After Gabriel Ross finished teaching her first journaling class with incarcerated American Indian women, the participants asked for two things: more classes and more gel pens.
The gel pens that Ross had brought to class were a big deal, considering that getting any art supplies in was a challenge. Everything had to be shipped to the prison and inspected before it could be used in class.
Ross has been teaching “Soul Journal” classes at the Shakopee prison, which houses about 650 female prisoners, for about four years. Through the classes, the women explore their pasts and contemplate their futures, distilling it all down to books of words and images.
“To them, it’s like an awakening,” said Sgt. James Church of the Minnesota Department of Corrections, who works on restorative justice programs at the prison. “A lot of them don’t get the time and the opportunity to sit down with a small group of women and share experiences, share thoughts and reflect on what life has been for them.”
Ross, 62, operates Soul Journal through the nonprofit Creative Spirit, which she started in 1989. While her newest classes focus on Indian inmates, the classes were initially offered — and are still taught — to women who aren’t in prison.
“I think that women are looking for ways to experience, explore and express the deeper aspects of who they are,” she said.
On a recent Thursday morning, a group of about a dozen women gathered for a Soul Journal class in the basement of St. Albert the Great Catholic Church in Minneapolis.
One was Jenny Bach, who was working on a “legacy journal” for her great-niece. Bach has taken Soul Journal classes from the beginning, and said she’s drawn to the idea of tying words and pictures together.
“You’re working with an image,” she said, “and something clicks.”
The journals are spiral-bound books that participants fill with writing and artwork, often in response to prompts and discussions that Ross facilitates.
At the prison, Ross has used similar techniques in classes for mothers, grandmothers, long-term offenders and other inmates. Of the women there, about 20 percent are Indian or Alaskan Native. Some Indian women took Ross’ early classes, prompting her to create a class solely for American Indian inmates.
As Ross started planning, one of the biggest questions was how to pay for the class. Like other Creative Spirit programs, Soul Journal classes are funded by donations and occasional grants. Funding is always a challenge, but especially at the prison. Some donors to other Creative Spirit programs don’t want their money going toward helping prisoners. And Ross said prohibitions against photographing inmates make it difficult to include the photos that grant applications often require.
But when Ross started talking about this new class, some of the Indian women who had taken other Soul Journal classes at the prison had an idea: Write to the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and ask for donations. Their requests garnered $1,500, but Ross is still seeking more funding for additional classes.
‘It helped me find myself’
These kinds of reflective classes are greatly needed, Church said, but there’s a constant lack of funding and space. Many prison programs are religious or education-based, he said, and not necessarily focused on the specific needs of women offenders.
“It’s something that’s just so great for the women,” he said. “We need it on a regular basis.”
Curriculum for the Soul Journal class for Indian inmates started with input from the women themselves.
They were interested in digging into their cultural values, so Ross researched tribal traditions and put together five sessions exploring what it means to be an Indian woman.
None of the class participants from prison were available for comment. But in class evaluations, the 10 participants wrote about how these reflections affected them.
“It helped me find myself and know what I have to do to change my thoughts and actions for myself and my children,” one woman wrote.
“I enjoy being part of a circle of women that are discovering themselves,” wrote another.
At the end of the five sessions, the women asked if they could conclude with a traditional smudging ceremony. They gathered early on a Saturday morning in April to burn sage and share a pipe, passing each through the circle they had formed.