Activist Rhodessa Jones, clad in cross earnings, a myriad of silver wrist jewelry, a fade haircut and a graphic tee with the word “AIDS” through the center, spoke to a diverse crowd at the Madison Public Library Monday night, emphasizing the importance of self-worth for incarcerated women.
Jones spoke as part of a panel put on by the University of Wisconsin Center for the Humanities Spring 2014 lecture series. The series aims to connect the humanities and the campus with critical issues at hand, moderator Jean Feraca said.
Jones is an actress, writer, singer and director for the award winning “Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women.”
The Medea Project aims to empower and rehabilitate incarcerated women by urging them to tell their true stories and reject societal narratives on why they ended up in prison.
“There are no secrets,” Jones said. “We might as well put secrets in a barrel in the middle of the city and set them on fire. We are all struggling to survive. So we might as well say it all.”
Jones said these women should “stop playing the game,” and take responsibility for their actions.
Jones’ father would often point out random people in the streets and make up stories about their lives to entertain his 12 children. Because of this emphasis on storytelling during her childhood, Jones said she truly believes it has the power to change women who are damaged by the incarceration system and their past transgressions.
Jones spoke about the time she spent in the prisons of South Africa, highlighting the importance of identity for women in such prisons.
“In South Africa, the psychotherapists would come up to me and ask for my notes,” Jones said. “What I discovered happened was that there was openness to exploring identity. These people all identified as being Africans with different tongues, while in America you are taught to hate people, or despise the poor… In South Africa it’s more about the humanity of each other. How do we help each other?”
Jones said this grappling with identity and personal narrative lead her to believe that self-worth is extremely important in the unequal world of women’s incarceration.
At the end of the panel, Jones was asked what her hopes for the incarceration system are in the future. She said education is paramount in achieving this goal.
“I’d like to see people educated,” Jones said. “If they need mental health attention I’d like to see them get that. If they have children, I’d like to see their children taken care of.”