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Wende Bellew & Shannon Smith Give Incarcerated Women a Voice and a Chance Through Reforming Arts

Matt Parrish presented Wende Bellew and Shannon Smith, persons who are working through the organization Reforming Arts to support women in prison. Shannon was formerly incarcerated, and Wende grew up with an incarcerated father. Wende began Reforming Arts around 2010, writing, developing, and performing plays for and with women who are behind bars. Wende graduated from the University of West Georgia, then earned a master’s degree in Business Administration from the University of West Georgia to develop a career in financial planning as a way to make money. She also possesses a master’s degree in American Studies from Kennesaw State. She will complete her dissertation for her PhD by summer 2021. The dissertation will include a critique of the court and incarceration systems. The decision to create Reforming Arts – actually to be a servant to women who seek a good life after incarceration - came from God who “seemed to hit me over the head with a 2x4 and threw me down a flight of stairs” to convince me that I “had to do this”. She says she was angry at God given the plight of her dad who was in prison. So it became clear to her that Reforming Arts was a way to a new life for women,  delivered to her as a calling  from which she could not escape. The education programs are in association with online Ashland University and Georgia State University. Shannon also mentioned that the 2nd Chance Pell Grants could be a help to incarcerated women to enable more education and make re-entry to society better. Wende explained these ladies enjoy the processes of writing plays because it helps them teach themselves how they are going to succeed in re-entering into free society. Wende stressed the need in the plays to avoid voyeurism, because she’s committed to not allowing women to be defined by the worst thing in their lives. But “outside” is very hard. To get out people must provide a name and an address of a place where they will be living. Upon release women receive $35, and a bus ticket to the destination if there is no one to pick them up. One lady asked her sister if she could stay with her when getting out. The sister said ‘yes’ but when she got to her new home, her sister said she could only stay the weekend and would have to leave after that. Two plays have been developed. Wende described the first as somewhat dystopian because it captured the feelings of difficulty and lack of hope and options some women feel. The second show concentrates more on the struggles and the practicalities and the plans with re-entry. Shannon Smith emphasized the value of the critical thinking training and processes because it helped her think through being functional. She also says, “Wende somehow drew from me the ability to be a critical thinker …” Wende countered by saying that Shannon was “a critical thinker from birth,” but needed help with the language skills to create the direction and plans to make things work. Wende says there are lots of brilliant women in prison but one of their main barriers dates to their poor experiences in the K-12 system including the basic reading and writing skills to express themselves. Shannon is a summa cum laude graduate from Life University in Cobb County. She emphasized that the lack of good preparation makes recidivism rates very high because one is simply not adequately prepared for being with the people being encountered. She said the trauma factor is huge and there are too few if any strong and healthy relationships to tap into. The lack of a good education undermines a happy re-entry experience as the skills to gain a job and build a life are not there. She said appreciating the dignity of work is critical for success. She said there are 3.2 million people under supervision in the U.S. – and most are coming back into society so we must prepare them for our own benefit. The Department of Corrections (DOC) says the better the education the greater the chances of non-recidivism. Wende is not pleased with the DOC because prison leadership discounts the mentalities of the inmates and is overly authoritarian.    Underlying all of Wende’s Reforming Arts program has to be the message for inmates to know there are others who care and would work hard to help promote themselves. She said, “Inmates have a need [don’t we all?!] for positive recognition and for good relationships … and mainly want others to know … “I ain’t nothin …!”

Posted by Neil Shorthouse
December 18, 2020 2:00pm

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