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Redmond: Sacred Words

12/05/11 7:55AM By Marybeth Redmond
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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.

Recently, 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.

Still 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.

The 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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