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The SwallowTale Project gives incarcerated women a voice

LeTonia Jones of the  Kentucky Domestic  Violence Association had the idea for the  writing program for female inmates, with led to a book that contains their works.
LeTonia Jones of the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association had the idea for the writing program for female inmates, with led to a book that contains their works. Herald-Leader

In late 2010, LeTonia Jones, an advocate with the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association, approached Kentucky poet Bianca Spriggs about starting creative writing programs for incarcerated women.

The result was The SwallowTale Project — workshops at the Federal Medical Center on Leestown Road and the Fayette County Detention Center — and a newly published book of inmates' writings by the same name.

The project takes its name from the swallowtail butterfly as a symbol of transformation, Spriggs, who compiled the book, said in its introduction.

"I wanted to illustrate that even in the most overwhelming of confines, everyone has a story to tell and it's their human right to express their voice effectively," Spriggs wrote.

The writers' names are not given in the book.

"Waking up in my jail cell is hard to do," one inmate wrote. "Morning is especially hard. Before our lights are even turned on you awake to a loud screeching voice bellowing out, 'Breakfast ladies.' It's startling right out of your sleep. You hurry to your feet so you can get something to eat, eat and try to get back to sleep to forget about where your (sic) at."

Another wrote: "I want to walk down the street right up to the front entrance of the federal courthouse. I want that judge to know that you did not brake (sic) me. I'm still here strong and proud. Better now than I was before."

"We want women to be able to transform through their writing," Jones said.

She said the project, which usually includes weekly writing sessions, has shown that the inmates are "more than a stereotype or a statistic."

Jones said four months of workshops were held at the Federal Medical Center, and workshops have been held for the past eight months at the Fayette County jail.

In addition to showcasing the writings of female inmates, the book serves as a guide for writers who might want to start workshops at other jails, Jones said.

Kentucky writer George Ella Lyon's poem Where I'm From is included as an example of work that can be shown to inmates to prompt them to write about their own roots.

"I just admire what Bianca is doing so much. I think its really important and I was honored to be included," Lyon said in an interview last week.

The book includes photos of inmates and jail life by Angel Clark.

The project was funded in part by a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, which promotes positive social change by supporting feminist expression in the arts.

Jones, the advocacy programs administrator for the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association, said a second book featuring female inmates' writing is planned.

She said she thinks the project might lead to a play.

"We just think it's got a lot of energy and we'd like to share it with as many people as possible," Jones said.

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