Many people hear the word prisoner and think crime. I hear it and think father. My first journey into prison took place when I was fifteen years old – on Christmas Eve 1994, when my mother and I pulled in to a prison parking lot for the first time. My father had been convicted by a Texas court about a month before, plunged into the depths of a system we had no idea how to navigate. At that time, the Texas prisons threw new admissions into “diagnostics” – a thirty-day period during which a prisoner can have no contact of any kind with loved ones. We did not even know where he was until he wrote us a letter for the first time. My mother and I immediately flew to the nearest airport and rented a car. (These details point to a degree of economic privilege not shared by many families of the incarcerated. They also point to a truth about how privilege and oppression can not only coexist but cooperate; sometimes you are allowed just enough opportunity to negotiate the terms of your devastation.) My father had no way of knowing we were coming.
Prisons are seldom easy to reach. Because of the size of the great state of Texas, my father was over seven hundred miles from home, over eighty from the nearest airport. This was before GPS and cell phones were common; my mother and I used the map the rental car agency gave us to locate the prison. We found our way down country roads with a paper map spread across the dashboard. At the gatehouse, a guard searched our car and took away our map. We were told that it – on which the prison did not appear, and which would never have left our car – was contraband; it could help someone escape. The officer showed no concern for the fact that we now had nothing to guide us back to town. Our map was never returned. This was my first lesson in how to understand a prison: there is no map to guide you through this experience, and even if there were, someone would take it away.
I have had to travel to the world’s prisons to understand what was happening to my own family, to see the things my father could not show me and to listen to others tell the stories he could not bear to tell.
I learned much from my early encounters with the carceral state – the systems, institutions, and social norms that enable and perpetuate an extraordinary level of state policing, supervision, and control in our lives. My father would ultimately spend twenty years and five months in prison, and my mother, sister, and I quickly realized that the forces that held him there had much hold on our lives too. Every resource we had was poured into trying to bring him home, put money on his prison account, pay for the outrageously priced collect phone calls, visit him, let him know that he was loved. I sent him so many letters that my neighborhood mail carrier thanked me for supporting the US Postal Service. We had to learn new ways to survive financially, emotionally, intellectually.
My father was incarcerated when I was fifteen; he was released when I was thirty-five. He lived in freedom for five and a half years before he passed away. Though he is no longer inside, some piece of me will always live inside a prison. I know too much that I cannot forget.
Our family began this journey with an overwhelming sense that this should not be happening to us, that somehow fate would rescue us from the clutches of a system that neither understood nor cared about my father as a human being or the circumstances of his conviction. The more people I came to know inside the walls, the more I realized how thoroughly unexceptional we were, how much everyone’s humanity and dignity were erased by a system that draws a hard line between those who are free and those who are not.
To go to a prison is to travel to a new destination, even if it sits in the center of the city where you live. Often prisons aren’t shown on maps; a blank spot on the page belies the presence of hundreds or thousands of people. Refusal to acknowledge the presence of a building or location on official documents suggests a willful obfuscation of the people and activities that take place inside it.
When you do find a prison, the act of entering displaces you from prior reality. Its landscape, the single-gender environment, the rules of engagement, the uniformed staff and inhabitants, the constriction of movement, the sounds and smells all immediately indicate that you have left the known and entered a new realm – one in which you have little control, whether you have come to live, work, or volunteer. Rachel Marie-Crane Williams, who has spent much time making art with women in an Iowa prison, calls this “traveling inside.”
I have had to travel to the world’s prisons to understand what was happening to my own family, to see the things my father could not show me and to listen to others tell the stories he could not bear to tell. Often as I sit in cars or airplanes with the landscape rushing past me, I think of the stationary nature of life in prison. While I made my way to distant parts of the globe, my father stayed very still for twenty years. After being bounced around to a series of prisons in the first year, he landed in West Texas, surrounded by barbed wire and fields of cotton. There he did the majority of his time in one prison, going outside the fence just a handful of times to receive medical treatment. The disjuncture between my body being swept away so quickly as to remain airborne while another part of me remained clamped to a fixed point in the red earth of Texas frequently left me feeling disoriented. It was the flip side of Johnny Cash’s yearning lines: “Well, I know I had it comin’; I know I can’t be free, but those people keep a-movin’, and that’s what tortures me.”
