To some on the outside, the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women might seem a fortress of female felons. But OSI-Baltimore Community Fellow Rhonda Elsey-Jones sees the women inmates quite differently.
“About 90 percent of them have experienced trauma in their lives,” says Elsey-Jones, who counsels women in the Jessup, Maryland facility. She talks with them about how past trauma influences behaviors. She also has worked with children visiting their mothers in prison. “We talk a lot about generational trauma,” she says. Elsey-Jones survived familial sexual abuse and witnessed domestic violence herself. At age three, she promised her baby sister she would always take care of her. Unfortunately, when Elsey-Jones was 29, her younger sister was killed by her husband. “It was the most devastating experience of my life,” says Elsey-Jones, today 55. She numbed the pain with drugs. After her second arrest, a compassionate judge offered treatment and a suspended sentence. Elsey-Jones chose recovery.
Working with the National Women’s Prison Project, a local organization, Elsey-Jones is using her fellowship to assist other women who have experienced trauma, have been incarcerated and have had substance abuse or mental health issues. Her project is called Women Healing Our Lives Entirely, or WHOLE, and she is sharing and teaching alternative wellness therapies that she used to transform her own life.
WHOLE embraces wellness, self-healing and nurturing. It introduces the women to trauma education and awareness. They are learning to meditate, journal and identify and name their feelings. Elsey-Jones formed a partnership with Maryland Institute College of Art — and now, MICA students are teaching art to about 20 women, using clay, oil paint and chalk, among other media. A planned new partnership will provide therapists to work with the women. Elsey-Jones also works with women at Martha’s Place, a transitional housing program for women struggling with addiction. She also will work with Power Inside, which serves women from the Baltimore jail and is run by alumni OSI-Baltimore Community Fellow Jacqui Robarge.
“When you continue to believe you are a victim, you operate under a victim mentality,” says Elsey-Jones. “But when you start believing and feeling that you have some power to change, you have the power to do that.” How does one know she has healed? “When it doesn’t hurt to talk about it,” she says. “That’s what being WHOLE really means.”
Elsey-Jones has seen that sort of progress already in her fellowship. She introduced one woman to a new technique that dredged up bad memories. The process concluded with a campfire in which the woman forgave a past tormentor. The woman then took a long nap and awoke, saying she felt so much better. “She said, ‘All that stuff that came out, it doesn’t even hurt anymore,’ ” Elsey-Jones recalled.
Elsey-Jones wants that experience to be realized by all traumatized women. One of her ultimate goals is to establish a safe house for women called Diane’s Desire, so named in honor of younger sister and “the desire to be all that you can be.”