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 NEWS

For immediate use

Oct. 18, 2002 -- No. 566

Note: To view writing samples from the project, please visit this backgrounder.

Womenís prison inmates to debut prose and poetry at UNC-Chapel Hill

By LANITA WITHERS
UNC News Services

CHAPEL HILL -- The prose and poetry of inmates in the North Carolina Womenís Prison Writing and Performance Project ooze with a passion that comes only from experience.

One woman wrote about hitchhiking to Texas:

"The truck driver keeps staring at me with those piercing dark eyes of his. The palms of my hands are sweaty and I can feel a huge lump force its way into my windpipe. I feel like Iím choking on my own fear. The winding roads remind me of a movie I once saw about a truck driver driving alone. Strange things happen to him. I can hear the sounds of water running. I touch the dampness of my face. Those are tears falling."

Six of the women who participate in the project, under way for more than a year at the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women, will share their work with the public for the first time on Oct. 26 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The free reading, "Doing MORE THAN Time," will be at 1 p.m. in the film auditorium of the Frank Porter Graham Student Union off South Road. The program's title came from a comment by a woman in the writing project: "I feel I am doing more than time. I am showing people who I really am."

Judith Reitman, the projectís founder and director, began the effort as a volunteer in 2001. "Iím a journalist, and I thought it would be interesting to see the kinds of stories these women had," she said. "When I began working with them to write the stories, I quickly realized that only they could tell their stories and could do so far more powerfully than I could."

Through the projectís weekly workshops in writing and performance, led by working

professionals in the arts, incarcerated women move from rage and victimization to reflection and self-empowerment, embracing self and community, Reitman said.

"The power and beauty of these womenís work is extraordinary and will hopefully open to public debate issues of women in prison and overall issues of women and violence," said Reitman, an author and writer based in Chapel Hill.

At any given time, about 12 women participate in the project, which has involved 40 to 45 since it began -- just under a third of the 144 inmates in the correctional center. Reitman's ultimate goal is to extend the project to prisons across the state.

In March 2001, Reitman, then an adjunct professor in the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, teamed with Rhonda Gibson, an assistant professor in the school, on a application for funds to start the project. They were awarded a Carolina Center for Public Service grant to pay honoraria for guest speakers and Reitman. Now, the project is overseen by UNC's Sonja Haynes Stone Black Cultural Center and funded by private contributions.

Former U.S. poet laureate Maya Angelou is honorary adviser to the project's board, which includes UNC President Emeritus William Friday, N.C. Sen. Eleanor Kinnaird and N.C. District Court Judge Marcia Morey.

Cynthia Bostic, superintendent of the correctional center, said the program has been important in the womenís lives. "This program will help with the recidivism rate and build job skills, but itís also very good therapy," she said. "It makes a tremendous difference to these women to be able to express themselves."

After the Oct. 26 performance, Friday will present Bostic with an award for innovative leadership. For more information about the project, see http://ibiblio.org/shsbcc/programs.

"If any group of people can deter our youth from crime and help them believe in their own spirits and souls, itís those who have been down the wrong path," said Morey. "Judges cannot do it, prosecutors cannot do it, our laws cannot do it. It takes the voices of those who have been there. The voices of these women must be heard."

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(Withers is a senior in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication from Reidsville, N.C.)

Contact: Judith Reitman, project founder and director, (919) 942-0280

News Services Contacts: Broadcast, Karen Moon, (919) 962-8595; print, L.J. Toler, (919) 962-8589