Gaze in any direction from inside the grounds of the Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women (SCCW), and your eyes come to rest on peaceful mountain ridges. As inviting as the mountains are, though, you can’t forget that you’re behind a fence topped with spirals of barbed wire.
My husband, Jim, and I didn’t know what to expect the first time we were buzzed through the single gate. The Chaplain’s Office had invited us to teach an eight-week class on building healthy relationships and preventing domestic violence. But would our skills be tested? Would we be able to identify with personal stories that would surely arise from discussions about abuse? Would the women be reluctant students? Our fears were unfounded. The women were, in fact, more eager to learn than many of the college and seminary students we’ve taught.
Today we finished our second round of eight-week sessions. During that time I have felt privileged to hear . . .
Women’s voices. Honest voices. They told about violence inflicted on them: neglectful parents, drunken husbands who hit them, verbal put-downs, sexual abuse. Rape. Yet class participants did not use abuse as an excuse for their own behavior.
Women’s voices. Wounded voices. A box of tissues handy, we touched on topics that reminded participants of the life they left behind: a controlling partner, ongoing fears for their and their children’s safety. They were reminded of how they tried to ease the pain through alcohol or drugs.
Women’s voices. Angry voices. Many in the class expressed surprise to learn that it’s usually healthier to act out in anger than to become the good girl who represses it. So while anger got some of these women in trouble, and while they work on skills to control it, they have come to understand it as a reflection of their strength and resistance to abuse.
Women’s voices. Hopeful voices. Participants expressed their hopes for healthy relationships. They want to heed the red flags of abuse and not repeat past mistakes. They hope to be a positive presence in their children’s lives.
What an honor it’s been to share with women at SCCW. While my intention was to be of service, I have been blessed by the experience.
Years ago, when I was the counselor at our local DV program Helpmate, I facilitated a once-a-month support group at that same women’s prison. 10 women attended group every month and participated eagerly. All 10 were incarcerated for killing their abusers. Each had a horrific story of abuse from which I could imagine no way they could conceivably have escaped short of murder — either hers or his. All 10 were resigned to imprisonment, and except for the heartbreak of separation from their children, each woman admitted that she was freer and more at peace in prison than she had ever been in her relationship.
We have simply GOT to find a way to end this disgraceful epidemic.
I’m grateful to you and Jim for your service in this ministry.
Yes, we do have to end the epidemic of domestic violence. I worry, though, that upon release the women will have so few financial and emotional supports that they’ll feel they have little choice but to return to the abusive relationship.
This has been my experience, too. What a privilege to teach in prison. We would live in a kinder, gentler world if more people could see what you saw, hear what you heard and feel what you felt. I recommend “what I want my words to do to you” – a film by Eve Ensler.
We’d also be a kinder, gentler nation if we found an alternative to imprisoning women and men for drug abuse. Money put into treatment would surely be more wisely spent–and save us a lot of money.
I appreciate the work you do. My experience with women in prison and other criminal justice involved women is extensive spaning 25 years in multiple prisons in several States. Incarcerated victims of domestic and sexual violence are a challenging group to work with and have long and often generational histories of violence and abuse in the family of origin. This is a population of women who do not represent “Good or deserving Victims” people nor traditional domestic/sexual abuse programs serving victims want to work with. Many can be challenging and require intense services. Thank you. For reference, I too have a blog: http://antonia-advocate.blogspot.com
Thanks for responding, Antonia. I’m sure I have a skewed experience with incarcerated women. I have only worked with women at a minimum security facility, a population due to be released in a few years. A few have been in for a long time, but most that have come to our class have shorter sentences.
Where did you get your training to teach these classes?
My husband,Jim Poling, was trained through the FaithTrust Institute in Seattle. They offer workshops, which though expensive,are of excellent quality. Since, as a man, he could not lead the class at the prison by himself, I volunteered too. My background is as an educator and curricula writer.I’ve long shared his concerns about domestic violence.