Humanizing Mothers & Daughters of Incarceration - Mary's Pence

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Humanizing Mothers & Daughters of Incarceration

Photograph of a woman holding a shawl around her shoulders.

This post was written by Michelle Dahlenburg, the Artistic Director of Conspire Theatre. Conspire Theatre is a Mary’s Pence Grant recipient that gives women dealing with incarceration a healing and empowering experience though theatre and creative writing. They lead weekly theatre workshops for women incarcerated at the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle, Texas.

“The night before I go to prison, my children ask, ‘Mommy, when will you come home?’ The only way I can explain it is, ‘Tonight it’s going to get dark outside, and you are going to go to sleep. And when you wake up, the Sun will be out. And this will happen a lot of times, and then, I’ll be home.’” –Lauren Johnson, performer, Mothers & Daughters

Photo by Daniel Cavazos.
Photo by Daniel Cavazos.

As of 2010, there were over 113,000 women incarcerated in United States state and federal facilities. Approximately 7 in 10 women under correctional sanction had children under the age of 18. (Bureau of Justice Statistics:

Pregnant women who are incarcerated often face stigma from officers, lack of prenatal healthcare, forced inductions, shackling, making decisions about adoption or foster care, and being quickly separated from their babies after birth. Incarcerated mothers cope with separation from their children and challenges with reuniting their families after release. After incarceration, “a formerly incarcerated woman may be treated poorly by others, denied access to housing or employment because of her criminal history, or internalize feelings of worthlessness because of the lowered expectations of those around her.” (Juliana Van Olphen, )

During incarceration and after, all women need safe, supportive spaces to heal from trauma, and connect positively with communities to support one another. Scholars Alison Pedlar and Susan Arai recommend “fostering greater openness within the community, to encourage coverage of positive activities, to help balance the presentation of images and stories that deepen public fear and stigmatization of the women.” (

Photo by Daniel Cavazos.
Photo by Daniel Cavazos.

Conspire Theatre offers incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women a healing and empowering experience through theatre and creative writing. Since 2009, Conspire has led weekly theatre workshops for women incarcerated at the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle, Texas. In 2013, Conspire launched Performing Possibilities, a new ensemble theatre program for formerly incarcerated women. Women create and perform powerful theatre pieces about their childhood, experiences in prison, and hopes for the future. Performing Possibilities uses performance to reduce internal and external stigma associated with incarceration within the communities of Austin, Texas.
In May 2015, Conspire led a development workshop and performance of a new theatre piece about motherhood and incarceration. Mothers & Daughters tells the stories of four formerly incarcerated women, exploring questions such as “What is a good mother?” “What is a good daughter?” “What’s it like to give birth while incarcerated?” “How does incarceration affect families back home?” The piece asks audience members to consider the social justice issues involved in women’s incarceration, and how they can support these women and their families.
Performing Possibilities uses storytelling to connect formerly incarcerated women to the Austin community and humanize the statistics. We challenge stereotypes about who goes to prison and why. Conspire performer Marianna Marchesini is a single mother of two sons. She says, “Like most of us who have found ourselves in jail or prison, I’ve lost a great deal of self-confidence. Conspire creates a safe space that helps me open up and tell my story in a healing way. By performing with women with similar stories, I release some of the shame. When we share our stories with audiences, it humanizes us. We’re not just numbers, we’re women with faces and names.”

Photo by Daniel Cavazos.
Photo by Daniel Cavazos.

Lauren Johnson, Conspire performer and board member, and mother of three, uses the storytelling skills she developed with Conspire in her advocacy work for people affected by the criminal justice system. Her current focus is passing a bill that will help drug felons in Texas get a second chance at qualifying for SNAP benefits. In a recent profile in the Texas Observer (, Lauren tells a story about visiting the office of a state legislator and realizing that telling her story could make a difference. She tells the staff member, “I have a criminal history and my husband does too, and this is what we went through. And it dawns on me that the people who really need this help are too busy trying to survive to be thinking about coming up here to talk to you. They’re trying to make it from one day to the next, and changing the law is something that they aren’t thinking about. So I don’t need food stamps. But I’m here to fight for the people who do.” She says, “Conspire gives us the opportunity to change people’s perceptions and to have that dialogue, to have that human connection.”

During 2013-2014, the ensemble brought eight performances and three panel discussions to over 500 audience members in the Austin area. This year, with the support of Mary’s Pence, we will continue developing Mothers & Daughters, and bring the piece to even more audiences. We hope to engage our community in a larger conversation about the issues affecting women and families in Central Texas and beyond.

Photo by Daniel Cavazos.
Photo by Daniel Cavazos.

Click the link below for a photo/audio excerpt from our new piece, Mothers & Daughters.

-Michelle Dahlenburg

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