Prison documentary to reveal wisdom, lessons from behind bars

“Freedom Road,” a documentary focusing on three incarcerated women who reclaim their voices and stories through writing their memoirs, will be presented on Dec. 3 in the Don Evans Black Box Theater at 8 p.m.

The film focuses on Woman is the Word, the memoir-writing workshop organized in a women’s maximum security prison, and the lessons that these imprisoned women can teach. The program is run by Michele Tarter, assistant professor of English and advisor of Sigma Tau Delta (STD), the English Honor Society. STD helped organize the documentary premiere produced by Lorna Johnson, assistant professor of communications.

Tarter annually teaches an 8-to 10-week class in the maximum-security wing in the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, N.J. once a week with two students. The students work together to help Tarter design and teach the course as part of an independent study project.

Freshmen in her Literature of the Prison seminar have each been assigned to a woman inmate and have spent weeks typing and editing manuscripts.

Before asking the women to write down their own life stories, the class reads autobiographies that transcend time and include stories of adversity and overcoming hardship. Tarter said that at first this task seems impossible to the women, but when each of the bound, typeset autobiographies are returned, each is filled with a sense of pride and accomplishment.

“In the act of writing their life stories, these women inmates experience an inordinate amount of healing and transformation; they reclaim their voices, their stories – and in doing so, they are often able to deepen and grow in ways they never dreamed possible,” Tarter said.

Johnson got her idea to document the project after a student who had worked in the program mentioned it to Johnson years ago. She asked the prison for permission to film it, and her request was granted. “Lorna has such a special gift of sensitivity and her integrity shines through in all she creates,” Tarter said.

The documentary was titled “Freedom Road” because of the name the prisoners give to the exit route of the prison. The irony of this title is that the road is also an entrance.

“Each week when we leave the prison and are driving down Freedom Road, we remember all over again how much our freedom and privileges mean to us – and I feel so thankful for the openness of the women in our class,” Tarter said.

Tarter began working in maximum security women prisons during 1998 in Illinois. When she moved to New Jersey, she reinstated the program at Edna Mahan.

Tarter said she felt pulled in to do work with incarcerated women when she began to learn about the growing prison population, lack of educational funding and the growing number of released prisoners returning to jail. She wanted to help in any way possible and decided to use her knowledge in the literary study of women’s autobiographies as her basis.

“So many of them are in prison for retaliating against domestic violence; they have a lifetime of physical and sexual abuses against them and they have never once been asked to simply tell their story,” Tarter said.

Tarter explained that at the end of each course at Edna Mahan, she and her student volunteers learn just as much as each woman does, if not more. “What I find, ultimately, is that their stories are our stories; there is no ‘us’ and ‘them,'” Tarter said.