staff do things together. Food is important in prisons and in Kvíabryggja the communal dining room is a central space. It is where prisoners have breakfast, lunch and dinner together with staff. Prisoners cook the food, and with an officer they do the weekly food shop in a nearby village. Food was plentiful and tasty. It is considered bad form not to thank the prisoner chefs for their efforts. And you have to clean up after yourself. …

“Prisoners have their own room keys but they leave their doors unlocked, pretty much at all times. This is a potent symbol: life in Kvíabryggja is all about trust. I found that difficult at first, knowing that my passport, rental car keys and research notes were all in my room. In the end I did what prisoners do and even slept with the door unlocked. I slept like a baby. …

“It was the informality of the interactions that struck me most. We watched football together. … I got teased a bit of course, as all prison researchers do. But prisoners also shared gossip and many prisoners and staff alike shared very personal, even intimate feelings and stories with me. When Pétur gained his freedom and his dad arrived to pick him up, he hugged many prisoners and staff goodbye, including me. We all got a bit emotional.

“Kvíabryggja is of course still a prison. Many prisoners feel frustrated, angry, anxious, struggle with their health and worry about the future. But the environment is safe and the food a delight. There is contact with the outside world, generous visiting arrangements, and there is always a listening ear. As prisons go, this means a lot.

“This remote prison and with no more than 20 prisoners, and around three staff around at most at any time, is a tiny community. Prisoners and staff smoke together in the cramped but ever busy smoking room. They need to get on.

“Life is defined by these informal interactions. This is not necessarily easy. This prison population is highly mixed. There are female prisoners, foreign nationals and prisoners of pensionable age or with a disability all mixed in together. …

“The importance of getting on is a take away message. This is far harder to achieve in large busy prisons where new prisoners arrive and leave every day. But just like community policing works best if most public interactions are friendly, a prison is a more positive place if most interactions are friendly and benign too.”

More at the Conversation, here.

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Photos: A Ride Home
When you get out of prison, you’re often on your own. That’s where A Ride Home comes in.

The other day, I was reiterating for a couple grandchildren the basics of the Christmas story. When you get down to essentials, the life of the grownup Baby Jesus, as told to us, was all about teaching kindness and going among the poor and outcast to comfort them.

I told the kids that “when Herod the King heard [about a new ‘Governor’], he was troubled” because he didn’t know the baby would not grow up to be the kind of leader that would take Herod’s throne and soldiers and money but instead would teach people about being good to one another.

Although we aren’t regular churchgoers, the kids like the annual Christmas pageant, and I wanted to go over the setting and roles a bit.

That’s a long intro to saying that Christmas is a particularly good time to consider how much the poor and outcast — and those who provide compassion to them — can benefit when we adhere to what is really the essence of all religions.

I recently learned about a great example of compassion for the outcast — a program for ex-offenders called “A Ride Home.” WNYC radio interviewed the people behind it.

“People released from prisons face all kinds of barriers as they transition back into the outside world, whether it’s finding jobs or housing.

“But beyond these large challenges, there are all kinds of small things the formerly incarcerated have to re-learn on the outside world — from opening doors, ordering from a menu, to choosing what kind of shampoo to buy.

“The Ride Home program helps people with those first few hours when they get out of prisons in California. …

“Carlos Cervantes is one of the program’s drivers, who is formerly incarcerated, and now picks people up, takes them for coffee and food, buys them new clothes and is with them in those first moments. He remembers the moments leading up to his own release back in 2011.

” ‘You feel nervous, asking, “What’s on the other side? How does the other side look like.” For me having spent 10 years 8 months, it’s kind of like this picture that like you can only imagine,’ he said.”

You can listen to WNYC’s podcast about the compassionate program via iTunesTuneInStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

What I especially like is that former offenders want to help out by volunteering with the program. A Ride Home can make a person’s first post-prison emotion one of gratitude. And we all know what good things a feeling of gratitude can work in the world.

More at WNYC, here. Check out some really nice photos at the Ride Home website, here.

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Photo: William Raynard/Essex County Sheriff’s Department
From left, Sheriff Kevin Coppinger and department director of food services Kathy Lawrence meet with program director Kate Benashski, Carlos Zagada, and Josiel Cabrera from Haven From Hunger on the farm at the Essex County Pre-Release Center in Lawrence.

