looking beyond bars
Truth Be Told empowers incarcerated women through creativity, confidence andstorytelling
“You may not have been to prison, but our belief is that, at some time in everyone’s life, you imprison yourself in some way,” says Shannon Holtzendorf, Executive Director of non-profit Truth Be Told, an organization that provides “respectful listening and creative tools for personal and spiritual growth for incarcerated women.”
You may not be able to relate to Truth Be Told’s participants directly but, as Holtzendorf explains, we catch glimpses of the emotional consequences of incarceration in our own lives. “By holding things in and not being honest with yourself or with other people, or by only presenting one side of you that you want people to know for fear or rejection or failure,” she explains, “you’re locking yourself in, too.”
Truth Be Told isn’t a rehabilitation program; rather, it’s a resource that helps women break harmful habits and patterns by better understanding their personal histories and future plans through creative projects.
“As you can imagine, opportunities for creativity are pretty limited in a prison environment,” says Holtzendorf. “Our co-founders really believe that creativity can be an outlet for pain and trauma.”
The non-profit offers in-facility courses twice a year, in the spring and fall. They began at Lockhart Correctional Facility, outside of Austin, and have expanded to the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle as well. Their main program, called “Talk To Me,” is a three-level course that focuses on teaching public speaking skills, cultivating writing and group dynamics and using creativity for self-expression.
“When the women initially get in the class, their first couple of weeks are spent designing a timeline of their lives,” explains Holtzendorf. “They look at their life in five year increments from birth to now and they identify major things — major trauma, decisions, experiences — that kind of shaped what was going to happen next.”
Participants use the insights uncovered during the semester to craft their own personal narratives, stories they will tell at a graduation ceremony showcasing the program’s latest crop of students. These events are beneficial both for the women behind bars, and those who hear their stories.
“Our guests see that, oftentimes, they themselves are just one decision away from being in the exact same spot,” says Holtzendorf. “It humanizes this population of incarcerated women that those guests may have never thought they had anything in common with. And the fact is that many of those women have never been acknowledged or listened to in a respectful way as long as they’ve lived.”
And the stories you hear are as varied as the women themselves; tales from childhood, memories from adolescence, the moments that shaped their adult lives.
“Coming in to those graduations and hearing their vulnerability and their honesty about things that they may have never revealed to another person, what we find is there’s no typical inmate,” Holtzendorf says. “Our graduates and the women in our programs are mothers, grandmothers, from every race, every level of education, you name it. When you think typical inmate, there really isn’t one.”
While participants may come from all walks of life, there are some things that unite them.
“I would say upwards of 90%, are in prison for drug and alcohol related offenses, and the other 10% are things like theft and forgery and crimes that may have been driven by a substance abuse or addiction of some kind,” Holtzendorf explains. “Most of those women who are in prison for drug or alcohol related offenses, at the time of their conviction they’re self medicating to protect themselves.”
Dealing with such sensitive curriculum requires real dedication; that’s why all prospective instructors must go through a full semester of classes as a student, completing assignments and working with the women in class as a peer, not a professor.
They’re also in the process of making their curriculum accessible to groups outside of Austin. Currently, Truth Be Told is developing an online training system to make their tested methods available to those creating similar programs.
They also offer more free-form creative workshops, bringing in guests and focusing on songwriting, painting, poetry and more.
And recently, Truth Be Told has added a new program, “Let’s Be Real,” focused on women who are nearing the end of their sentences. Experience showed that this demographic is actually more likely to get in trouble with wardens and other prisoners. “For a lot of women who have been in prison for a long time, it almost becomes a safe place,” explains Holtzendorf. “But even women who haven’t been inside for a long time, going back can present a lot of fear and anxiety. They may be going back to the same abusive relationship — they may be walking back into the door that they just walked out of.”
Truth Be Told wants to help participants identify and actualize the steps they ned to take to get out of the habits and behaviors that led them to prison to begin with. And the organization also equips them for life on the outside — a transition that can be quite jarring to longer-term inmates anticipating release.
“Can you imagine getting out and not knowing how to do e-mail, or what Facebook is?” Holtzendorf wonders. “Navigating this new world can be truly frightening.”
Truth Be Told is supported mostly by private donations (with about 15-20% of operating costs covered by small grants and donations from organizations), and they’re always looking for enthusiastic, understanding mentors to help facilitate curriculum.
Visit Truth Be Told online for more information on volunteer opportunities and upcoming events.