Tag Archive for: Incarcerated Individuals

Growth In Time of Uncertainty

By Jenn Macris

I think we’re all done hearing about “these unprecedented times,” but the truth is, few nonprofits know what to do in “these times” to continue to set and reach important goals. COVID has forced all of us to become even more flexible. Touchstones’ flexibility actually allowed us to surpass our previous goals in establishing our Women’s Prison Volunteer Corps. Thanks to our online format, we were able not only to establish a Volunteer Corps, but to double our initial goal of training five volunteers.

This six-week training program was funded by a generous grant from Anne Arundel Women Giving Together (AAWGT), as part of securing the future of the Touchstones program at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women. Trained volunteers help run Touchstones programs even when there is little or no funding available to cover staff time. And these programs are invaluable to the women in the prison, as they contribute to improved decision-making and parenting skills and lead to reduced recidivism.

For the volunteer training program, 13 women total joined the 90-minute, weekly training meetings to learn more about the women’s prison environment in general (from specifics on how to enter the prison building to the key predictors of recidivism) and learn and practice how to facilitate Touchstones discussions in this unique  community. Two of the participants included teachers from the school at MCI-W, where they’ve had the opportunity to see Touchstones programs benefit their students since 2015.

This group of Touchstones volunteers, a mix of new and seasoned participants, immediately took to the Touchstones discussion format. Using lessons from Touchstones Volume B, which is also used in the prison classes, our participation began the same way it does for the women in prison. Together, we reviewed the Touchstones Ground Rules. We then moved to individual and small group work and ended with a full group discussion and a closer look at our group interaction overall. We also each reflected on how we could improve our own interpersonal skills to help the group’s outcomes.

The growth over the six-week training program was incredible! As one participant commented, “My biggest personal surprise is how I actually learned something about myself – that at my age, we can still learn to slow down and listen to others calmly. It’s just a very different environment from what I’ve spent most of my life in… [it’s] a calmer, quieter behavior when you’re in a group.”

Touchstones thanks AAWGT and all the women who participated in this training program to help ensure the long-term sustainability of our Women’s Prison Program. We look forward to bringing our volunteers and their new discussion leadership skills into MCI-W when it’s safe to do so.

Shaping the New Normal

By Jenn Macris

Like other non-profits, businesses and organizations around the world, Touchstones is moving forward in the new normal we all face due to the coronavirus pandemic. Thanks to loyal donors and generous foundations, our good work in education continues. We are especially pleased to announce that Touchstones was awarded, for a second year, a $20,000 grant from Anne Arundel Women Giving Together (AAWGT) to continue our weekly discussion programs in the school at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women (MCI-W) in Jessup, MD. Our AAWGT grant liaisons, who participated in that program at the prison in March, were able to see firsthand how their philanthropic investment in Touchstones is helping women inside to change their lives.

Cindy Whittle, one of our liaisons from AAWGT, recently shared this about her own experience and thoughts on Touchstones receiving another grant for this program: “I have truly enjoyed seeing the Touchstones program in action. It was an emotional experience to see the women at Jessup embracing the discussions and committing to the process. I was touched by the level of engagement and the thoughtful way participants respond to each other. Touchstones empowers the women to make better choices, to understand other participants’ viewpoints, and is an asset for these women. I am so pleased that AAWGT understood that and voted to extend the funding for another year.”

Although the prison program will look different due to additional safety measures when programming starts again, the core teaching and learning together will remain the same. This will be true even if our discussions initially take place with Touchstones staff joining remotely. We look forward to working with the prison school staff and the women incarcerated at MCI-W with a renewed focus on strengthening skills of civil discourse, reflective thinking, and cooperative learning—skills that serve us all well. Working together, we’ll honor each other’s experiences and ideas and strive to establish the mutual trust and regard we know is required for collaborative learning.