Most of my posts about people helping people must seem like a drop in the bucket to readers: the problems of this world are so enormous. But I like to think about what can be accomplished by, say, one person whose better nature is released by a program like the one for ex-offenders described here. And I like to think of the way many such efforts can accumulate to improve the world.

Morgan Hughes writes at the Boston Globe, “Drive around the back of the Essex County Pre-release and Re-Entry center in Lawrence, and you’ll find 6 acres of pumpkins, corn, tomatoes, peppers, and gourds.

“Inmates at the center run the farm, which yields about 50,000 pounds of produce each season to feed others who are incarcerated and the wider community. Located just behind Interstate 495, the farm is fertile ground for personal growth.

“ ‘We’re giving jobs to the inmates, we use the crops, but it’s also an opportunity to give back to the community,’ Sheriff Kevin F. Coppinger said.

“At the moment, the farm has about seven inmates who volunteer to plant, maintain, and harvest the produce. They feed not only the roughly 200 inmates at the pre-release center, but those at the Middleton House of Correction and Women in Transition, a women’s pre-release center in Salisbury.

“The facility purchases meals from a third-party food vendor, but the kitchen incorporates the fresh produce into the menu whenever possible.

“ ‘They live there, so they can really see the fruits of their labor,’ Coppinger said.

“About 30,000 pounds go to food pantries and homeless shelters in the Merrimack Valley and throughout the North Shore, said Kathy Lawrence, director of food services for the sheriff’s department. …

“She said, ‘What we can do sometimes is either incorporate [our produce] into the menu and serve it in addition to what’s being prepared, or we can substitute in ratatouille instead of giving them frozen green beans.’

“But even when the harvest is over and the ground begins to freeze, these hyperlocal vegetables are used throughout the year, Lawrence said. Bell and Italian peppers are frozen to use in casserole dishes. The butternut squash is also kept in the freezer and saved for special holiday meals.

“Heather Bonanno-Baker is manager of both Pleasant Valley Gardens in Methuen and the farm at the pre-release center. She took over duties from her father, who helped inmates run the farm for at least 15 years.

“She said she teaches inmates how to plant and water the crops, manage pests, and harvest at the end of the season. She shows them what a vegetable looks like when it’s ready to be picked, and how to wash it before it goes to a kitchen.

“ ‘I’m big into teaching the public about agriculture, growing your own food, and where it comes from,’ Bonanno-Baker said. …

“When Lawrence collected some feedback from the farm workers, she said some common themes were ‘a sense of pride in what they’ve grown’ and feeling rewarded to be able to give back to the community. One told her: ‘Hard work leads to positive results.’

“Lawrence teaches ServSafe to inmates working in the kitchen, a certification in food safety necessary for many jobs in the food industry. Coppinger said working on the farm provides another skill they could use to find a job when they are released.

“ ‘From the minute you arrive at intake in Middleton, to when you are about to be released at the pre-release center is trying to get them in better shape to get out of here and not come back,’ he said.

‘I always like to say, “Thanks for coming, but don’t come back.” ‘

More at the Boston Globe, here.

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800px-savinien_de_cyrano_de_bergeracArt: Zacharie Heince (1611-1669)
The 19th Century Edmond Rostand comedy
Cyrano de Bergerac was recently performed in a New York prison that has unusual rehabilitation programs.

Sometimes when an article I want to share with you has its photos under lock and key, I look for alternative images on Google. It was interesting to see that modern renditions of the outsize nose on Cyrano de Bergerac are much more extreme than the one above. Today’s productions really go overboard trying to make the silver-tongued hero look as ugly as possible. A recent production in a prison also exaggerated the nose, which you can see if you click on the original article.

Jesse Wegman wrote about the show at the New York Times, “Cyrano de Bergerac will be eligible for parole in 2022. For the time being, he is a vision in Gallic effrontery, pinballing around the stage in the gymnasium at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, N.Y.

