Cry Out: Women Behind Bars

Women inmates describe prison life and the impact of a support group that provides an emotional and creative outlet.

"I miss my kids," says Ida, a middle-aged mother of five. “That's what hurts most.” Ida is watering the daisies she planted at the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California.

Nearby, her best friend stoops to pull weeds. She's in her late 40s and has been behind bars for 12 years on drug charges. “This is what my life is about,” she says, “ripping out weeds. It keeps me alive.”

The two look up as a voice calls them into the recreation hall, known to inmates as “the barn.” As they enter, a 23-year-old woman, also in on drug charges, joins them. A sad-eyed 50-year-old enters the room next. “I've been waiting for this class all week,” she says loudly.

“I'm ready to scream,” agrees another inmate, smiling.

An older Chinese woman gently lowers herself to the carpeted floor. Like many women at the Dublin prison, she's serving time for a drug conviction. “Worked hard today,” she sighs, turning her attention to a slight, brown-haired woman. “I'm tired, I'm stressed. But I'm free now that I'm here with you, Miss Karina.”

Karina Epperlein is the only woman who has come to the prison by choice. She's here to spend the day teaching “soul work,” trying to help imprisoned women feel free.

Epperlein is a native of Germany, a theater artist and t'ai chi instructor. Her simple instruction in breathing, poetry, voice, and song unlocks capacities for artistic expression, strength, and self-esteem that these women didn't know they had and helps them cope emotionally and spiritually with life behind bars.

A circle of trust

Epperlein opens each class with the women facing each other in a circle, airing their grievances and frustrations. Next, she leads the women in stretching exercises, encouraging them to take deep breaths, sigh, and make whatever sound they feel like. Then she might ask them to express their energy with a good scream, encouraging them to feel the emotion of their voices vibrating in their chests.

“I want us to find a common ground, and sound is a good way to do that,” she says. “I really want them to express their pains, their angers, their joys, their cultural backgrounds, their ancestors.”

What emerges are haunting noises. “It felt like something was dying,” says one woman, after listening to another. “It was like she was letting some death out of her.” Often the sounding off awakens memories, which Epperlein asks the women to weave into stories, poems, or drawings.

Epperlein quickly became known as “the screaming lady.” The nickname enhanced her reputation, and eventually the women were bringing all kinds of emotions to the barn: the pain of loss and separation, anger at being locked up and alone.

The Dublin prison was originally built for 300 inmates, but at times it houses four times that many. Most women are packed three to a cell, sharing a space the size of a bathroom. The toilet and sink are next to the beds.

“I feel like the living dead,” Ida says. “Got a mama, can't touch her; babies, can't love them. The only thing I feel is freaked out inside. Useless to the ones I love. What good is it to live like this? Why should anyone have a life so useless?”

The fastest-growing prison population

Women make up between 6 and 8 percent of the state and federal prison populations nationwide, but the number of women entering prisons quadrupled between 1980 and 1994, a rate far exceeding the growth in the male prison population. In 1999 the number of women inmates in the US reached 146,000. A 1996 report by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency called the jump in the number of incarcerated women a “hidden crises,” a disaster obscured by the unprecedented growth of the total prison population.

Nearly 75 percent of women in prison today are there for nonviolent crimes, often petty drug or property offenses that would not likely have warranted prison time prior to the war on drugs of the 1980s. The three-strikes law had an unforeseen effect on the women's prison population. Many of the women at the Dublin prison took the rap to protect their sons or their lovers from a second or third strike.

A Council study found that the overwhelming majority of imprisoned women were caught in a spiral of poverty, racism, abuse, and neglect long before entering the prison system. Half of them were in trouble as girls. Nearly a third say the income they made the year prior to their arrest was not enough to support themselves and their children. A history of drug and alcohol dependence is common, as is a family history of arrest and imprisonment.

More than 90 percent of women in prison report that they suffered physical, sexual, or emotional abuse as children and/or as adults, and Epperlein says prison's “totalitarian” structure reinforces feelings of isolation and fear, exacerbating habits of self-destruction. Most difficult of all, many of these women are mothers.

Mothers behind bars

Almost 80 percent of imprisoned women are mothers. Most of them are single. Nearly 1.3 million minor children have mothers under supervision by justice system agencies.

“Pain is seeing your children grow, your children wanting and needing you, and you needing and wanting them,” says Ida, who is serving 20 years for her part in her boyfriend's hijacking of a plane in the early '70s. “Pain is having to say too often in a letter, I love you, and not being able to be there to comfort when they need you.”

