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A Healthy Escape From Jail

May 10, 2017

This is a warm, welcoming place. There are big windows that let the sunshine flood in—windows hung with gauzy curtains, prayer flags, and embroidery hoops.

The room is shabby chic, almost like a church basement or a community center. Someplace you’d go to talk and laugh and re-connect with people in your life. 

There’s a circle of chairs in the middle, bordered by tables full of crafting supplies. Spools of thread. Bolts of fabric. A shelf is home to hand-sewn pillows and stuffed animals with buttons for eyes.

This is a place where women piece things together. It’s called the Red Tent, and it’s inside of the Pinellas County Jail.

Barbara Rhode is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She founded Red Tent in 2012 after spending five years as a facilitator with a local work release program called Goodwill Corrections. There Rhode became convinced that most incarcerated women had trauma in their backgrounds—specifically untreated, undiagnosed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In fact, a number of studies have found that about 50 percent of women in the criminal justice system have experienced some kind of physical or sexual abuse in their lifetime.

“The women would share horrific stories about childhood sexual abuse, date rape,” she said. “A few of the women have been victims of sexual trafficking. A few stories where mom would lend them to the neighborhood pedophile in exchange for drugs. And that’s what they grew up with.”

Rhode came to the Pinellas County Jail with a proposal. She would volunteer her time, hire a part-time counselor with money out of her own pocket, and start a program to teach women inmates about the long-term effects of trauma—and ways of coping with stress.

Since the Sheriff's Office gave the project the green light in 2012, Red Tent has continued to grow. This fiscal year, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office invested nearly $19,000 in the program. It allows for classes to take place three times a week, and between 10 and 15 usually women attend.   

Rhode said she was inspired to name the program Red Tent after reading Anita Diamant's novel with the same name.

“The story, which takes place during Biblical times, depicted how communities, villages, would put up a Red Tent off to the side for women to go to when they were in pain, when they were depressed, or when they were going through hormonal changes, Rhode explained. “Other women would join them there and mentor, coach, and share stories. And the men in the community would also support it by leaving food at the flap of the tent. Because they knew that when a woman heals, the whole family, the whole community heals.”

The program's curriculum at the jail is designed around this same concept of social support and feedback. On top of that, Rhode said, the meditation and sewing play a physiological role in helping the women heal, reducing stress-related hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.

“When you allow them to do things with their hands, like the crafts we do, they produce more oxytocin, which allows them to feel safe and secure,” she said.

Feeling secure is no small feat in the Pinellas County Jail. For many of the women, like 31-year-old Kristine Cudak, time in jail means time away from their children and other support networks.

Cudak is serving a year in jail for burglary and dealing in stolen property. She has three kids, one of whom suffers from Shaken Baby Syndrome and is on a ventilator.

“Just emotionally, it’s draining to know that at any time, if something was to happen to my child, if his oxygen level drops… At any time, my son can pass away,” she said.

During her first few weeks in jail, Cudak said she cried constantly from stress. She had trouble reaching her mother by phone and couldn’t get any updates about her kids. Others inmates saw her struggling and suggested that she try Red Tent.  

“It’s empowering,” Cudak said. “There’s other women here who’ve been through the same thing I have been through.”

Audrey Myers is one of the matriarchs of Red Tent. She’s in her late 50s and the group calls her ‘Mama Bear.’ This past December, while incarcerated for grand theft, Myers fell and broke her kneecap. She was moved to the jail’s medical unit for recovery.

“In medical, you know, people are detoxing, they’re very sick, they’re homeless," Myers said. "So their whole conversation is jail, prison, or drugs. And I don’t want to talk about that.”

In Red Tent, the conversations are different. Rhode and fellow counselors Diana Kane, Nobuko Cossoule, and Crystal Dixon lead the group through daily check-ins, crafting techniques, and progressive muscle relaxation exercises.

It’s been a blessing, Myers said.

“My only escape, my only outing, is coming to Red Tent,” she said. “Women need something positive to look forward to.”

Myers will be released from jail in a few months. She said dreams of cooking big meals for her family, and throwing a birthday party for her mother, who is in her 80s.

“I’m really anxious to be with my family, with people that love me. And not feeling like a stranger in a strange place, she said.

But for now, Red Tent keeps her going.

"It’s such a beautiful life out there. I made a very bad decision a while ago," she said. "I just feel like my best days are still ahead.”