Lindsey Needham, is a former FVPC hotline advocate. Lindsey graduated this past spring and is now working in Washington D.C. This summer, she volunteered to lead a project with inmate women. Below, she shares with us her story-
“After volunteering as a hotline advocate with the Family Violence Prevention Center for over two years, I consider myself quite knowledgeable about the dynamics of domestic violence. But when a local nonprofit, aimed at providing resources to inmate mothers, asked me to teach a course on domestic violence to a group of women in prison, I was hesitant. In the past, I have done some facilitating of health topics, including domestic violence, but I did not feel qualified to lead a weekly class on domestic violence by myself, let alone to a group of imprisoned women.
In addition to my hesitations, I was told to expect the unexpected. I wouldn’t know what kind of classroom I would teach in or what materials would be available. There might be PowerPoint capabilities. There might be a blackboard. It was unknown how many inmates would be able to attend the class. In previous stints, the class has had a waiting list of 30 individuals. When I first walked into the class, I thought I had stepped into a time machine that transported me to a 1970s classroom. Not the most learning-conducive environment, but we made do with what we had.
There are many reasons why inmates take classes like this one. Obviously, some women are personally affected by the issue at hand. Others hope to earn a certificate at the end of the course, presumably to show to court officials and demonstrate good behavior. Some simply love to learn and take advantage of all opportunities to gain knowledge. One woman had well over 100 certificates for various classes and was four credits short of earning a degree while in prison, but the state halted the prison’s college program before she could finish. Apparently, the community was outraged to discover that tax dollars were providing inmates a free college education, while their own children paid thousands of dollars to go to college.
Despite substantial interest in the course, only ten women were able to attend the first class. There are many restrictions regarding whether or not inmates can attend. Many of the women have jobs throughout the day, like housekeeping or working in the kitchen, and the warden would not allow them to do their tasks at another time in order to attend the class. Also, a vocational school at the prison was starting up, so others opted to take those classes, rather than attend a four-week DV class. Despite these unfortunate circumstances, the smaller group had its perks: it facilitated an intimate environment and enabled frank discussion on deep issues.
The first two classes concentrated on the basics of domestic violence. On the first day, we discussed forms of abuse, power and control, and why women stay. The second class focused on red flags, and we talked about how to get out of an abusive relationship. Most participants were open about their experiences with abuse, and they easily identified with common elements of domestic violence. One woman’s ex-partner preyed upon her forgetful nature: he repeatedly told her she had forgotten things that had never happened. This form of abuse is often referred to as “crazy-making,” as the abuser makes his victim feel like she does not have a firm grasp on reality. Another woman proudly proclaimed that she did not stick around and endure abuse, as she left her abusive partner immediately after the first physical altercation. Her mother, who had been a longtime victim of domestic violence, wisely warned her, “If he hits you once, he’ll hit you twice.” However, during the discussion on red flags, she noticed that her spouse had exhibited warning signs of controlling behavior before it escalated to a physical level. For instance, he told her who she could or could not be friends with.
After getting through the basics, we were able to delve deeper into the issue of violence against women. In the third class, we discussed victim-blaming, gender roles, objectification of women, and society’s portrayal of violence against women in the media. To facilitate discussion on victim-blaming, I read snippets from recent newspaper articles. The women easily identified how journalists, law enforcement officers, and community members pointed an accusatory finger at the victim of violence, rather than at the person who actually committed the crime. After establishing that victim-blaming is so prevalent in our culture, we examined society’s depictions of domestic violence in the media. Violence in music is often discussed, but the women were shocked at how advertisers used violence against women to sell products like shoes and perfume. We also looked at other methods of advertisement: gender stereotypes and objectification of women. These media often encourage men to seek out power—whether physically or economically—and women are perpetually depicted as submissive objects. When these power dynamics are taken to extremes, we can hardly be surprised that there is a widespread pattern of violence against women in our society.
Our final class featured an amazing film called Sin by Silence, which is a documentary that focuses on a group of incarcerated women in California, who were locked away for crimes against their batterers. Though the movie told the women’s sad stories of abuse and imprisonment, it also documented their movement to change California laws, which did not permit evidence of abuse to be presented on behalf of the defendant at trial. The women in the class were deeply touched and spent a good portion of the movie wiping tears from their eyes. After allowing for emotional recovery time, we discussed several critical aspects of the film. For instance, one woman in the film recognized that abusers have enough control not to lash out at their employers or friends when they are angry; instead, they choose to use their intimate partners as an outlet for anger. I was mightily impressed when one inmate made the connection between power and control and the way that some of the guards speak to the women or put their hands on them. She astutely recognized that many of the prisoners, who are survivors of domestic violence, might be forced to relive the trauma of abuse when interacting with prison officials. The course was designed to teach these women about the basics of domestic violence, and by the end, they were critically applying that knowledge to their lives in prison.
It’s easy to view a prisoner as a sum of evil deeds done against society. However, we must not judge a person solely based on the worst thing they have ever done. These women are our friends, family, and neighbors in the community. As well as mothers of the next generation. And many of these women are victims, who were more passionately labeled as felons by the criminal justice system than protected from a society that enables violence against women. Women in prison are often denied information on abuse and access to domestic violence support groups, though victims on the outside can readily receive such assistance from agencies like FVPC. If we are dedicated to providing resources to victims and others, we must begin to offer the same tools to women in prison. This is why I strongly encourage individuals and organizations to look into volunteer opportunities at correctional institutions.”
Thank you, Lindsey, for all of your amazing work this summer! We are so proud and impressed by your dedication to helping prevent and end domestic violence, even after leaving North Carolina.