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A program in Oklahoma uses art to re-integrate women recently released from prison

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In Tulsa, Okla., women who will soon be released from prison are getting help from a program they're trying to ease their transition. It uses art and poetry as a way to increase confidence. Here's Elizabeth Caldwell with member station KWGS.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Actually, it was my daughter.

ELIZABETH CALDWELL, BYLINE: In an art gallery in downtown Tulsa, about 20 women are clasping hands as they stand in a circle.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I have a voice.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: I have a voice.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I have hope.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: I have hope.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I have the power to change.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: I have the power to change.

CALDWELL: Most of the women are inmates at nearby Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, which they will leave for good soon. Today, they're on a field trip to see art made by other prisoners. Being in a gallery is meant to communicate to these women that they can succeed, says Ellen Stackable. She's with the nonprofit, Poetic Justice, that organized the trip.

ELLEN STACKABLE: It's so elevated here that they're in a space that isn't just sort of a throwaway or a subpar space. This is, like, a classy gallery. And they came and got to see it.

CALDWELL: Poetic Justice helps women prisoners in Oklahoma and California write, paint and draw with a goal of fostering self-esteem. Melonie Totty, who worked for Poetic Justice right after being released from prison 15 months ago, says she was initially worried she'd be judged.

MELONIE TOTTY: I talk stupid. Like, I talk like an inmate, and I did not feel any judgment in Poetic Justice. And we talked about deep issues and, like, things.

CALDWELL: After the women tour the gallery, they gather to listen to a panel about how to live after incarceration. Totty tells them it's been difficult confronting so much lost time.

TOTTY: I feel like I'm behind because, you know, I was in prison for 17 years, and I don't have a career. I don't have a house. I don't have all this stuff. So I'm like, I got to save all my money because I'm old and I don't even have anything (laughter). So I save all my money, except for I buy shoes, and then I just save it.

CALDWELL: Then the women write letters to themselves that are meant to be read on the day they'll be released. Volunteer Hanna Al-Jibouri gives the prisoners instructions for their letters. They need to be free of negative judgment.

HANNA AL-JIBOURI: A lot of times when we talk to ourselves, you know, there's always, like, a little shameful voice sometimes in the back of our head that kind of can say harsh things to ourselves and kind of present us with some of that shame. I don't want that voice to be the voice that writes this letter.

CALDWELL: After 10 minutes, they have the option to share their letters. Amy Smith reads hers.

AMY SMITH: From this day on, we will not be defined by our failures, but only by our ability to overcome. We will not go back to the comfort of addiction. Life is what we make of it. The sky's the limit.

CALDWELL: After the women share their letters, it's time to get on the bus and go back to prison. Al-Jibouri urges them to remember what was good here today.

AL-JIBOURI: You all are incredible. You all are amazing. And I know I don't know any of you, like, super personally, but just from the way you carry yourselves and the way that you were in this space with us today, I can tell that. And from the words that we got to hear, they definitely speak volumes.

CALDWELL: It's a sliver of encouragement in a state that has one of the highest rates of women in prison in the U.S.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Caldwell in Tulsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elizabeth Caldwell
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