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How a Prison Play Goes on Tour


Surfacing

Thirty Colorado inmates staged “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” for nearby prisons. For some, it was the first time in years they were outside 20-foot walls and razor fences.

STERLING, Colo. — The cast was strip-searched before boarding the bus to their show. The leading man was shackled so tightly that he performed with abrasions on his wrists. And the moment the men finished their bows and the house lights came up, they had to slip out of costume and back into green prison uniforms.

So goes life on the road for a production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” put on by 30 medium-security inmates of the Sterling Correctional Facility, out on Colorado’s remote eastern plains. While prison plays have been around for decades, the challenge of this show was audaciously new: It went on tour.

Over a week in September, the cast and crew took the play to a men’s prison in the tiny town of Limon, Colo., and to a women’s prison in Denver, a 130-mile bus ride from Sterling. Many in the audience had never read the Ken Kesey novel nor seen the Oscar-winning film adaptation starring Jack Nicholson, which tells the story of men inside a 1960s-era Oregon mental ward.

For the prison staff, the logistics of transporting a complicated set and 30 prisoners were daunting. For the cast and crew, the six-month journey into the play, through rehearsals and character studies and improv games, and then out beyond the prison walls, was transformative and surreal. It was the first time in years some had been outside Sterling’s 20-foot walls and razor fences.

The show, produced by the University of Denver’s Prison Arts Initiative, is part of a recent expansion of arts programs inside prisons and jails that dovetails with the movement to rethink a corrections system that now holds 2.2 million people in the United States.

Wendy Jason, the managing director of the Justice Arts Coalition, has counted nearly 350 arts programs behind bars nationwide, double the number that existed eight years ago. California spends $8 million each year on creative-writing workshops, Shakespeare classes and choral music in all 35 of its adult prisons. “Ear Hustle,” an independently funded public-radio podcast about life inside San Quentin State Prison, is a blockbuster with 30 million downloads.

“People are looking for new ways to engage the system and to transform it from the inside out,” Ms. Jason said. “Is it possible? That’s one of the questions that keeps me up at night.”

Advocates for prison arts — who now include many current and former inmates — say that learning to paint or performing a monologue can imbue humanity and purpose into the bleakness of life behind bars. Some studies have suggested that prison arts may reduce disciplinary actions inside prison, though it is unclear whether they and other rehabilitation programs reduce recidivism.

As the Sterling men’s prison bus, lined with wire cages, plugged across the plains on the way to shows, some men got carsick from the unfamiliar speed of the road. They stared at new condos, new highways, new hospitals, new suburbs that had transformed the cityscape of Denver since they had been locked up.

“You see the cities and the lights,” said Terry Mosley Jr., 39, who has been incarcerated since he was 18 for killing an 18-year-old in a fight outside a grocery store. “You don’t get to see those horizon lines. It’s just walls around you.”

The shackling system that pinned their arms to their chests for the ride was called a “black box.” The men said they had not realized that was the same name for a simple theater space.

As the men put together the set, each screw and bolt used to build it — the common room of a mental institution — had to be cataloged and tracked. The set panels — painted with signs saying, “Don’t sit or stand,” and “This is a therapeutic community” — could have fit the play’s setting of a mental ward six decades ago, or an American prison in 2019.

“To build something like this in prison — you have no idea of what it means,” said Vern Moter, 51, who is serving 24 years for fraud and was part of the stage crew.

The men worked with limited supplies to create their props. Rolled-up paper became cigarettes. A box of Little Debbie cakes was painted into a Marlboro carton. The plastic screw-top of instant coffee became an ashtray.

Before the show in Denver, while the men paced the stage to get into character and checked out the acoustics, their run-throughs were interrupted by corrections officers doing their regular head count of prisoners.

“We’re in new territory,” said Ashley Hamilton, who directed the play and runs the Prison Arts Initiative. (She and two actresses from the University of Denver played the show’s female characters, including the villainous Nurse Ratched.)

Ms. Hamilton said she was astonished that the state’s Department of Corrections, which houses about 20,000 inmates, allowed her to direct a play that offers such a clear condemnation of institutionalization. In the last scene, Chief Bromden, one of the patients, smashes through the grates on a window and escapes to freedom.

For Dean Williams, the executive director of the Department of Corrections, bringing artists and audience members into prison was part of a strategy to make life inside prison as similar as possible to life outside. It is called normalization, an idea inspired by Scandinavian countries where inmates cook their own food, interact with people from the outside and have a less adversarial relationship with corrections officers.

“There’s a few of us leading these systems who realize that something’s wrong,” Mr. Williams said. “We’ve made prison a place of starkness, idleness, a place without purpose. Then we’re confused where people get out and they don’t make it. I think that is on us.”

It is a delicate subject in Colorado. In 2013, a corrections director, widely praised for his dedication to reforms here, was assassinated by a paroled prisoner with ties to a white-supremacist prison gang. As the cast and crew prepared for “Cuckoo’s Nest,” a few said that corrections officers asked the men why anyone convicted of violent crimes should have a spotlight and applause.

Several of the inmates said the play allowed them to feel human again. They marveled at being allowed to shake hands with the state officials, lawyers and arts advocates who attended the show. The men said that delving into the “Cuckoo’s Nest” characters — many of them broken and traumatized — had forced them to look inside themselves as well.

“This whole thing is some weird dream,” said Christopher Shetskie, who is serving a life sentence without parole for murdering two women in 1995 and 1996, according to newspaper accounts at the time. He played a doctor in the play.

Amy Mund, who was tied to a bed in her home by Mr. Shetskie before he killed her sister Karen, did not believe he should have the privilege of performing with the troupe.

“He brutally murdered two young vibrant ladies in the prime of their lives,” Ms. Mund said in an email. “I question why he is allowed to participate in plays and travel outside the confines of the prison. As a victim of a violent crime, that does not sound like justice to me.”

Her father, Harold Mund, said of Mr. Shetskie: “I wish him no severe problems, but I also don’t think I want to see him ever in public life.”

Mr. Shetskie said he knew he could not undo his crimes.

“What I have done is tear that person out of the ground, roots and all,” he said. “Maybe through something like this, there’s a chance for them to forgive us.”


Produced by Alicia DeSantis, Jolie Ruben, Josephine Sedgwick and Amanda Webster.

Surfacing is a weekly column that explores the intersection of art and life.

Trent Davis Bailey is a photographer based in Denver, Colo.



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