In addition to our renewed partnership with AAWGT, Touchstones hopes to further develop existing partnerships with two other local organizations: Girl Scouts of Central Maryland (GSCM) and Seeds 4 Success. Last year, we worked with the Girl Scouts to produce a unique program at the Waxter Juvenile Detention Center for young women in Laurel, MD, which GSCM is hoping to expand. Likewise, Seeds 4 Success, which provides comprehensive, intensive, and academically focused programs to low-income youth and their families in Annapolis, has applied for a grant to bring Touchstones programs with a community engagement and civic leadership focus to afterschool programming at high schools across Anne Arundel County, MD.

The Touchstones staff is excited to move forward with each of these partnerships and continue our vital endeavors—be it in person or virtually—to foster critical thinking, collaboration, and community. For 34 years, we’ve been developing and implementing programs that yield a more inclusive, respectful, and connected society. Never before has our country been as ready as they are now to join us in these crucial endeavors.

Reflections from Within

By Jenn Macris

Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously wrote that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Recently I have been going into the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women (MCI-W) to facilitate their weekly Touchstones discussions. Since joining Touchstones, I have led or participated in many different types of Touchstones groups, but the discussions at MCI-W have been truly eye-opening—perhaps even life-changing. Touchstones brings an element of civilization and humanity to these women that they desire and deserve.

Touchstones has always been motivated to give a voice to those in society who are often not heard due to individual, community, and societal dynamics. Touchstones discussions serve as a platform for these women to reflect on what they truly know, believe, and feel and to remain open and welcoming to what their fellow inmates know, believe and feel— without judgment. This is generally unheard of in a prison setting.

When I entered MCI-W for the first time, I was uneasy. I had never been in a prison. I must have appeared hesitant when going into the prison classroom where the students, women felons, were still seated in their normal rows of seats. As soon as they saw me, however, they moved their desks into a circle, distributed the Touchstones volumes, and asked for the attendance sheet, all without my asking. Quickly, the group was ready; it was clear this activity was important to them. And I felt welcomed with almost no introduction—I was immediately part of this group of caring human beings.

Many of these women will be released and return to their families and communities. The skills they are learning now are helping them develop their sense of dignity and self-worth. Their efforts will yield a great ripple effect well beyond themselves, showing true change can happen. I am also evolving through my experiences in these Touchstones discussions. I am becoming more aware of my incorrect, often unconscious, stereotypes of who are in our prisons and what these women have to offer our society. I feel fortunate to engage with these women and witness their growth, and mine, and that I am given the opportunity to help introduce and foster much-needed civility and humanity in the prison environment.

Supporting Anne Arundel County’s Women and Families

By Jenn Macris

Touchstones is honored to receive a 2019 grant from the local Annapolis-area giving circle, Anne Arundel Women Giving Together, a “philanthropic giving circle with more than 200 members who annually pool their funds and award grants to nonprofit organizations seeking to improve the lives of women and families in Anne Arundel County.” This generous $20,000 grant allows Touchstones to achieve two important goals at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women (MCI-W) in Jessup, MD. The first is the continuation of a weekly program with women in a General Education Development (GED) class that prepares them for a high school equivalency diploma. Their work in Touchstones builds essential self-expression, literacy, and interpersonal skills.

The second is to expand and sustain programming in an Employment Readiness Workshop—an eight-week course that helps women develop and practice skills essential for gainful employment post-release. With this funding, an estimated 200 women incarcerated at MCI-W will participate in Touchstones programs over the next year. This unique and transformational program develops life, work and parenting skills, and promotes healthy decision-making, all which directly reduce recidivism. Touchstones has been invited to participate in the AAWGT Grants Showcase on Sept. 11, to highlight the vital work we do in support of those most in need in our communities. Local partnerships like this one with AAWGT allow Touchstones to develop a “boots-on- the-ground” core of friends, donors, and volunteers—an essential complement to our growing network of charitable support from around the world.

Destined for Positive Change

By Stefanie Takacs, Executive Director

Since 2015, Touchstones staff have been running discussion programs within the school at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women, MCI-W, which is located in Jessup, Maryland. The facility houses approximately 800 women, many of whom received continuing education in the prison school. Some are working toward their high school General Education Development certificate, GED, while others take office management classes to augment their employability when they are released.

