Four years ago a theater actress and storyteller was allowed into the women's prison, the Shelby County Detention Center. She began teaching inmates how to write the true stories of their lives up to the point they were incarcerated. The women bonded with their visitor as if she were the first person who truly had listened to them, which in many cases she was.
Viewers will journey through this outreach program, called "Prison Stories," with a special half-hour documentary airing on WKNO/Channel 10 on Thursday, May 15 at 9 p.m. "Inside Story," produced by local award-winning filmmaker Craig Leake, follows storyteller, writer, and actor Elaine Blanchard and her twelve students through the sixteen-week course. It was funded, in part, by the Department of Communication at the University of Memphis.
Although she is an ordained minister, Blanchard doesn't lecture her captive audience about Jesus. Most of her inmates/students already have been exposed to prison ministries. Some of the "Prison Stories" participants have been baptized as many as four times. Instead of praying over the women, Elaine listens to them and becomes a friend who helps them analyze their pasts and plan for their futures out of jail.
Those allowed to apply for the "Prison Stories" course are inmates who have adapted well to prison and are candidates for release. None, however, are in jail for singing too loudly in Sunday School. They have committed serious crimes – from forgery to murder.
The stories the inmates tell in class, on paper and verbally, are collected and edited by Blanchard into a script that is performed by local professional actors. One performance is given at the jail itself for the writers and the other women inmates. Three public performances are presented in TheatreSouth, home of Voices of the South, below the sanctuary at First Congregational Church.
Blanchard says in the documentary that she has two purposes: One is to have the women tell each other how they got to where they are. The other is to allow their words to cross the razor wire and be heard by those of us in the community at large.
More than one of the participants says: "Miss Elaine listens to me. I love her for that."
More than one of the audience members says: "They are not that different from the women I know outside the prison."
Adds Blanchard: "I hope these stories—and the documentary—will help set women free."
NOTE: "Inside Story" airs Thursday, May 15 at 9 p.m. and repeats at 2 a.m. on WKNO/Channel 10. It also airs Saturday, May 17 at 3:30 p.m. on WKNO2, available over the air on Channel 10.2 and on Comcast Cable Channel 910.