An invitation to watch a documentary about women in prison may be met by a hesitant, ambivalent response. On the surface, the subject concerns an element of our society that most of us would prefer remain invisible. Indeed, when, in 1998, I was first invited to Bedford Hills Correctional Facility by the playwright Eve Ensler, I too had such a reaction.
Yet, that first visit would become the impetus for making our film, and would fundamentally change my perceptions about many things, not the least of which is my attitudes about women in prison: why they are there, how they feel about their crimes, how they live their lives, that they do live their lives, and how possible it is for any of us, no matter how smart, how good, how victimized ourselves, to make a bad choice that results in tragic consequences.
Our film focuses on a group of 15 women who participate in a writing workshop at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Eve Ensler began facilitating the workshop in 1997 and still leads it today. The members of the workshop are serving out sentences which range from ten years to life without the possibility of parole. They are part of a population of 850 women, and share their status with the more than 90,000 women in prison in the United States today, an increase of 138% over the last ten years. An alarming statistic, yes, but it is my hope that our film transcends numbers, and prison garb, B-movie stereotypes, derisive jokes, and even the crimes the writers have committed. Ultimately, I hope our film shows that these women are, like all of us, complex individuals.
"What I Want My Words To Do To You" documents the writing workshop over a period of four years. Through a series of exercises Ensler assigns them and the discussions these exercises provoke, the women discover how writing allows them to understand, cope with and to take responsibilities for their actions. Structured by my fellow filmmakers Gary Sunshine and Madeleine Gavin, the film slowly reveals how each woman grapples with her own culpability and confronts the lives she's destroyed, the families left behind, and her own life as it might have been.
The film culminates in a performance of the work of the 15 authors, given in the prison, by a group of actors including Glenn Close, Rosie Perez, Marisa Tomei, Hazelle Goodman and Mary Alice. The emotional responses of the inmate authors, as they hear their own words read out loud by these acclaimed actors, shows how profoundly they crave and appreciate being recognized for something other than their crimes.
It has been said that we build our own prisons and serve as our own jailers, we offer this film so that you might free yourself of assumptions about, or apathy towards women who live in prison, and allow yourself to see the need for transformation and purpose in a population society has written off. And most importantly, to show how taking responsibility for wrongdoing, even murder, can change the direction of a life, where ever it is lived.
You will be surprised by who you will meet. I certainly was.
— Judith Katz