Theatre Programming in a Women’s Prison in Durban, South Africa

19 Aug

I’m in Rio de Janeiro with my University of Michigan students but trying to catch up on blogging about my South Africa trip before I launch into our adventures in Brazil. More to come soon.

Durban is a lovely beach town.

Durban is a lovely beach town. Since I couldn’t take pictures of the prison, this will have to do for an illustration.

Durban, South Africa is a beautiful seaside town–not exactly the place where you’d expect to find an enormous complex of prisons known as the Westville Correctional Facility. Andy and I were introduced to both Durban and Westville by Miranda Young-Jahangeer, a professor of drama and performance studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Miranda has been doing theatre work inside Westville for the past fourteen years. She’s worked with men and youth at the prison at different times, but she prefers to work with incarcerated women and has focused on them throughout most of her time at Westville.

Miranda drove us about twenty minutes outside of Durban to the prison.  Separate men’s and women’s prisons as well as youth facilities can be found inside the fences of the Westville complex, as can several rows of apartments for prison staff members and their families. One staff person told us that she chose to live inside the gates of the prison because the facility provides bus service for her child to attend the local school. She had lived somewhere outside the prison walls but had chosen to move into the staff housing in the prison complex for reasons of convenience, despite the fact that she does not like her job.

The guard at the main gate to the prison knew Miranda, and she signed a register before we drove through the entrance to the facility. The prison complex is vast, and we did not even come close to seeing all of it. Miranda parked near the women’s prison, and when we entered the building, we each signed a sheet at the front desk. We did not show identification, answer any questions, or get patted down. A guard gave visitors’  badges to me and Miranda (but not Andy because apparently men don’t need them at the women’s prison), unlocked a metal gate, and let us into the prison. Everyone there seemed to know Miranda, and undoubtedly her long relationship with this particular prison made entering it far easier than it would be for other people. In Michigan prisons, even when we know the staff well, my students and I still face some pretty significant security measures–advance security clearance, identification, metal detectors, pat downs, lots of questions about our plans for the day. It felt very odd to be able to gain access to a prison so easily in a country so vigilant about security. Miranda reminded me that the folks who run prisons in South Africa can be every bit as capricious and changeable as their U.S. counterparts. Prison authorities at Westville have have moved or cancelled performances and activities at the last minute, and Miranda has seen other groups try unsuccessfully to gain access to this facility which she and her students enter with relative ease. Prisons are nothing if not full of contradictions.

A prison staff member named Veli has worked with Miranda for many years, helping to set up the theatre workshops inside the facility. Veli’s brother had held the same position at this prison, and when he passed away, she took his place. When I asked Veli if it had taken time to build a solid working relationship with Miranda, she said that took up right where her brother left off. He had had a positive relationship with Miranda and her work in the prison, and Veli saw no reason to feel differently. Veli and Miranda led us up a flight of stairs and into a small activities room with several desks with sewing machines on them. The theatre workshop is on hiatus for a few weeks but will start up again in late August or early September. Unfortunately our travel schedule wouldn’t permit us to make the trip during a time when we could see the workshop in action. Instead we had a conversation with Miranda, Veli, and one of the incarcerated women (whom I’ll call P.) who has been doing theatre in the prison for nearly all of the fourteen years Miranda has been facilitating workshops there.

When P. came into the room, she greeted each of us with big hugs, and I was startled at how comfortable she felt in doing that, particularly with Andy–a man she’d never met. In the U.S. physical contact is strictly monitored, particularly between visitors and prisoners and between people of opposite genders. Often women in prison do not feel especially safe around men, and in the U.S. it would be even more unlikely for a prisoner and visitor to have physical contact with a prison staff person in the room. We didn’t see any male staff members working at the women’s prison, and Miranda tells me that very few male staff work there. That might explain the apparent lack of restrictions on physical touch. However, Miranda also reports that the number of incarcerated women in South Africa who report having been sexually or physically abused is above the global average, which hovers around 80%. This refers to abuse incurred prior to incarceration. I would assume that the predominantly single gender environment in female prisons in South Africa greatly reduces the amount of sexual abuse that women endure during incarceration. After reading an early draft of this blog post, Miranda also noted that P.’s hugging is a cultural signifier of her role as an older woman in the prison, a mother figure. A younger woman would not have hugged us so effortlessly, but P. did so as a way of showing that she trusts us and that we are welcome in her space.

The three of them–Miranda, Veli, and P.–asked about our work and why we were interested in theatre in prisons, and then they told us about some of the workshops and performances they have done together. Miranda teaches both graduate and undergraduate courses in which students come into the prison to do theatre work. Her students will sometimes develop a performance of their own for the prisoners as a way of starting a conversation about a relevant social issue. At other times, the students work with the prisoners to devise an original performance–sometimes in response to the performance the students brought into the prison.

