PORTLAND – Stefanie Brewer stepped up and donned the orange scarf — a symbol of her solidarity with the incarcerated women who shared the podium with her — and read aloud about how she had followed her mother into alcoholism.

Brewer grew up hating alcohol, which stole so much from her childhood. But as a young woman, she herself turned to drinking.

While yearning for her daughters’ forgiveness, she realized she had to forgive her own mother, who by then had been sober for years.

“I’ve been able to forgive my mother. And in doing so, I found freedom — freedom from past hurts, freedom to love Mom and let Mom love me. I let go of the fear,” she read.

Brewer was one of a dozen women who shared their favorite writings with an audience Friday in part of an indoor basketball court at the Cumberland County Jail. The event was the culmination of a seven-week program called Sister Stories.

A dozen women — inmates and those from “the outside” — met each week to explore and write about topics like relationships, decisions and core beliefs.

Some spoke of their hopes for their lives after they’re released. Others spoke of second and, in one case, “third, fourth and fifth” chances.

Forgiveness, gratitude, addiction and faith were recurrent themes. There was also joy for small things like Jolly Ranchers and pens, especially appreciated because they aren’t allowed in the housing unit of the jail.

Twenty-three-year-old Camilia Clark wrote vividly of a magical night on a rooftop, evoking the growing darkness, the diving mosquitoes and the giggles she shared with her companion.

“Even when we have moved on to other ideas and lovers. Even when the earth swallows us into its wet embrace. We can always hide in the corner of this moment,” said Clark, who will be released next month after completing a sentence for assault.

She plans to continue her college studies and writing.

Christie Hendrix. 34, wrote that jail saved her life. She thought she had met a special guy, she wrote, but found herself in an abusive relationship and getting pulled into drugs.

“I only want a decent life, just like the next person. … With this second chance to make better decisions, I wanna show the world and myself that I can do better things this time,” wrote Hendrix, who is awaiting sentencing for aiding and abetting bank robbery.

The incarcerated women in their orange jail clothes sat alongside women from the outside who wore shades of orange. Each put on a scarf of various hues of orange. Encouraging messages — “Just Breathe” and “You Can Do It” — were affixed to the podium.

There were tears among the speakers and in the audience, which included members of the mentoring program My Sister’s Keeper, corrections officers, other inmates and relatives. The guests and the writers slid a box of tissues along the floor between them several times.

Lt. Arlene Jacques, the jail’s education team coordinator, said autobiographical writing has transformative and healing powers. The jail has had other writing programs, but this was the first time the participants shared with the public.

“We thought hearing their own voices in their own words was a really important component of this,” she said. “So we wanted to make sure others had an opportunity to hear from them.”

Jacques said there are plans to publish pieces in a book.

Brewer, who is 38, was in jail during the first part of the program and is now in a halfway house.

She was in jail for a probation violation — the underlying charge was for an arson that she said was a suicide attempt — until a bed became available in the rehabilitation program.

She said writing helped bring down the walls between the participants. “We saw we’re a lot alike,” she said. “Our stories aren’t exactly the same, but there’s so many similarities. … A lot of us have been through some rough stuff that brought us here today.”

Veronica Brown, 26, said she was nervous because she didn’t have any writing experience. But she wanted to express feelings she’s had since she was 14, when her mother died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Brown, who is awaiting sentencing for conspiracy to sell crack cocaine, wrote a letter to her mother.

She mentioned vague happy memories like family Easter egg hunts and Skee-Ball at Hersheypark. But she was angry that her mother died from smoking and allowed her to go into state custody as a child.

Despite the mistakes on both sides, Brown wrote, she still loves and misses her mother.

“I surprised myself that I could write this well. And that people would actually understand it and understand me more,” she said after her reading. “It makes me want to write more in the future because I believe I touched a lot of hearts today.”

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: AnnKimPPH

 

 

Regina Goins reads her story.

 

Veronica Brown reads her story.

 

Camilia Clark reads her story.