Professor gives voice, inspiration to imprisoned women

When Michele Lise Tarter, associate professor of English, first learned about the rising number of women going to prison, she wasn’t sure that she could do anything about it.

“I resisted at first because it seemed so frightening,” Tarter, who was living in Illinois at the time, said. “The number of women going to jail increased a lot. The statistics are so alarming.”

But Tarter, knowing that education is one of the tools that could reduce this number, decided to take action.

“I know education and maybe I can help,” she said she thought at the time. “I want to walk my talk. I don’t just want to say, ‘Isn’t it a shame?'”

Ready to help make a change, Tarter taught a memoir writing course for women in an Illinois prison. Before she could do it again, though, Tarter moved to New Jersey, where she has been teaching at the College since 1999.

After taking a year off the program, Tarter began teaching “Woman is the
Word,” an eight to 10 week course, at the Edna Mahan Correctional
Facility in Clinton. Since 2001, Tarter and her student volunteers have
been working with the women in the maximum security compound.

“The women read autobiographies, stories of women who have had adversity, women who have had difficult lives and have overcome that,” Tarter said, “Then I ask them to write their own stories as a means of healing and empowerment.”

According to Tarter, a lot of the women that she’s taught in the maximum security compound have been there for 12 years and are looking at another 18.

“Most of the women in (maximum security) have retaliated against domestic
violence,” Tarter said. “They’ve lived a life of abuse and they finally
just snapped.”

At the beginning of each course, Tarter said, the women never think they’ll be able to write.

“The women have been silenced and oppressed most of their lives,” Tarter said. “They’ve internalized that their stories and their voices do not matter.”

By the end of the course, the women have usually written between 40 and 120 pages of their life stories.

“For me, as a professor of literature, writing is healing, writing is power and it’s really all they’ve got,” Tarter said. She said the women are never asked to open up about their crime, but they almost always do. “They’re wanting healing so badly. Once they put the pieces of their life together, they can see the patterns that lead them to make wrong choices.”

According to Tarter, each woman in her class is assigned two typists who correspond back-and-forth with the author for the duration of the course. The woman sends her writing along every week and she gets it back with suggestions and comments, along with a letter, from the student typists.

Since the women live in a colorless world in prison, Tarter tells the typists to make the letters and comments as colorful as possible. The students also attach inspirational poems or poetry every once in a while.

At the end of the course, each of the 15 to 18 participants is handed a bound copy of her autobiography. The book contains each woman’s memoirs and any song lyrics or pictures she wanted to include.

“I can’t even tell you the transformation in their faces,” Tarter said. “Their healing is tangible.”

Almost immediately after they receive their books, Tarter said that they send the books home for their families and children to read.

Taking into consideration that a lot of the women in prison are mothers,
Tarter spent last summer teaching a special class, “Mothering Behind
Bars,” at the minimum security compound at Edna Mahan.

“Ninety-five percent of these women are mothers; many of them single mothers,” Tarter said. “Their biggest punishment is not that they’re in prison, but that they’re away from their children.”

In the middle of her interview for this article, Tarter opened a letter from one of the mothers she taught last summer who is now back at home with her children. The woman wrote about how the spirits of her teachers, including her two student volunteers, blew her away.

This year, Tarter, along with students Ashley Reichelmann and Bryana
Fogarty, is teaching “Woman is the Word, Part Two,” an intensive course
for women who wrote their memoir for a previous class and are looking to
develop and enhance it. According to Tarter, the course has already been
“unbelievably successful,” and the students even planned a special class
to celebrate the healing power of love on Valentine’s Day.

Ultimately, Tarter would love to see some of the women she teaches get their books published, but for now, she thinks it is enough for them to write.

“Their stories are the stories of our society,” Tarter said, explaining that our culture doesn’t do enough to “correct these issues of gender, violence and legal inequalities. We need to hear (the stories) so we heal and don’t keep replicating.”

With 180 women on the waiting list for this class, the project has grown since Tarter first started it. With some help from fundraising though, she expects to continue teaching “Women is the Word” for a long time.

“As long as I can walk, drive and get there, I am devoted to this work,” Tarter said. “I feel so blessed to be a part of this journey.”