The tension between the fixity of life inside prisons and the vast amount of movement required for those outside to access incarcerated loved ones plagues both families and volunteer programs. The onus of travel – the time, distance, cost, exhaustion, and sometimes humiliation – involved in getting to a prison and inside it always falls on the free person because those inside have no means even to attempt to meet us halfway. Incarcerated people cannot witness all the details of outsiders’ struggle to enter prisons, but they imagine it and often feel it keenly. They live in the supreme frustration of disempowerment, without the means to support their children and families or to ease the journeys of the volunteers who come to offer programming.
I started writing detailed accounts of my travels as a way of explaining to my father what I was doing. His physical absence from my daily life felt so enormous and profound that I needed a way to make sure that we would not lose track of each other. For about the first fifteen years of his time inside, the state of Texas allowed each incarcerated person one collect phone call every ninety days. These calls lasted five minutes each and were egregiously expensive – up to five times the cost of free-world long-distance. We mostly refrained from communicating by phone because if some emergency befell him, my father would have no way to tell us if he had already used his allotted call. Since the prison where he spent the majority of those twenty years was an eight-hour drive from our home, my mother and I could only manage to visit once a month while I was in high school. I saw him just three times a year after I left the state for college.
So we had no choice but to live our family life in letters. My need for my father was so great that I wrote him every day the mail went out. He wrote me about twice a week, and in this manner, we shared more with one another than many people who live in the same home. My many travels to prisons around the world became a way for me to try to better understand what surrounded that visiting room in the West Texas cotton patch – the only place where I could put my family back together.
The first performance i saw inside a prison caught me off-guard. I had traveled to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, popularly known as Angola, to attend an event called Longtermers’ Day in 2004. This celebration honored the lives of men who had served twenty-five years or more in prison, and families and visitors were invited to spend the day in the visiting area with over two hundred men. I was twenty-five years old; every man around me, it occurred to me as I looked around the room, had been in prison at least as long as I had been alive.
I had reached out to several staff writers at the Angolite, Angola’s prison news magazine – I was beginning to write a play about people who have loved ones in prison and I wrote asking about their relationships with their family members. They, in turn, invited me to visit for this event where family members could come inside the walls to spend several hours with their incarcerated fathers, sons, and husbands. Angola has a wide variety of organizations run by incarcerated men, and Longtermers’ Day had been put together by the Human Relations Club, a group whose mission is to care for the indigent and elderly and to bury in the prison cemetery those whose families cannot or will not claim their bodies.
Though all the longtermers had been told they could invite their loved ones to the event, I was among fewer than a dozen visitors that year and not related to anyone in the room. Many families could not make the journey to Angola, which sits in a Louisiana swamp over an hour’s drive from Baton Rouge. Other longtermers had lost touch with their loved ones or outlived everyone they had known in the free world.
I spent the whole day inside the prison, chatting with the men and listening to several prison bands play. At one point, as we ate heaping plates of jambalaya, two men stood up and started yelling greetings to one another across the tables. The rest of us soon fell quiet as these men claimed the front of the room as a stage and started a performance. Most folks around me knew what I did not – that the players before us were members of the Angola Drama Club. The scene that ensued involved two men standing on a street corner talking about the women they saw walking past them. They had plenty to say, and though the women they described were never seen by the audience, the actors’ reactions told the story.
The scene was charming; the audience laughed so much and so loudly that I could hardly hear the dialogue, despite being seated close to the performers. The climax of the play arrived when a third actor – by far the largest man in the room – emerged from the back of the audience dressed in drag, with a messy wig and a giant flowered dress. He lumbered through the audience swaying his hips, and when he reached the main characters, they lost all their fast talk and could not speak to the one “woman” who actually talked back to them.