P. loves to sing, and music is an integral part of each performance. Most South African prisons have a choir inside them, and once a year the national Correctional Services will pay to bring the incarcerated choirs from across the country to the same prison to have a choral competition. This astounded me. The only time that I’ve ever heard of prisoners going from one institution to another to perform in the U.S. was for a huge play called The Life of Jesus Christ at Angola prison in Louisiana. For that production, which in recent years has been revived once or twice a year, women from a prison a few towns away are brought to Angola to rehearse and perform in this enormous passion play. That only requires coordination between two prisons.  I can’t imagine what a logistical feat it must be to move incarcerated choirs (presumably men and women) from all corners of South Africa to a single location for a competition. A 2007 documentary film called The Choir follows one group of prisoners to the National Prison Choir Competition.  I haven’t seen the film (if anyone knows how to acquire a copy, I’d be grateful for the information), but I’d love to see both the film and the actual competition itself some day.

Apparently most of the theatre work that these folks have done together in Westville has dealt with social issues of one kind or another, including HIV/AIDS, gender discrimination, and the poor treatment of prisoners. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, this is not a thing we can do in most of the U.S. because prison administrators feel that any critique of the system could lead to unrest or violence amongst the prison population. This does not seem to be the case in South Africa–or at least not in the work of theatre folks and prisoners I met. I was trying to explain to Miranda, Veli, and P. that we can’t even mention prison guards in our plays, and Veli said that if they couldn’t make fun of the guards, they wouldn’t have ever a play.  Mocking the guards has been a major point of comic relief in their productions, and for the most part the guards don’t seem to mind.

In one notable production the women in the prison were responding to the terrible conditions at the prison clinic. The AIDS epidemic was claiming many lives, and often the bodies of prisoners remained in beds at the clinic for days before being removed for burial. This meant that other women confined to the clinic would have to lay for days on end next to the dead bodies of their friends. The play that the women devised about this situation included a character of a particularly unkind nurse in the clinic, and Miranda didn’t realize until the performance of the play that the nurse in question was not only a real person but was being represented in such a way that she was totally recognizable to the entire prison audience. The nurse was in the audience of the performance along with 250 incarcerated women, and at some point during the play, the nurse got up and fled the courtyard where the play was taking place. As the nurse ran away, the women in the audience all raised their arms above their head and shouted “la la la la la,” mocking her in unison. In a bizarre twist of fate, that same nurse ended up becoming a prisoner at Westville sometime later, and she joined the theatre group and became a much-beloved member of the troupe.

A performance like this would have shut down a prison theatre program in the U.S., but seemingly the only enduring consequence of this at Westville is that the audiences for the group’s plays are now much smaller. Big gatherings of the entire prison population for the sake of a performance are no longer possible, but the theatre group endures.

In thinking about the theatre work at Westville, I’m struck by how much national context and culture matter in terms of what is and is not permissible inside prisons. The legacy of Apartheid in South Africa has left people throughout the country with a publicly acknowledged sense that prisons often enforce the unjust whims of the government. In the U.S. we tend to defend our own sense of righteousness and see prisons as one part of the long arm of justice, believing that the people inside them brought all the negative aspects of their confinement upon themselves. During our trip, someone in South Africa told me that everyone in the country knows someone in prison or someone who was incarcerated at some point. South Africa has the highest incarceration rate in the continent, but the U.S. has by far the highest incarceration rate in the world. Yet most of the folks I meet in my own country genuinely believe that they have never known someone who served time. This can’t possibly be true of the majority of us, but the cultural silence and stigmas surrounding incarceration prevent us from having meaningful conversations about it. South Africans continue to struggle with myriad social problems, including mass incarceration, but their ability to speak openly about this particular type of injustice is one of the things that made it possible for a former prisoner to become president and lead the country into a new era of democracy. This ability to acknowledge the problem of mass incarceration fueled by racism has certainly not led to greater justice or a significant reduction in the prison population, but I can’t help feeling like the ability to name and discuss this issue has to be a step in the right direction. How can we move towards a higher form of justice unless we can honestly describe both the world in which we now live and–to paraphrase Ghandi–the change we would like to see in our lives.

Going to the Theatre in South Africa: Warm Havens in a Country Laced with Barbed Wire

11 Aug

I’m behind on my blogging! Andy and I have just arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and tomorrow a dozen of my students will join us here for a two-week exchange program we have with the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (UniRio). More on the exchange (which involves theatre in prisons) in future posts. I’m going to try to catch up on my South Africa blogging and then launch into the Brazil trip. Please bear with me. We had such a whirlwind trip to South Africa that we haven’t had much time to write.

Here we are taking our own picture at the State Theatre.

Here we are taking our own picture at the State Theatre.

