Behind “Prison Stories”: A Storytelling Program For Healing

A much-needed program, now over, that resonates through today’s Black Lives Matter movement

Originally published in the November 2018 print edition of StoryBoard

By Elaine Blanchard

As a performer who had found healing by way of telling my own true stories on stage, I initially began Prison Stories in January of 2010.  

“Prison Stories” is a creative writing and performance program. Women who are serving time in Shelby County Jail share their stories with each other, knowing that a script will be written, and a performance staged for multiple audiences. Sharing their stories helps to set women free from cycles that they perceive to be meaningless, painful and hopeless. The core business of “Prison Stories” is to create improved future stories—not only for the women who write and share their stories, but for all of us who live in Memphis. Paying attention to the stories of our neighbors makes our relationships more meaningful and our city safer.  

Read the first installment of Prison Stories here

The program has given voice to some of our neighbors who have been silenced by crime, addiction, domestic violence, racism, poverty and a poor education system. The women in “Prison Stories” class have created hope for their futures by writing it into their stories. 

Professional actresses perform staged readings of the stories INSIDE the jail for all the women incarcerated there. We carpool from my house to the corrections facility. Corrections staff and administrators attend the performance. Family members of the writers also come to that performance and it is a joyous and emotionally moving experience. 

That same performance is brought OUTSIDE the jail to theatres and staged for public audiences. The stories act as bridges that connect people inside the correctional system with people outside the correctional system. When we receive the stories of our neighbors with respectful attention we destroy stereotypes and begin to see that people who have made mistakes are more than the mistakes they have made. 

Each Prison Stories semester is a four-month experience for the writers. The class reads a novel, writes reflection papers on their reading assignments, creates life maps and shares them with the group and then writes stories about people, places and intersections in their lives. Guest artists attend the classes and share their creative stories as inspiration for the work that the class is doing. 

Memphis Child Advocacy Center has become an important part of the Prison Stories process. They offer their three-hour training, “Stewards of Children,” to the women in the Prison Stories class. It is intended to help prevent future sexual abuse of children and to make all of us more aware of how to effectively protect our children. The training also opens up the door for class participants to talk freely about their own experiences of childhood sexual abuse. This is a liberating experience as some of the women have never before considered that the abuse was not their fault. They learn that bad things happened to them – and they let go of the belief that they were the cause of the abuse. 

A Very Needed Program

This creative writing and performance work is needed. 

It’s needed to reduce recidivism in our county jail. Women in the class realize that they have valuable stories to share and that their shared stories can make a difference for the good in our community. This experience increases self-esteem and gives the writers a chance to be a giver rather than a taker. 

It’s needed to help build bridges between neighbors. Those who respectfully receive the stories of women who are serving time in jail and men who have been released from periods of incarceration for felony offenses will be less likely to completely dismiss and dehumanize those whose stories have been shared. This is a bridge building program. 

It’s needed by the theatre professionals because it gives them a chance to be advocates for justice. Actors and musicians in this work appreciate the opportunity to give back to the community in a way that is meaningful. They feel inspired by the work.

It’s needed to develop a habit in our city of paying attention to one another rather than isolating ourselves into small homogenous groups. Our fears are fed by our disconnection from people who are not in our immediate circle of acquaintances and friends. Memphis has a reputation for breeding crime and violence. Story sharing can become a healthy habit as we learn to pay attention and connect as neighbors who recognize that we are more alike than we are different. Art provides the bridge that connects us and gives us the opportunity to create a safer city with an improved reputation.

In September of 2012, the work of Prison Stories was expanded to include men who have been in jail for felony charges and are now released and trying to put a new life together. Elaine coordinated a creative writing and performance program with Lifeline to Success, a nonprofit in Frayser, administered by Deandre’ and Vinessa Brown. Lifeline to Success is a nonprofit organization that supports ex-felons in their re-entry process. The creative writing and performance program with this group of men was called Home Coming Stories. 

Elaine has facilitated this storytelling process (meeting weekly for 8 weeks) with clients at Friends For Life, “Positive Stories.” She has met with clients at Planned Parenthood who have experienced abortion, “The Profound Plan.” And she has facilitated a story circle with public library patrons, “Listening, Learning and Telling at the Library.”

She has taught “The Art of Storytelling” as adjunct faculty at Memphis College of Art and she taught “Narrative Preaching” at Memphis Theological Seminary. 

Elaine has three one-woman performances she has written and performs: “For Goodness Sake,” is the story of Elaine’s childhood introduction to racism, violence and injustice, “Skin and Bones” is Elaine’s story of her struggle with eating disorder, and “Good People” is a story about racism and redemption. 

Elaine Blanchard was honored with a 2011 Jefferson Award because of her work with Prison Stories; honored by Facing History and Ourselves as an Upstander for her Prison Stories work; named by The Commercial Appeal as one of the 16 people who made Memphis a better place to live in 2011. The Shelby County Division of Corrections selected Elaine Blanchard as Volunteer of the Year for 2012. She received the 2016 Women of Achievement Award for Vision. Elaine is a guest speaker for churches, retreats and conferences around the country. 

For more information, please visit Elaine’s website at Elaine can also be contacted at her website

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