Austin nonprofit helps female inmates find courage to tell their stories

An Austin nonprofit is helping female inmates at Texas state prisons find the courage to tell their stories.

Every week, facilitators with Truth Be Told drive up to two hours each way to bring a group of inmates together for a couple of hours, giving them a sense of reprieve from the concrete walls that bind them. 

The volunteers aren’t receiving gas money or a stipend – or any wages from their work. Instead, they’re getting strip-searched or patted down.

"I’ve had facilitators come into class in tears because the guards that checked them in were so abusive to them verbally — and yet they still kept coming back," Lainey Lefeve, a Truth Be Told graduate said. "It was that loyalty to us that really softened my heart because my heart was really hard for a long time."

These classes are held at the Dr. Lane Murray Unit in Gatesville, the Coleman Unit in Lockhart and Travis County Correctional Facility in Del Valle.

"You don’t survive in prison by being soft," Lefeve said.

As the volunteers’ bags, filled with loose-leaf paper and pens, are searched, they hear comments from the guards.

"I’ve heard a couple of them say, ‘I don’t know why you try. They’re not going to change," director of operations and programs Rutanya Pearson-Mitchner said.

An announcement is made over the PA system and the women start to file into the room.  

First, there's a check-in. Everyone describes how they’re feeling in a word or two – and the class recites their name and their feeling back. Then, the instructors play a song. For the length of the song — inmates complete a "dump writing exercise" on loose paper that gets torn up and thrown away.

"Trust is not readily available in prison; you learn really quickly not to trust anyone," Lefeve said.

The purpose of the ‘Talk to Me’ program is to use expressive writing as an outlet and to teach public speaking skills. It’s a therapeutic process that teaches them more about themselves. While they individually uncover more about themselves, something even greater happens when the group comes together.

"Unfortunately [the women] had to go to prison in order to get an idea of what a safe community was," Pearson-Mitchner said.

For many of these women — their stories start with a sense of feeling unsafe — many of them suffered abuse and other traumas growing up.  

"There was stuff I shared in that room I had never told anyone," Leslie Whiteside, another Truth Be Told graduate, said.

The women are asked to write down their stories – a story of who they are outside their crime. They are never asked to reveal what they did to bring them to incarceration. It’s up to the women to decide if sharing those details is right for them.

It’s an eight-week long course. At the end of the program, one woman from the group will share her story in front of a group of respectful witnesses. And the support continues after graduation.

For Pearson-Mitchner, she’ll answer the phone for a graduate at any hour of the day.

"It’s like the family you never knew you needed," Whiteside said. "There’s a woman sitting in the back of a cop car right now and she doesn’t know that we’re coming for her," Whiteside said.

Michele Deitch is the director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas at Austin Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Deitch not only studies the issues plaguing the Texas prison system, but receives writing from inmates about their experiences.

"They have to put toilet water on the floor, to wet the floor to make it even vaguely tolerable, they talk about the feeling of their skin just burning up, they feel like they’re being cooked alive," Deitch said.

A lack of staff leads to less recreation and programs, along with unsafe conditions.

More than two-thirds of Texas’ 100 prisons do not have air conditioning. There was a proposal from the Texas House of Representatives to invest about a half a billion dollars into air conditioning prisons in May — the Senate shut that down.

Johnathan Hudson is a system-impacted Texan.

"Everybody knows when the heat comes, there’s going to be a lot of fights," Hudson said. "It’s dreadful. It’s not the heat that you’re worried about, when you’re around 100 men in a room – from the testosterone to the anger. The heat keeps you from sleeping. The sweat will drip down your stomach and you’ll hit it like it’s a bug or something."

There have been at least 16 homicides in Texas prisons so far this year. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice says the homicides are connected to trafficked drugs and that a statewide lockdown was issued earlier in September to complete comprehensive searches of the 129,000 inmates in Texas.

During a lockdown — movement is limited. Inmates can sometimes feel more isolated and lose their ability to participate in recreational activities. The meals change from hot options to things like peanut butter and jelly and bologna. The opportunity to shower is limited.

Deitch says people deteriorate mentally when they’re locked in their cell. Issues with understaffing regardless of the lockdown also adds more opportunities for someone to harm themselves or each other.

For people dealing with cases of mental illness while behind bars — the situation is dire. Robert Lilly’s brother Conrad is serving a 30-year sentence in Texas for aggravated robbery.

"We always talk about mental health after someone is dead," Lilly said.

In order for him to properly qualify for release he has to demonstrate that he is not a threat to the public. The issue for Lilly’s family is that he is not being given the care to help his situation — and his brother says he is stuck in a vicious cycle. If Conrad acts out — he is punished by losing his phone call privileges — one of the few things that can bring him support.

"Sending him to a place that dehumanizes him subjects him to constant fear — you’re not helping him — you’re not helping society — you’re not rectifying the harm that was caused by his behavior and it’s perpetuating the harm in our community," Lilly said.

Lilly would like to see something called a "second look" for people who are dealing with mental health challenges so that people like his brother are not held to the same standards as someone without these challenges.

In order for people to be successful outside the prison walls — they need access to their rehabilitative programs and educational opportunities, like Truth Be Told. The ultimate goal is to keep women out of the prison system for a three-year benchmark. According to Truth Be Told, 50% of people who are released from U.S. prisons are incarcerated again within three years.

Meanwhile, The Insider Prize announced the winners of a literary award at Huston-Tillotson University on Thursday. The award recognizes exceptional writing — solely from incarcerated people in Texas penitentiaries.

The contest is organized by American Short Fiction — an Austin-based literary magazine. Each writer gets a written response assuring them that someone is listening to their unique story.

"I think it’s the honesty of a voice, the commitment to a singular vision is really what stands out and when you get a story like that, and we get so many of them through our submissions you can just really sense the human being on the other side of that story," Adam Soto, the Director of Insider Prize said.

The topics of the stories vary but are all works of fiction or memoir writing.

"It showed me that no matter where we are often and how we look at people, and sometimes we find ourselves judging, some of them – they can outpace us," assistant English professor Tommy Mouton said.

Mouton was a professor for a group of inmates in California, teaching them for the opportunity to earn college credit. Many of them were high school dropouts, some of them middle school drop outs.

"They’re just as grounded as we are but just unfortunately find themselves in unfavorable situations," Mouton said.

Insider Prize is now running submissions for this upcoming year’s prize.