In Her Shoes
A documentary by Cynthia Salzman Mondell

“We’re all women and we’re wearing the same shoes.”In Her Shoes presents incarcerated women at the Dallas County Jail in Dallas, Texas and gives them the opportunity to briefly tell their life stories, their past actions that led them to prison but also the lives they lived and the families they have/had. They are opening up and creating a story around their specific shoes, whether they hold a special place in their hearts or remind them of hard times in their lives.

  1. Before you view this film, what are some thoughts and attitudes you have about prisons and incarcerated people?According to the bipartisan prison reform organization Dream Corps, over the last 30 years the number of women imprisoned has skyrocketed, making them the fastest-growing population behind bars. Many are imprisoned from low-level crimes that could be better addressed through counseling and drug treatments. In addition, the needs of current and formally incarcerated women have been ignored.

Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable, forced to give birth in prison under shackles, endangering both themselves and their children. Also, many women are sexual assault survivors, yet are subjected to strip searches and supervised showers by male prison guards. And many come from low-income backgrounds and are denied adequate hygiene items in prison, forcing them to purchase items at exorbitant prices from the prison commissary.

What are your attitudes towards effective prison reform, in particular services and resources that could better rehabilitate prisoners for positive outcomes, especially post-incarceration? Do you believe meaningful reform is possible under today’s political climate?

By letting their stories out in the public, they get to define who they are in their own words and not let their current status as an inmate dehumanize them. They want you to know they are people too and do so to keep their spirits and morale up.

“Teaching them to draw their shoes, it’s different because you are teaching them something that’s more personal. It’s incredibly therapeutic for them, especially when they get to the shoe part, something that’s more personal in their hearts. It just provides a magic within them when I get them to draw the high heel or a flip flop or whatever their memory is. You’re teaching them to draw their emotions.”

– Sandra Lara – Arts Educator, Dallas County Jail

3. What are some immediate takeaways you developed soon after watching this documentary?

  Was there anything you were not aware of beforehand, such as using art for therapeutic purposes? Have you personally used art as a form of therapy that you’re willing to share?

  1. Did any aspect of the film show you something you hadn’t seen before, caused you to think in a new way, or helped you understand something more thoroughly than before? In addition, describe how it changed your thinking?

In their lives before incarceration, many women reminisce about their favorite shoes to wear, whether if they were comfortable or practical, or those with sex appeal that would provide confidence in them. However, because of regulation footwear like Crocs, these women feel dehumanized because these Crocs aren’t theirs. They are passed around and reused over and over again and the women begin to question who has worn these shoes before them. Pain and suffering have metaphorically occupied each of these Crocs.

“Every time I wear these shoes I feel so much shame. You don’t know whose feet they’ve been in. They don’t wash these shoes. You don’t know what’s been in it. You don’t know whose pain or suffering has been in there or what’s going through these shoes. It’s like the karma that’s been in these shoes, it can pass on to you. These shoes ain’t for me. These shoes don’t belong on me.” – Amanda

  1. How did the filmmaker convey the sense of dehumanization that these incarcerated women face everyday in prison? Were there any aspects of the prison system you were not previously aware of?

Some women who were interviewed were incarcerated because of theft and money laundering motivated by their desire to purchase luxurious items such as shoes.

Shoes also represent a bond to their child, or as in Jessica’s case, they represented the announcement that she was pregnant with a little girl. To this day those shoes represent everything in her daughter’s life that she is missing out on being separated from her:
“When she started school, Laura said, “We’re going to do the Sole Sisters Project.” The only thing I could think of is that I want to do something that reminded me of what I’m missing with her. They’re getting to see everything that I’m getting to miss. She’s at the age where she wants to play dress-up and she wants to play tea party, and her teddy bear and her shoes are there, but her mom is not.”

According to Dream Corps., 80% of incarcerated women are mothers, many of whom were sent to prisons hundreds of miles away from their children, making very difficult or impossible to visit.

Shoes can also represent a fantasy.  Chelsea relates her love of The Wizard of Oz and those ruby red slippers – a sign of wishing to be back home.

  1. How was the filmmaker able to convey the emotions of the women interviewed? Were there any particular women whose stories may have affected you emotionally?

Some have experienced past trauma, and they use specific shoes for representation of hope and the desire to be a better person.
“The Ugg boots represent my strength. When I put those on, I have so much strength, like can’t nothing bring me down. The gold shoes represent the glory I feel from God. The white Coach sneakers. represent purity, like I’m cleansed, I’m renewed.” – Lahandra

Camille was molested by her stepfather for a number of years, something she never disclosed to her mother. She started getting in trouble at age 18  and now sees herself as ballerina shoes which get worn and used up, full of holes.

But she will not let herself be defined by these shoes:
“These shoes don’t make me who I am. I compare myself to this shoe now. I am a black bold shoe. I’m bold. I’m strong. I’m very compatible. I’m determined. I can do anything. I can accomplish anything.”

  1. Do you own or have owned a specific type of footwear or other clothing that gave you the sense of strength and empowerment? Was there a particular woman whose artwork of their shoes you most connected with?

Shoes can represent the unfortunate downward projection of their lives. Sherri endured a toxic romantic relationship that led to low self-esteem and heavy drug use. For Sherri, high-end and luxurious shoes represent having a good life. Worn out flip flops represent how her life had hit rock bottom:
“I started out feeling like a brand new pair of Louis Vuitton or some kind of really high-end shoe, beautiful. I felt amazing. There towards the end, I felt barefoot, I didn’t even have a soul.”

Certain shoes represent a way of life that many women aspire to. They could be a positive status symbol or a productive member of society. According to Amanda, she chose stilettos because they make her “feel like I’m standing on top of the world”. I want people to see me as a woman, like I can amount to something and not nothing, because I am somebody.”

Tammy, who has been in and out of jail, now views work boots because that represents a productive aspect. Prior, she had seen lounging shoes representing her past drug use. But past convictions have made it difficult to find work. “I want my work boots back. I just want to be somebody. I want to be that person again.”

  1. Describe how the presentation of the artwork as well as the animation that made these pictures come to life enhance the film. Did you get a better sense of connecting their drawings to the women behind them on an emotional level?

Closing remarks:
“A lot of them had an epiphany while they were doing this project, and didn’t realize that they were doing it while they were drawing a shoe or even writing their story. I thought that it’s an incredibly powerful thing that they have experienced. It just provides a magic within them. I believe that we have accomplished something that they did not believe they could find. That’s when the healing begins. We’re talking about ladies who had domestic violence issues or drug problems….. When they leave, they have accomplished so much more than they thought that they could.” – Sandra Lara, Arts Educator, Dallas County Jail

Please visit again soon for updates on our discussion guide.