During this trip to South Africa, we’ve had the opportunity to catch a couple of plays and see various theatre venues. I was startled to find that so far every theatre space we’ve visited has been part of a large complex of performance venues. Apparently, the Apartheid Era government built huge state-sponsored art complexes in most of the major cities in the nation. We saw a play at the aptly named State Theatre in Pretoria the first week that we were here, and we were amazed at the size of the building. Eleven stories high with eight functioning performance spaces, the State Theatre is overwhelmingly large and a bit confusing to navigate. It has impressive lobbies, a ritzy bar, a full scale opera stage, a large stage meant for musical theatre, a variety of black box theatres, and tons of wing and fly space in the big venues for bringing sets on and off. The grand scale of the place felt a bit bizarre in light of the fact that we saw very few people there.

The building had little lighting outdoors, so when our taxi dropped us off at this enormous stone edifice, we worried that the doors would be locked. We got inside the building and walked the length of it—a long city block—before seeing a single person, who turned out to be an usher. We asked him about where we might find the play we were there to see, and he pointed us up a flight of stairs. We emerged into another lobby with a ticket window and picked up our tickets. We were half an hour early, and the doors to the theatre were locked. A lonely usher tried to talk us into buying concessions from her stand, but we’d just eaten dinner. No other audience members appeared. Five minutes before the start of the play, the doors to the theatre opened, and we took seats in the middle of the audience. It was probably a 100 seat theatre, intimate and thoughtfully designed. About ten other people arrived in the next few minutes and took seats in the rows behind us, but the small size of the crowd shocked me because tickets were so affordable. We paid about five rand, which is less than five dollars, for seats to see professional theatre, and the next week in Johannesburg we paid only ten rand a seat to see a play there at the Market Theatre—a well respected playhouse.

It turns out that tickets to the State Theatre in Pretoria are so affordable because the government still owns and maintains the impressive complex of performance venues. After the performance, we spoke to one of the managers of the theatre who had been on staff there for many years. The State Theatre now has to fund all of the productions that take place there, but they inhabit the space for free. They may not have huge audiences, but the theatre boasts an impressively large staff. There were also two other productions in other theatre spaces in the building that night, and we got to poke our heads into the theatres to watch a little bit of the productions. Both of these other productions were large-scale musicals in Afrikaans. Pretoria remains one of the hubs for the Afrikaans language, and when we were in Durban, Cape Town, and Johannesburg, we heard about plays being performed (in and out of prisons) in the Zulu and Xhosa languages. It makes sense that South African would be such a multilingual nation, given its colonial history, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn how much theatrical activity—even at the largest of theatre venues—takes place in languages other than English.

At both the State Theatre and the Market Theatre the ushers and staff were incredibly gracious, entertaining our questions about the state of theatre in South Africa today and going out of their way to welcome us. On both of our theatre outings, we planned to get a taxi back to our hotel after the performance, and at both theatres someone from the staff insisted on driving us themselves. This has something to do with the relative scarcity of taxis in the neighborhoods of these theatres at the times we were leaving, but I can’t imagine the box office manager leaving his post at a major theatre in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles to drive two foreigners back to their hotel. Everywhere in the world that I have traveled, I’ve met kind and warm theatre folk, but in South Africa the theatre people we encountered went well out of their way to be good to us, though we had never communicated with them before and were not successful in our efforts to compensate them for the time and gas money they spent on us.

The swimming pool at a fancy high school in Joburg.

The swimming pool at a fancy high school in Joburg.

I can’t quite get over the contrast between this spirit of trust and generosity and the intense atmosphere of security that I’ve described in my earlier posts about this trip. We were often warned by locals that we should not walk the streets of any of the towns we visited at night because danger would befall us. We took their advice and didn’t chance anything, and in the daytime we walk through crowded streets which included some rather aggressive street hustlers. I believe that South Africa does suffer from many real and present dangers, as any place with such poverty, unemployment, and racial tensions would. However, the theatres we visited, including the huge and lovely Baxter Theatre in Cape Town, were some of the only buildings we entered that did not require us to pass through security and had no barbed wire around the perimeter. Everywhere else we went, it seemed there was a cultivated sense of heightened threat. The ritzy high school across the street from our hotel looked just like a prison from the outside on the ground, but you could see from our window on one of the higher floors of the hotel that the school within the walls looked more like a country club. Even the University of Witswatersrand in Johannesburg, where I gave a talk at the end of our visit, was outfitted like a prison. We had to show ID and pass through locked doors and gates to get to the classrooms and professors’ offices, and inside the buildings, quite a few classrooms had bars across the doors that could be locked separately from the regular doors. (This also seemed to be the case at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, though we only saw that campus from one of its parking lots.)

Fantastic knitting store in Pretoria--surrounded by barbed wire.

Fantastic knitting store in Pretoria–surrounded by barbed wire.

