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Arts program helps incarcerated women begin new journey

June 17, 2010

The cigar box covered with duct tape and glued-on magazine headlines and pictures has been sitting on my desk for over a year. “It’s never too late,” one headline proclaims.

Inside the lid, the words ”Something New – Home Sweet Home” are pasted below a picture of a house.

Inside the box is a laminated card with a Bible verse, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.”

I often wonder about the woman who decorated this box and gave it to me during the 2009 “graduation ceremonies” at Estrella Jail for ASU Gammage’s Journey Home Program. What is she doing now?

Was it Amy, Betty, Alexis or Irene? Or Salina, Jess or Pretty? (No last names were used in the program.)

Did she turn her life around, and find the health, the family time, the memories, the harmony she dreamed about when she decorated her box?

I may never know. According to Teniqua Broughton, choreographer for the program, Journey Home staff is not allowed to contact the women once they finish the program.

“Based on how the system is we can only keep track of them if they contact us afterward," Broughton said. "On a percentage basis, maybe 5 percent contact us after they get out.”

Journey Home, presented by ASU Gammage at Estrella Jail each year, is an arts residency program designed to enable incarcerated women to discover a sense of their identity through performance, visual arts, creative writing and storytelling.

For six weeks the women, ranging in age from 18 to 50, are meet with Journey Home staff to explore movement, visual arts and creative writing to help them build interpersonal skills and increase their self-esteem.

At the end of the time, the women give a performance at the jail for a small audience of family members, clergy, friends and ASU Gammage staff. They read their stories, show their artwork, and sing, offering glimpses into their pre-incarceration lives.

There are tears of sorrow and suffering in the eyes of the incarcerated women, and tears of sadness – and hope – in the eyes of those watching.

Some of the women have let drugs take over their lives and have lost their children in the process. For others, it’s alcohol that takes control.

Some have lost a great deal – graduate study ended prematurely, marriages and families in ruin, homes gone – while others are on the verge of falling off the edge.

Journey Home offers them the opportunity to picture an alternative, more hopeful future, said Michael Reed, senior director of cultural participation and programming at ASU Gammage.

“It draws the inmates out to express in a very honest way – honest with themselves and with the group – why they got there, and to envision a future where they never returned, and how that might happen,” he said.

The process begins when officer Ruth Acuna, the program coordinator for Estrella Jail, invites 25 to 30 women to begin their “Journey Home.”

Broughton said the women must have completed the jail’s New Opportunity for Workers (NOW) program, and are already taking GED classes or are in a Bible study, and are partway on their journey to a new life.

A few women who are “not ready for the discovery of themselves and really being honest about why they are there, and not being ready to allow themselves to assume the blame,” usually drop out after the first class, Broughton said. A few others sometimes have to leave midway through the program because of changes in their case, or their sentencing.

But those who stay – 14 completed the program this year – begin the often tearful process of examining their emotions, their dreams and their anger.

“They do really want to change,” Broughton said.

Journey Home began nine years ago when Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, executive director of ASU Gammage, invited noted Washington choreographer Pat Graney, who founded a prison arts project in her state called Keeping the Faith, to come to ASU for a residency.

“Colleen knew about her work in prisons, and Pat was eager to work with women in the jails here,” Reed said.

After laying the foundation with the Estrella Jail staff, Graney began searching for local artists to participate in Journey Home.

“She taught them how this type of work needs to be done – the dos and don’ts – respecting the correctional facility, not imposing preconceived notions, remembering that you are guest and that it’s a privilege to be with the women,” Reed said.

Today, a core group of three women work with ASU Gammage – which, according to Jennings-Roggensack, is the only theater doing work of this kind – to present Journey Home. A local group called Life Paradigms Inc. is the program’s co-sponsor.

Fatimah Halim is executive director and teaches creative writing and storytelling. Broughton, who first started working with Journey Home when she was a staff member at ASU Gammage, teaches movement. Imani Muhammad, a mental-health specialist who is on-call for the participants, also is the visual arts coordinator.

Broughton is careful not to call her part of the curriculum “dance.”

“A lot of times when you say ‘dance’ people are ready to shut themselves away,” she explained. “I’m a movement specialist. Movement is being comfortable with yourself, showing the world who you are, doing that nonverbal communication that speaks. You don’t have to speak to say something.”

While Journey Home is meant to be life-changing for the incarcerated women, it also is an impactful experience for the artists.

“It was eye-opening for me – I had no idea who these people were on the inside,” Broughton said. “They’re no different from you or me. You start to appreciate and become grateful for your own life. You think about the decisions you make about your own life.

“Everyone on the team is grateful that we can give back to the women. A lot of times these women have been lost because of a situation they have allowed themselves to be in. You are the person who determines your destiny.”

Broughton added, “I’m proud that I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of Journey Home. We learn as much from them as they learn from us.”