It was a sunny September day and I was behind locked doors, guards and barbed-wire fences, deep inside a work-release prison in Lockhart. Before me, woman after incarcerated woman was rising to share her story, revealing unspeakable things and darkest fears, threadbare hopes and nearly-forgotten dreams.
The women were graduating from a program called Truth Be Told, which encourages them to face their pasts and embrace their futures, by owning and expressing their lives through writing, public speaking and dance. I walked into the room thinking I had nothing in common with those women. I was so wrong. By the end of the afternoon, I found myself not only relating to them, but admiring them.
One by one, these women stood in front of the room and spoke their truths, most of which started with horrific abuses at a very early age. Yet they were not asking for sympathy, nor excusing their own bad choices that had landed them in prison. They cried, they raged, they hung their heads, they looked bewildered as they recounted their histories, the abuses against them, and their own mistakes for which they could never make up for. And for most of them, it was the first time they’d ever had anyone listen to them with attention and respect. But pity is not what I felt that day in the prison. I felt my insides ripped out by their words, their pain, their anger, their loss.
Carol Waid understands these feelings well. Back in 2000, she was invited by program founder Nathalie Sorrell to speak to the first Truth Be Told class in Lockhart. Carol had her own past that included struggles with depression and alcoholism. With the support of her Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, she agreed to share her story with the female inmates.
"I had never been in a prison, nor had I ever had a desire or curiosity to know what would be inside that concrete building, with those very tall chain link fences," Carol says. "I walked out a different woman that day. The 15 women I met, those women who were incarcerated and living in prison, saw me, loved me, nurtured me, inspired me, noticed me and respectfully listened to me. I met women who knew the road I too had crawled—and many times stalled—on."
They cried, they raged, they hung their heads, they looked bewildered as they recounted their histories, the abuses against them, and their own mistakes for which they could never make up for.
What began as one afternoon of service for Carol turned into nearly 12 years of transformational work, co-leading and developing the classes and workshops that have blossomed under Truth Be Told. Today, more than 1,000 women at Lockhart have enrolled and graduated from the program. Last year, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice invited Truth Be Told to introduce programming at the state-run Hilltop unit in Gatesville.
Nathalie confesses that she started the program out of guilt born from having a life easier than others. "I was afraid of being face to face with people in great need," she admits. "But every spiritual person has to face at some point what they are willing to do that is outside their comfort zone, for the simple reason that it is spiritually unsound and inconsistent to always stay within the boundaries of what we are used to."
Women in prison are an invisible part of our community. "Most of us do not want to know or think about or see them," Nathalie says. "Most of us do not want them as neighbors." But she adds, most of these women have been abused and been victims themselves, long before they became perpetrators of crimes. And most of them are mothers.
"If they practice using the tools we teach while still in prison, then practice them when they are released into a society who mostly still doesn’t want to see them or hear from them or offer them housing or jobs; they may be able to break the pattern of abuse and neglect that brought them to prison before it’s too late to be a different kind of role model for their children."
Truth Be Told facilitators model and teach transformational tools known as “the four Cs”: community building, communication skills, creativity and caring for self. Katie Ford has seen the type of transformation these can bring about. After attending a graduation in 2008, Katie trained to become a Truth Be Told class facilitator. "It was my first time to ever teach anything and I was hooked," says Katie, who teaches a writing-intensive class. "The women are so open to learning and very thoughtful with their assignments."
One woman in particular, "M," didn't participate much in class at first and gave the impression she was just killing time—until the day she heard a classmate shared her story in front of the group. "I saw raw, unguarded emotion overcome M’s face for the first time," Katie says. "Her classmate spoke about being molested and beaten as a child, a failed suicide attempt, being institutionalized and making a series of bad choices as an adult, which led to her incarceration."
Hearing her classmate speak openly about these things prompted M to take a closer look at her own truth. "The following week, M stood up in class and spoke about her life with an honesty and vulnerability that I think even surprised her. The beautiful thing is that she said it was her classmates who inspired her to tell her story—not the censored, safe story she had been telling herself all these years, but the real story, the truth."
With more than 14,000 incarcerated women in Texas, the need is great for Truth Be Told programs, which can go a long way toward changing the cycle and creating a new future for these women, their families and society at large. Nathalie and Carol have put together a TBT model and training program to enable other women to take the program into other prisons.
On October 4, Truth Be Told is hosting their annual luncheon where the public can learn more about the program, at noon at Westover Hills Church of Christ. The free lunch fundraiser is an interesting and meaningful hour where attendees meet some of the program's graduates, hear about the work and witness the power of change themselves.
"For these women to trust one another and speak authentically about their lives—without facing judgment or rejection—is the stuff of real transformation," Katie says. "In doing so, they realize that they’re not alone. They find compassion for themselves and for others. And that is the greatest gift, because it’s where the healing begins."
For more information about Truth Be Told, the luncheon, or how you can get involved, please go to www.truth-be-told.org.