Breaking through bars: New play pulls from the writings of formerly incarcerated women

  • Trenda Loftin talks to the cast of "What Our Voices Carry" during a rehearsal, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019 at Shea Theater in Turners Falls. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Dianna Maguire listens during a rehearsal for "What Our Voices Carry", Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019 at Shea Theater in Turners Falls. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Trenda Loftin talks to the cast of “What Our Voices Carry” during a rehearsal at Shea Theater in Turners Falls. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Trenda Loftin talks to the cast of "What Our Voices Carry" during a rehearsal, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019 at Shea Theater in Turners Falls. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lee Vieu, left, and Lisa Peck rehearse for “What Our Voices Carry” at Shea Theater in Turners Falls. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Dianna Maguire, center, and other cast members rehearse for “What Our Voices Carry” at Shea Theater in Turners Falls. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kim Jesionowski, left, and Dianna Maguire listen during a rehearsal for "What Our Voices Carry", Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019 at Shea Theater in Turners Falls. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Sonia Mendez, front, rehearses for “What Our Voices Carry” at Shea Theater in Turners Falls. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Christina Ruest, left, and Dianna Maguire rehearse for “What Our Voices Carry” at Shea Theater in Turners Falls. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Amie Hyson listens during a rehearsal for "What Our Voices Carry", Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019 at Shea Theater in Turners Falls. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Amie Hyson rehearses for "What Our Voices Carry", Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019 at Shea Theater in Turners Falls. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Christina Ruest, front, and other cast members rehearse for “What Our Voices Carry” at Shea Theater in Turners Falls. Photo by Jerrey Roberts. Design by Nicole J. Chotain.

  • Sonia Mendez, from left, Dianna Maguire and Kim Jesionowski rehearse. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 11/1/2019 9:29:01 AM

Through prose and poetry, women of the group Voices From Inside find a way to express experiences that are often too difficult to talk about, whether it’s life inside of a prison or recovering from drug addiction.

For the past 20 years, Voices From Inside has held creative writing workshops for currently and formerly incarcerated women and women in recovery sites in Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties, as well as for girls and women who are at risk of incarceration.

Born out of the creative workshops is a play, “What Our Voices Carry,” showing at the Shea Theater on Saturday, November 2, which not only weaves the individual experiences of 12 women at local prisons and addiction recovery sites, but also how society could benefit from hearing from these members of society that often feel marginalized and voiceless.

Members of Voices From Inside collaborated with local playwright Trenda Loftin to develop a performance piece centered around the poetry that women have written over the past few years, according to Loftin. Many of the play’s scenes are based on the poetry that touches on the daily struggles of recovering from drug addiction or reintegrating into life post-incarceration.

“We are putting these words together to create scenes that enable us to show what women go through who are incarcerated, who have been incarcerated, who are in recovery, who have experienced domestic violence or sexual trafficking,” said Amie Hyson, a Greenfield resident who discovered Voices From Inside in March 2017 and is an actress in the play.

While in long-term recovery from prescription pain medications at the Recovery Project in Greenfield, Hyson formed bonds with other women in the VFI workshops where women could open up about painful experiences through their writing in an environment free from personal criticism.

“We treat each piece as if it is fiction,” said Hyson, now a facilitator of workshops. “That creates a safe space for the women and us as facilitators to explore things we wouldn’t necessarily explore because a prompt will bring things up that you don’t really expect.”

The workshops are confidential. It’s a “trauma-informed” space where women are encouraged to participate as much or as little as they would like and where poetry or writings shared “stay in the room,” unless permission is explicitly given to speak about pieces outside of the workshop, according to Hyson.

Hyson, who has not ever been incarcerated, not only stays connected with women in recovery, but she can help them find their voice as writers.

“To be able to connect with other women in recovery who have similar stories — and also very different (stories) than mine — and to be able to help them discover that they have a voice through this process that we do, it’s really one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever done in my life,” Hyson said. “I get to see the beauty of them discovering themselves and that helps me discover myself, which is the most beautiful gift anyone can give each other. It’s a mutually beautiful experience.”

A chance to share

“What Our Voices Carry” calls to attention patterns women experience not only in prison but in the period of time after incarceration. Just as importantly, Loftin said, the play emphasizes that previously incarcerated women are not defined by their prison sentences and that they, just like everyone else, deserve to be recognized as a whole person that has the opportunity for a bright future.

“Folks wrote about what led them up to incarceration or using and I wanted to make sure (the play) was not just anchored in those stories, but anchored in their resilience and commitment to living a full life,” Loftin said. “And that these folks are doing the work despite being in a system that is not necessarily designed to let them flourish.”

Even as Voices From Inside workshops have given women what Hyson calls a “sacred” place to share their writings, there are members that also go out to local colleges and libraries to share their work. Voices Carry, a subgroup of Voices From Inside, have gone into classrooms at Holyoke Community College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Chicopee Library, among other places, to share their work outside of their private groups.

Similarly, the play gives women a chance to share the often harrowing topics they’ve explored through their personal writings to a larger audience. Scenes depict events within a prison facility, as well as “stylized moments” of strip searches and interactions between inmates and correctional officers.