Why then were the theatres and the theatre people so open? It’s hard to say, though I don’t doubt that we appeared nonthreatening at least in part because of our foreignness and phenotypic whiteness (at least in the context of South Africa—we did have a funny moment along the way where a train conductor found Andy Martínez to be an unpronounceable name). That, however, doesn’t explain the lack of guards or barbed wire or other barriers to entrance at the theatres. The theatre is, and ought to be, a space where the public feels welcomed and invited, but so many other places we visited which strive to welcome paying customers—like the amazing knitting store we visited in Pretoria—are hidden behind forbidding walls and rows of barbed wire. These theatres were ostensibly in no better neighborhoods than the universities, and part of the reason the theatre staff was so eager to take us back to our hotels had to do with concern for our safety. Why then do they not need security comparable to that of the universities and shops that surround them?

This is pure conjecture on my part, but perhaps the universities and shops are better guarded than they need to be. I asked a university professor in Johannesburg whether all the walls, barbed wire, and security cameras everywhere were necessary. If one’s home didn’t have such defenses, would it automatically be targeted for break-ins and burglaries? She said no one in South Africa knows because everyone has a security system. Another professor in Durban, when I asked her about the metal bars she had to unlock to get into her office on campus, told me that the “whole country is a prison.” She and her husband have two young children, and theirs is the only house on their street that does not have a fence or a security system. They have never had any crime on their property, and they actively cultivate positive relationships with their neighbors.

Crime and fear in South Africa are both potent and real forces, but perhaps, like mass incarceration, the theatre of security—the ostentatious presentation of defenses and the constant talk of danger—creates more divisions and problems than it solves. The theatres we visited were some of the most open, welcoming, spacious places that we saw in South Africa, and despite the long national tradition of confronting Apartheid and incarceration in its plays, the theatres were some of the only places we went in South Africa that did not remind me of prisons.

Themba Interactive: South African Theatre and HIV/AIDS

3 Aug

Andy and I took an overnight train from Johannesburg to Durban, and we are now staying at a most wonderful bed and breakfast called Essenwood House. If you are ever headed this way, you should not miss it. The house is beautiful and quite comfortable, and the gardens are enchanting.

Here I am at Collectors Treasury.

Here I am at Collectors Treasury.

The day before yesterday we explored a rather artsy section of Johannesburg called Maboneng where we’d heard rumors that we might find a good bookstore.  Ever since we went to Constitution Hill, I’ve been wanting to find a book that would tell me more about Mahatma Ghandi’s time in South Africa and what brought him here in the first place. Constitution Hill has a pretty neat little bookstore, but they were sold out of Ghandi books. We made our way over to a place called Collectors Treasury where we saw the largest collection of used books in the Southern Hemisphere! It was actually pretty overwhelming, and I wish books didn’t weigh so much in one’s luggage.  I’d bring armloads of them home if I could. Still didn’t find the Ghandi book I’m seeking, but I’ll keep enjoying the hunt.

A few days ago, during our first day in Johannesburg, Andy and I went over to the offices of a local applied theatre company called Themba Interactive. This nonprofit  is really a public health organization that uses theatre as its primary mode of educating its target audiences. They work almost exclusively on issues related to HIV/AIDS, and some of the key sites for their work are in prisons throughout Gauteng (the province in which Johannesburg is located) and beyond. We had the pleasure of speaking with two of Themba’s staff members, Sila Chatikobo and Sne Makanya.

Andy and I have now met with participants in three different prison theatre projects in South Africa, and all of the people with whom we’ve talked have stated that prison theatre in South Africa tends to address HIV/AIDS in one way or another. In the other parts of the world where I’ve done similar research public health concerns do emerge in some aspects of prison theatre, but those ideas range from drug abuse to domestic violence as well as sexually transmitted diseases. In no other country have I seen so unified a concern. Of course, it should come as no surprise that South Africans would be preoccupied with HIV/AIDS. According to AVERT–a U.K.-based HIV/AIDS charity organization:

South Africa has the biggest and most high-profile HIV epidemic in the world. In 2012, an estimated 6.1 million people were living with HIV, with 240,000 South Africans dying from AIDS-related illnesses.

South Africa now provides free HIV/AIDS medication to its citizens, both in and out of prison, and has reduced the number of HIV-related deaths in the country significantly since 2009. However, the social stigmas attached to HIV often prevent infected individuals from seeking treatment or support.

Themba Interactive uses theatre to train students and incarcerated people to be peer educators in their communities. Themba employs both a theatre company and a set of facilitators who train the peer educators. In a prison setting Themba programming usually plays out in several phases. First, the Themba theatre company devises and rehearses an original play about the issues they wish to address for this particular audience. Then the company performs inside the prison and afterwards holds an interactive discussion with the audience of prisoners. At this point prisoners have the option to sign up to participate in a series of workshops that will train them to be peer educators.

Each workshop has around twenty-five incarcerated participants. Over the course of about ten sessions, the Themba staff members educate the workshop participants about HIV/AIDS (or any other topic at hand, like sexuality in prison or gender violence, yet always with an HIV/AIDS focus) and train them to teach this information to others. The workshop participants then become peer educators, holding sessions of their own with others in the prison, and Themba staff members come back at various times throughout the following year to observe these sessions and support the peer educators. At the end of a year and the completion of a series of their own informational sessions for other prisoners, the peer educators receive a certificate from Themba showing that they are now trained peer educators.