A group of men in the audience laughed so hard they actually fell out of their seats. Years later, when I started doing programming in other US prisons, I was cautioned at volunteer training never to lead a theater exercise that involved participants lying on the floor, particularly in a group – it could be seen as a security threat, or suggest that someone had been attacked. I have no memory of prison staff being at Longtermers’ Day, but they must have been present given the fact that outside visitors were mixed into the crowd. No one objected to the men laughing on the floor. Thus, though I did not know it at the time, I had watched an act of theater shift the boundaries of what was acceptable or alarming in a prison context.
But then everything about my experience at Longtermers’ Day seemed to alter, erode, or entirely undo a boundary of some kind. All that I witnessed that day stood in stark contrast to what I had read and been told about Angola – the grim accounts of the Angola Three, who had each served more than a quarter century in solitary confinement, the stories about men in the general population who slept with phone books on their chests in case someone tried to stab them in the night. The men I met at Angola treated me with great dignity and respect. They took care of one another. The Human Relations Club had spent a whole year organizing this event to honor the fortitude and endurance of those who could survive decades of incarceration, and they celebrated with performances that required considerable talent and skill. Every piece of Longtermers’ Day had been rehearsed and curated to ensure that those men and their guests could experience a few hours of distraction – a kind of reprieve from the extraordinary stress, boredom, and indignity of daily life in prison.
For years afterward, i found I did not have the ability to make my friends and colleagues understand what Longtermers’ Day meant to me. How could I explain to anyone in the free world that I had seen some of the best comedy of my life inside one of the most notorious prisons in the United States? How could I convey to others the fullness of such happiness and fun inside the same facility that holds Louisiana’s death row? What are the ethics of attempting to tell such a story to people in the free world? How could I convince people to have discussions about these kinds of events instead of the crime stories that others often demand to the exclusion of any other narrative about people in prison? The play by the Angola Drama Club gave us all permission to share a kind of communal joy that is antithetical to the environment of the prison itself. Something was going on there that I had never seen before; the practice of theater made the prison into a different kind of space, one that relaxed and united the gathered people, rather than enclosing and isolating them.
The play gave us all permission to share a kind of communal joy that is antithetical to the environment of the prison itself.
In the years my father spent in prison, I became a playwright and theater scholar and discovered that people were making theater in prisons all over the world. I set out to meet, observe, and collaborate with as many of those folks as I could, because I wanted to find out why the theater was meaningful to people living in prisons. The vast majority of incarcerated women and men I met in the course of my research had little to no relationship to theater prior to their imprisonment; many had never seen a play performed outside. Some had never seen a play until they performed in one themselves as part of a theater program inside the walls.
Most of the people I met wanted to talk about what the theater was doing in their lives at present, how it helped them survive the daily torments of confinement. I realized in listening to them that people in prison are often using theater as a strategy to accomplish something else. Many held themselves to high artistic standards and sought to achieve the utmost level of skill they could in rehearsals and performances, but what they gained in doing so transformed their experiences of life inside the walls. Incarcerated actors, stage managers, technicians, and audiences experience the theater as a way to temporarily shift the power dynamics of the prison and to celebrate their life and experience.
Performances inside the walls make the struggles of incarcerated people visible to one another, prison staff, and other audiences. They reveal the ways in which incarcerated people have greater complexity and depth than stereotypes suggest, and can make us question whether any person deserves what the incarcerated endure and whether it makes us safer. Most people do not feel safe when the state has total control of their lives – no one feels safe in prison. Likewise, people in the free world are not safe if the state cannot be trusted to treat all of its residents as full human beings. We should never forget that our notions of freedom are built upon the backs of those who are not free. In the theater we can join together – from both sides of the walls – to imagine a different way to live.