More of my thoughts regarding the Women’s Seminar from the G.I.V.E. programme last week. As mentioned before, it proved a successful event –even more so than everyone had anticipated, participants included. Feedback was extremely positive, as reflected in some of the conversation with a couple of the inmates who were actual participants. They received much praise for the emotional sharing that took place the night of the event when their loved ones spoke from the depths of their heart about their respective personal experience of being ‘incarcerated by proxy’. This was only the second time for this particular event, and my first as an attendee. I didn’t know what to expect from it going in – only that the women were coming in to speak from their own perspective. Little did I know the extent of the emotional impact it would have on the audience.
Walking into the chapel, the stage was set up to look like the cells and dayrooms we inmates are so familiar with here and gave the impression that a theatrical play was in store. It started out as such, but it soon became more about the brave, inspiring personal testimonies of the five inmates who opened up the play, all in pairs, sitting on the stage in the mock dayroom, one by one commenting about something his loved one was going through, out on the streets. Picture this: as each inmate had their turn commenting about their loved one, that same loved one walked onto the stage in a standard bright orange prison jumpsuit and sat close by, until the last inmate made his comment. After that opening scene, the C/O announced that the day room was closed, which provoked the usual grumblings of the inmates as they commenced to follow orders.
The second scene opened with the C/O calling the name of the first ‘inmate by proxy’ to the podium, which was a sister of the inmate she represented. Overhead on the projection screen, the blown up ID badge belonging to the inmate was shown, alternating with her face to illustrate that they were both incarcerated. With an introduction of who she was and the relationship between her and her brother, she spoke movingly in heartfelt words of the impact that her brother’s incarceration had on her and the family. I can tell you too, no punches were pulled with all the respective testimonies. The honesty and realness of each story dripped with emotional pain and difficulty. At times you could hear a pin drop as the audience of every age listened. There were also several instances of standing applause when something penetrating was expressed.
Two testimonies stuck out to me the most, one of which was the daughter of an inmate I had occasion to meet at a previous program when he was a facilitator . She was 15, I believe, when her Dad was incarcerated and now at the age of 22 she spoke of the many challenges and difficulties that confronted her as a result of this e.g. having to live with relatives, not feeling welcome, being told she would end up like her Dad, being bitter towards her Dad for abandoning her when he was incarcerated etc. etc. She also spoke movingly of consciously choosing to overcome her circumstances and her achievements as a result of hard work and taking advantage of the opportunities in her life. Beautiful, smart and undeterred, this young lady was stronger and more empowered than ever. Academically, emotionally and personally she’s excelling. And what makes the story all the more beautiful is that the relationship between her and her Dad has been mended to a healthy place.
The second story that was particularly moving and powerful with emotional content was from that of a mother. I’m familiar with this particular Mom from previous occasions of meeting as well as her participation in other events. From a mother’s perspective, what she shared was unexpectedly honest and revealing – even for the son of whom she was speaking and who was sitting in the front row. Judging from a conversation I was party to a couple of days after the event, with him and a couple of other guys, he himself was surprised about how brutally honest and open she was about things! None of it could he (or did he) deny; some of which we all discussed and weighed in on. His Mom talked about the effect his incarceration had on her – feeling like ‘daggers’ in her heart as she recounted how it started long before he was actually, physically taken away to prison. She spoke of his jealousy at the age of 11 when his little sister was born because he felt she was stealing the love and attention away from his relationship with his Mom. She talked about how close she and her son were and how they were there for one another, until he started abandoning her for the street life – another one of the ‘daggers’ she talked about. She also talked movingly about how he changed his life in prison and became a responsible man, having once done nothing but beg for money, packages etc. early in his incarceration. As a result, she could now say she was proud of him.
Needless to say, it was a powerful evening of emotional story after emotional story – each different in content and perspective but equally impacting. At the end, they all received a standing ovation and were presented with beautiful handcrafted wooden roses, handed to them by their respective loved ones. They received much praise and it was obvious just how painful and difficult it was for these women to share their stories, but also how cathartic it was. Sharing meant healing, and no question about it, the wounds are never sufficiently healed so long as they continue enduring ‘incarceration by proxy’