During the training for peer educators, Themba’s staff facilitators use theatre to make the educational process interactive. Sne Makanya said that many other organizations seeking to provide information about HIV/AIDS will show up with a PowerPoint presentation and a lecture, condescending to the prisoners as they pass along information rather than seeking their partnership in combating the epidemic. Makanya also noted that theatre enables folks in prison to take on a role other than that of a perpetrator, enabling them to discover that they have both agency and responsibility in their own lives and in their communities. She emphasized that ensemble work in the theatre teaches us to be respectful to and inclusive of others–the opposite of the isolating effect of the social stigma attached to positive HIV status. Theatre also helps the peer educators in training to rehearse their roles as leaders before they facilitate sessions of their own with others in the prison. Storytelling, role play, and team building games are all a part of Themba’s training, as are exercises in music and visual art. The program works in both English and Zulu to make the training accessible to as broad a population in the prison as possible.

Themba Interactive’s process is remarkable in its longterm follow up to the initial performance work. Interestingly, the theatre component fades with time. Though Themba’s initial encounter with a given population takes the form of a performance and much of the peer educator training is done in theatre games and role playing, theatre is not essential to the peer education work led by prisoners for other prisoners. Themba’s staff members told us that while the theatre games function effectively when led by Themba facilitators, the peer educators are reluctant to use them in their group work with other prisoners and often defer to the separate drama group within the prison when Themba staff suggest that peer educators incorporate performance into their sessions.

Since Themba is so actively engaged in fighting the AIDS epidemic in South Africa, the organization has more avenues for funding than your average nonprofit theatre organization. In fact all of Themba’s funding comes from agencies with interests in public health rather than the arts, including USAID, the South African government, and a health organization based in Germany. The public health focus of the work also helps Themba to maintain positive relationships with South African Correctional Services. Rather than gaining entry to the prisons through a staff person who works on recreation or special activities, as many other prison theatre companies would, Themba works with the staff of the health clinics at the prisons. Themba staff members reported to us that when they cease programming at a particular facility, the prison nurses are sad to see the folks from Themba leave because their work really does improve the health of the prisoners and lightens the load of the nursing staff by encouraging prisoners to take their medications. Apparently, in the fight to curb the AIDS epidemic, many health care providers in South Africa spend inordinate amounts of time convincing people to receive treatment rather than actually treating them, so the work of groups like Themba proves invaluable to those who would prefer to put all of their resources into providing health care. The South African prisons not only support Themba’s work but also enable (and encourage!) the peer educators who come out of this program to hold group sessions with their fellow prisoners.  In fact the prisons will actually pay wages to the peer educators and count this work as their prison jobs or sometimes give them positions as caregivers in the prison hospitals. In the United States prisoners are often punished for gathering in groups for purposes other than sanctioned religious services, and the ability for prisoners to educate one another in U.S. prisons remains rare. The idea that the work of Themba’s trained peer educators is readily accepted and supported in South African prisons may be an indicator of the profundity of the AIDS crisis here rather than a trend toward progressive empowerment of incarcerated people. Regardless, it provides enormous benefit to the prisoners and should be used as a model for educational programming in prisons around the world.

Like most nonprofits, Themba’s funding comes in term-limited grant cycles, which at present means that their work in the prisons ceased on the Thursday before our arrival and cannot begin again until they secure another grant. Like the theatre itself, this kind of grassroots work is all about the embodied moment, and the experience of it can be fleeting and ephemeral if the proactive public health message that Themba conveys is not maintained and supported. If people stop speaking publicly about the facts about HIV/AIDS and retreat into the myths and stigmas that have contributed to the epidemic, then the disease will continue to spread, particularly inside prisons where infection rates are high and unsafe sex a common practice.

Not all peer educators trained by Themba continue to do the work of HIV/AIDS education for prolonged periods after their certification, but some do. The Themba staff told us about a woman who has been leading peer education groups in her neighborhood since her release from prison and about others who have helped a great many of their fellow prisoners.  Empowering the incarcerated to become well-informed leaders in their own communities provides a lasting and potent strategy for fighting the war on this epidemic. South Africa’s greatest human rights victories were won because of the extraordinary work of formerly incarcerated people like Nelson Mandela, and undoubtedly Themba Interactive is making critically important interventions–what Jorge Huerta calls “necessary theatre”–in this fight for the very lives of hundreds of thousands of South Africans.

Constitution Hill in Johannesburg

31 Jul

Andy and I have traveled onward to Pretoria, South Africa because last night we saw Mating Birds by Lewis Nkosi– a prison-themed play at the State Theater. You’ll get the full report on that in a later post.


Here I am in part of the Old Fort section of the Constitution Hill prison in front of what looked like a little guard house.

Here I am in part of the Old Fort section of the Constitution Hill prison in front of what looked like a little guard house.

