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Q & A with Elaine Blanchard

Minister and Shelby County Division of Corrections Volunteer of the Year

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Elaine Blanchard hasn't always seen eye-to-eye with the Shelby County Division of Corrections. Blanchard is a minister and storyteller who has worked with the Voices of the South Theatre Company to create Prison Stories, a popular series of live performances based on stories collected from women serving time for everything from prostitution to murder.

In spite of past differences, Blanchard was honored as the Shelby County Division of Corrections Volunteer of the Year last week. It was an especially gratifying moment for Blanchard, an artist whose teaching methods result in the hard-but-humane stories behind the stories we read in newspapers and watch on the evening news. — Chris Davis

Flyer: What issues did you have with the Department of Corrections, and how did they come around?

Blanchard: Prison Stories 3 made some people mad because they didn't like what the women in that group said. I learned a lot from that experience. I didn't want to alienate the corrections people, so I changed my approach and tried to be sensitive. Prison Stories 4 turned out not just to be a great performance for the women involved but a reconciling experience between me and the corrections employees.

How did you change your approach?

I encouraged the women in the circle to focus less on the lack of toilet paper and to complain less about the food. They can really tell some dark stories about the guards, but I steered them to focus on the bigger picture. I wanted to make it a chance for these women to reflect instead of a chance for them to complain.

Clearly, from the other productions, you are interested in the culture of prison from the perspective of the women in the group.

Yes, I am interested. And it's not that I shut them down when they want to talk about it. I just don't let them spend the whole 90 minutes complaining about the food.

Have you ever thought about flipping the coin and telling the guards' stories?

The problem is, one of the ways I've noticed that folks survive in those careers is to develop a shell. At the awards ceremony, there were all these corrections bigwigs. And more than once, people said to the gathered crowd of 700 people, "We know how much your spouses mean to you. We know they support you and keep you from going crazy and you drive around trying to burn off steam because you can't talk about what happened at work with your family." It seems to be a closed-mouth culture for the sake of survival.

Besides the award, what else is new?

I'm flying to Raleigh, North Carolina to a place where black slaves were tortured and forced to make bricks for a building on the coast. They were buried there, tossed out in the back when they couldn't work any more. The United Church of Christ is sending me there to hear the stories and then to tell those stories.

You have digital news too?

GoneHomeStories.com is for women who've been in the class but have gotten out of prison and gone home. It's a way for them to continue writing their memoir pieces. It's a way to stay in touch and share the challenges of reentering the free world.

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