Female Inmates in Connecticut Hold Prison-Wide Supply Drive for Children in Rwanda

Posted on August 29, 2012, by Lizzie Presser, Half the Sky Movement

International women’s issues can often seem far removed from the experiences of women in the U.S. But if you asked the female inmates at York Correctional Institution in Connecticut, they might say otherwise. After a group took a course on Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book, they felt connected to the stories of women from around the world and held the first international supply drive in the history of their prison, where inmates — who make around one dollar each day — collected school supplies for children in Rwanda.

As a senior at Trinity College, Kelly Coyne organized and taught the yearlong course at York Correctional Institution from September 2010 until May 2011. She wanted to work with local women and try teaching about international women’s issues. She merged her two interests, unsure what to expect. She was moved to learn how her students were drawn to the women’s stories as a way to discuss some of the issues they felt most strongly about at home.

“The class was very successful because [the women] could really relate — they have struggles of their own and they were glad to be listening and learning about other women’s rights issues,” said Kelly in an interview. “It really helped them see beyond the walls of where they have been confined for years and years. Every week they wanted more.” But more than simply learn about some of the most pressing women’s issues internationally, they chose to address them.


Kelly Coyne held a course at a Connecticut prison on the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. 



Kelly would assign a new chapter of the book each week along with additional material and then hold discussions and assign writing exercises in class. According to Kelly, one of the most powerful classes centered around the issue of sex trafficking. Her students were particularly moved by the stories of women who felt as if they could never escape from brothels, and they were upset to hear that many who had been given opportunities to leave had later drifted back. Kelly’s students took time to write letters to girls in brothels, encouraging the sex workers to stay positive, remember that they deserve better, and understand that life can improve. “They sounded like letters I would have written to [my students],” Kelly recalled. 


Part of the book’s greatest draw for the female inmates, however, was the focus on women who showed serious determination and creativity in their efforts to pull themselves out of oppressive circumstances. “[At York,] the recidivism rate was around 50 to 60 percent. Many students knew of women who had been out and had already come back,” Kelly explained. “I think they can get down on themselves and start thinking, ‘I’m going to end up back here because it’s so hard out there.’ It was important to see how women in harder situations could move out of them.”

When a group of Kelly’s students told her they wanted to help take action for women in another country, Kelly was taken aback. But the women were inspired and persisted. “They said to me, ‘We want to do something. We have roofs over our heads, we have homes.’”

With the help of a teacher at York, her students chose a school in Rwanda in need of school supplies, published flyers explaining the course to other inmates, and petitioned the warden to let them hold a supply drive — the first international drive at York Correctional Institution. They ultimately collected five large boxes filled with pens, pencils, paper, and white t-shirts for Kelly to send to Rwanda.

“This class and this book led them to feel so compelled to help other people in any way they could when they themselves needed a lot of help,” Kelly said. Some students even told Kelly they planned on starting NGOs when they left prison, like a recovery center for female addicts and a letter-writing organization that connects female inmates to women in other countries.

Though Kelly graduated in 2011, she is hoping the course will continue in the future — she has trained a younger student at Trinity to take over. Kelly also plans on returning to visit her former students this fall. She’d like to bring the DVD and hold a reunion around the PBS documentary that airs October 1.

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