My last post introduced our trip to Constitution Hill, but I didn’t have the energy last night to finish the story or to convey how incredibly moving our trip to the former prison was. In a room just off the Visitor’s Center of the museum, a short film provides an introduction to the prison. The opening of the film shows formerly incarcerated men and women returning to Constitution Hill to visit the place where they had endured years of deprivation, humiliation, and even torture. The film asserts that in coming back to the prison, these people are “reclaiming their dignity.” Just as the museum serves to remind all visitors of South Africa’s troubled past, the formerly incarcerated are living evidence that such struggles are neither forgotten nor distant from the present day.

South Africa is currently celebrating twenty years since the fall of Apartheid in 1994–often labeled as “twenty years of democracy” in a number of tee shirts and banners that we’ve seen since our arrival here. The legacies of colonialism, segregation, and brutal oppression remain apparent here, as they do in my own country, and the divides created by this history are nowhere more apparent (in any country) than inside prisons. During Apartheid and in the present, blacks were and are incarcerated at disproportionate rates to their white counterparts (as has long been and remains the case in my country), and at Constitution Hill one can see quite clearly that blacks filled a far greater part of the prison and that whites had significantly superior living conditions.

Blanket sculptures of black male prisoners sleeping.

Blanket sculptures of black male prisoners sleeping.

We saw the black men’s section of the prison first. Despite the fact that some of the prison’s buildings no longer stand, we saw room after cement room where men slept like sardines in a can.  They had only blankets or thin pallets on which to sleep, and they were forced to sleep so close together that each man’s head was wedged between two sets of other people’s feet. An open toilet stands in the corner of each of these rooms, and the poorest and weakest men had to sleep nearest to the stench of the sewer. The museum has allowed the peeling paint, cold walls and floor to speak for themselves, adding little more than a few tasteful signs to help explain how the rooms were inhabited. Rough gray prison blankets with a few white stripes at each end have been made into skillfully constructed “blanket sculptures” to show where the bodies of the prisoners would have lain at night. These stand ins for actual people prove not only more artistic but also more moving than the tacky mannequins that dwell in so many museum tableaus. Constitution Hill prisoners actually made these sorts of blanket sculptures during their incarceration.  They also engaged in paper maché and other forms of sculpture.  The blanket sculptures on display at Constitution Hill’s museum today were made by two formerly incarcerated men who returned to contribute to this part of the museum.

100_1976Such evidence of participation by former prisoners in the curation of the museum appears throughout the many exhibits on Constitution Hill, as do opportunities for visitors to respond to what they are seeing. Message boards appear throughout the exhibits, posing specific questions to visitors and encouraging them to share their thoughts about things like whether the people described in the exhibit were unjustly imprisoned or what Ghandi’s most significant legacy to South Africa might be. The notion that visitors’ active participation in the museum, indeed in South Africa’s ongoing history, falls in line with the objectives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s efforts to capture the experiences of everyday people alongside the largest events in South African civil unrest. Most of the visitors’ comments I read throughout Constitution Hill expressed gratitude for the museum itself and for the opportunity to learn about and share in the history recorded there.

Constitution Hill had quite a few isolation cells throughout its many buildings. In the white male section of the prison, the isolation cells had a small desk bolted to the wall and wooden floors. Nowhere in the prison did we see a bed. It seems that everyone slept on pallets or the gray wool blankets on the floor. The white prisoners’ isolation cells were stark and intimidating, even though they were about twice as large as the isolation cells for black men and women. I couldn’t help wondering what those slight differences would mean to a captive.  How much comfort and human dignity does a wooden floor lend as opposed to a cold concrete one? What fragment of one’s sanity and emotional stability might be better held in place by a few more feet of space in which to move?

The inside of the door to one of the isolation cells, covered in graffiti left by its inhabitants.

The inside of the door to one of the isolation cells, covered in graffiti left by its inhabitants.

I held myself together until we saw the black men’s isolation cells. As I have felt in most of the prisons I’ve visited around the world, there are places where the pain seems to radiate out of the walls and floor with a cold intensity. The walls have seen so much suffering that they appear to have absorbed it. We were able to walk inside the cells and close the doors behind us to have a clear sense of what the people who lived in this place endured. The back of each metal door was covered in writing etched in the paint. The small courtyard outside the isolation cells is covered by a network of barbed wire laid out in a grid so that even when you step out of isolation into the sun, there’s a cruel barrier between you and the sky.

In a separate area of the prison women served there time away from men. The isolation cells for black women now contain museum exhibits.  In front of each of the doorways to the cells, a large placard bears the photograph and a biographical sketch of one of the women who served time on this wing. Inside each cell a video monitor displays pieces of interviews done with the women featured on the placards, and beneath the video screens, artifacts of the women’s lives are on display. One woman says in her video that she had the most beautiful wedding dress imaginable, and she waited a very long time for her incarceration to end so that she could show it to her family. The bright yellow gown hangs in the cell beneath the video screen that plays her story.

