Seeing – and hearing – that voice behind bars

The other day I was thumbing casually through a brand new collection of poems, observations, and very brief essays by incarcerated Vermont women, “Hear Me, See Me,” when I found myself sitting upright, unexpectedly moved. I had just read a brief essay, “Junky Mom,” and saw this parenthetical beside the author’s byline: “Deceased 2012.” Last year. The author, KH, had ended her piece, “There is only time left to care about my children and not myself, and that means doing what it takes to keep my family together.”

I called Marybeth Christie Redmond, who edited the collection with Sarah W. Bartlett, to ask about KH. Redmond told me that she had died of a heroin overdose soon after her release from prison.

KH was one of about 150 female prisoners with whom Redmond and Bartlett have worked on their writing over the last three and a half years. The pair meets weekly with a dozen or a dozen and a half women at a time at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington. The purpose of the evening exercise isn’t to turn the prisoners into award-winning poets; rather it is, according to Redmond and Bartlett in their introduction to the collection, “empower voice and celebrate change.” The pair hope the collection will help readers “to hear, and therefore truly to see, the real person behind the rap sheet.” In other words, although these women are doing time for assault, drug dealing, robbery, theft, and even murder – they are indeed criminals – many have also suffered greatly from domestic violence, rape, incest, substance abuse, and mental illness. Many were victims before they victimized others.

But if the book has pieces in it that will leave you devastated, such as that essay left behind by the mother who died soon after her release, there also are poems that will leave you inspired. When Redmond told me her favorite poem in the collection, I realized it was the very same one that I had marked with a Post-it note because of the writer’s utter capitulation to her God: “I am here, broken before you,” begins the second verse.

“It was a powerful moment in which this brash, in-your-face Vermont woman I had known for three years faded, and before me stood a humble woman calling out to her God for mercy and healing,” Redmond said, recalling when the prisoner first shared the poem in the support group. “In that moment, I saw her complete surrender, an understanding that she needed to let go and ask for some kind of larger universal help. The writing exercise and then reading aloud her words had a profound change on her.  She wasn’t the same after that.”

The writer, a woman named Tess, has now been out of prison for three months and works as a landscaper. Redmond and Bartlett still meet with her weekly – these days at a Winooski café – to check in and offer advice.

Redmond said that she and Bartlett never planned for their work with prisoners to wind up in a book. But a publishing friend read some of the inmates’ writing that the pair were sharing on their blog,, and told them he would champion the idea – and thus the book was born.

“The project was never about going in and helping wounded women,” she added. “It was about learning from each other and growing in strength and voice – and as a community of women together.”

Indeed. The work isn’t always polished; some of it skirts precariously close to cliché. But then there are those pieces that accomplish everything Redmond and Bartlett wanted: They give voice to a population that, more times than not, has been silenced behind bars.

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 “Hear Me, See Me: Incarcerated Women Write”

Edited by Marybeth Christie Redmond and Sarah W. Bartlett

Orbis Books. $25.00

235 pp.

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This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on September 29, 2013. Chris’s new novel “The Light in the Ruins,” was published in July.

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.