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Posts Tagged ‘women’s prison’

1570912830780Photo: Chris McKeen/Stuff
The woman above, who participates in a New Zealand prison’s ballet class, says the dancing made her happy. She says she plans to take some of her new skills into her future on the outside.

In New Zealand, officials in a women’s prison have found that ballet may not only provide structure and discipline to people who need help with self-control: it may also provide happiness.

Caroline Williams writes at Stuff, “Barbed wire fences, concrete cells and a focus on hard punishment are a thing of the past at the Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility. Instead, it’s open spaces and restorative rehabilitation in the form of classical music and contemporary ballet.

“Since 2017, inmates at men’s and women’s prisons in Wellington and Christchurch have enjoyed a more refined approach to restorative justice, thanks to a Royal New Zealand Ballet [RNZB] initiative to make the art form more accessible.

“Before prison, some of the women had had to ‘be staunch’ their whole lives, RNZB corporate development manager Diane Field said. The ballet program had allowed them to feel free and feminine.

“[In October], the first group of women to take the course in Auckland graduated in front of an audience of RNZB representatives and prison staff, with choreography including repertoire from past RNZB productions Megalopolis, Cacti, Artemis Rising and Black Swan, White Swan.

“The seven women beamed with pride as they completed the performances with few mistakes — a pretty good effort for only 10 and a half hours of practice spread over eight weeks, with a week lost in the middle due to a measles scare. …

“One said the certificate given to her at a graduation ceremony made her feel like she’d accomplished something. … Another said the classes had shaped her into ‘a totally different person’ after never having engaged in sport or dance before her conviction.

“While the dancing ‘made her happy,’ she accepted it was part of her punishment and would take something from the experience into her future. She hoped to pursue a career in fitness upon her release from the facility. … ‘Little things from outsiders make a big difference for us.’

“All the inmates interviewed by Stuff said they would like to take dance classes again and would encourage other inmates to have a go.

“RNZB senior dance educator Pagan Dorgan taught prison programmes in Wellington and Christchurch, but said the women in Auckland had a particular flair for movement.

‘Every week you can just see them become more confident. With confidence comes the drive to want to get better. They’re very engaged and very present.’

“Dorgan, who usually taught dance in schools, … adjusted her teaching style to accommodate for the inmates, including allowances for chatter and freedom for the women to work in their own groups. But she insisted she hadn’t made it easy for the women.

” ‘The more you see them develop, the more you can push.’

“Prison director Steve Park said … [it’s a credit] to the women to put their name forward for the programme.”

I had thought of “restorative justice” as an effort on the part of a wrongdoer to “restore” what they had taken from someone else in committing a crime. But of course, it’s also about restoring criminals to their better selves. Good to know that ballet can help.

More at Stuff, here.

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I’ve blogged about Mary Driscoll and OWLL, the nonprofit she set up to help ex-offenders break vicious cycles. Soon she will launch her play Generational Legacy, about what happens to children when mothers are imprisoned. People who had experienced prison helped her write it.

Because I am very interested in this and other ways that people use the arts to help prisoners turn their lives around, an article about using Dante and Shakespeare in a women’s prison caught my eye.

Joel Brown writes in the February 24 Boston Globe,

“Lynda Gardner, Saundra Duncan, and Deborah Ranger will give a reading of a new play at a Harvard University conference next week. A different kind of alma mater qualifies them for this appearance: York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Conn., a high-security state facility for female offenders.

“While behind bars at York, all three joined theater workshops with Wesleyan University professor Ron Jenkins and students from his Activism and Outreach Through Theater course. They got to know Shakespeare and Dante, and it changed their lives.

“ ‘I spent my first six months [in York] trying to figure out ways to kill myself, and the next four and a half years trying to see how much more I can live,’ says Gardner. …

“Saundra Duncan said, ‘When I looked at Dante and saw how he was in exile . . . I saw a lot of that situation in [myself].’ ”

I especially liked this comment on the Inferno: “I’ve been in a lot of the circles of hell … It really isn’t about hell; it is about hope. Climbing out of those circles.’’

Read more.

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I believe that people must take responsibility for their actions, that crimes should have punishments, and that every effort should be made to protect society from danger. But I don’t think society is protected if the place of punishment makes a person who committed a crime more angry and hostile than when she did it.

That’s why I like to post about the many kinds of volunteers who work with inmates to turn their hearts to better purposes. It may not always work, but it seems worth trying.

A while back, I blogged about one friend who works with ex-offenders through an organization called OWLL (On With Living and Learning: Jobs Skills for the 21st Century).

Now another friend has written about being accepted into a volunteer program at a low-level women’s prison near her home. The way this friend writes about her orientation, I can see the whole thing.

“I had a letter telling me not to bring a cell phone, smoking paraphernalia, medications, or sharp objects, and not to wear tight clothing, open-toed shoes, dangly earrings, or anything green or orange. … About half the volunteers were people of color and half were white. About a quarter spoke to one another in Spanish. More than half were middle-aged or older. One woman was in a wheelchair. So, it was a pretty diverse group. … There was lots of impressive high-tech security. There are lots of things we’re not allowed to do, like buy things for the inmates, or bring them messages. Or–and the volunteer handbook says this explicitly–help them escape or cover up an escape attempt.” (!)

Are touchy-feely prison programs all too naïve? Well, a highly skeptical prison warden at a Florida prison where there is a dance program admits that he came to see the benefit of women inmates having more-positive ways of expressing themselves:

 

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