I could tell you far more about this incredible museum and its moving tributes to its former inhabitants–particularly the poignant memorials to Ghandi and Mandela–but time and energy do not permit me to do so.  If you have the opportunity to visit Johannesburg, you should not miss Constitution Hill. The museum reminds all of us that our active participation is required in order for democracy to adequately function, much less flourish, and the exhibits at Constitution Hill encourage their viewers to grapple with notions of justice, freedom, and democracy because such things should never be taken for granted.

Andy and I have had quite a few more adventures since our trip to Constitution Hill, but they will have to wait for another blog post. We’ve been so busy that we’ve hardly had time or energy to write! More to come as soon as I am able. I’ll leave you tonight with one last image from Constitution Hill. These are the doors to the Constitutional Court, home of South Africa’s Constitution and one of the country’s greatest symbols of democracy. The door is carved with the twenty-seven rights guaranteed by the nation’s constitution, and the rights are written in a variety of languages, including sign language. May we each take a page out of the South Africans’ book and reflect on the rights that we have and on the struggles of those who have been and are being denied human and civil rights.


New Beginnings: My Father’s Return and My Trip to South Africa

29 Jul

Regular readers of this blog, if indeed there are any after such prolonged silence, have waited for a long time for news of my father’s parole, and I can now proclaim, with greatest joy:

My father is home at long last! Halelujah!

To protect his privacy at this sensitive moment of reentry, I will not say much more than that at this time, but I must express my unending gratitude for the support that so many of you have shown us lo these twenty years. Having loved ones stand with us through this long period of imprisonment has made the journey more bearable, and now we can celebrate together in this new chapter of our lives. My father is a most remarkable man, and I am so very happy that many of you can get to know him in the flesh now that he is home. The blessings cannot be measured.

With this immense joy in my heart, I have set off for South Africa to spend two weeks investigating prison theatre programming here as part of the ongoing research for my book (under contract with Methuen Press) on prison theatre around the world. Previous travels have taken me throughout the United States and to Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Brazil.  Last summer I blogged rather extensively about my trip to Brazil (read about prison visits here and here), and I’ll be doing so again in just a couple of weeks when I’ll travel from South Africa to Rio de Janeiro to meet up with a dozen of my students from the University of Michigan to continue our exchange program with the faculty and students of UniRio who do theatre work in prisons.


Andy at dinner with the awesome family-sized dhosa (Indian bread) that we ordered. It was as long as the table, and we ate almost all of it!

Andrew Martínez, an extraordinarily talented doctoral student in UCLA’s World Arts and Culture/Dance program, has come to South Africa as my research assistant, and he’s helping me to document all of the things we are learning about prison arts culture and programming here. I’ll be blogging about our journey over the next four weeks in South Africa and Brazil as we try to discover how and why so much theatrical activity is taking place in prisons in these countries.

After nearly two days spent on airplanes and in airports, Andy and I arrived in Johannesburg rather late on Sunday night. We slept in the next day, trying to shake off our jet lag, then ventured out to find dinner and see a bit of the local neighborhood. We’re staying in an affluent part of town called Rosebank, on the north side of Johannesburg, and despite the apparent wealth of the neighborhood’s residents, every home and building looks like a prison. Everything here sits behind ostentatious walls–great solid things with metal spikes and rows of concertina wire surrounding them.  There’s a very wealthy high school just across the street from our hotel, and from the window in our room we can see a fancy swimming pool and a soccer field made of pristine astroturf.  When we walked up close to the school, all we could see were walls and lots of barbed wire.  The day care center across the street was similarly barricaded, as were all of the impressively large homes on the surrounding streets.  I don’t know how to compare this to a wealthy neighborhood in other places I’ve visited. In Beverly Hills or a very ritzy neighborhood I once visited in Cairo, Egypt, you might see high walls around a home and ornate gates, but in those places barbed wire and spiked walls would seem out of place and even signify a diminishment in wealth or class status. In Johannesburg it seems that the more successfully imprisoned you are in your home, school, or place of business, the better off you are.

Today we began our research in earnest, starting with a trip to Constitution Hill in the neighborhood of Braamfontein. Built in 1892, Constitution Hill served as a prison for most of its history, with a brief interlude as a military outpost during the South African War (1899-1902). The prison endured for more than 100 years, housing both men and women–many of them guilty only of the crime of being black during Apartheid. A great many political prisoners served time there, including Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and Albertina Sisulu. In the mid-1990s after the fall of Apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s release from prison (he spent only a brief period at Constitution Hill and the majority of his incarceration at Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town), the prison at Constitution Hill shut down. Several of the buildings there were torn down, and the bricks used to build the new Constitution Court, home of a new era of judicial process which was previously unknown in South Africa. Mandela himself lit the Flame of Democracy–an active fire which burns in a designated bowl built into one of the former stairwells of the prison, now enshrined as a memorial.  The remaining prison buildings at Constitutional Hill (and there are quite a few of them) serve as a museum–by far the best curated prison museum I have yet seen.

