Estrella Jail inmates find a voice to tell their stories through Gammage's Journey Home program

A young woman, probably in her late twenties or early thirties, takes a few nervous steps toward the audience. Tattoos cover her arms and neck, and "SHERIFF'S INMATE- UNSENTENCED" is printed in bold red letters across her black-and-white striped uniform. She clears her throat, glances around the room and begins to sing.

"I'm not the average girl from the video / And I ain't tan like a supermodel / But I've learned to love myself unconditionally / Because I am a queen," she sings.

Her voice starts quietly, then builds as the women around her smile in support. When she finishes the song, 12 other inmates join her in a circle and take turns reciting lines in a group poem about self-worth and community.

This isn't a normal event at Estrella Jail, a Maricopa County facility that houses approximately 1,000 inmates, predominantly female. On Saturday afternoon, the 13 inmates gathered to present their capstone performance as a part of Journey Home, an arts residency program facilitated through ASU Gammage.

Throughout the hour-long presentation, women stepped forward to talk about their families, backgrounds, mistakes and redemption. One woman shared how her father was a pimp and her mother was his prostitute. It seemed natural for her to follow in her parents' footsteps. She did, and lived a life of luxury in hotels with her own group of prostitutes, but it wasn't until she came to jail that she found her own self value.

Another woman opened up about her problem with drugs, and the emotional turmoil she went through when she lost her son to the same addiction.

Each story was filled with pain, loss and hitting rock bottom when facing the consequences. But the narratives all ended with hope, because the women said they are finally getting the help they need to move forward.

The Journey Home program is designed to "enable incarcerated women to discover a personal sense of constructive identity through performance, visual arts, creative writing and storytelling," according to the Gammage website.

The program was officially founded 16 years ago after Gammage administrators spent several years working with Estrella Jail. They wanted to design a yearly program where inmates could spend a month in weekly 4-hour sessions with teachers to explore their emotional journey and design art based on their experiences.

Teniqua Broughton, a director and choreographer who works with Journey Home, said several hundred inmates applied for this year's program. She also said it's popular because it gives participants a chance to get out of the dorms — plus, having the program on their record often helps their case with the judge. 

She said 30 women were selected to participate, and 13 of them stayed with the program to its conclusion. 

This year's program culminated in a final performance given to jail administration and community members. Inmates used song, poetry, dance and other movement to demonstrate what they have learned. They also each designed a paper mache mask and illustrated a canvas with a personal statement, which they shared and explained at the end of the performance.


Michael Reed, senior director of programs and organizational initiatives at ASU Gammage, attended the performance on Saturday. He said watching the inmates perform was gratifying because it proved that the program is making a difference.

"Every year when I see it, it's a reminder to me of how important it is to keep it going," Reed said. "How art can actually transform people's lives. It's easy to lose sight of that when you're working in it every day, in the administrative side."

The 2016 Journey Home performance was centered around the theme of "Life As I See It." Inmates were invited to share their own perspectives and beliefs on how they got to this point in their lives and how they could improve their mindset.

After they finished this year's performance, the inmates each expressed what the program meant for them.

A Journey Home member named Violet said she found the experience empowering.

"My whole incarceration here has been a blessing in disguise," Violet said. "Being in the class, I would say I found out who I really was. Everything I thought I was was built on a false foundation, and when I came here it all crashed down. Being in this class made me realize who I really am, and it gave me a lot of empowerment to find my inner goddess."

Sarah, another member of the program, called the experience "life-changing." She said it helped her get to know herself, and it also introduced her to the environment and community that higher education can provide. She'll be released from jail soon, and she said she plans to check out ASU.

"I want to attend ASU now, to better my life and see what the school has to offer," she said. "I don't know what degree, but this opened up a whole new possibility for me. Without this class, I don't think I would be so curious to know."

A participant named Elisha said she hopes the audience learned a lot from hearing their stories.

"I hope they took away a big lesson in stereotypes," she said. "When people see us, when they hear 'felonies,' when they see the stripes, when they hear 'inmates,' it's a very negative stereotype. We're people, just like everybody else. The difference between us and everyone else is that we got caught. We're not bad people, we just made bad choices. For them to see that, I think it would make our world a better place."

Related links:

Inmates find self-discovery through art

'Journey Home' program helps female inmates rehabilitate through artistic expression

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