Teaching imprisoned women how to avoid domestic violence

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.