What a mad couple of weeks! I was beginning to think that Meg would never recover but she displayed remarkable resilience and drove us both out to Lockhart to teach an Expressing Creativity workshop through Truth Be Told for incarcerated women at the prison there. As we entered the building, I felt that now unfamiliar rush of nerves. What were the rules at this facility? How should I conduct myself? Would there be a guard in the room with us? What was the staff like – friendly, hostile? As strange as it is, the Travis County jail now feels familiar and almost (dare I use the word?) safe, in that I know its rules and quirks. Megan Comfort’s fantastic book, Doing Time Together, documents how women with boyfriends or husbands in prison become institutionalized themselves, in order to navigate the system. Although I believe this happens in a much lesser degree to volunteers, I too find myself accepting certain modes of behavior, dress and enforcement in order to maintain my position within the jail. This comes back to the question: how does one work in an institution without becoming of the institution?
Once past the razor wire and patdown necessary to enter the Lockhart prison, the interior of the building itself looks like a horrible high school – white walls, white linoleum floors, blue trim everywhere and not a window in sight. Florescent lights bathed us all in their bleaching glow, and we walked past a line of male inmates, all dressed in dark blue scrubs, before turning in our car keys to a man behind a plexiglass window and finding our classroom. Three women from Truth Be Told helped us navigate the building and set up our room, a small, carpeted affair without windows. Unlike the Travis County jail, where the women are brought up as a group and all come into the room at the same time, the women at Lockhart trickled in one at a time, holding lay-ins (small pieces of paper that gave them permission to be in our class) and also dressed in dark blue scrubs. Their uniforms, although dehumanizing and unflattering, were almost a relief to see after the black and white stripes of Travis County.
We had a chance to chat with the first arrivals before the whole group came in. Everyone seemed excited and happy to be in the class, which I titled “Dream a Little Dream.” As Meg described in an earlier post, we focused on the women’s dreams and goals for the future. Many women expressed a desire to help young people create better lives for themselves. Other women spoke of their children and one woman yearned to go to Paris. We talked about what they need to achieve these dreams (family, resources, friends, money, freedom), how their dreams could sometimes work against them (when they set unrealistic goals for themselves and then beat themselves up about not reaching them) and how painful it can be to share a dream with someone only to have it dismissed.
A new challenge arose in this group of women; three of them only spoke Spanish. At one point in my life, I was somewhat fluent in Spanish but that skill fell by the wayside as I used it less and less. Quite frankly, I’ve been surprised that this hasn’t come up before and should have been better prepared. As it was, I explained to the Spanish speakers (in my halting Spanish) that I would do my best to translate as I could and I asked Spanish/English speakers in the room if they could help me. This translation introduced a new layer into the workshop and a level of frustration for myself that I found almost intolerable at first. As Meg spoke, I frantically tried to think how to say it in Spanish only to open my mouth and draw a complete blank. Our workshops revolve around verbal communication and I wanted the Spanish speakers to understand as well. At one point, I realized that I hadn’t spoken in about five minutes because I was so tied up trying to think how to explain it all in Spanish. Poor Meg was charging forward while I struggled to remember the word for “body”!
I finally found my focus again and used English, some broken Spanish and many hand gestures to get my points across, but I now know on a visceral level that I need to get my Spanish back in shape. I apologized to the Spanish speakers at the end of the class but they waved off my apology and while I said, “I need to learn more Spanish!”, they told me, “Well, we need to learn English!”
As the class ended, the women asked if we would be back next week. Truth Be Told can only hold these workshops three times a year, and they have a drumming class scheduled for the next one so I don’t know when I’ll be back at Lockhart. I was surprised at how ready the women were to open up and participate; there was none of the wariness we regularly get at the jail. These women are serving longer sentences than those at Travis County, however, and every one of them has specifically signed up for this workshop. I hope that we can go back, and working with Truth Be Told was a great experience.
