For many years Wabanaki REACH has supported Wabanaki and Native men and women experiencing incarceration in the corrections system in Maine. This month we would like to highlight Sandra Bassett and her work through Wabanaki REACH, visiting Native inmates at Maine’s Correctional Women’s Center (MCC) in Windham Maine.
Sandra has been working with inmates for many years in the field of recovery. However, in 2016 she learned about the peace and healing circles REACH facilitates at MCC. She knew that working with Wabanaki women was what she wanted to focus on. She recalls the introduction as a funny story:
“I saw Esther,’ her first cousin and cofounder of Wabanaki REACH, ‘at the Dunkin in Westbrook near MCC and she asked what I was doing there. I said,’Me? I live here! What are you doing here?’
She said, ‘I’m going to corrections.’
‘I go there all the time.’ I said.
‘Oh? You haven’t changed at all!’ She said laughing.
‘No! I have clearance. I go in and they let me out.’ I laughed and told her about the recovery work I did there.
‘Well,’’Esther said. ‘You should come there with us for the sharing circles.”
From there Sandra started attending the circles with Maria Grouard, Esther Anne and a former volunteer, Katie Tomer. She learned from them how to run the circles and as she went she brought her own individuality into the practice.
When she first started the circles on her own she brought in the practices of AA, language and healing. After a request from the inmates and a 4-day training, she brought in the practices of Wellbriety, which is a 12-step wellness and sobriety program. It shares commonalities with Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous but is essentially from an Indigenous perspective. Wellbriety means to live a sober life that is balanced emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually. Bringing these elements to the circles have brought gains to the inmates there. She says that some inmates that have been released are still sober many years later.
Presently she visits MCC almost every month to bring the circles to the women’s facility. She has switched up her method however since not all of the women who attend have issues with addiction and brings culture and language practice to the circles instead. She says it’s important to give the inmates what they want since they are in a place where they’re given limited choices. Recently they requested to watch Dawnland, the compelling documentary that covers the process of the Maine State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Many women who enter the system lose custody of their children but learning about ICWA and their culture is meaningful. Sandra says it was important to begin and end with a circle discussion to give them a chance to talk about the movie and the possible triggering effects.
While there is incredible benefit of bringing the peace and healing circles to the prison system, Sandra says that they have helped her just as much as she has helped them. She was inspired to go back to school as a result. She received her BSW in 2021 from the University of Southern Maine and pioneered the Wabanaki Language Minor with the help of Dr. Dana McDaniel, professor of Linguistics.
The language practices she brings to the circles consists of listening to stories and songs in Passamaquoddy, conversations in the language and giving them access to materials and the Passamoquoddy language portal. She says,”Language is bringing something to inmates that they need because our culture lives in our language. And if you understand, you will want to do the right thing. Maybe it fills a void that people were trying to fill with other things.” She adds that the inmates that attend the circles “come from some pretty broken backgrounds and that they are dealing with really deep things. Intergenerational-trauma is what it is!”
She likes to think that the work she does there is bringing them some hope. “If you can see things through the eyes of our ancestors, you change.”
You can learn more about what we do in the Maine Corrections System on our Website at: https://www.wabanakireach.org/wabanaki_inmates.