How a Physical Therapy Student Ended Up In Prison

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As a dancer, tree climber, and lover of all things active, what originally drew me to physical therapy was the opportunity to use my love for movement to heal chronic pain. In physical therapy school, I committed myself to memorizing movement disorders, muscle attachments, nerve innervations and other meticulous details about the human body in an effort to understand what causes pain and how to fix it.

However, despite a rigorous academic course load, my curiosity about the nature of pain beyond its physical manifestations, as well as the potential for movement to facilitate the healing process was left unsatisfied by the sciences.

I recalled a woman I had met some time ago at a dance class. Her name was Ginger. She was sprite-like and magnetic with a mischievous, kind smile. She had made an announcement at the end of class, “We are looking for movement facilitators to teach incarcerated women how to share and move their stories through authentic movement. We will train you.”

Remembering this, I emailed her, feeling giddy and somewhat terrified. Perhaps this was what I was looking for.

The organization was called Truth Be Told. Founded in Austin in 2000, Truth Be Told’s mission is to promote self-discovery and community-building for incarcerated women through telling their stories of what brought them to prison. The point is not to rehash their crime, but rather to conduct a thoughtful exploration of the experiences and choices that were made every step of the way that led to imprisonment. The women who dare to embark on this journey can choose between three mediums of expression: speaking, writing, or movement.

Need I mention that one of the most terrifying parts is that facilitators are the first to share their stories?

Before long, I was in the middle of Travis County Judicial Department’s volunteer training, learning what to do in case of a hostage situation. (According to the handbook: “The County will NOT negotiate for your release”).  Shortly thereafter, I walked past the secure double doors into the Lockhart Correctional Facility as a facilitator-in-training for the first time.

Since my first time behind prison walls, I have had the honor of hearing over 20 stories and sharing my own twice, the first time as a facilitator-in-training and the second as a co-facilitator, working alongside Ginger.

A facilitator’s job is to create a space where women can feel safe to explore and share their truths. As a movement facilitator, I lead the class in a series of activities to develop body awareness and awaken the creative impulse in preparation for three minutes of “authentic movement” which will occur after the women share their stories. Authentic movement is a practice that allows the mover to explore spontaneous gestures, movements, and stillness – all while in the presence of a “witness.” I like to describe it as a process of unlearning how we were taught to move in order to access and embody subconscious messages from your body. Through the process, you learn to be fully present in the face of uncomfortable emotions arising in yourself and others.

What amazes me about the women I have encountered in prison is their ability to be vulnerable and to dig to the very depths of themselves despite the fear and discomfort of what may be uncovered. Likewise, I am constantly impressed by their ability to sit with the stories of others (some of which are dark, painful, or shame or guilt-provoking) with compassion and a lack of judgement. These are things I wish I saw more of in the free world.

Movement is so ubiquitous to our lives that it is sometimes easy to miss the impact it can have on our well-being. In addition to the physiological benefits of movements that we as physical therapists harness to help our patients, my experience with Truth Be Told has shown me how movement can help people to process trauma and difficult emotions. I have seen how three minutes of contemplative movement can transform a woman and help her to move forward in her healing journey.

My hope is to incorporate what I have learned in prison to help those recovering from chronic pain. Stay tuned!
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Angel Young is currently a Doctoral of Physical Therapy student at Texas State University who recently completed a clinical rotation at Symmetry Physical Therapy. If you would like to learn more about Truth be Told, please check out their website here. They are always looking for volunteers, facilitators, and respectful witnesses to attend story gatherings and graduation ceremonies held in prison.

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