Sunday, February 06, 2005

Writing on the wall

Human Relations Month in Orange County got a powerful kick-off this afternoon at the Century Center in Carrboro with a program on "Exploring the Prison Industrial Complex through Literature and the Spoken Word."

Dr. Barbara Chapman, chair of the Orange County Human Relations commisison, and Moses Carey, chair of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, set the stage for three members of the North Carolina Women's Prison Repertory Company to give us a taste of one of their performances. Afterward, Dr. Earl Smith of Wake Forest University spoke in depressing detail on the state of prisons and the criminal justice system in the United States.

Prison workshop
Kimberly Stone (left), one of today's performers

Kim Stone has served 17 years of a life sentence for first-degree murder. Regina Walters (center), at 18, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for second-degree murder, but she's on an accelerated release program now with only 434 days, she told us, to go. (She has earned two degrees from Shaw in the past few years.) I'm less clear about the story of Caneice Brown (left), other than that she has been in prison long enough that her two children have grown up without her.

For these women, writing and performance is a lifeline. Stone comes a family of singers and in prison has found her voice as a composer. "I feel like music helps my spirit," she said. "You never know what people have been through. We can deal with things other people don't have time to." The writing workshops, led by Judith Reitman, force them to dig deep, to say not just that they are angry or sad, but to explore what it looks like, what it feels like to have come through to where they are. It's healing for them, they say, and humbling to find willing listeners.

Prison itself is not rehabilitative, each of them stressed: far from it. Rehabilitation is "a process from within."

Are you afraid of the mistakes that I've made? / Do you think there's no chance I could change?

I just want to find my way out of darkness . . . I just want to shine.

We are women, and behind razor wire and steel bars, we write.

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