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St. Louis International Film Festival Showcases Women Prisoners In 'The Voice Within'

LaWanda Jackson, in a still from the documentary film "The Voice Within." The film follows a group of women participating in the Prison Performing Arts program. [11/13/19]
Mountaintop Films
LaWanda Jackson, in a still from the documentary film "The Voice Within." The film follows a group of women participating in the Prison Performing Arts program.

Incarcerated people can often feel forgotten by the world outside. 

A documentary film that screens at the St. Louis International Film Festival on Saturday amplifies the voices of women at the prison in Vandalia, Missouri, formally known as the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center.

“The Voice Within” follows a group of women as they worked with playwright Stacie Lentz to create a play partly based on their life experiences. They were participants in Prison Performing Arts’ New Plays Initiative. Lentz is also working with men at the Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green on an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 2016 novel, “Hag-Seed.” 

Director Lisa Rhoden Boyd and some of the women in the film will attend the free screening and participate in a Q&A session.

St. Louis Public Radio's Jeremy D. Goodwin recently spoke with Boyd. Here are highlights from their conversation. 

Jeremy D. Goodwin: Why’d you make this film?

Lisa Rhoden Boyd: My goal in the film was to bring a humanity into incarceration. Not to focus so much on the play itself, which is based on the women’s lives, but to focus on the women and their transformation through Prison Performing Arts. 

And having to pull back their own layers and their emotions to connect with a character in a play, they have to identify with themselves and come face to face with their choices.


A lot of the crimes that were committed with the women that I interviewed happened when they were kids. When they were 16, 17 years old, and now they’re in their 40s. 

Goodwin: Some of these women had been abused themselves and then ended up responding with violence.

Boyd: I mean, LaWanda Jackson, who’s the star in this film.

Goodwin: She’s serving a life sentence.

Boyd: Yeah, for first-degree murder. Which was a situation where she was severely bullied … And you take a look at the world today with bullying issues and abused women and relationships, you can identify, you can understand. 

Goodwin: When you went back and saw the play actually on its feet and the women performing it [after watching the rehearsals], tell me what that experience was like for you.

Boyd: I was just, like, in awe. I was just so excited to see LaWanda [Jackson] stand up there and just own that stage. She’s just so powerful. And then the other women and their stories. I was so elated. 

At the end of the film when they’re cleaning up, putting the chairs away, go back inside, the door closes, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re gone.’ It was my family. And now the door is closed, and they’re gone. And it’s done. 

Goodwin: And I think part of your project here is bearing witness to women who can very easily be forgotten by people on the outside.

Boyd: You’re absolutely right. And that’s why I did this, to honor, and to bring voice — true voice, not “Lockup,” not "Orange Is the New Black," but honest, true voices of women who are really fighting to be better people. 


Jeremy can be found on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.

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