Taking Story into Prison

by Katie Green.

Once in a while, when someone leams that I tell stories in prison, they say “What?Are you crazy?” or they quip, “Well, at least you have a captive audience there!”

Like many storytellers, most of my work is in schools, but taking storytelling into prison is one of the most rewarding things that I do. Sometimes in today’s world, a bit of hopelessness can seep into the corner of my soul. It sits there, brooding. Sometimes it can become quite heavy. Then, at just the ‘‘right time”,I am called to visit the prison.

I started going to MCI Framingham, Massachusetts’ only women’s prison, when Sr. Maureen contacted me after she read a newspaper article about my work with storytelling and conflict resolution in schools. At the time, I thought I would go to the prison once and that would be it. I was wrong. For the past twelve years, I have been going to MCI Framingham several times a year.

I go as part of the Catholic Chaplaincy, part of the Tuesday evening Fully Alive Program. I could tell you about my experiences there, but I think that the words of the women from MCI Framingham speak to the healing nature of our work there and the importance of going into the prisons.

This March, I attended a retreat for the volunteers in the Fully Alive Program. Laura was one of the speakers who addressed the fifty volunteers. She was released from Framingham in 1999 and had participated in several of my storytelling workshops. Laura is 44 years old. She has cancer and AIDS. She said that she was scared to stand up in front of so many people – but she spoke eloquently for several minutes. “You guys – don’t give up on us. The last time was my fifth time in; my longest. But it was what I needed to get me straightened out…I’m not educated and I get frustrated. But I know that I’m not going back in again…I spent my life runnning away from myself. I never knew someone else cared…Don’t give up on us…People like me need people like you.”

There were seventeen thank you letters from inmates in the volunteers’ packets. The message of sincere appreciation is the same in each one.

Susan’s letter tells a familiar story that also points out the pain of not being allowed to physically touch, never mind hug, another person. Only a brief hand shake at the beginning and ending of a visit is permitted.

I have been in and out of prison since it was legal to send me here. I am now a grown woman of 38. Over the years of my battle with drug addiction and a mental health problem, that I refused to acknowledge and admit[sic]. If I could put my arms aroundyou all and holdyou, you wouldno doubt feel the sincere andgrateful appreciation I fee Ifor each ofyou, for not giving up on me. At times I would sit in total awe, and disbelief, thinking that there had to be some sort of hitch to all these volunteers coming up to a prison’ but 1figured out that the only hitch was Love.

I am fortunate enough to be leaving this prison within 16 months, perhaps 4 months if I am grantedparole, and I feel that I have received the tools that I needed to succeed, and it was 90% because ofthe volunteers. Without you here, we are truly forgotten and Lost. I hope I seeyou all in another place, so I can give you that hug of appreciation, gratitude, and Love.

Robin wrote: It takes a lot of courage to step into such aforeign worldlike prison, “.It,s encouraging to see and feel there are people in the world who feel we are still worth while enough to give the gift of time. …1 thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Taking stories into prisons or teaching storytelling skills to incarcerated people is a wonderful gift to both the giver and the receiver. We bring an opportunity for people to make that heart to heart connection that comes with storytelling. Our art demonstrates that what vvc say, the stories we tel1 and the way we interact with each other makes a tremendous di fference in the way we value each other and ourselves.

The sincere response from the women reminds me that storytelling shapes our perceptions and colors our experience. Stories bring us closer together and make us more aware of the experience of being alive – fully alive. Stories take us to a place that encourages us to value our own lives and recognize common human struggles and joys.

When I go to Framingham MCI, I enterthc prison as “the storyteller”. I arrive to share an evening ofmy lifeandsome stories with the women. And even though the trip is never at a convenient time, I always leave Framingham more enriched than when I came. The women give me so much more than I give them.

As I walk to my car in the brightly lit parking lot, the

women’s parting words echo in my heart; “Please. Come back soon.” I encourage storytellers who live near a prison to consider taking stories inside. Stories can and do change the world.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of the HSA Newsletter.

Katie Green creates and tells stories to bring people closer to one another and to the environment. In 1998, she received the National Storytelling Network Service A ward for the Northeastern Region, in recognition for her work with students, teachers and her community through storytelling. An educator, speech/ language pathologist, and trained mediator, Katie connects the heart of the story to the hearts of the listeners. Katie lives in Princeton, Massachusetts.

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