Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Prisoners turn playwrights in classes through OSU program

The two actresses sat back to back, holding bundles representing babies while going through a courthouse scene where a girl may lose custody of her infant.

The story is about the prisoner who wrote the piece. She was also one of the performers on that stage in front of a full room of fellow inmates.

Through playwriting, Cyndie Jones, from McAlester, spoke about having a child at age 14 after her own early years were filled with violence and neglect. She described her 8-year-old self running from a man who ended up catching her by the hair, backhanding her to a split lip then whipping her with an electrical cord.

“So many women who got here have these stories, and they are not being heard,” Jones said.

The hour-long performance Friday evening at the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center for women was the culmination of the writing and acting program ArtsAloud, offered through Oklahoma State University. It is also held at the Jess Dunn facility in Taft and the John Lilley center in Boley.

At the end of the performance, three OSU theater students put their own spin on the works produced by the inmates.

As Jones listened to the words of her life coming from the actors, she put her elbows on her knees, breathed deeply and sobbed. It was that overwhelming.

She had no regrets.

“The best healing is to let people know what happened, and that will also help others,” Jones said. “I was so angry when I came here, but I’m trying to trust the judicial system. I want to be an advocate for the women here. I believe people deserve a second chance.”

Budget woes: Oklahoma has a well-earned reputation for locking up its residents.

The state has the second-highest incarceration rate in the U.S. For more than 25 years, Oklahoma has been No. 1 in the incarceration rate of women, with only brief moments at being No. 2.

In December, the DOC announced that for the first time in 49 years, the population of people incarcerated, on supervision or currently in a county jail awaiting transfer surpassed 61,000.

Last week, the Governor’s Task Force for Judicial Reform reported that at this rate more than 7,200 inmates will be added in the next decade. That would bring an additional cost of $1.9 billion to construct three more prisons.

All this is at a time with drastic revenue shortfalls including a state budget failure last year. Funding has not kept up with the increase in prisoners.

Programs to rehabilitate and to transition inmates into the community were cut from the budget years ago. What is offered falls largely to volunteers.

Jodi Jinks, artistic director of ArtsAloud and the Mary Lou Lemon endowed professor for underrepresented voices, imported the program from Austin, Texas, four years ago. It fulfills the research mission of OSU and provides ongoing education and a creative outlet for inmates.

“The emphasis is not on the way they perform. The emphasis is on writing the story then performing it,” Jinks said. “Because this is autobiographical, it is their story, there is an emotional attachment to it.”

Each session develops differently. As the prisoners write from prompts given, a theme emerges. On Friday, the performance was called “Happiness.”

“The goal is to break down the walls for those on the inside and those on the outside,” Jinks said. “This allows for increased empathy, understanding and self-empowerment.”

‘Human again’: OSU senior Peyton Meacham beat back tears several times watching the prisoners perform. She was most moved by this line: “I’m from rolling hills verging on the mountains but not quite.”

“I was wanting to meet her so much and let her know how that line changed me,” Meacham said. “It’s beautiful.”

It was written by inmate Geneva Phillips within a poem filled with poignant metaphors of her upbringing.

“ArtsAloud is life-giving. This is not a place of life, but arts is life,” Phillips said. “So many creative people are in prison. I don’t know why the ratio is so high in prison like that, but it is. This allows us some small moment each week to be human again. Day in and day out, we aren’t allowed to be human.”

Bonding experience: The performance swayed between bouts of laughter and tears dredged from depths of sorrow.

After Jones suddenly stopped her narrative when detailing the taste of blood as the cord lashed her backside, the other prisoners urged her on.

“Come on girl.” “You got this.” “You can do this.”

She continued, ending with her mother’s response to the question as to why she couldn’t protect her daughters from dangerous men. “Some women aren’t meant to be mothers.”

The silence of the room was only broken by a few “mmm hmms” nearly whispered in sympathetic solidarity.

In a well-timed turn, the next vignette told of learning to make fried chicken, only to cause a fire that banned her from her godmother’s kitchen.

The 12-woman ensemble of inmates sang a version of the original “Mouseketeers — Mickey Mouse March,” danced to jingles and created whimsical novelty songs. Women noted their love of fishing, puppies, children and grandchildren.

A woman belted out the television show theme to “In the Heat of the Night,” and an El Salvadoran prisoner had an ongoing joke about not being Mexican.

“I’m also American and I love this country,” she said.

Drama punched between the comedy. An inmate recounted memories of her best friend, who died after a 10-year-old suicide bomber killed him. A woman claimed being from “a heartbroken man with whiskey bottled-up rage.” A prisoner serving life for murder grievously pondered whether she would “outlast the punishment they deemed.”

In an ode of gratitude, a prisoner shared her fears at age 15 being sent behind bars, where she has stayed. With no outside support, her fellow inmates became her family.

“Even though you had your own kids, you had a hand in raising me,” she said. “I thank you for allowing me to grow up and wanting to help me.”

The final act shifted the tenor of the room into one of inspiration and motivation by taking on the theme “What we want the world to know,”

“We’re human, not a number.” “World peace starts with one person.” “Love a little, love a lot.” “Everyone deserves a second chance.”

The rousing ending featured the theme song to the television show “the Golden Girls.” It’s hard not to be uplifted while clapping and singing, “Thank you for being a friend.”

After the show, OSU junior Cody Finger talked about the lessons learned through the project. “It’s eye-opening, and it makes you think twice before judging people,” he said. “And, they really do have very good writing.”

Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376

Monday, January 2, 2017

When A Wiccan Comes To Christ

In 18 years of prison ministry so far, I have seen a lot of amazing things. Heard lots of stories that would make you laugh, or cry or both, and some that would shock you. But one I really remember is a few years ago, when I was assisting with a Discipleship / Bible study class in the Faith and Character Unit. Each week we held the class for about 200 women, I would always make the rounds and greet the ladies before class started. One lady stood out, she was tall, dark hair, and black ‘dead’ eyes. But I greeted her just as all the others and took time to personally speak to her. Each week I would especially seek her out and at first she was guarded and standoffish. But as the weeks went by she started to greet me and smile. She would start to tell me about herself. She was Wiccan. And said that she was instantly amazed that first day that I even spoke to her. She said most Christians are afraid of her. I wasn’t. As we kept up our talks each week I would tell her why she needed Jesus and she would tell me more about her life. One day I felt strongly that I should buy her a Bible and have her name printed on it in gold. So I did. And the next week I gave it to her... She accepted it right away. And promised to read it. I gave her some Scriptures to start with... Long story short a week or two later she told me that she gave her heart to Christ in her cell. But one thing,,, she had worn a pentagram necklace around her neck for years... she was scared to remove it as she literally thought the devil would kill her. I told her that Christ was stronger etc. and the next week she came in smiling,, glowing, joy in her eyes, she had prayed to Christ, and gave her fear to Him then took off the necklace...and of course nothing at all happened. She was so excited that she was free and out of bondage. Praise the Lord
Consider this--Jeremiah 2:30 "In vain, I have chastened your children, they receive NO CORRECTION", your sword has devoured your prophets like a destroying lion"Why? Because there's NO TRANSFORMATION of the HOLY SPIRIT in their heart's!!Job 11:10 "If He passes by, IMPRISONS & gathers to JUDGMENT, then who can hinder Him?"Job 12:14 "If He breaks a thing down, it cannot be rebuilt; if He IMPRISONS a man, there can beNO RELEASE!"Job 19:7 " If I cry out concerning wrong, I am not heard, if I cry aloud, there is NO JUSTICE!"Jeremiah 2:17 & 19 "Have you not brought this on yourself, in that you have FORSAKEN the LORDyour GOD?"Consider-- Psalm 103:10 " He has NOT dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities".Job 11:6 "....Know therefore, that GOD exacts from you LESS THAN your iniquity DESERVES!"BY JESUS CHRIST, you receive MERCY & GRACE, through the CROSS of Christ.He paid for your penalty of sin on the cross. Offering you a paid in full, PARDON. But you have toaccept His forgiveness & surrender all to Him. The pardon is a free gift, but it is not truly yours, until you accept it!Our prison systems used to be called a "HOUSE OF CORRECTION", where offenders could receive the "PROCESS of CORRECTING", where their punishment was intended to REHABILITATE & IMPROVE their lives. Rehabiltate means to "restore to good condition"; it was the "restoratation" of someone to a useful place in society. Something has gone terribly wrong here! The prison system no longer tries to correct or restore. It has become just a "warehouse" of human lives, where profits $ are made on the mistakes of others. We are all to blame, because as a society for the most part, we have locked them up & thrown away the key!But what happens when this occurs to your mother, father, son or daughter?? Suddenly, there is concern!They are all someone's family. How can we expect them to change, & be restored to society, if we offer them no support, no programs, no education, no jobs, no skills to help them once released?Most offenders will be released at some point & will come live next door to YOU. Don't you want them tobe a productive member of society by then, & not just "criminial released from a cage?There must be an inner spiritual change in the hearts of men & women for real transformation to occur.We must continue to offer our prisons, faith based opportunities, to change their negative behaviors, & toheal their wounds, & the hurts of their past. So they can be prepared for their future. Jesus Christ has changed many lives behind the bars, I have witnessed it myself personally. I know He works! Let's continue on with what is working, & change what is not.Change must come to the System, & it must start at the top before it can reach down to the "least of these"Churches also must become "ex-offender friendly". Putting their faith in action, to love & receive those releasing from prison, to provide a wrap-around, service to them. To end the revolving door on our prisons.We must all receive CORRECTION today, then reach out to those around us.

An Interesting Thing Happened

A Interesting Thing That Happened....
Back in 1998 a relative on my husband's side of the family, got wrongly convicted, that is a really long story by itself, 
and so very many things happened surrounding this situation that happened to the family as well as it was the
catalyst that God used to get me into prison ministry.
But this one day back in 2001, I had attended a women's event and I ended up meeting this one woman 
who I had never seen before which is not unusal but what was unusal was that the next day was Sunday
and this woman who had never attended our church in the past, showed up.
And after the service she was crying uncontrollably, almost hysterical. I was suprised but did not know her
or what was wrong.
Then she asked to speak to me, so I said okay, and we went into a side room.
Still she cried so hard she almost couldn't speak!
But through her labored breathing and sobs she started asking me to forgive her,
that she did something horrible to our family, concerning the relative who was by then in prison wrongly convicted.
I could not figure out why she was asking me to forgive her as I had never met her
before. But I told her yes I forgave her for whatever it was that had her so upset.
She was so uncontrollably crying she just asked for forgiveness over and over and
I could not get her to reveal the details of what she had done.
I could guess some things but had no proof.
So as suddenly as she came, she left, and I never saw her ever again to this day.
I had told her if she had wronged the relative in prison she needed to go to authorities to make it right.
She never did. Long long story short , she played a small part in the relatives case but was not the real
guilty party that caused her to serve 7 years of a 12 year sentence while innocent.
But this day was just one of many strange events, some supernatural, some just strange that has
happened in the years of prison ministry. I never saw this woman prior to her coming to me
and I have no idea why she thought she needed to apologize to me instead of someone else in the
family and I never saw her or heard her name ever again after this meeting.
Sometimes life is stranger than fiction.