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The People Inside

The pain of incarceration blazes on the video screen.

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By Tori Marlan

Of all the disturbing things Holly experienced at Dwight Correctional Center during the year and a half she was locked up in the late 90s, one mundane moment still stands out in her mind: when she saw her cell mate chewing gum. It was not the act of chewing gum that disturbed her, it was what the gum chewing implied. Gum is contraband in Illinois prisons. But according to Holly (who didn't want her last name mentioned), an understanding exists between guards and inmates that gum and other small treats can be swapped for sexual favors. "The things you miss can be used against you," she says, referring to both gum and intimacy.

Holly is one of 44 formerly imprisoned women who made the 20-minute video What We Leave Behind to, in her words, "give a voice outside for the voices that can't be heard" and to provide realistic representations of women who've done time "so people will see we're not monsters."

The video grew out of a media workshop led by Joanne Archibald, the advocacy project director of Chicago Legal Aid to Incarcerated Mothers (CLAIM), and Salome Chasnoff, who, with SAIC assistant professor Dalida Maria Benfield, founded the Women's International Information Project in 1997 to help women in grassroots organizations use media to create social change.

About once every three weeks, from May of 1999 to the beginning of this month, Archibald and Chasnoff taught media literacy and video making and handed out cameras to the women who attended CLAIM's Visible Voices support group at Grace House, a residential program for women that eases the transition from prison to community.

Archibald and Chasnoff asked some of the workshop participants to write about one concrete experience of their incarceration that they found significant and wanted to share with viewers. "Very different issues were raised," says Chasnoff, who edited the video. "And also they had very different performative styles, which I thought was just amazing. That's one of the things we work for, to really create a space for people to make their own camera relationships. This is a very different goal from that of mainstream media, which seeks to force everybody into the same mold."

The women taped each other talking about topics that range from having no privacy to missing their children to being shackled to a bed after giving birth. Holly talked about the gum. In the video, she sits against a brick wall and reads from a poem in her lap:

Lee is my good friend

We talk all the time about

Our case and how we caught them

Our families and how we hurt them

Our mates and how we need them

Our children and how we miss them

Long to hold, stroke, and kiss them

How we will get out, get a job, get an apartment, and raise them

We talk about the guards and

How they single you out

How you try to avoid when there is no avoiding space

Try to hide when there's no hiding place

Avoid eye contact knowing they want other contact

Refusing petty favor, candy, sandwiches, and an extra cup

All the risk of being written up

Today Lee was chewing gum

I knew exactly how she got it and where she got it from

What she had to go through to get it

Today Lee would not look at me or talk to me

She knew I knew

She just continued to chew

Can you chew away the pain?

In addition to the personal testimonies, What We Leave Behind includes footage of an inmate's son answering questions from the support group about his mother's absence, an interview with a group of girls about their impressions of women in prison, and footage from CLAIM's annual Mother's Day rally. The video will be screened this Friday at 7 PM in conjunction with a panel discussion on representations of women in and after prison at Women in the Director's Chair, 941 W. Lawrence. Chasnoff and Archibald plan to distribute the video at festivals and to cable television stations, church groups, community organizations, and college classes. "One of the things the women talked about was showing the tape to people who are part of the communities they're going to be joining," says Chasnoff, "so when they're looking for employment, looking for housing, maybe they can move people's thinking on who they really are and the kinds of contributions they can make to these communities."

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