Lecture to focus on incarcerated women

Mariah Anderson

The art course Rachel Williams was teaching at a local correctional facility in 1994 was only supposed to last six weeks. Instead, it continued for three years and opened her eyes to a passion she could have never imagined.

Williams, who is now an associate professor at the University of Iowa, began working with incarcerated women for a class during graduate school. She quickly realized her art classes were therapeutic for the inmates, who would discuss their issues with one another during class.

Williams will share her experiences working with incarcerated women in her lecture, Prison Chronicles, Wednesday at 8 p.m. in the Great Hall of the Memorial Union.

“For me, the studio just became a place for women to get together and kind of process what was going on in their lives and help each other figure out ways to solve their own problems,” Williams said.

One thing Williams admires about the women she works with is their resourcefulness. For example, she’s seen inmates painting with M&Ms soaked in water when no other art supplies were available.

Williams was also amazed at the resilience of the women and what kind of challenges they’ve overcome in their lives. Many of the women she has worked with have experienced incredible amounts of trauma, which Williams finds to be the most challenging part of working with incarcerated women.

“Many of the women are in a relationship with people who are abusive, or their families are abusive, so it’s very difficult for them to become un-meshed with those people,” Williams said. 

Another aspect she finds difficult is watching incarcerated mothers dealing with separation from their children.

“Some of them are very, very good mothers that are separated from their children and so not only are they being penalized, but their children are being penalized as well,” Williams said.

While Williams has read “Orange is the New Black,” she hasn’t yet seen the television show it inspired. While she does share the book with her students and finds it beneficial in class, she’s not sold on the show.

“I think it’s terrible that we could be entertained by other peoples’ terrible experiences,” Williams said. “Prison is a terrible experience. When someone goes to prison, they die a civil death. It’s a terrible thing to witness that and it’s just hard for me to see that as entertainment.” 

However, Williams said she does think the book and show hold some truth.

“There are women [in prison] who have relationships with one another,” she said. “There are women who are more popular than other women and have more power. There are things that happen in prison that are pretty distasteful in terms of the way correctional staff and officers may interact with women who are incarcerated and vice versa.” 

One thing she hopes attendees learn from her lecture is a sense of empathy for incarcerated people and formerly incarcerated people who are back in the community, trying to rebuild their lives. She also hopes to make students realize incarcerated people are not as different from them as they may think.