“We don't get to feel our pain,” Dylcia says. “We don't get to express that we're mothers, that we're women, that we have lovers on the outside.” Dylcia is serving a 55-year sentence for seditious conspiracy for her involvement with the Puerto Rican nationalist movement.

Once inside, these women are more or less forgotten. Epperlein noticed that while women regularly visit their men in prison, often bringing their children along, the visiting rooms in women's prisons are usually empty – the men don't come. Children don't see their mothers because nobody is willing to bring them.

“I used to think that being alone was great,” says Florencia, 44-year-old mother of five. “But now I have too much time in solitude, too much time to ache. Can't see my babies laugh or sing. Can't be there when my children need me to be.”

Ida describes seeing her kids in the visiting room: “You're used to having a relationship with them, and then they put you behind bars, and they've got this big glass between you and, you know, they can't touch you.”

For a child, losing a mother to prison is traumatic. “When your mom is taken away,” Epperlein says, “you believe that she's bad, you're bad, nothing makes sense.”

“Breaking the walls with love”

“I am so sick of being here that all I have to do is think about it and cold chills run through my body and I get real teary-eyed,” says Evangelina, who is serving five years for trying to rob a bank unarmed.

In the beginning, Epperlein encouraged the women to put thoughts like these to paper. But she says women would often come to class sick from the food or the lack of heat in the prison. She quickly learned that, given the conditions, completing a thought, let alone a writing assignment, was a major accomplishment.

In spite of the challenges, Epperlein's group exceeded her expectations. They developed an awareness of the cost of shutting down their emotions, and of the liberation that comes with exploring them. They learned to release anger and frustration, to talk about fear, and to open up to each other.

“At times I get really, really angry,” explains Florencia, who is serving 14 years for drug possession. “But now I have the art and the singing. That helps a lot. When I get to where I'm crying and I want to scream and I want to break down the door and all that, I usually start singing and it gives me a lot of peace. There's the inner strength I didn't know I had and now I know I have it and I'll put it to good use.”

Epperlein's classes came to an end in 1996 following a statewide cutback meant to ensure that punishment take precedence over rehabilitation in prison. But she preserved her experiences in a documentary film, Voices from Inside. Through a combination of interviews, scenes from class work, and excerpts from a performance of an original theater piece created out of four inmate's own poetry, song, music, and dance, the film portrays the spiritual reawakening of women hardened by years of confinement. It reminds those on the outside that locked inside each prisoner is a woman still capable of joy, anger, love, and – especially – pain. “Many times I witnessed these women's despair of being forgotten,” Epperlein says. “They feel buried alive.”

Epperlein says people grow uncomfortable when she talks about incarcerated women longing for their children and the pain of their isolation. It's easier to talk about prisoners in sensationalist terms – gangs, drugs, and sex. There's no denying that things happen – guards smuggle in drugs, women trade sex for favors – but Epperlein says dwelling on such stories perpetuates the notion that imprisoned women are monsters. Instead of mobilizing demands for rehabilitation, such notions feed the public's fear of criminals.

With Voices from Inside, Epperlein hopes to end stereotypes of women in prison. Gang activity and violence inside women's prisons are actually rare. Men commit 86 percent of the violent crimes in the country.

Epperlein watched inmates transcend circumstances they'd been bound to for a lifetime: lack of education, poverty, abuse, sexism, and racism. “They're not victims,” she says. “They're just amazing if you give them a safe place where they can claim who they are and find their roots.”

The danger of showing emotions inside the walls of prison is replaced with safety inside the circle of women. The women help each other find the courage to break through their inhibitions, to find their voices and project the pain and heartache they have stuffed deep inside. When a prisoner's tears finally begin to flow, the other women in the circle gather close around, hug her, and sing to her.

“Here and now,” Evangelina says, “is a time for healing of the heart. No more self-pity, but the healing of our world. Can't you feel the pain around you? Can't you hear the cry for help? Cry out for mercy. Cry out for peace. Don't hold back and keep the pain within, cry. Cry out, and for God's sake, let the love begin.”

Editors' update: Since the premiere of "Voices from Inside" in 1996, Evangelina, Florencia, Ida, and Dylcia have been released from prison. Ida became an activist in the San Francisco Bay area, where she established Families with a Future, an organization that reunites families torn apart by prison. Families with a Future volunteers drive children to California prisons to visit their mothers. If the children live out of state, the organization flies them in and houses them during their stay. It also purchases envelopes and stamps for kids to write to their mothers, funds phone calls, enrolls kids in youth camps, and takes them to parks and places where they can spend time just being kids.

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