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Writer's Group Helps Incarcerated Women Vent Deeply Held Emotions

Charlotte Tubbs works on a writing assignment (David C. Barnett / ideastream)
Charlotte Tubbs works on a writing assignment

VANESSA GAY: Addicts count, too. It's a disease and we still have feelings, we still have emotions. We still can be hurt.

Vanessa Gay of Cleveland has known a lifetime of hurt.

VANESSA GAY: I was raped twice. Gang raped coming from school, once. And, when I was 21, 22, I got raped by someone that I knew. In 2006, I became an addict --- a troubled time in my life.

She claims that her ex-husband laced some of her marijuana with crack cocaine one day…

VANESSA GAY: …and after that it was a downward spiral.

That spiral eventually landed her in Anthony Sowell's apartment a couple years ago. That's a story she recently made public --- in chilling detail --- in a Cleveland courtroom.

ATTORNEY: Did he say anything to you at that point in time?
VANESSA GAY: He said, "You don't deserve what I'm about to do to you. It was all bad, after that"

She says that Sowell punched her in the face and proceeded to rape her numerous times. For a long time, she couldn't bring herself to talk about what happened in that house, or the things that she saw.

VANESSA GAY: It was just…at the time…I was embarrassed, ashamed, depressed.

But, she was able to put her feelings on paper, with the help of a writing program that she took in the Cuyahoga County jail, and she eventually convinced herself to testify against Sowell.

VANESSA GAY: (flips through several pages of her journal)
This I wrote one day, while I was thinking about this trial:

Thoughts avoid
But filled with truths
Don't want to face the inevitable news
Feeling the pressure
Fighting the pain
I know death's not the answer
My life was sustained
I need not be fearful
Stand tall and be bold
I can do this, I can
So, I've been told.
I'll quiet my mind
And live in today
For I am here,
Yes, God let me stay.

Vanessa Gay’s story fits a pattern that social worker Mary Kozina has heard many times.

MARY KOZINA: Abandonment, child abuse, molestation, which then tends to be carried on into adulthood, where they're involved in domestic violence. It's an ugly cycle.

A cycle that Kozina tries to break as director of the Women's Re-entry Network --- a Cleveland-based agency focused on guiding women back into society from incarceration. And that process involves more than just helping an inmate get a high school diploma or land a job. Kozina says, it's critical to deal with the abuse, the drug addictions and the emotional baggage that these women carry.

MARY KOZINA: Those issues have not been addressed, so they continue to "use" to cover up those feelings --- those are their coping strategies. So, we need to break those coping strategies, and teach them healthy ones. And until we do that, we see women quickly cycling back and forth into prison and jail.

Women like Tina Ingram, who sometimes wonders how her life got so messed up. She finds that writing helps her put things in perspective. Her thoughts stray back to when she was a child, and everything seemed so much simpler.

I remember ballet lessons that I hated!
I remember the smell of my grandpa as I sat in a chair with him.
I remember playing in the sand on a hot summer day in Florida.

She grew-up in St. Petersburg --- a place full of good…and bad…memories.

I remember playing hooky from school with my big brother.
I remember catching ring snakes and tadpoles.
I remember crying myself to sleep when my father forgot to show up again.

Tina Ingram says her dad was not only neglectful but abusive. Her mom divorced him and eventually packed the kids up and moved to rural Stark County.

TINA INGRAM: This is Paris, Ohio --- the middle of nowhere (laughs).

Ingram grew-up poor, but was a smart kid, always devising ways to make money. At 8 years old she started buying 10 cent packs of candy and then selling the individual pieces to her friends for 25 cents each. By the time she was 20, Ingram had diversified her product line to include sales of marijuana, cocaine and Ecstasy. She even had a racket stealing her mom's prescription pain medications and selling them at school.

TINA INGRAM: I think the only hustle I haven't done is prostitution.

DCB (at her home): How did you end up going to jail?

