Behind the razor wire

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(HOST) Commentator Stephanie Montgomery recently had the opportunity to conduct a memoir writing workshop at Windsor Prison. She is still thinking about the different challenges both she and the inmates encountered.

(MONTGOMERY) Once through the metal detector, I pressed the “Talk” button. A man’s voice on an intercom asked me to hold a photo ID up to the overhead camera. An electronic click announc- ed access to a bare, white cubicle. Two more clicks and I was looking at the sky through bright loops of razor wire.

Sparkling in the heat, these silver coils adorned the Windsor prison for women like an alarming necklace. I barely noticed the green expanses of valley and hillside. How, I wondered, could anyone breathe or hope enclosed like this?

I was there to volunteer for a program based in Bellow Falls. “Making the Most of I” helps women who have known every kind of trouble gain perspective, information and skills to improve their lives. Over three days, I worked with women in prisons in Windsor and Waterbury and, in Brattleboro, with another group of women who are free, but at risk. I had two hours to introduce the practice of writing memoir stories to women who might prefer to forget the past.

The coordinator had asked for a food contribution, so that morning I picked raspberries under an open sky. The solitude felt peaceful, but I was worried. I wondered how I might persuade these women to trust me? Could I offer them an experience they would value? I feared rejection but kept reminding myself this was about them, not me.

Prepared for a hostile reception, I encountered, instead, women like women everywhere. They were polite and eager – a little shy. They laughed often. I offended one woman because I interrupted her. She packed up and left. To her credit, she came back. To my credit, I showed better manners.

These women wanted to give voice to their stories. They wrote with a will, pencils rushing across the paper. They listened carefully and offered each other compassionate words of praise.

We hit a disturbing snag when I gave a writing prompt based on a childhood memory. It turned out that most of them could not re- trieve much, if anything, from before age 10.

But when I asked each woman to imagine the best fortune cookie in the world, a fortune written just for her, every face brightened. Their words invoked an old American dream: a high school diplo- ma, a decent job and a sturdy house in a safe neighborhood. Many conjured mealtimes with their children. Not one woman wrote of romantic love.

When it was time to go, they said warm thank yous but cool goodbyes. The balance of power and intimacy had shifted. The open door closed.

In three clicks I was gone, but I haven’t forgotten these women behind the razor wire. Whatever damage and loss they have suf- fered and whatever they can or must remember of the past, they still imagine a future. I saw how women in trouble breathe and hope. They have the courage to believe there remains a place for them in the world and that their stories are not yet done.

This is Stephanie Montgomery of Walpole, NH.

Stephanie Montgomery is the Director of Memoir Cafe, an online writing service for women. She spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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