By Christopher Zoukis
A forward-thinking group in Florida is helping women both in and outside of prison to empower themselves and help better their lives and families, after recognizing that many of their needs were not being met in the community.
The Red Tent Women’s Initiative was inspired by Anita Diamant’s novel The Red Tent, which follows the character of Dinah — daughter of Jacob and sister of Joseph in the Bible. The red tent refers to the tent in the novel in which women of Jacob’s tribe must, according to law, take refuge while menstruating or giving birth, and in which they find mutual support and encouragement from other women in the community.
Barbara Rhode, director of the Red Tent Women’s Initiative, saw that this kind of community support and encouragement seemed to be missing for many women in their communities, particularly for women who were in jail or prison, and who very often felt isolated. In 2013, The Red Tent Initiative started offering sewing therapy classes at Pinellas County Jail, and continued to grow from there. It has become the most popular class, often with a waiting list, and has been successful at helping reduce recidivism among the women who participate.
The Red Tent Initiative has become a safe and empowering space for women to come together, and improve the lives of those involved. In prison, inmates create handmade products from recycled, donated fabrics, which are sold, with profits going to support each woman who created that item. Not only are the women taught sewing skills, but how to create marketable products, financial literacy and social bonding. Beyond that, there is group-based education and support offered, including trauma resolution, anger management and parenting classes, as well as opportunities to hear volunteer speakers who share their stories and expertise on topics including addiction, yoga and successful reintegration into society.
Beyond the prison walls, the Red Tent Initiative is also active with building safe community spaces, continuing outreach to offset possible isolation for those who have been released, and offering support and vocational empowerment groups. The initiative advocates for clients and partners with other community groups and organizations. For example, the organization helped publicize “Coming Home: Showcase of Services for Ex-Offenders” presented by Pinellas Ex-Offender Re-entry Coalition, held at Pinellas Technical College. This was a job fair that featured employers hiring on the spot, educational assistance, information and referrals, resume help, voter registration and identification assistance. It gave access to more than 40 social services agencies. This is vital support for those who need to re-establish a place in the community and start their lives post-incarceration.
The Red Tent Initiative and similar grassroots initiatives in the country play important roles in rebuilding communities, empowering individuals and breaking cycles of incarceration. Current studies show that children who have an incarcerated parent have an increased risk of mental health issues, emotional trauma, impacted social behaviours and decreased educational prospects. Incarcerated mothers are often placed an average of 160 miles away from their children — much further than fathers. These numbers demand reduction so that families can remain as whole as possible. Incarcerated parents must be given the tools and opportunities to break the cycle.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com