‘Reforming Arts’

November 1, 2018

When Royal Grooms was molested by her stepfather at a young age, she was stripped of her voice. He was an esteemed minister and a respected symbol of trust in Atlanta. It was her word against his, and because of who he was, this was the uphill battle she would have to face for the rest of her life. 

“Nobody believed it,” Grooms said. “Nobody supported me, not my family or my older sisters and brothers. Everybody thought I was just acting out and using that for an excuse to act out, but it actually happened.”

She often ran away in the hope that she would be sent away to a boarding school, far from anyone she knew. Instead, she was brought back every time into the toxicity of her home.

With no one to turn to, Grooms’ biggest support system became heavy drugs and alcohol.

“That’s what worked for me to try to get through it,” she said. “Everyone was telling me just forget about it, forget about it.”

She couldn’t forget about it.

A destructive path awaited her, substance abuse being just the beginning of a long road of wrong turns. She was in a constant state of stupor, leading to several evictions, and charges due to the substance usage, identity fraud and forgery. In the process, she even lost custody of her three children.

Lee Arrendale State Prison was first opened in 1951 and now has a capacity to incarcerate 1,476 women, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections.

Grooms is now a five-time convicted felon who has been in and out of the county jail system 13 times in 20 years. Her last arrest, in 2009, landed her in Lee Arrendale State Prison, a women’s prison in Raoul, Georgia, with her longest sentence ever: four years.

“I had no motivation in life,” she said. “I just felt like that was really the end of my life as far as my age and after losing my kids. I didn’t have any family or friends and I just kind of gave up.”

Prison had become a safe place, a place where she would always have a bed, a place where she felt the smallest sense of security. It was somewhere she knew she could go back to if she had nowhere else to go. 

Though she was convinced prison would be her ultimate resting place, she maintained her faith. To keep herself engaged, Grooms took countless bible study and church service classes, often choosing these over the numerous education courses offered at Lee Arrendale.

“Your focus is survival at first and maybe after a couple years then you get comfortable with where you are and the people you are around,” she said. “Then you make the decision about which way you want your life to go next and how the programs could help you do that.”

Each semester, women at Lee Arrendale sign up for the courses they are interested in. Grooms was known to enjoy Bible study classes and was automatically signed up for the newest one offered in 2009.

“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Grooms said. “It was a class that was taken on Fridays, and in the prison system, Fridays were a down day.”

Besides meals, the women were pretty much locked in their dorms from Friday to Sunday, so Grooms had opted into the class mostly to get out of the building. She had no idea that this class would change her life forever.

“The first day I went in, [Wende Ballew] got up and said ‘I know that they said this was a bible study, but this isn’t a bible study,’” Grooms said. “This is Reforming Arts.’”

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