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The power to create light: Healing in Dublin Federal Women’s Prison

Window at Alcatraz by Jacqueline Poggi
Window at Alcatraz Photo: Jacqueline Poggi / Jacqueline Poggi

Jacqueline Duhart, a Unitarian minister, runs a women’s group at Dublin Federal Women’s Prison south of Oakland for AFSC. The original leaders adapted Pace e Bene’s Traveling with the Turtle, a curriculum for women learning nonviolence. As Jacqueline has listened to the women and responded to their needs, she has changed and adapted the work the women do together.  The thread she weaves throughout is that of the power and voice within, working with the women to claim that power to transform their lives and the lives of others.

The group meets for eight weeks, two hours each time. Jacqueline references the turtle as a symbol of women’s strength and spirituality. The turtle is a creature that carries its home on its back, pulls its head in and takes it out, lays its eggs in the sand. The turtle has a different sense of time. The 13 sections on a turtle’s back are thought to symbolize the 13 moon or menstrual cycles and women’s ability—power—to create new life.   

The women begin with shared agreements, a covenant. They have had confidentiality agreements, but sometimes these are hard to keep;  the women’s privacy is limited. Instead of Jacqueline Duharthurting the one who has told, the women are asked to bring it back to the group. If a sensitive piece of information that was shared gets out, and the women bring it to the group, Jacqueline now talks about being faithful with each other; faithful to yourself and to your sister, invites them to think about what that means.  She invites them to offer one another amnesty, to offer forgiveness, and to begin and to end in love.

With Jacqueline the women dance, they sing, they recite poetry, they make collages; they use sound and movement and work dynamically to understand violence and building peace in their lives. They tell the story of their names – some are named after their mom’s lover who raped her, others are named after their mom’s favorite character in a soap opera; they learn that they have the power to rename themselves, to define who they are and will be.

One of the first exercises the women do is to look at a mirror. They are asked to look at themselves and say, “I am good, I am strong, I am beautiful, I am whole, I am holy, I am sexy.” In that first meeting, many of the women can’t do it, they hold the mirror far away, hide themselves from it, and can’t look. By the final meeting, they can all look at the mirror and say each phrase without hesitation.

The women role-play conflicts in their lives and support one another in working them out. They explore violence and the connection between power and violence; they disclose instances in which they have been victims and perpetrators and the shame they feel about that.

Jacqueline tells stories and asks the women to say whether they think the story is violent or not. She told a story about a man pouring oil down a street drain. “Is that violent or not?” she asked. At first only two women thought it was violent, then as they talked they heard things that changed their minds. A woman talked about the earth being alive, so dumping oil is violence. They discuss moving from violDoor in Alcatraz by Jacqueline Poggience to power and that they have the power to change their minds, if they listen, are open, are flexible. Jacqueline talks about how they didn’t give up their power, that they listened, they made the decision to change; power is in listening, power is in choice.

The women share about things that come up – how they feel after a phone call with their kids, how they feel about their mom raising their kids. They learn ways to comfort themselves that they can take with them that no one can take from them. They learn a way to hold their finger that can calm them, they learn tools for dealing with their own anger and their own sadness. They keep notebooks, write poetry, they make artwork, they learn how to build an altar; all of these are touchstones for healing that no one can take away from them.

Women who are private share. They have a guideline, “Step up, step aside.” There was a woman in the group who would say her name, but was mostly quiet. Jacqueline asked them to speak a paragraph about why they are participating in the class. Three women spoke, and then this quiet woman raised her hand. She shared passionately about going inside and learning to use her voice. The women really listened, they clapped, they told her she was good, strong. Another woman, who had been horribly sexually abused, who has several children, shared. She told how difficult her life has been and that this class is the place she can come to be soft. She couldn’t be soft before she was in prison; here she can share that her dad has had a stroke, she can share her hurts.

There are a lot of Native American women in the prison. Two Native American women were involved in the same crime. Something bad happened when they were drunk, people died. For the first 15 years, the system kept them in separate institutions, and finally, 25 years later, they ran out Candles by indraradoof places and took a risk and let them be together. These two women love each other, they are leaders of the Native American group. In one of the first classes one of the women shared that she had six children that she was not raising and that she wrote to each of them every day, but never sent the letters. She was so estranged, so ashamed; she did this wonderful thing that she couldn’t actualize. The two women were ashamed of the harm they had caused, felt they brought disgrace to their families. Now the women have built back their connection with their families, now they come to visit, bring a whole bunch of people, generations of people, the grown-up children. It’s a beautiful thing to see. They won’t ever get out, but they have each other and these connections now.

Jacqueline ends the last session with the group with a candle ritual. At first, the prison authorities didn’t want to let her do it. Then they let her have one candle with one match and the women could not touch the candle. A little time passed and she could get candles for everyone, but she couldn’t light them. Now each woman can have a candle, and they get a whole box of matches with which to light them.

Now, with the help of this class, the women have the power to create light.

About the Author

Lucy was the Director of Friends Relations from 2011-2021. 

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