Truth Be Told: My Day in Prison
By: Jenny Robertson
“Have you ever been to prison before?”
Tall, quiet but confident, Lisa asked me this as we sat talking before her graduation ceremony started. Dressed in navy blue prison scrubs, she smoothed the notebook in her lap and chuckled when I confirmed this was my first time in a prison. “Everyone stared at you as you walked in, right? It’s so bad — we all stare, but we can’t help it. Everyone wants to know who you are and why you’re here.”
On a stormy Friday about an hour outside Austin, Texas, I and a group of 20 other volunteers spent an afternoon in GEO Lockhart Unit with Lisa and roughly two dozen female inmates: listening to their stories, sharing our responses, even dancing with them (Well, OK, others danced. I stood frozen awkwardly in place, because it turns out public dancing is just as uncomfortable for me inside a prison as it is in any other venue).
The day was organized by Truth Be Told, an Austin nonprofit that provides tools of community building, communication skills, creativity and self-care for incarcerated — and formerly incarcerated — women. The idea is that, through writing, public speaking and movement, these women can begin the healing process by confronting what has led them to prison. They explore the dark places — who has hurt them, whom they have hurt — in an honest, judgment-free zone.
They were graduating after eight weeks of class, and we served as an audience of respectful listeners. The stories they shared weren’t necessarily surprising, but were nonetheless horrifying and sad — stories of sexual abuse, drug use, of continuing the cycle and inflicting trauma upon their own children. One woman robbed several pharmacies in hopes of being arrested and finding a safe place in jail. Another spoke of her father plying her with alcohol to the point of blacking out the night of her high school graduation; as she crossed to the dais to pick up her Truth Be Told certificate amid standing applause, it occurred to me how different and positive this graduation must feel to her.
Despite the dark subject matter, a palpable sense of joy permeated the room. Here we were, a group of participants and volunteers illustrating the gift of thoughtful, open listening. I forget sometimes how powerful that gift can be in a world of texts and tweets.
I was able to attend the ceremony thanks to a new AT&T initiative providing paid time off for the volunteer project of my choice. In my daily job, I talk so much about communications — machine-to-machine technology, petabytes of data over our network, call quality and download speeds. It’s easy to lose sight that at the center of all this activity, our business is still inherently about people making connections.
Laughing with Lisa about how, indeed, everyone stared as I walked the gray line painted through the prison halls, I made a connection I would never have imagined a few days earlier. It was short, but it mattered, and I’ll carry it with me.