Dianna Maguire, a Springfield resident, started writing with Voices From Inside while incarcerated at the Hampden County Jail in the late ‘90s and is now a facilitator of workshops. She has a memoir, “Reflections,” that will be published in the coming weeks, and she said it encompasses much of the past two decades of her life: “my family, my kids, my addiction, my disease, the street life, drugs, all that stuff, going in and out of jail.”

As for the play, “I want (the audience) to be able to hear our voices,” Maguire said. “A lot of people in the community don’t (hear them). They label us as addicts and stuff, and as we go out and do our readings to different places, a lot of people have a better understanding because they hear what we are going through because of what we wrote about.”

A poignant scene for Maguire involves a mother going to addiction recovery meetings and the mother in the play has to explain to her child why she has to go there. Maguire said the scene hit home because she experienced a similar situation explaining to her children about getting clean from drug use.

“They would ask me, ‘Why are we here?’ And I would tell them that mom needed to get herself together,” Maguire said. Now eight years sober and 12 years out of jail, Maguire relishes the relationship she has with her children today.

“For them to come back in my life has been a big thing for me,” Maguire said. “They are a big part of my life, they are very supportive of me, they encourage me and I encourage them.”

Outside of preparing to perform theater, Maguire is currently going to night college and is looking to work in social services.

Untold stories

According to The Sentencing Project, between 1980 and 2017, the number of incarcerated women has increased from a total of 26,378 to 225,060 and there are 1.3 million women under the supervision of the criminal justice system. More than 60 percent of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18.

Members of Voices From Inside say that many incarcerated women’s stories often go untold beyond an arrest report and they want to highlight challenges women face once released from the penitentiary, including getting SNAP benefits, picking up clothing, and connecting to social services.

Housing, whether applying for a residential treatment program or section 8, can be a massive obstacle to confront, according to Jen Brzezinski, a reentry caseworker for the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office. Brzezinski said planning begins on day one inside the prison in order to help inmates find a place to stay, which due to high demand, can be difficult to find since there are limited beds at shelters and long wait lists for residential treatment programs.

For women with children, Brzezinski said she helps them navigate the court systems as they attempt to gain custody of them. She will also help connect women’s children to resources if needed.

The sheriff’s office holds a weekly meeting at the Community Action Center for both women out of prison and for women in prison who are allowed limited release into the community to find support from one another.

In Springfield, All-Inclusive Support Services (AISS) helps formerly incarcerated people transition back into their communities by assisting with securing housing, job development opportunities, food and clothing, according to AISS program manager Madeline Fernandez. AISS is affiliated with the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department.

AISS provides many different support groups, such as a women’s parenting group, a weekly support group for formerly incarcerated women, and a mentorship program, Fernandez said.

As for women with children, she said, “We work with the overall client as a whole, not just assisting clients themselves but with finding childcare, helping them get their children back as many are under DCF (Department of Children and Families) care. We work with them to try to help get individuals back on their feet, and get completely stable to help get their children back.”

‘An educational journey’

Through the writing workshops, performer Sonia Mendez of Williamsburg said she has not only been exposed to the arts and creative writing, but she has also been exposed to other women’s experiences of incarceration and recovery from drug addiction.

“It’s been an educational journey for me,” said Mendez, a nine-year member of the program.

A common theme in the poetry and interviews with women of Women From Inside is a feeling of living in a society that tends to view incarcerated women in a narrow scope.

For some, drug use led to incarceration and they are advocating for access to better treatment for their drug addictions instead of punitive measures such as prison sentences. For others, they have found their voice through writing, and they want to use their voice to share their experiences with audience members that perhaps have no first-hand experience with the justice system.

Oftentimes during workshops, Mendez said there are powerful moments of silence after someone shares their work because of profound feelings a written piece of work can bring up. She hopes the play can achieve a similar effect in shifting whatever preconceived notions people might of who is incarcerated.

“I feel like we lack any voice in the current system because of labels and the way people think about us and the way the general media portrays people who have been in our situation,” Mendez said. “This (play) gives us an opportunity to actually present our struggles and what we go through on a daily basis and that we want to do what is right and we want to recover from addiction and we don’t want to go to jail.”

“What Our Voices Carry” presents what life inside of a prison is like, memorable moments, and “some things that scar us,” according to Mendez. She is currently raising two children, has completed an Associates Degree from HCC, and is enrolled in Westfield State University to become a coach in an addiction recovery program.

“When you are feeling voiceless and beaten down by the system and are struggling with addiction, you sometimes act in ways out of character and you land yourself in prison,” Mendez said. “I have so many people helping me after I was released and I thank every single person who looked at my past and said, ‘That’s your past. You can move forward, you can change, there is a life out there for you. You are not just an inmate.’”

“What Our Voices Carry,” starts at 7 p.m. on Saturday, November 2, at the Shea Theater, 71 Avenue A, Turners Falls. For tickets, call (413) 648-7432 or visit www.voicesfrominside.org.

The play is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Mass Humanities, and the Mass Cultural Council.

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet. com.




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