John Tolley, January 19, 2018
Likely your ideas about daily life inside of a prison's walls have been drawn largely from a media stew: news reports that focus overwhelmingly on negative aspects and TV dramas like Oz and Orange is the New Black that distort reality in service of compelling storylines.
The common public perception of hardened ne'er-do-wells whiling away their sentences against a violent and broken backdrop is one that University of Iowa professor Rachel Marie-Crane Williams is working to change.
Williams, who is the Department Executive Officer for Gender, Women's and Sexuality Studies at Iowa, leads a group of students, who visit the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women multiple times over the course of a semester to administer a course called Healthy Relationships for the women incarcerated there.
"People have really stereotypical ideas about what prison is like," says Williams. "But when they come here, they hear laughter, they see women reading books, they see women walking dogs and trying to make their life better, going to school, eating lunch, mowing the grass, doing the things we all do every single day."
Armed with the knowledge that the large majority of those incarcerated will one day be free, Williams and the students are trying to equip the women for life on the outside; a life they hope will point them away from the prison walls for good.
Williams notes that many of the women in the class - who attend on a voluntary basis - are victims themselves of trauma, usually deeply rooted. When trauma takes hold, and is left undealt with, it can pave the way for abusive, imbalanced relationships and anti-social behavior later in life.
"We talk about power and control," says Williams. "We talk about violence, we talk about communication, we talk about domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as ways to look for and create relationships that are healthy, that are positive and where power is shared."
The students who help run the class are predominately Women's and Sexuality Studies or Social Work majors. During the sessions they employ a variety of methods to get the usually-guarded women to open up about their lives and various struggles. From role-playing to creative writing to visual arts, the activities are meant to break down barriers. In between the class sessions, the women are encouraged to keep journals and are provided prompts that range from deeply probing and philosophical to silly and fun.
For women like Dallas Fogle, who says she used to stay in her unit or her room avoiding others, the class has become a safe haven where she is learning to give and receive the trust that used to be so alien to her.
"The thing I've gotten out of the class the most is to understand that, in order to have a healthy relationship," says Fogle, "you have to be able to trust a person and confide in them and not hide anything from them. I've found that when I'm open with people, they're open with me. Relationships are a two-way street."