The latest show at Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA) Gallery in Pioneer Square goes beyond the archetypal exhibit. “(Our Love Is) Unbroken by Bars” blurs the lines between compelling art, data and advocacy. Each component blends into a moving experience. Visitors are introduced to five women who have rebuilt their lives after serving time in prison. Three of them gave birth while behind bars and each is shown in photographs in loving embraces with their children. The touching moments convey the bond between the mother and child pairs. The text alongside the images explains why the women were pregnant and behind bars.
Among the women featured is Carole Eady. She’s a South Carolina native who moved to New York City. In late 1988, she went into labor while being detained at Rikers Island. On the way to the hospital, Eady said she was shackled inside the van. She still remembers the shame she felt walking into the hospital in handcuffs. When it was time to give birth to her daughter Jahmil, the corrections officer shackled one of Eady’s legs and an arm to the bed. She vividly recalls the male officer standing behind the doctor watching the delivery.
“I always say he was witnessing my child’s birth into the world of the criminal justice system,” said Eady. “I should not have been shackled while in labor with her or carrying her or while she was being born. I should not have had the Department of Corrections in the room with me because once I got the epidural, I was unable to walk or move from the waist down without help.”
Although Eady posed no threat, she was still treated as such. She described the ordeal as distressing, and it reinforced the trauma she had already experienced in her life. She was sexually abused as a young girl and teenager by a family member. Eady said she also witnessed the sexual abuse of a close relative. She suffered from low self-esteem and felt worthless. Having her baby taken from her solidified everything she felt about herself.
“When they did that to me in the hospital, it was one of the worst experiences of my life,” said Eady. “I just went into this shell.”
Eady would later find out she wasn’t alone in her childbirth experience. After abusing drugs and serving time in prison, Eady became sober in 1997. Today, she’s an activist and an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She tells her story to other women so they don’t feel so isolated.
“Unbroken” is a traveling exhibition curated by Katie Fuller. The impetus for the show was the statistic that approximately 90 percent of incarcerated women are trauma survivors. When she came across the figure, she was researching juvenile incarceration. At the time, she worked at a museum and taught a civil rights class for teens. Fuller said racism and poverty coupled with trauma can lead to incarceration. She decided to create a collaborative process between the women who are sharing their stories of imprisonment and artists Shyama Kuver and Jess X Snow. In doing so, Fuller has created an important community space.
“Until I started doing this research, I never even thought of the fact that women might have children while they’re incarcerated,” said Fuller. “I have just been so overwhelmed by the strength of women who have been through the worst possible thing a person can go through and, oftentimes more than once, they’ve had to endure these things.”
“Unbroken” also highlights leaders in the criminal justice reform movement. In 2016, Ivy Woolf Turk founded Project Liberation. She described the organization as a personal development platform that uses life coaching, arts-based interventions and other trauma-informed healing modalities, such as yoga and meditation, to help women disrupt old behavior patterns. Part of the goal is to help them discover their own intrinsic motivations and inner resourcefulness. Turk is proud of the organization’s success rate. Of the more than 300 women who have gone through the holistic program, none have gone back to prison.
Before Turk was convicted of a felony, she was an advertising and real estate executive. After serving a four-year federal prison sentence, she faced barriers and recognized the lack of help women have access to when they come home. The mother of four went back to school to become a life coach and began helping others.
“I realized if I, a woman who came from privilege, who was highly educated, couldn’t make it, what were my sisters supposed to do? And all the women I left behind. And that’s when I knew I was living my life authentically,” said Turk. “I really would like my legacy to be ‘she left no woman behind.’”
The need for advocates isn’t going to decline anytime soon. Statistics show the number of women in prison has skyrocketed. There’s been an 800 percent increase in the past decade.
Another component of the exhibition is informing visitors of the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which aims to improve the treatment of women in prison. According to The Hill, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), plus Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) and Karen Bass (D-California), reintroduced the bill last month. It calls for women to be placed closer to their families and not be forced to choose between using money to call home or purchasing menstrual products. The Dignity campaign is a nationwide effort to change laws in 20 states by 2020.
“Unbroken” shows there is hope for women to build a life more significant than their criminal records. Today, Eady has repaired her relationship with her daughter and encourages other women not to give up.
Turk helps her clients move past the shame, blame and fear of not being good enough, “People don’t understand that until we heal the individual pain, we’re not going to heal the collective.”
WHAT: “(Our Love Is) Unbroken by Bars”
WHEN: Runs until June 15
WHERE: CoCA, 113 3rd Ave. S., Seattle
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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