Editor's note: The four-hour Red Tent Project session was recorded. The women's words have been edited for length and clarity.
Two afternoons a week, after lunch, before laundry duty, a dozen women at the Pinellas County Jail leave their pods and thread down a long, dark corridor — through 10 locked doors, past a guard station, into a space they call the Red Tent Room.
Here, the air smells like coffee and sugar cookies. Norah Jones sings softly through portable speakers. Beside wide windows, next to the sewing machines, scarlet hibiscus bloom in the winter sun.
"Welcome! Welcome!" calls Polly Edwards, an artist who helps lead the group.
"Coffee or tea?" asks inmate Jamie Ward, 31, who has taken on the role of host.
The women wear gray scrubs. Some sport remnants of their former lives: chipped manicures and faded hair highlights. Most have lost their jobs, their homes, their children. Some have husbands who won't speak to them. All their moms are mad. They are serving up to a year for doing drugs, shoplifting, violating probation. Many have been in this jail before. But here in a converted classroom, for a few hours each week, they escape the noise, the guards — for some, even the shame of their convictions — and feel the acceptance of other women.
"Almost all of them are in the system because they endured some early trauma," says therapist Barbara Rhode, who founded the group. "In general, about 15 percent of people have PTSD. In jail, at least 70 percent of the women have it."
Rhode volunteered with prisoners while she was in college studying family counseling. Later, she helped women at Goodwill who had just gotten out of jail. Three years ago, she read the novel The Red Tent, about biblical women who gathered in their own oasis during menstruation, childbirth and old age. "A safe space," Rhode called it. "Where women came to help each other heal."
She decided she needed to do something for Pinellas County's broken women, to help them end their cycles of abuse and addiction, to enable them to be better mothers. "Most of the people I see in private practice have problems, but their lives are pretty manageable," says Rhode. "These women are raw and hurt. They feel guilty and ashamed about what they have done and unworthy of respect or love. There's a profound sadness about them. They need support."
So she approached the Sheriff's Office with an offer: She would volunteer her time as a therapist for a women's group. She would model the group on an old-time sewing circle, so the inmates would have something to do with their hands while they talked and so they could create crafts to give their kids when they got out. She would pay for an addiction counselor and a teaching artist.
Word spread quickly among the inmates, and soon Red Tent became the most popular program for nonviolent offenders, serving more than 450 women since October 2012. Last year the sheriff kicked in $7,000 from the Inmate Welfare Fund to pay the part-time salaries for the counselor and artist. Though 72 percent of the general population inmates are rearrested, Rhode says, only 28 percent of Red Tent participants have wound up back behind bars.
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"After the women are released, we buy them a bus pass and encourage them to stay in touch," says Rhode. She set up a closet in a thrift store so alumni can get free clothes and brokered a partnership with Subway to help them find jobs.
"In the arms of these other women, I am learning to open up," says Kavona Lee, 22, who is doing time for grand theft. "With their help, I am trying to stop hating myself."
Sit in their circle for an afternoon and you will hear them tell their stories and share their pain. You will learn their fears and hopes, how they make hair gel and sew tampons, how much they miss their kids. And you will see them all trying to forgive themselves.
Barbara (family therapist, founder of the Red Tent Project): Welcome, everyone! I'm so glad you're all here with us today. Okay, a little background: I do counseling. I have an office in St. Pete. So many of you are victims of domestic violence, sexual and emotional abuse. You started self-medicating and wound up in a downward spiral. But your families need you, so you need to be strong. After you leave here, we can help you get a Pell Grant and go back to school so that you can make better lives for your children.
Teresa Robert Watts (26, violation of domestic violence injunction, disorderly conduct): You know we count the days until Thursday, when we get to be here.
Polly (teaching artist): Those of you who have been here before know women get very vulnerable in here. It can get really intense. Okay, a few rules …
Shirley D. Parker (59, larceny, retail theft): No advice giving. We're not psychiatrists or counselors. We can give feedback, but that's it.
Barbara: Okay, let's go around the circle and tell us how you're doing.
Jamie (31, sale of cocaine): It's really wonderful to be in this class. I have 60 days left, and I'll definitely be coming to you all after I get out of here. I have a 3-year-old daughter. I didn't even want to be a mom. I used to just jump from place to place. I can't jump here. It's made me think a lot about how much I do want to be a mother. (She lifts her glasses to wipe tears. An inmate kicks a box of tissues across the floor.) I've already missed so much. This group has helped me a lot in terms of talking about things and accepting them so I can move on.
