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HEAR HER VOICE: Nikki Pierce reflects on life after incarceration

Nikki with her son, Colton.

Editor’s note: Nikki Pierce is a 2014 graduate and 2015 mentor of Truth Be Told’s Talk to Me program at Bryan Federal Prison Camp, where she was released on Nov. 1, 2016. The following is her Truth being told.

I traveled to Bryan, Texas, recently with my son to tour Blinn College where he might start the next chapter of his life. Blinn offers a two-year program. I also was in Bryan for a two-year “program” of sorts when I served out a sentence at Bryan Federal Prison Camp, just a couple miles from the college campus.

Driving to Bryan, I had moments of fluttery tummy. It was after dark by the time my son and I arrived, and we decided to take an impromptu drive past the prison.

This was how I saw it the first time too: in the dark. My husband and I, with our children, drove down to Bryan on Oct. 30, 2014. We spent a final night together at a local hotel that offered a free breakfast of Texas-shaped waffles. Funny the details that stick out in my mind.

Seeing the prison again, it looked smaller than I remembered. How sad is that? My whole world for two years was so tiny.

The next morning, I woke up with a different feeling in my belly. The flutters changed from apprehension and fear to a feeling of appreciation — like seeing a hospital emergency room where the staff saved your life. That is how I think of Bryan FPC. My healing journey started 2.5 years before I began my prison sentence, but the final touches happened inside those walls. I made friends from all different walks of life. I raised a service dog or four. And I worked on me.

A flashback

Part of the intake process when I first arrived at the prison was a visit with a staff psychologist. What the heck am I supposed to disclose or hide? What will they do to me if I say something truly horrible or scary? I’m the type of person who wears my feelings on my sleeve. But I was there to heal, so I opened up in the allotted 30 minutes.

After my first “family week” when my husband and kids came to visit, I had my first freak-out moment. I felt truly out of control. I reached out to the psychology department, and the prison set up weekly appointments for me with a university intern.

Months later, I signed up for Talk to Me, a program offered by an Austin-based nonprofit called Truth Be Told. The course offers safe community and creative tools to help women tell the story of what they believe put them on a path to prison. I didn’t really know what to expect, but it seemed like something I would enjoy. I like to talk, and I thought putting my story into words would be cool for everyone else to hear. I was thinking about the listener’s experience mostly. I had not yet considered the deep introspection this program would require of me.

Lori Shuman was the volunteer facilitator. She looked like me; she looked like all of us. She saw us for who we were and not just an inmate number. She didn’t seem afraid of anyone, and she sure didn’t look down at us or show disdain. It was like enjoying time with a new friend.

The course was a few months long, and, in addition to providing safe space for sharing our stories, Talk to Me imparted simple ideas that aren’t so simple to keep in our toolboxes. Learning the 4 Cs of Community building, Communication, Creativity and Caring for self, it was the first time I thought to put those things into action on a regular basis — and not feel guilty about it. For instance, I had always felt it was selfish to take time to work on myself. Even taking a nap or having a real haircut seemed selfish! It was empowering to realize how the 4Cs are as necessary as brushing your teeth or regular checkups with the doctor.

Back to current day

Returning to Bryan felt a bit like a birthday or New Year’s Eve — a time to reflect. What promises did I make to myself in prison that I have broken? How can I change that? It made me re-evaluate my freedom and what I’ve accomplished since I left. There’s been enough time away to heal a bit and kick off the shame.

For a long time after returning from prison, I was afraid to see people I knew. I felt I had prison all over me, and people would see that before seeing me. What would people say or think? And, if I ever started a conversation about my incarceration with someone, about half of the people would ask if it was like what they saw on TV — and lose interest in what I had to say when they found out it wasn’t.

If you met me in the grocery store or sat next to me on an airplane, you wouldn’t know I lived for two years in a federal prison.

Before learning to tell my story in Truth Be Told’s Talk to Me program, I didn’t always use my voice or stand up for myself. I didn’t know I could, and I was afraid. I was afraid to be less than perfect and all I did was make a bigger mess for faking my perfection.

Fake it until you make it? That is the worst thing to do! I say make it until you make it. Fall short, make an honest mistake and just ask for help before it is too late.

Also, find your tribe. The tribe that helped me heal I found in a Truth Be Told classroom inside a women’s federal prison.

***

Women are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. prison population, skyrocketing 834 percent since 1978. There is a growing body of research calling for gender-responsive programs to address the unique risk factors that lead women to prison — namely, high rates of interpersonal violence, substance abuse, and histories of childhood physical and sexual abuse.

Since 2000, Truth Be Told, an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit organization, has been addressing this documented service gap by offering programs designed by women for women. Through programs that offer healing through storytelling, expressive arts, life skills and self-care tools, Truth Be Told empowers women to break free from the imprisoning narrative of past trauma and abuse.

Truth Be Told is participating in Amplify Austin, an online giving campaign in which all donations made to Austin nonprofits through the Amplify platform are “amplified” with stretch funds.

Visit Truth Be Told’s Amplify campaign page RIGHT NOW to make a donation and maximize your impact. All gifts received between Jan. 15 and March 1 at 6 pm will benefit from stretch funds.

Be a part of the change.
Let’s reimagine justice for women.

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