Spreading the message

Leia Karimul Bashar

The documentary “What I Want My Words to Do to You” was shown at Mabee Library on Monday afternoon as part of the V-Day events at Washburn during February and March.

The documentary delved into the writings of 15 women inmates of New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. In the film, the inmates attended a writing workshop led by Eve Ensler, who wrote “The Vagina Monologues.”

Most of the women inmates who took part in the workshop had been convicted of murder and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. During their sessions with Ensler, the inmates read about the crimes they had committed, and in their own words offered glimpses into pasts that were often stricken by poverty and neglect. The women each examined their own complicity in their crimes, and several expressed regret that their own poor choices had affected so many people’s lives.

Cynthia Berry, a former prostitute serving 25-years-to-life, described the heart-wrenching guilt she felt at her trial for the murder of a 71-year-old man.

“I watched his daughter cry,” said Berry. “I learned that when he met me three months before this happened, he had just lost his wife. He wanted to be with somebody because he was mourning the loss of a woman he’d stayed with for 40 years and now was dead. I didn’t see all this at the time. All I saw was, this is this dirty old man, who wants to spend some money.”

After the documentary, guest speakers Suzanne MacDonald, Carol Hill and Norma Weisner spoke to audience members about their personal experiences as volunteers at the Topeka Correctional Facility.

MacDonald, who founded a running club at the prison along with Hill and Weisner, discussed how women cope with their lives behind bars. She said one of the women in the running group mentioned that the prison was releasing prisoners because of budget cuts. The inmate told MacDonald she hoped her own sentence would be shortened.

“And then she said, ‘But I don’t want to have hope because that’s a dangerous thing,’ and it just struck me,” said MacDonald. “It almost brought me to my knees, to not want to have hope because of how dangerous that is. She said she doesn’t want to have hope because it probably won’t happen. She has a number of years to serve, and she told me she has to think of this place as her life, and to not always be thinking in terms of the outside.”

Hill said that when she first arrived at the prison as a volunteer, she was unprepared for the women’s behavior compared to women on the outside.

“There was a certain lack of social nicety,” said Hill. “Some of the gals just didn’t know how to behave. But also, we didn’t know the niceties of what was OK to talk to them about. Was it all right to say to someone you just met, ‘What are you in for?’ So we didn’t have certain social skills, either.”

MacDonald drew a parallel between the inmates in the documentary and the inmates at the Topeka Correctional Facility.

“The women in the documentary want people to see that they are really good people,” said MacDonald. “[Our inmates} work so hard at raising money for our races and trying to partner with the community. They want to be seen as more than the sum of their offenses.”

MacDonald said the running program is not simply about getting the inmates into shape, rather the goal is to help women get in touch with their bodies. She said that even something as simple as a healthy diet had initially been a foreign concept to many of the inmates in the Topeka Correctional Facility.

“It’s almost like things have just happened to them their whole lives,” she said. “They’ve never been responsible for their own fitness or well-being. We bring in speakers to the running club meetings to talk about fitness, about nutrition, all those kinds of things that most of us have such awareness of.”

After the discussion, donations were accepted, and 90 percent of the proceeds went to the Battered Womens Task Force. The rest of the proceeds went to a project called “V-Day Women of the Congo.”

On Saturday, a show called “Girl’s Night Out!” was also held in honor of V-Day at 6 p.m. in the Bradbury Thompson Alumni Center. Guest performers were Lorie Jo Bridges and Ellie Smith. Donations were accepted, and V-Day merchandise was available for purchase.