Kavona (22, larceny, grand theft): I feel comfortable here, not like I'm in jail. I mean, I'm not home, but … I wait for this day. It's helped me open up a lot. My baby's father is here, too. I hadn't seen him in six months, then I saw him outside court yesterday. He said he still loves me.
Teresa: I've been on the waiting list for this group for a while. I have two children and a husband I'm not allowed to have contact with, which is hard. I've got a lot of figuring out to do.
Candi L. Cales (34, possession of clonazepam): This is my first day. I was a toddler teacher, and I have three kids that I lost my rights to. I'm just here to do my time and try to get them back. (She mashes her fists into her wet eyes and looks at the floor.) I'm here to try to better myself. And I love crafts.
Shirley: I'm doing terrific. At least I'm trying to. My purpose in coming to Red Tent is to find a new direction. I need to learn how to live sober. I'm not a bad person. I just do bad things. Two weeks after I got out last time, I came right back in here. I'm an alum of Red Tent. This is the first place I ever felt like I belonged.
Jenny E. Muszynski (33, violation of probation for shoplifting, resisting arrest): If I didn't get to come to this group, I'd probably go crazy. So thank you for letting me talk without being yelled at. You can find yourself here.
Nobuko "Noko" Coussoule (addiction counselor): I'm happy to be here with you all. I've been a substance abuse counselor for 15 years. I've always liked working in jail. It's more difficult on the outside, where people have freedom. They can't completely focus on their rehab out there.
Polly: I'm glad to be here as always. I'm an artist and a teacher. I used to design clothing in Hollywood, for 20 years. I have two adopted children, and I believe in the power of women — and in art. When you sew, it slows you down and makes you think. And you can create beautiful things that you can give to your family that will lift you — and them — up. That's my only goal here. To lift you all up.
Diana Kane (intern counselor): My story is like so many of you. I got sober at 40, went back to school to study substance abuse, figured it would help keep me sober. I came to Red Tent a year ago as an internship, and I just stayed. Creating things, and working things out together, feels good.
Shirley: There's a lot of fear in going back outside. Here it's a safety zone for so many of us. You've got time to work on yourself and focus. There's going to be fear when I step out of here again.
Jamie: And hope.
Shirley: Hope, sure, but …
Yalira M. Perez (26, forgery): It's hard. Who can you really trust when you go home? Will I get back with the same crowd that got me in here? I don't have a family. I'm a rape victim. I'm scared every day about my daughter. I don't know where she is or who has her, and I can't do anything from in here. (Tears roll off her cheeks.) And my friend, she was only 23. When she came out of here, we thought she was going to do good. But she OD'd and died.
Shirley: Oooh, man. That's why it's so important to stay with this group of women, even after you get out.
Yalira: But we have no control over our future.
Barbara: That's right. The only thing we truly have power over is ourselves. We need to work on stillness, silence, and cultivate our own peace. Let's do some deep breathing, find our balance, pull on our own inner strength.
Polly: I call it Red Tenting.
Barbara: Okay, so, sit up, close your eyes and just take some slow, deep breaths. Breathe out stress. Breathe in peace.
(Two women start sobbing.)
That's right, there's no need to hold on to all those thoughts, those what ifs, those regrets … okay, now open your eyes.
Polly: Who wants to make crafts?
Teresa: I'm going to make a sign for my daughter. She's 3, too. Her name is Izabella. I want to stitch that on a pillow for her to hang on her door.
Jamie: It's hard on my daughter, Gabby, seeing me. She doesn't understand why Daddy gets to come home from work and I don't. My mom brings her to visitation sometimes, but she cries when I have to leave. I don't even know what my daughter likes to eat. I didn't care. I spent too much time doing drugs. This has been a real reality check. I don't want to be that 70-year-old woman still stealing from her husband to get pills. I want to open a business, Dazzling Dogs, and be a dog groomer. It's exciting to actually look forward to doing something with my life. … (Suddenly she stops talking and puts down the calico she has been stitching.) Wait, I forgot. I have to sew my socks. (She pulls up the right leg of her scrubs to reveal red socks emblazoned with the words "Love" and "Peace.") Okay, they're not really my socks. I sew socks for other people to trade for snacks. Two socks equals a package of cookies, $1.06 in the commissary. And I make tampons from the pads they give us. You just roll it up, stitch the sides and sew on a string. Each tampon gets you a cup of coffee.
