Young and old alike, the women gather in a mostly bare classroom and, to a calm instrumental soundtrack, eyes closed, breathing together, they meditate.
The ritual would seem normal just about anywhere.
Except these women are dressed in light blue prison garb in a compound surrounded by fences bristling with barbed wire and patrolled by khaki-uniformed officers. Their words about finding inner peace and changing negative energy to positive are punctuated by the static of a guard’s walkie-talkie.
And the leader of the exercise is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder.
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These women are inmates at Homestead Correctional Institution and part of a program called ArtSpring. They sing, dance, write poetry, paint, perform plays and more in classes offered seven days a week at the all-female minimum- and medium-security prison.
There are killers here; kidnappers and robbers, too. Some are mothers, even grandmothers. Some have served two years, some two decades; some will be here for life. Though they differ in many ways — from age to race to background — they all have had to contend with the crimes they committed, the monotony of life behind bars and the isolation from friends, family members and the outside world.
It is art and ArtSpring, they say, that lets them rise above their surroundings and circumstances and try to escape the idea that their past dictates their present and future.
“Through this experience you end up knowing who you are,” said Deidre Hunt, a longtime ArtSpring participant. Hunt, who has been in jail for more than two decades, is serving two life sentences for shooting and killing two men.
“You don’t have to be what someone told you that you were — that you were bad,” she said.
During an ArtSpring session this month, a group of prisoners who have been involved in the program anywhere from 12 weeks to 16 years called the sessions “transformative,” “healing” and “life-changing.”
Founder Leslie Neal describes ArtSpring — an independent program funded by grants and individual donors — as a safe space for inmates, an outlet for reflection and positive expression in an environment where emotional weakness can be, and often is, used against them.
Neal and her fellow instructors get the inmates moving and meditating. The goal is to break down prison-hardened walls and to teach the women new ways to express themselves and relate to others.
Neal, a former dance professor at Florida International University and a true believer in the therapeutic benefits of art, has been running ArtSpring and arts programming in South Florida prisons for more than 20 years. With budget cuts increasingly eliminating other types of prisoner programs, she said, ArtSpring remains a rare constructive activity for many prisoners.
It may even reduce recidivism. Of the released inmates she said she has been able to keep track of, only one of 50 has returned to jail.
“For two hours a day, this allows them to be women again — not inmates, not abused and belittled. It gives them a place where they feel like human beings who deserve a chance,” Neal said. “For two hours a week they say, ‘I feel like I’m not in prison.’ ”
In South Florida, various prisons have hosted ArtSpring programs over the years. Today, the organization has about nine teachers and serves 200 to 300 prisoners a year through programs at Homestead Correctional, Everglades Correctional and Miami-Dade Juvenile Detention Center, with Lowell Correctional in Ocala to come this fall.
Similar efforts exist across the country — where studies show they can improve prisoners’ self-esteem and benefit taxpayers by reducing costly disciplinary actions — but Neal’s is one of the longer-running ones.
“You’ve been here before,” joked a guard walking Neal through the Homestead Correctional prison yard to her classroom.
“I’ve been here longer than you have,” she retorted.
A visit with Neal provides a rare inside look at Homestead Correctional and the array of art that prisoners have produced over the years.
Each session, no matter whether it focuses on theater, creative writing or visual arts, begins with meditation, typically led by Neal.
Passing a small cowry shell around the circle of chairs, one by one the inmates introduce themselves in relation to their female family members — “the daughter of . . . the sister of . . .” — and state what their “essence” is on that day.
Grateful, many say. Others offer peace, change, relief, pride or “easy like Sunday morning.”
“Chocolate,” one woman says. That draws laughter from another prisoner: “That’s always your essence!”
“Who will be out soon?” Neal asks. Three raise their hands. They will be out in the next four months. One woman lifts her hand; it hovers uncertainly in the air near her shoulder as she contemplates what “soon” means.
Then — in a classroom lined with inspirational phrases like “Take back your freedom” — they began to perform, melding dance with the spoken word.
“According to my son, I am a superhero,” said Hunt, arms outstretched in a yoga-like warrior pose. “I have had to put the broken pieces of my heart and soul back together many times. I am a survivor. A superhero in my own way.”
Sandra Sysyn, also serving life for first-degree murder, sang an original song about her own life, strumming a guitar. ID cards pinned to the front pockets of their scrub-like uniforms, several murderers and a credit card fraudster accompanied her on the chorus. Their sweet voices rose up to meet a white ceiling split by black rafters like prison bars.
“Never let the present remember the pain of the past, or fear the future,” they sang. “The die is cast.”
Inmates also read from work composed in ArtSpring — poems exploring themes of imprisonment and the writers’ personal histories, short stories about experiences in prison and pivotal moments in their pasts.
For many, the class is clearly an exercise in escapisim. For brief moments, even whimsy can flutter in over the wire fencing and concrete walls.
There is evidence of that sitting above a supply closet — a pile of transparent fairy wings left from a March 2012 prison production of the Shakespeare classic A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The wings were homemade from Saran wrap pilfered from the kitchen and limbs from a tree. When prisoners don them, they can’t help but grin.
Not every prisoner embraces the program or sticks with it. Some joined and then dropped out of the introductory “Inside Out” course several times before seeing it all the way through.
Catherine LaFleur, who is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder, was in the program for several years before, as she put it, “Leslie worked me out of my block of ice.”
ArtSpring, she said, gave her the skills to better deal with the dark emotions that led to her prison time.
“We live here, we live a life here,” LaFleur said. “Life doesn’t stop once we arrive off the bus.”
Neal doesn’t want to know or even care what brought her students to Homestead Correctional in the first place.
“They’re in prison, and they’re paying for their crime. Many of them are not the people they were when they committed the crime,” she said. “We’re just not perfect people. Some people make mistakes, and every day some people live that one mistake, over and over again.”