As more women entering MCI-W already have a high school diploma or GED, the Department of Labor and Licensing, which oversees prison education in Maryland, has intensified its focus on workforce preparation. Touchstones programs are a natural fit, with our emphasis on developing every person’s ability to articulate ideas and reasoning clearly and respectfully—to all people. And speaking is only part of the equation. Active listening is essential for communication that is appropriately responsive and rooted in understanding. This winter we are incorporating weekly Touchstones discussions into the new workforce preparation program at MCI-W.

Although women re-entering society and returning to the workforce must be able to communicate effectively, self-expression and self-regulation are among some of the greatest challenges they face. Without these socio-emotional skills, their return home— never mind employment— will likely be short-lived. While incarcerated women learn and cultivate specific skills for particular types of employment in their other classes, it is only in Touchstones that the women practice vital communication and leadership tools they will use in all sorts of situations—before they leave prison and every day afterward. With these abilities, the women are more fully prepared to effect real and positive, continuous change in themselves and their families.

In their Touchstones classes the women connect prior experience to new situations and begin to recognize that they have the intellectual tools to solve problems constructively—and by working with others. Together with the Touchstones staff and their teacher, they apply cooperation, tolerance, respect, and reflective thinking to real-world situations to explore new outcomes. In the words of the school principal, Touchstones makes a real difference in these women’s lives because it teaches them to “think differently.” It’s when we begin to see the continuous positive change in themselves and their families.

My Valentine’s Day with 15 Women

By Howard Zeiderman

On Valentine’s Day, our Executive Director, who spearheads Touchstones at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women (MCIW) was out of town. I was the substitute leader for the day, and I’ve often been into MCIW and worked with both Touchstones classes since 2015. And I’ve run Touchstones programs in men’s prisons since the 1990s. No matter how often one goes in, each visit has its own poignancy.

In prison, one confronts wasted lives and people filled with remorse. Holidays are especially difficult for prisoners, many of whom rarely or never have visitors. I remember going in for Christmas one year at the House of Corrections, where I hung coats as men lucky enough to have guests squeezed a year of parenting into four hours with their sons and daughters. At the men’s medium security facility years later, I shared in the grief felt by our group when one of their most revered fellow-prisoners—a longtime Touchstones participant and leader—was released after 37 years only to die suddenly a week later. But where does one find more absence and longing and sadness than in a women’s prison on Valentine’s Day?

Our classes at MCIW begin after lunch, so the women don’t always arrive on time. Ms. Powell’s GED class typically starts with four or five participants and reaches its typical size of eight or nine after 10 minutes. But on Valentine’s Day, there were 15 women prisoners waiting for me.

Most women in prison have suffered abuse from the men in their lives: fathers, uncles, lovers, husbands, pimps, and others they trusted or needed. The abuse starts early and tends to continue into their adult lives, as the women make unhealthy choices in intimate relations. The abuse destroys their sense of self-worth and their ability to trust.

Our Touchstones text for discussion that day was a few short sentences from the ancient thinker Heraclitus. While these remnants can be illuminating, Heraclitus himself was known as dark, gloomy, and obscure. Each of his sentences were about knowledge, understanding, and listening. I read the fragments aloud in our well-formed circle and then heard the women’s questions.

In these groups, we share our ideas from the beginning. “Why is it hard to listen?” came up many times. So that’s where I started. About 10 minutes into the discussion, a woman who had deliberately seated herself slightly back from the circle spoke. I had expected her not to participate because she had chosen to sit as she had; one learns to give people time and space to become comfortable. She brought us back to the question, saying it is hard to listen because you need first to trust. When I and others agreed that trusting one another was hard, she corrected us. “Trusting someone else is only possible,” she said, “if you trust yourself.” That insight cut through our otherwise conventional answers and resonated with the group. Now everyone was engaged in the discussion, and trust was possible. The women discussed difficult moments of distrust in oneself, without judgment—of themselves or others. And we helped each other remember times when trust in ourselves made real change possible. In reflecting on who we have been and can be, we gave ourselves and one another a valentine of hope.