Eve Ensler conducting a writing workshop with inmates at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York.
What I Want My Words To Do To You offers an unprecedented look into the minds and hearts of the women inmates of New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. The film goes inside a writing workshop led by playwright and activist Eve Ensler, consisting of 15 women, most of whom were convicted of murder. Through a series of exercises and discussions, the women delve into their pasts and explore the nature of their crimes and the extent of their own culpability. The film culminates in an emotionally charged prison performance of the women’s writing by acclaimed actors Mary Alice, Glenn Close, Hazelle Goodman, Rosie Perez and Marisa Tomei.
What I Want My Words To Do To You documents both the wrenching personal journeys undertaken by the inmates to find the words that tell their own stories, and the power of those words to move the outside world.
History of the Writing Group
In 1998, Obie-winner Ensler first visited the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. While she had long devoted her artistic and activist energies to helping homeless women and survivors of violence around the world, she had never before come into contact with women in prison.
Ensler, who had previously taught at the university level, volunteered to be a writing instructor at Bedford. She quickly established powerful connections with the inmates. Ensler’s method is not to distract the prisoners from their situation, but to ask them to go deeper into its causes, details and consequences. Ensler, known for her ability to get women to talk about things that would normally go unspoken, began her work at Bedford by creating a safe and contemplative environment for the women to explore the circumstances that had led them to prison.
The writing group members confront the lives they’ve ruined, the families left behind and their own lives as they might have been. Gary Sunshine and film editor Madeleine Gavin (Sunday, Signs and Wonders, Manic) structured “What I Want My Words To Do To You” around the writing exercises that Ensler had assigned to the inmates. The exercises appear deceptively simple at first: inmates are asked to “Tell the facts of your crime.” As the film progresses, the process of writing itself becomes a process of discovery and self-reflection. The inmates face painful truths about the choices that irrevocably changed the course of their lives. The filmmakers use the exercises — and the highly charged discussions they trigger — to reveal how much the women grapple with their own guilt.
What resulted is a writing community that has flourished for over five years and continues to this day, due in large part to the remarkable trust the inmates place in Ensler. It has given rise to several theatrical performances of the inmates’ writing, arranged by Ensler and playwright Gary Sunshine, that have been presented at the prison and at various other venues, including a benefit at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. A group of the country’s top actors, including Mary Alice, Zoe Caldwell, Glenn Close, Ruby Dee, Hazelle Goodman, Marybeth Hurt, Phylicia Rashad, Rosie Perez and Marisa Tomei have donated their time and talent to these performances, some of which have raised significant funds for the prison’s college education program.
Actors Hazelle Goodman, Marisa Tomei, Glenn Close, Mary Alice and Rosie Perez
Genesis of the Documentary
Judith Katz, a development executive for several film studios, attended an early performance of Ensler’s workshop and was struck by the candor and lyricism of the inmates’ work. She felt the writing profoundly challenged her idea of what a woman in prison was. Katz wanted this experience captured in a film.
With the cooperation of Bedford Superintendent Elaine Lord, Directors of photography Dyanna Taylor (Common Threads) and Paul Gibson (Paris Is Burning) began to shoot sessions of Ensler’s group, as well as the actors’ performances. The inmates themselves, who reflect the vast political, economic, racial and educational diversity of the prison population, quickly learned to participate in the group as if the cameras were not present.
Participants in What I Want My Words To Do To You include:
- Pamela Smart, who agonizes over the affair she had with a high school student who eventually murdered her husband.
- Ex-Weather Underground members Judith Clark and Kathy Boudin, imprisoned since 1981 for their participation in the robbery of an armored car in Nyack, New York that resulted in the deaths of three men.
- Betty Harris, who takes “26 pills, two times a day” for various health problems, and admits to killing her mother after enduring years of abuse.
- Keila Pulinario, in her mid-20’s, convicted of murdering a man she had accused of raping her.
- Donna Hylton, a former track star convicted of murder, who, after more than a decade in prison, counsels a younger inmate about the process of taking responsibility for one’s crime.
- Monica Szlekovics, mid-20’s, who tries, through her writing, to convey to her mother that, with a sentence of 50-to-life, there’s a strong chance she will never leave prison.
- Roslyn Smith, late 30’s, convicted of murder at 17, who writes about the surprising outburst by a man who visited her in the honor housing unit to learn about Bedford’s guide-dog training program.
- Cynthia Berry, ex-drug addict and former prostitute who is filled with near-suicidal guilt years after murdering her 71-year-old “john.”
Throughout the film, the acclaimed group of actors appear briefly, performing excerpts of the inmates’ exercises. Also included are short, revealing glimpses of a rehearsal session, during which the actors grapple with the approach to reading these texts. Here, Glenn Close admits that in her “actor’s mind,” she can imagine what murder might feel like, but connecting to the remorse of one woman who killed a senior citizen proves difficult.
In the climax of the film, the writers, sitting among 300 of their fellow inmates in a sea of khaki green, listen as their words are read by the actors. The camera cuts back and forth between the performer and the writer, creating a complex dialogue that underscores the painful and necessary role the writing process has come to play in the inmates’ struggle with their own guilt and responsibility.
About the Programs at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility
In addition to the writing group, the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility operates several other programs, including:
- The Women’s Prison Education Partnership
A volunteer-based college program operates at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility with Marymount Manhattan College as the degree-granting institution. Eighteen college and pre-college courses were offered to more than 160 women during the Spring 2003 semester. More information is available at www.prisonpartnership.org.
- The Children’s Center
The Children’s Center is designed to help women preserve family ties and receive visits from their children. Inmates are kept informed about their children’s physical, intellectual and emotional well-being while they are apart. For more information, contact Toni Campoamor at (914) 241-3100 ext. 4050.
- The Outside Help Program
The Outside Help Program is a need-based volunteer program attempting to help women at the facility who, either due to mental illness, other disabilities or length of sentence, have never had or have lost all contact with the outside community, resulting in a lack of outside help — such as financial support or monthly packages. For more information, contact Maryann Kann at (914) 241-3100 ext. 4650.
- Puppies Behind Bars
Puppies Behind Bars trains inmates to raise puppies to be guide dogs for the blind and explosive detection canines for law enforcement. For more information, visit their website, www.puppiesbehindbars.com.