In early March, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) suspended all visitation and programming inside prisons due to COVID-19. The day before the state department made its announcement, we at Truth Be Told made the difficult decision to stop sending our volunteer facilitators inside. There is no social distancing in prison. Many of the women we serve are immunosuppressed and/or elderly; we felt the potential risk of introducing contagion far outweighed the reward of continuing in-person classes. Unfortunately, we are now seeing the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases rising inside our state’s jails and prisons.
In the wake of the pandemic, we have repurposed our in-person Talk to Me program to create a weekly mail correspondence curriculum called “Write to Me” to continue serving women at three state prisons in Central Texas. These mailings contain readings, activities and exercises, as well as messages of hope and encouragement from our volunteer facilitators. We intermittently include metered, addressed envelopes so program participants, regardless of their financial situation, have opportunities to submit their completed assignments and personal reflections to their facilitators, who then respond to each piece of participant mail.
Walking Our Talk
In all of our programs, we espouse the 4 Cs – Communication, Community Building, Creativity, and Caring for Self. As we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, staff members and volunteer facilitators are applying all 4 Cs to continue fulfilling our mission. We have had to think creatively in designing new ways to communicate and stay in community with the women we serve. And, throughout it all, we are holding each other accountable to practice self-care as we go about our critical work.
It is our aim every week to send a resounding message to the incarcerated women in our programs that they remain our No. 1 priority despite the barriers presented.
In February 2020, we hired two additional staff members, doubling the size of our team. Says Executive Director Katie Ford: “It is specifically because of our investment in womanpower that we have been able to pivot swiftly and thoughtfully in response to this pandemic. My priority is to protect this investment. We can’t do this life-changing work without a skillful, dedicated team in place. I’m incredibly proud of the innovation and creativity coming out of our team amidst an extremely challenging time.”
Incarcerated Women Respond
While we realize a mail correspondence program cannot replace the experience of doing this life-changing work in person, our program participants have embraced the new way of participating in safe, supportive community. Wrote one woman: “Continuing our classes via mail has been one of the most positive things going on in my world! I am grateful inside and out.” Another reflected on how Truth Be Told has given her tools that are life-changing. “I cannot express to you guys enough how much this class means to me,” she wrote in a letter to her facilitators. “I just sit and think [about what would be different] if I would have had this type of group years ago when things were happening in my life that I just did not know how to deal with.”
The COVID-19 pandemic also has inspired some changes and new editions in our Beyond Bars Program for formerly incarcerated graduates. At the request of our graduates, we have upgraded our weekly Keep On Talking conference calls to Zoom meetings, which offers the option to connect by telephone or video conference. These video calls offer regular opportunities for graduates to engage in safe, supportive community. Moreover, this summer, we are hosting two virtual retreats for our graduates beyond bars.
These curated virtual gatherings will offer opportunities to connect as a community, meet new members and engage in healing workshops around Truth Be Told’s 4 Cs and discuss how we can utilize them right now.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
You can help Truth Be Told continue to provide safe community and healing programs for justice-involved women by creating financial stability and becoming a sustaining monthly donor at any level. Also, we are wanting to expand our Board of Directors and seeking expertise in the areas of finance, fundraising, grant writing and lived experience of incarceration. We appreciate being in community with you! Please keep in touch with us by following Truth Be Told on Facebook and/or by joining our mail list.