A group of Oregonians has come together to write about their experiences and share them in a public reading this Sunday. They all have one thing in common: They have a family member who is or was in prison.
Carol Imani, an English instructor and the organizer of the event “With You On The Journey,” spoke with substitute host Geoff Norcross on Think Out Loud Thursday. She said that when her son was coming in and out of jail due to a substance abuse problem, it was “bewildering, stressful and overwhelming.” She also said that she decided to organize a series of writing workshops for family members of prisoners because she knew that “what families experience is an untold story.”
It was an emotionally powerful experience from get-go. “In the first session, I gave everyone a list of emotions, and I said pick one, and write about it,” Imani said. “And at that first meeting, almost everyone burst into tears when they read what they had written.”
Neal Lemery, a retired Tillamook County judge who also wrote a monologue about his son in jail, said that the writing workshops were “liberating” because they offered a rare opportunity for family members of people in prison to relate to each other.
“There really is very little support for families of people in prison,” Lemery said. “And we don’t really know other families. This project has been really good because now I have a network. I have a very close emotional relationship with other parents.”
While each of the performers has their own unique experience, Imani said that they are all linked by a sense of bewilderment as they try to navigate the criminal justice system. “It’s kind of like having to advocate for your family member with one hand tied behind your back, and maybe sometimes with a blindfold on,” she said.
Another theme appearing in several of the stories is the presence of Measure 11, which required mandatory minimum sentencing for certain crimes after it was passed in Oregon in 1994. Lemery said that in addition to reforming the sentencing process, the prison system needs to place a greater emphasis on rehabilitation.
“These young men and women are going to back out into the community, and what kind of people are they going to be? We need to strengthen them, and we need to strengthen the families,” Lemery said.
Imani also made it a point to empower her students to take ownership of their stories during the editing process. “I have felt that the stories people are telling are their stories. They’re not my stories,” she said. “I wanted to respect their right to make decisions about what they’re saying.”
“It’s very powerful to be heard for the first time,” Lemery said. “To stand up and read my story about my son, in a room of people who are silent, but who are hanging on every word. … That is an incredibly enriching experience for me.”
“With You On The Journey: Family Members of People in Prison Tell Their Stories” is taking place at 2:00 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18 at the First Unitarian Church, 1011 S.W. 12th Ave., in downtown Portland. Admission is free.