Lane DeGregory: LARGO
Two afternoons a week, after lunch, before laundry duty, a dozen women at the Pinellas County Jail leave their pods and thread down a long, dark corridor — through 10 locked doors, past a guard station, into a space they call the Red Tent Room.
Here, the air smells like coffee and sugar cookies. Norah Jones sings softly through portable speakers. Beside wide windows, next to the sewing machines, scarlet hibiscus bloom in the winter sun.
“Welcome! Welcome!” calls Polly Edwards, an artist who helps lead the group.
“Coffee or tea?” asks inmate Jamie Ward, 31, who has taken on the role of host.
The women wear gray scrubs. Some sport remnants of their former lives: chipped manicures and faded hair highlights. Most have lost their jobs, their homes, their children. Some have husbands who won’t speak to them. All their moms are mad. They are serving up to a year for doing drugs, shoplifting, violating probation. Many have been in this jail before. But here in a converted classroom, for a few hours each week, they escape the noise, the guards — for some, even the shame of their convictions — and feel the acceptance of other women.
“Almost all of them are in the system because they endured some early trauma,” says therapist Barbara Rhode, who founded the group. “In general, about 15 percent of people have PTSD. In jail, at least 70 percent of the women have it.”
Rhode volunteered with prisoners while she was in college studying family counseling. Later, she helped women at Goodwill who had just gotten out of jail. Three years ago, she read the novel The Red Tent, about biblical women who gathered in their own oasis during menstruation, childbirth and old age. “A safe space,” Rhode called it. “Where women came to help each other heal.”
She decided she needed to do something for Pinellas County’s broken women, to help them end their cycles of abuse and addiction, to enable them to be better mothers. “Most of the people I see in private practice have problems, but their lives are pretty manageable,” says Rhode. “These women are raw and hurt. They feel guilty and ashamed about what they have done and unworthy of respect or love. There’s a profound sadness about them. They need support.”