Polly: You all are so creative, taking nothing and making it into something you need.
Jenny: Jolly Ranchers (candy) melt down in the microwave and make great hair gel.
Teresa: And you can put pen ink in toothpaste, then use your toothbrush to put on mascara.
Diana: But who are you doing all that for?
Teresa: Ourselves! Just to try to feel good in here.
Polly: So what else have you all learned in here? In Red Tent?
Jenny: I learned how to talk about how I feel instead of making demands, to say things to my boyfriend like, "I'd prefer it if you … " He's mad at me. We've been together 11 years, and I've only talked to him once since I've been in here. But I made an apron, embroidered his band's name on it. I can't wait to show him.
Noko: Okay, let's talk about affirmations. (She passes out lists of unfinished phrases.) Most of us in here have some very negative impressions of ourselves.
Shirley: When I'm angry, I tell myself I'm stupid, not worthy.
Yalira: That it's all my fault.
Noko: Well, you can't write affirmations on the mirror here because you don't have mirrors.
Jenny: Thank goodness! (For the first time, everyone laughs.)
Noko: So what's your affirmation today? Every morning you have to thank yourself for something.
Teresa: I get sick to my stomach when I think about how I have to change every bit of myself. It's so much more comfortable to just keep doing the same things. I like taking risks. So why is this so scary?
Shirley: The fear of the unknown.
Diana: If you stay in the present, that part is known.
Shirley: But it's what comes next, what's out there, that's so scary.
Teresa: I had to decide to walk away from my child to make a better me for her. Now I have that guilt of being away from her.
Diana: But if you can take that time to get better, you can be fully present for her.
Shirley: I haven't felt in so long. I like all these emotions coming at me. But I don't know what to do with them, especially the negative ones. I need to work through them instead of putting them out at someone else.
Noko: No pain, no gain, right?
Shirley: Okay, but … I know forgiveness gives me the opportunity to start over. I know I need to forgive my mom. She didn't love me the way I needed her to. I need to let go and accept her.
Diana: You know you can write your mom a letter and release some of that, even if you don't mail it.
Noko: If we don't forgive ourselves, we can't forgive others. We're here to help. Okay, who's next?
Candi: I am a very unique person … that's mine.
Candi: (She pauses for a long time.) Because I can make a 3-D flower out of paper.
Yalira: I still have the one you made me.
Candi: You do? (She beams.) You kept it?
Yalira: Of course! (Looking away, she lowers her voice to a whisper.) I've been rejected all my life, and I'm used to it. My mom rejected me. My dad abused me. I've learned that you have to hold on to the good things people give you. And that not everything is worth fighting for.
Jamie: Everything is worth fighting for.
Yalira: Not for me. I don't let things faze me anymore.
Noko: Don't you believe you're worthy? That what you want is worth fighting for?
Yalira: No. I'm a loving, giving person. But I belittle myself, and I deserve that.
Noko: You don't. You deserve so much more. Okay, Jamie, you do the last affirmation.
Jamie: Me? Okay. (Scans the handout.) I am a beautiful person because … because … (She stares at the sock she's stitching.) I don't know why.
Jenny: Jamie, you're beautiful because you make everyone feel better.
Yalira: Because you never judge anyone.
Teresa: Because your personality lights up the room.
Jamie: (She shakes her head and wipes her eyes.) Thank you. Thank you all. (She buries her face in her lap. Yalira reaches over and squeezes her shoulder.)
Noko: Okay, thanks, everyone, for sharing. This has been a really good session. Now, let's stack our chairs and come do our closing.
(As the women put away their crafts and Jamie clears the coffee cups, Norah Jones croons, "Come away with me …")
Diana: I'm so grateful for all of you here in this room, for the light in your eyes. I know this isn't always easy.
(They form a circle, this time standing, and extend their right hands, laying them one on top of the other. When Jamie places hers on top, she starts the cheer and everyone shouts in unison, "One-two-three, Red Tent!" They begin to disperse. A few women line up at the door. But Jamie lingers.)
Jamie: Wait, wait. Diana. Can I hug you? I just want to smell your perfume. (Jamie opens her arms.) Here, get some on me so I can take it with me back to the pod. (Diana embraces her, smiling, and rocks back and forth.) I can't wait to come back here tomorrow.
Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Lane DeGregory at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @LaneDeGregory.