Inside Story is a half-hour documentary filmed inside the Shelby County Detention Center in Memphis. Four years ago a white theatre actress and storyteller was allowed into the predominately black women’s prison. 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.
The teacher/storyteller is Elaine Blanchard, and she calls her continuing project “Prison Stories.” Although she is an ordained minister, Rev. 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.
Each “Prison Stories” course lasts 15 weeks, meeting twice a week for 90 minutes. Twelve students make up a class. Those allowed to apply 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 Elaine into a script that is performed by Voices of the South actors. One performance is given at the jail itself for the writers and the other women inmates. Two public performances are presented in the theatre in the basement of First Congregational Church.
Elaine 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.”
Elaine Blanchard adds: “I hope these stories – and the documentary – will help set women free.”
For information on ordering this video, contact The University of Memphis Communications Department.