I’ll have to reflect more on the museum at Constitution Hill in my next blog post and can then also fill you in on the great meeting we had today with members of Themba Interactive, a local theatre company that educates prisoners and other groups about the health threat of HIV/AIDS. I will also do my best to post some pictures of our visit to Constitution Hill because the internet in our hotel room tonight does not seem to want to let me upload any more pictures this evening. (Sorry, Mom!)

I bid you all good night from our little corner of Johannesburg.

Juvenile Life without Parole in Michigan

11 Feb

Ronald Simpson, the father of a murdered child, has written a very beautiful piece in the Detroit Free Press describing why he opposes Senate Bill 319 which makes juvenile life without parole a sentencing option for children in Michigan.  Since we do not deem children under the age of eighteen to be old enough to make mature decisions about things like voting or alcohol use, why would we want to lock them up for the rest of their lives rather than encouraging them to grow learn from their mistakes, and become productive citizens in their adulthood?

The Atonement Project: Restorative Justice and the Arts

10 Feb

The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) is excited to announce an opportunity to be part of its new Atonement Project initiative—an arts-based restorative justice program that seeks to start meaningful conversations about crime, incarceration, and reconciliation.

Anyone whose life has been touched by crime or incarceration in any way is invited to join a weekly Atonement Project arts workshop in either Detroit or Lansing. Workshops are facilitated by University of Michigan students enrolled in PCAP Director Ashley Lucas’ Atonement Project course. Workshops began February 1 (Detroit) and February 4 (Lansing) and run for 12 weeks. Contact Ashley Lucas at for more information or to register. You are welcome to join even if you already missed the first weeks of the workshop.

Project Description

The Atonement Project is an innovative, arts-based approach to addressing issues that many crime victims and people who have committed crimes find difficult to discuss (i.e. forgiveness and reconciliation). We wish to create spaces, both through an interactive website and through arts workshops in prisons and in communities affected by crime, where the arts and creativity can help us bridge the divides created by crime and incarceration. The ultimate goal of the Atonement Project is to bring together people whose lives have been shaped by crime so that we can join our efforts to prevent further harm to our families, loved ones, and communities.

Drawing on a broad variety of art forms, including visual art, creative writing, theater, music, poetry, and dance, the Atonement Project uses creative expression to engage participants in tough conversations about crime, punishment, and reconciliation. Technology, including the Atonement Project website, video, digital photography, social media, and interactive online tools will enable web users to have access to the products of our arts workshops and participate in larger conversations about forgiveness and atonement.

The use of creativity and art in examining issues related to atonement and reconciliation is a central component of the Atonement Project. Many people respond more openly to and are able to connect with the experiences of others when they read their stories and experience visual art. The art created in our workshops and displayed on our website will focus on the following three areas of the atonement process:

  • Acknowledgement: Recognizing how we have hurt and how we have been hurt by others.
  • Apology: Apologizing to those we have hurt, and apologizing to ourselves for the hurt we have caused ourselves.
  • Atonement: Atoning through direct actions in our community, with people we have hurt as well as ourselves.

Community Workshops

Anyone whose life has been touched by crime or incarceration in any way is welcome to participate in community workshops, and there is no cost involved in participation. Workshops will take place once a week for two hours and will run for twelve weeks. We ask that participants try to come to all workshops, but we understand that not everyone who participates will be able to attend every single week.

Each workshop will be a space for participants to collaborate as a group on creative writing, performance, and/or visual art. No prior artistic training or previous affiliation with PCAP is required. Everyone is welcome, and no particular skill set is necessary for participation.

Detroit Workshop

Saturdays, 1-3pm

February 1-April 19, 2014

U-M Detroit Center (South Studio)

3663 Woodward Ave, Detroit, MI 48201

Lansing Workshop

Tuesdays, 6:30-8:30pm

February 4-April 22, 2014

Michigan State University

Snyder-Phillips Hall C301
362 Bogue Street (close to the intersection of Bogue and Grand River)
East Lansing, MI 48825

Contact Ashley Lucas at to register.

About the Prison Creative Arts Project

The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) was founded in 1990 with the mission to collaborate with incarcerated adults, incarcerated youth, urban youth and the formerly incarcerated to strengthen our community through creative expression. Housed in the University of Michigan’s Residential College, faculty and students work with community members both inside and outside prisons to engage in theatre, dance, visual art, creative writing, slam poetry, and music.

More information, including a link to the Atonement Project website (which we hope to launch later this month) will appear on this blog soon.

Meanwhile, my dear friend Margarita Mooney (a sociologist at Yale) visited our class and wrote a fantastic blog entry of her own that explains our work beautifully.  Thank you, Margarita, for your support of the Atonement Project and for your wonderful visit to the Atonement Project class!


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