TINA INGRAM: Which time?

She's seen the inside of the Stark, Summit and Cuyahoga County jails. Selling cocaine got her four years at the Ohio Reformatory for Women at Marysville. When Ingram was released from Marysville in 2006, she came home, got a law-abiding job and was on a path to get her life back together.

TINA INGRAM: But, I ended up going back around the same people, doing the same things, and got back involved with drugs again, and started DOING drugs this time, instead of just selling them; like, heavily --- I got involved with crystal meth. And once I started that cycle, my life went down real fast.

I remember the touch of a man who loved me.
I remember the same man's touch bringing me pain.

The Cuyahoga County jail has a number of programs that focus on those emotional needs, including counseling on setting goals…parenting…anger management… and how to survive a history of abuse. And, every Tuesday afternoon, a group of about ten women gathers to share their fears, their anger, as well as the things that make them happy --- through the written word.

MARY KOZINA: We found that our women needed to have an outlet, a way to express themselves. The writers group is a way for them to say, "My life has sucked up to this point, and let me cry out what I feel." And do this without worrying whether I'm spelling "cat" right or not.

They call themselves the "Caged Birds". Kathy Baker guides them through the process. When she volunteered her services five years ago, she had no particular training as an educator or a facilitator, just a passion for writing.

KATHY BAKER [in class]: Just write what's on your heart. Anything goes. Don't worry about vocabulary, don't worry about spelling, don't worry about grammar. Just write. It's supposed to be fun. I will suggest things to write about, but if you don't like my ideas, you write about something else. That's fine.

The Caged Birds typically start their sessions with each member introducing themselves. The inmate population at the jail is very transient. Most of the women are in on a short-term drug charge, or are going to be transferred somewhere else. As such, there are always new people showing up at these Tuesday meetings.

LaTONYA TONEY: My name is Latonya, and I'm here because I love being here in the presence of all you guys. It's soothing, and it helps me to express myself.

After introductions, each person reads something that they've written during the week, often based on an assigned theme or topic. Charlotte Tubbs' assignment was to describe… a person.

CHARLOTTE TUBBS: This person has strong faith and is God-fearing. This person is also indispensible, flawless, fabulous, trustworthy, competent, family oriented, patient, successful in their own way, determined, courageous, humorous, open without any kind of prejudice, and most of all, genuine. This is the person I would love to be.

KATHLEEN FARKAS: I think there's a lot that goes on in the writing groups that allow women to talk about things that they haven't been able to talk about before.

Case Western Reserve sociologist Kathleen Farkas focuses a great deal of her research on incarcerated women and the ways they numb their lives with drugs and other means of emotional suppression.

KATHLEEN FARKAS: Women who maybe struggled with communication in the therapeutic setting seem to be able to tap into something that makes that communication flow much more freely in the writers group.

VANESSA GAY: After I write something, I can go back and reflect on what I wrote. When you speak it, it goes out of your mouth and it's gone. When you write it, you have it right in front of you, in black and white. Your thoughts are right in front of you.

Since her testimony, Vanessa Gay has been trying to keep a low profile and re-establish a relationship with her four children. She’d like to continue her education and eventually maybe work as a counselor for abuse victims. Tina Ingram is about eight hours short of an associate's degree in communication, but she still has to untangle a few more legal snarls, which may be fodder for further writing.

TINA INGRAM: Writing has always been my release. It's been my only way of letting go. And not only letting go, but of understanding myself, sometimes.

Ingram's currently finishing up a drug relapse prevention program. And she swears she'll stick to it this time. She's broken connections with all of her former friends, and is working to rebuild the trust of her family. It's not a picture perfect happy ending. But, it will do for now.

I remember the smell of my daughter as I rock her to sleep.
I remember saying goodbye to my best friend.
I remember pride in my mother's eyes.
I remember life, simple and complex, and I yearn to have it back both ways.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.