Last night was the annual Volunteer Dinner at Travis County Correctional Complex. Over fifty people attended and it was good to be in a room full of people who volunteer their time at the jail. Meg and I led an exercise called “These Hands” for the group and although I was nervous as all get-out, we successfully engineered audience participation and managed to foster a sense of community in the ten minutes we had. For those unfamiliar with “These Hands”, the basic principle involves asking people to think of something they have done with their hands. Each person then says, “These hands have” and say that activity. I pulled about four audience members up onstage with me to demonstrate. “These hands have driven across the country.” “These hands have held my grandchild.” “These hands have painted Picassos!” Each person then adds a gesture to go with their sentence. I developed a new step with the inmates, that of saying “These hands will”, so they can focus on their future as well as their past. Last night, we heard “these hands will teach my grandchildren to play checkers like my grandfather taught me.” “These hands will dance.” “These hands will teach my niece to cross the street.” In a moment of inspiration, I asked the audience to say “These hands” for the final round. I gestured to the audience and everyone said, “These hands”, before each person’s gesture and sentence. It was lovely and it involved everyone in attendance. The greatest compliment I received afterwards was when several people told me that they would be using this exercise in their own classes and groups.
After the presentation, the Command staff served us barbeque, with Sheriff Hamilton dishing up the sausage. Meg and I ate on benches outside of the chapel (donated by the tv show Friday Night Lights) and commented on the beauty of the sunset. While we ate and enjoyed the weather, I realized the strangeness of this event happening inside an institution where so many are locked up, eating terrible food and probably not having such a good time as we were. There is a kind of disconnect that happens in your mind when, of your own free will, you are able to come in and out of place where so many must stay. If you think about it too much, you can go a little crazy but if you don’t think about it, you run the risk of assuming that hey, jail ain’t so bad. This is the same institution that gives me a good dinner and congratulates me for the work I do! What are all these people complaining about?
After dinner, Jennifer Scott presented me the Travis County Sheriff’s Office PRIDE Service Award for outstanding service to the inmates of Travis County. I think I might be prouder of this award than almost anything else I’ve ever done. Receiving this also made me think about just how much an award, a plaque can really mean to a person. I’d like to incorporate some kind of awards that I can give to women in the program because really, putting it on a plaque and presenting it in front of a group of people made me feel so recognized. Like this thing I’ve been working so hard on is finally being seen. And if that kind of recognition can make me feel so wonderful, what can it do for other people?
Sheriff Greg Hamilton made a short speech – he said that he always told his officers that the only difference between them and those serving time at the jail was that the inmates had gotten caught. “We’ve all made decisions in our lives that could have landed us here. Just because they’re inmates doesn’t mean that they’re not people.” After all the hoopla going on in Arizona, to hear a Texas sheriff say that was wonderful. He talked about his support for programming and for education to help what is a “captive audience.” He thanked us all for our time and efforts, and said that he feels this community is getting bigger and stronger because of it. I actually spoke to him for about five minutes at the beginning of the evening, and he expressed genuine curiosity in how the women responded to the theatre workshops and what we actually did with them. I hope he’ll attend one of our future performances!
And while it’s fantastic to hear the sheriff express support for these programs and initiatives, it also struck me that we need these kinds of social services before people end up incarcerated. When incarceration is your main form of educational and social support, chances are it also becomes your only option. The war on drugs means that a huge percentage of those people who are behind bars were put there because of a lack of comprehensive rehab programs that might serve them better than jail time. Taking women out of their families and communities to imprison them punishes and disrupts the lives of a whole community, not just of the individual. We need to be seeking alternatives to imprisonment while still supporting programming and education within its walls.
While we can help empower the individual and encourage her to make better choices in her life on the outside, as teachers we can’t control many of the societal pressures and circumstances that lead people to the inside in the first place. Until we accept that the criminal justice system in this country targets minorities, over criminalizes non-violent offenses (especially drugs), and imposes draconian sentences because of the “strikes” policy, we can’t begin to fix the larger picture. As a theatre maker, I can only do so much but I’ll do what I can to help those who are now on the inside. As a person continuously outraged by injustices in the system, I respect and cherish those who are working on the big picture and encourage you to continue your efforts.