*Editor’s note: Some last names have been withheld out of respect for privacy.
“When I come here, I feel like I’m not in prison anymore. I feel I’m in the outside world — until I go upstairs and realize where I am,” says Antioney*.
Antioney is an inmate at Mission Creek Correctional Facility for Women, a minimum-security prison in Belfair, Wash. But on this day she’s one of 12 women spread across Mission Creek Prison’s activity room, using American Sign Language (ASL) to gracefully interpret Nina Simone’s rendition of Feeling Good, emanating from an old boombox.
They are participants in an interdisciplinary arts program called Keeping the Faith (KTF). It’s the brainchild of Seattle choreographer Pat Graney, who has been taking KTF into women’s prisons for 25 years. The women and KTF teachers gather — twice weekly for three months — to work on dancing, writing, visual arts and to learn ASL, all the while carefully watched by guards.
If I had known this was what having friends was like, my whole life would have been completely different.
The idea behind Keeping the Faith is simple: The act of creative performance draws on the same skills necessary to succeed in life on the “outside.” Confidence and trust are at the heart of every KTF activity — attitudes that many of the women confined here struggle with. This group is working towards a goal of performing in front of the general inmate population and invited guests.
“You’re recreating, through performance, this sort of familial unit and you create an incredible support structure for women to succeed,” says Graney, project director. “You’re dealing with a population that has been subjected to extreme trauma and stress.”
“I’m learning to deal with my past and for me to do that, I need to do things to get over my past,” says Antioney.
Graney’s team includes a dance instructor, ASL interpreter, visual arts teacher and interns. There is dance and drawing and painting — including self-portraits. And there is writing — a lot of it, and sharing of that writing. Everyone, teacher and inmate alike, participate fully in every exercise.
“So when the women write on a difficult topic, we write on a difficult topic,” Graney explains. “When they share their difficult topic, we share ours. It creates an energetic space where people feel like they can literally go in there and find things out about themselves that they didn’t know they could do — find things about themselves that they thought they would never share with another person.”
Most of the inmates are serving sentences for drug crimes and many struggle with addiction. Stories of dysfunctional relationships, abuse and abandonment seep out in the sharing. But so do triumphs, successes and moments of quiet satisfaction.
“It’s so hard to build trust,” says Kelsey*, another inmate. Her vulnerability is palpable. “But luckily, in Keeping the Faith, there’s a really good group of women. I know that whatever happens here I am in a safe place. I can cry here — I can say what’s going on back in my unit and know that everything here is okay and these women aren’t going to judge me, they’re not going to go back upstairs and say anything to anyone.”
Graney adds, “At the end of the last KTF, one of the participants — who was stellar — looked at me and said, ‘If I had known this was what having friends was like, my whole life would have been completely different.’”
ASL may seem like an unusual component in the program, but it’s popular with the women. Instructor Rachel Brumer and Vicki Mosely, who is deaf, show them the emotion behind each word.
“It is a movement form,” says Graney. “You can see it visually, but it’s also an inner language for the group and they have this bond from doing it.”
It’s beautiful to watch, especially with the lyrics that are being sung… It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me...”
The culmination of KTF is a performance for the general inmate population — participants can invite two people from the outside, although the invitees must be identified and screened weeks in advance. Getting into a prison as a guest is difficult.
On performance night the prison gym is decorated with a colorful backdrop of beautiful art made by participants. The space vibrates with nerves and excitement. Between performances, the women take turns at the microphone, reciting their writing, bearing their souls. The inmate-audience hoots with understanding. As the cast and teachers answer questions from the stage, the pride that shines from the participants fills the room. In a correctional facility — a place where the daily setting can feel like a perpetual reminder of past mistakes — this is an accomplishment, a triumph. It’s emotional.
All of the teachers express their amazement at what comes out of the performance.
“Instead of the sum of their criminal parts, women rise to the occasion — as a performer, women who have a voice, who need to be recognized. And they do it every single time. It is just amazing to me,” says Graney.
“Coming out the other side, I’ve grown so much, and I’m not the same person,” one inmate participant says to the audience at the performance. “I’m really grateful for this program. It’s changing my life.”
Stephen is a 25-year veteran of KCTS, producing a wide range of cultural and public affairs series, documentaries and arts programming. His credits include PIE, Something in the Water (PBS feature on Seattle’s indie music scene), the gala opening of Benaroya Hall, and documentaries on Asahel and Edward Curtis, Dan Sullivan and Doris Chase. Seattle-born, Hegg is a graduate of Whitworth University and is also an accomplished violinist and avid cyclist.More stories by Stephen Hegg