“The production of Edmond Rostand’s canonical 19th-century comedy, which enjoyed a well-attended two-day run early [in June], was the work of Rehabilitation Through the Arts, a 20-year-old organization that operates in prisons across New York State. The program introduces inmates to theater, dance, writing and other creative arts in the hope of teaching them life skills and improving their chances at success upon release. …

“When [inmates] proposed ‘Cyrano de Bergerac,’ the show’s director, Charlie Scatamacchia, was skeptical. ‘I thought, yeah, that’s not gonna happen,’ he said. ‘It’s got multiple scene changes, costume changes. It’s got sword fighting. I doubted my ability to direct them, and their ability to pick up these skills in the time we had. I’ve never been happier to be proved so wrong.’

“Behind the title character’s plastered-on proboscis and feathered chapeau is Rodney Spivey-Jones, a 35-year-old from Syracuse. Mr. Spivey-Jones, who had never acted before, first auditioned for the role of Le Bret, the play’s narrator. But Mr. Scatamacchia quickly realized that he was a good fit to play the lead — one of the most verbose roles in theater.

“Mr. Spivey-Jones is no stranger to addressing a crowd — he helped form an inmate debate team at another prison that beat a team from Harvard in 2015. Still, he had not given any thought to playing Cyrano and didn’t understand how big the role was until he kept getting called back to read for it. …

“When the show went up, Mr. Spivey-Jones realized that he had memorized not only his own lines but every other character’s as well — a handy trick when a castmate ran into trouble, and he could provide a cue on the spot. …

“A bigger obstacle than memorization, it turned out, was getting swords inside the prison. Corrections officials nixed various materials, like a hard plastic foil. … The cast of 13 men took the setbacks in stride, as people in prison learn to do with most things. Along with a professional actress, Kate Kenney, who played the role of Cyrano’s love interest, Roxane, the crew worked every week through the winter and spring to get the show into shape. …

“The program, which has about 400 alumni who were released from prison, is popular among both inmates and New York’s prison administrators, who have seen its philosophy pay off. Studies of prison-arts programs around the country, including R.T.A., have found that their participants are better behaved than other inmates, earned educational degrees earlier and in some cases are less likely to wind up back behind bars after release.”

It would be wrong to minimize the crimes these guys have committed or the pain they have caused their victims, but if there’s a way for offenders to become engaged with the world in more positive ways, that’s a good thing in my book.

And I love that play.

More at the New York Times, here.

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Photo: Walker State Prison/Times Free Press
Holly Mulcahy, left, and Mary Corbett perform in front of 128 Walker State Prison’s Faith and Character Based inmates.

When I read about some of the crimes that send people to prison, I do have trouble experiencing empathy for the perpetrators. But then I remember that not everyone in prison is unreachable. That’s why I find stories like Barry Courter’s at the Associated Press hopeful.

He writes about a music program in a Georgia State prison: “Holly Mulcahy stands with her violin, her back to the wall of the gym at Walker State Prison in Rock Spring, Georgia. Next to her is Mary Corbett with her violin. Between them and 128 inmates serving time for a host of crimes big and small. …

“The men are seated in chairs fanned out in a semicircle facing the stage, quiet and staring at the two women, who are smiling and relaxed.

“The place is so quiet, Corbett steps to the microphone and says with a laugh, ‘Talk amongst yourselves. We have to tune up.’

“It’s a relatively simple moment, but it sets the tone for how the rest of the evening will go.

“Walker State Prison, home to about 400 inmates, is unique among Georgia prisons. In 2011, the facility became the testing ground for the Georgia Department of Corrections’ new Faith and Character Based program, which focuses on accountability, responsibility, integrity and faith.

“Inmates in the Faith and Character Based curriculum have all requested to be there and have gone through a vetting process before being allowed to participate in the two-year program. …

“ ‘Half of the men there are lifers, but to be there, they must be eligible for parole,’ says Alan Bonderud. He’s been volunteering there since 2010 and was involved in mentoring new mentors when the prison added the [program]. …

“The goal is to give the men skills that will help them increase their chances of reacclimating into society upon release and to reduce the chances of the men ever returning to prison.

“Education is a key component as the men take a variety of classes — a few have earned Master of Divinity degrees, for example — but so is character development.

“Mulcahy first visited Walker State about three years ago after a chance meeting with Bonderud at a Chattanooga Symphony & Opera-sponsored gala. When Mulcahy, the CSO concertmaster, learned that Bonderud mentored at Walker State, she expressed an interest in performing there.

