Inmates find self-discovery through art

In the largest room of the Phoenix Estrella Jail, about 20 plastic chairs waited to be filled for an upcoming performance.

The walls were covered with black and white drawings waiting to be painted, bookmarks with messages and colorful aprons hung from pushpins waiting to be distributed. Paint bowls, brushes and maracas lined the walls.

The Phoenix Estrella Jail is a county jail for unsentenced women and it is home to the annual Journey Home program. The program is designed to help incarcerated women discover their true identity through performance while instilling confidence and providing tools they need to avoid returning to jail.

Ten years ago, ASU Gammage executive director Colleen Jennings-Roggensack and Gammage director of programming and cultural participation Michael Reed had the vision for Journey Home; Gammage currently funds the program.

“I think the program is a very powerful message about what artists and artistry can accomplish,” Reed said. “It moves you. It’s very powerful and needed.”

Journey Home was inspired by a similar program called Keeping the Faith, which was started in Seattle by dance artist Pat Graney.

Reed said a program like Journey Home can show how effective artistic mediums can be in helping people express themselves and realize a better future.

Journey Home has many benefits, Reed said, but the most important benefit is helping women not repeating the same mistakes that led to jail. The program teaches women to appreciate who they are and how to move on to a happier lifestyle.

Workshops are held at the Phoenix Estrella Jail every Saturday over the course of six weeks in the spring. The women give up visiting time with their families to participate.

The participants learn how to express themselves through performance, visual arts, creative writing and storytelling.

The jail held a public performance Saturday night for community members, program coordinators and jail administration. The women performed their own choreography, painted unfinished drawings on the wall and told their stories through poems and dance.

Journey Home Executive Director Fatimah Halim conducts the program with help from director and choreographer Teniqua Broughton and mental health specialist Imani Muhammad.

“My best memories of the program is always seeing the tears flow from the women’s eyes during the performance,” Broughton said. “I perceive the tears as the women internalizing necessary change and accepting responsibility for their actions publicly in front of the community.”

Faith T., a 42-year-old inmate, said she appreciated the work of Broughton, Halim and Muhammad. Journey Home requested that the media not publish the last names of inmates.

“This program was absolutely amazing,” Faith said as tears came to her eyes. “Through these three women I had the most beautiful ‘a-ha’ moment … It’s hard for me to not cry or tear up when I talk about it because that ‘a-ha’ moment was deep inside. I’m going to take that with me until the day I die I’m sure.”

Faith said the workshops were all about self-discovery, discussing where the women were and where they are going, which ultimately gives her hope.

Ashley L., who’s hair was covered in red glitter and who had stars painted on her face, said she chose this hair and make-up design because she is a rockstar.

She said at the workshops the women would sit down and talk about how they felt. Assignments included writing poems about who they were and who they would become. They also practiced dance routines, painted aprons and made books marks, which were passed out to the audience.

Before the performance, food and refreshments including pizza, iced tea and cupcakes were provided to the women.

Seeing iced tea brought tears to Ashley’s eyes.  She said she had not had any in nine months and it is her favorite drink.

Ashley said she will miss the sisterhood that developed among the women throughout the Journey Home program.

“We had to let down our guard and be ourselves and make that bond to make it work,” she said.

The women were hand selected for this program based on charges and criteria that included security issues and behavior.

Officer David Cook, who is a program coordinator for county jails, helped select women for the program and was in charge of escorting them from their jail cells to the class.

He dedicated his Saturdays, usually his day off, to be with the women at their workshops.

“Everyone given the right opportunity and the right guidance can make changes in their life,” Cook said. “This is the biggest group yet and it was very successful.”

Julie A., 32, teared up as she read her poems during and after the performance. She has been at Estrella for seven months.

“I’ve seen the error of my ways and trust that I have changed in a unique and beautiful way, my dreams are to put my past behind me and use it to help battered women,” reads a part of one of Julie’s poems.

Julie did each woman’s hair and makeup for the performance. She said she hopes to one day open up her own salon.

Julie has eight children and said she hopes her life can be a lesson to them. She writes to them all the time but doesn’t let them visit her at the jail. She said she wouldn’t know how to explain to her children that she can’t hold them.

“I just want to hug and kiss them, tell them I love them and that I’m sorry for being away from them and that Mommy’s home now,” said Julie.

Julie said if God hadn’t put her in jail, she wouldn’t have realized her talent or dreams.

“If he wouldn’t have put me here they would be at my graveside visiting me instead. I see that I have a lot of talent in here and I’m going to use it when I get out of here,” Julie said.

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