Redmond: Sacred Words

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(Host) For Vermont’s incarcerated women, stress levels typically rise at
holiday time. The season activates painful memories and reminds them of
bridges burned with family and friends. But, journalist and
commentator Marybeth Redmond explains how writing has become an
important outlet of self-expression for some of them.

(Redmond) Most Thursday evenings find a colleague and me writing with about 12
women prisoners. We write inside the caverns of Chittenden Regional
Correctional Facility in South Burlington. Each of us records our
well-worn pasts and present-days on yellow-lined pads of paper. Our aim
is to use writing as a tool for reflection and self-change. However,
the giving and receiving of our words also serve as a healthy
release-valve for the daily frustrations that crop up.

We always
write in silence to access our own voices. Our circle of solitude
exists in stark contrast to the blaring noise that surrounds us.
Slamming metal doors literally send shockwaves through our bodies. And
the verbal exchange that accompanies the occasional pat-down in the
hallway can make a women reading her words inaudible.

we wrote about a sibling we were cruel to and a family member we lied
to, themes that could fill volumes for some of us. We’ve also written
about life-changing phone calls, the wisdom we’d pass on to our kids,
and even the smell of Christmas trees. It can be a heart-stopping story
when these women put pen to page.

One writer told about praying
for anyone to rescue her and her sister from the madness of
drug-addicted parents. Another’s not sure she can trust her boyfriend
who fails to pick up the phone when she calls. She writes: 3 p.m.,
still sleeping? or maybe cheating? …My mind races, try again and again.
It’s clockwork. Finally at 10, he answers… Supposedly sleeping?
Silence. Me screaming… But that’s me, just repeat, repeat, repeat.

another woman, speaks of her writing tablet in loving tones: this is my canvas,
this is my song… Here in this world of words, I feel I belong.

storytelling we witness has its roots in the trifecta as I humbly refer
to it – poverty, domestic violence and substance abuse. The majority
of these women are victims of disastrous childhoods and
multi-generational poverty. This does not justify their crimes, of
course. Yet, the raging addictions and bad behaviors they grapple with
sometimes seem as metaphorically looming as the Green Mountains that
surround us.

In spite of their struggles, hope abounds in the
weekly circle. The more than 100 women inmates who have participated in
writinginsideVT learn to listen respectfully. They console each other
when setbacks arise on various home-fronts. Some have remarked that
the writing circle has become a neutral zone, where the animosity of
unit dynamics is relinquished for a few hours.

Our time
together is as much about activating one’s unique voice as it is about
facilitating healthy relationships and building trust. We publish the
women’s writings in printed anthologies, which they cradle like newborn
babies. The aim is to create a safe space for personal expression,
where words are held as sacred and isolation dissolves for a time –
something that we on the ‘outside’ too often take for granted.

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