“ ‘I didn’t want to just go there and perform,’ she says. ‘I wanted to do more.’

“Bonderud says the recitals ‘have been very effective. They continue to increase the numbers of men who attend, and reports from the men are that they now share their programs with family members, and it gives them something new to talk about. It encourages them with their families. Some even have had family members take up the violin.’ …

“The program begins with ‘How Majestic the Expanse’ by Shawna Wolf, then Mulcahy opens the floor for discussion. Two inmates move around the room delivering hand-held microphones to prisoners who have raised their hands to speak.

“No one speaks except for the inmate with the microphone.

“ ‘I pictured it reminded me of icicles,’ he begins. ‘I could hear the sound of light coming through the trees and birds chirping. I heard the pulse in the music.’ …

“Mulcahy doesn’t try to lead, correct, judge or in any way influence the discussion, except to encourage the men to say what they think.

“ ‘There are no wrong answers,’ she says. …

“[Inmate Scott] Reed says he did not attend the early recitals, but he couldn’t help but be surprised at what he heard in the dormitories (the men live in bunk beds in large open rooms rather than cells) after the performances.

“ ‘I heard grown men talking about their feelings and their emotions that they felt hearing the music,’ he says.

“ ‘These are pretty hard guys from the streets.’

“Says inmate Garrett Anderson, ‘I’ve never heard this kind of music before. Never. And I never thought about how something made me feel. I never talked about it.’ ”

More.

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Photo: John Walker
Melvin Smith, who completed the Transition from Jail to Community (TJC) program at Fresno County Jail, is now clean and running his family’s well-drilling business.

Here’s another example of a program that has been helping ex-offenders reintegrate into society.

Brianna Calix reports at the Fresno Bee, “The last time Melvin Smith was arrested, he was so hungry and tired that he prayed to God the authorities would keep him in Fresno County Jail instead of releasing him.

“Smith was arrested 14 times in 2013 for drug use, auto theft and vandalism. In Fresno County, law enforcement arrested him 41 times since 1999. ‘I was wild,’ he said. In jail, his ‘celly’ asked him where he saw himself in five years. Smith’s goal was to reunite with his family.

“He’s been out of jail for four years, sober for five years and his probation ends in June. He runs his grandfather’s well and pump company, goes to church with Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer and is about to buy a home with a pool for his family. For birthdays, he takes his family on trips to places such as Universal Studios, Magic Mountain and Disneyland.

“During that last stint in jail, Smith went through the Transition from Jail to Community program. It helps inmates who are more likely to re-offend prepare for life after incarceration.

“The TJC program, as it’s known, was started in 2013. The men who complete the program have a dramatically lower recidivism rate than the rest of the jail population, in part due to the support system the program builds for them.

“ ‘We’ve had programs for many years in the jail,’ Sheriff Margaret Mims said. ‘This one was very different.’ …

“Inmates have to opt into the program voluntarily, and not just any inmate can qualify. Forty or fewer people participate in the program at a time. The jail houses between 2,600 and 2,900 inmates.

“Jail staff evaluate each inmate based on how many times they’ve been arrested in Fresno County, their age and how old they were when they first were arrested. Based on that score, staff evaluate the inmate’s risk to re-offend. Only medium-to-high-risk inmates qualify.

“If the inmate agrees to participate in the program, he signs a contract pledging to participate, follow the rules and stay engaged with supervision upon release.

“In a typical housing unit, the inmates tend to group by race, said Michelle LeFors, Fresno County Jail’s inmate services director.

“ ‘Not in the TJC,’ she said. ‘You’ll see mixed races sitting together, sharing a meal with each other. … They work with each other as opposed to against each other. If you ask the inmates, they’ll tell you they leave their politics at the door.’ …

“As a gang dropout in jail, [inmate Clinton S. ] constantly worried about his safety. But that’s not the case in the TJC program. …

” ‘Everyone in here is pretty much in here for the same reason. There is perks that they come over here for, but everyone obviously wants to change because being in jail is not cool. It gets old. You grow up quick.’

“The program has helped transform his mindset and taught him to persevere and that his consequences have actions.

“So far, his biggest takeaway in the program is to ‘not give up.’ ”

More here. See also the recent post on my cousin’s work to rehabilitate 18- to 24-year-old prisoners. So encouraging.

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