Washington, DC – 2012. “Even though it was a split second decision that caused those women their lives, it was not just one decision. My life pretty much sprouted out of control as far as me being teen mother, high school drop out, unemployed, drug addicted, alone; I was just immersed in the life of crime,” says Lashawna Etheridge-Bey.

This blog post is long overdue. Gabriela Bulisova is a committed multimedia storyteller who, for the past few years, has shaped stories about post-prison lives and focusing often on the experiences of women re-entering society.

In the excellent Convictions (2012) — a video about Our Place, a D.C. non-profit assisting currently and formerly incarcerated women as they transition out of the criminal justice system — Bulisova notes that over 1 million U.S. women are under correctional supervision (prison, jail, probation or parole) and that the female prison population has ballooned by over 830% in the past 30 years. Yes, you read correctly; an eightfold increase in the number of women locked up since 1980. There are 200,000 women behind bars.

Bulisova’s latest piece Time Zone “portrays the story of Lashonia Etheridge-Bey, a 39-year-old resident of Washington, DC, who spent half of her life in prison for a double murder and was paroled in December 2011. It focuses on Lashonia’s personal transformation while in prison, her difficult yet highly successful reentry into society, and the conflicts that remain within herself and with family members,” says Bulisova.

You can view a gallery of stills from Time Zone here.

When she was 16, Etheridge-Bey shot two teenage girls dead. She spent 20 years in prisons and due to her self-discipline and model behaviour was granted parole at the first hearing.

What is interesting about Time Zone is that it doesn’t focus on the systematic problems of the prison industrial complex. Instead, it focuses on the details of Etheridge-Bey’s own story. By exploring family ties, Etheridge-Bey’s feelings of guilt (at one point, she asks, “Do I deserve to forgive myself?”) her support systems and her coping strategies, Bulisova weaves a tale full of complex issues and challenging questions.

I almost feel like Time Zone should be screened in prisons and jails as an example of how extremely difficult circumstances are surmountable. If an incarcerated person has the right discussions, strong resolve and faithful allies in dealing with the past and future then

Etheridge-Bey credits prison — or more specifically, the fact it extracted her from society and a tough life — as a turning point. Prison forced her to examine her life. She took the opportunity and is undoubtedly a success story.

To say that prison is “good” by any definition is difficult for people such as I who advocate for prison-reform. But, of course, prison is only good if an incarcerated individual develops their own skills to make the most of limited resources available. All the while, prisons should meet basic health and safety needs, which is not always the case.

Through tenacity and discipline, Etheridge-Bey propelled her self-improvement. She maintained strong relationships with her family (her daughter’s words in the video are impressive, realistic and hopeful); she accumulated college credit while she was inside; she has beaten the hurdles to employment and study that many post-release felons face.

Reentry can be very difficult. The stigma of incarceration can be very difficult. Not every former prisoner will be as successful as Etheridge-Bey. The question we must ask is how much do we want to invest in people who have made mistakes — sometimes terrible, life-costing mistakes? If people must be locked up, how can we think imaginatively about maximizing the opportunities for prisoners to find a new track?

If you share the notion that prisons should be about rehabilitation and not warehousing, then how far do we push those efforts? For example, with 85-90% of all incarcerated women having suffered a history of domestic and sexual abuse, where is the line between their responsibility and society’s responsibility to break them from entrenched cycles of victimhood? Do we expect women to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps, regardless of their situations? I hope not.

If we must incarcerate people, we should expect and demand a change for the better. We must demand that institutions are imaginative and reflexive enough to match prisoners’ efforts toward self improvement. And to nurture those efforts, instead of stymie them.

I applaud Etheridge-Bey’s efforts. Unfortunately, her great advances are not typical of incarcerated women in America.

I don’t think prisons are invested in recognising the skills and potentials of individuals. Access to meaningful programs and relevant pedagogy varies widely, state-to-state, so I must be careful not to over-generalise, but often, personal advancement is achieved in spite of the system and not because of it.

Clearly, the use of incarceration only as a last resort would go a long way to maximising resources for prisoners. Improved and robust education, easier family visitation procedures, smaller facilities, better mental-healthcare, and better nutrition to name a few factors, prisons can do more, much more, to assist prisoners — both men and women — to realise their full potential.

Sondheim Artscape Prize

Along side Larry Cook, Caitlin Cunningham, Nate Larson, Louie Palu and Dan Steinhilber, Gabriela Bulisova is currently shortlisted for the Sondheim Artscape Prize.

The six finalists for the Sondheim Artscape Prize have their artwork installed in Special Exhibition Gallery of the Walters Art Museum, 600 N Charles St, Baltimore. (June 29 – August 31). The award announcement and reception is this coming Saturday, July 13th, at 7pm.