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In Rio with Teatro na Prisaõ, or Romeo and Juliet Live to See Another Day

9 Jul

Knowing that we wouldn’t be able to take anything but our passports into the prison with us today, we weren’t able to take our cameras to get pictures of our latest adventures.  This photo was taken a few days ago when Liz Raynes was

100_1707standing in front of the Shakespeare mural which adorns the side of UniRio’s theatre building.  This image is apropos for this post because our morning was spent watching the Bard’s work get reinterpreted by incarcerated women.

We rose early today in order to eat breakfast and get to UniRio’s campus by 7:45 AM to meet Professor Natália Fiche and her students.  Fiche and the Teatro na Prisaõ program have been doing theatre work in prisons for the last fifteen years.  Every Tuesday the program goes into two prisons on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro–one women’s facility and one men’s.  We visited the women’s prison this week and will go to the men’s next week.

When we arrived at the prison, we got off the bus while those who were headed to the men’s prison continued on to another location.  Fiche and five of her students led us to a large metal gate where a guard slid open a small panel just large enough for him to look through.  Then he opened up a door in the gate and admitted us two at a time, searching the large bags of costumes that the UniRio students carried with them as he admitted them.  Andy, Flores, and I were near the back of the group, and as those in front of us were being admitted through the door, the guard decided that Andy and Hector would not be allowed to enter because they were wearing shorts–albeit long ones.  Someone dug through the costumes and found two pairs of stretch pants that they could wear.  Both pairs of pants were bright pink, but the guys were very good sports about wearing them for our visit to the prison.  The guards confiscated the offending shorts and held them at the front gate until the end of our visit.

Professor Fiche told us that they had never given her a problem about people wearing shorts before.  Apparently, prisons all over the world have this in common; the dress code seems to shift often and arbitrarily so that visitors cannot possibly keep up with the rules.  We face this all the time in the United States.  In fact, during the last year when my family members have visited my father in a Texas prison, the dress code for female visitors has become much more highly regulated than ever before.  Now when the guards decide that a woman’s clothes are too tight or low cut, have too much writing on them, or are deemed unfit for any other reason, they force women to wear blue hospital gowns over their clothes.  Visitors to prisons, particularly wives and girlfriends visiting their loved ones, tend to want to look their best and have often been very careful in dressing themselves for the precious few hours they can spend with the people they love.  My mother and I have witnessed at least two women forced to wear the hospital gowns burst into tears when the men they loved arrived in the visiting room; the women’s shame and grief becomes palpable to all visiting families around them.  If Andy or Hector were ashamed of their makeshift outfits today, they did not show it.  They laughed good-naturedly about the incident and moved right along with their day.  In this case, the shaming force that prisons often inflict upon their inhabitants and visitors did not spoil our trip.

Once we got inside the prison gate, a guard took our passports, asked us to sign the visitor’s log book, and had us walk through a metal detector.  We then followed another guard across a courtyard and into a cement building.  The room in which Teatro na Prisaõ meets is concrete on all surfaces, like the rest of the building, and has a small raised stage at one end.  The dozen or so incarcerated women in the group welcomed the UniRio students, Professor Fiche, and even us visitors with smiles and hugs.  Those of us who have done work in U.S. prisons were surprised to see that even with a guard in the room, male volunteers and female prisoners were allowed to hug without repercussions.  All of the guards we saw beyond the front gate were women, and at least one of them stayed in the back of the room the whole time we were there to watch what was going on.  We gathered from the UniRio students that this is not usually the case; during their regular workshops, the guards don’t bother to watch.  Because we were there visiting from abroad, the workshop was not only watched by a guard but also visited by the warden.  Professor Fiche had previously received approval over email to video record  today’s workshop, and she had set up a tripod with a camera on it at the start of the workshop.  The warden came into the workshop shortly after we got started to tell Fiche that she was denied permission to film after all.

Teatro na Prisaõ uses both improvisatory games based on theatre of the oppressed and traditional theatrical scripts as starting points for its work.  In the past they have not held performances for audiences but have done theatre exercises strictly for themselves within the space of the workshop.  Now Professor Fiche is working to try to gain permission from the prison authorities to allow the women to perform twice: once for their families and once for the other women in the prison.  Whether or not they will be able to do this, they are currently in rehearsals for an original devised performance based on Romeo and Juliet.

The UniRio students and incarcerated women set up chairs to make an audience for us visitors, and they put a small partition upstage right.  This served as an area for costume changes and also became Juliet’s balcony when she would poke her head over the top of the partition to talk to Romeo.  The women had a great time with the costumes that the UniRio folks had brought, and I have to say that the costumes themselves were very diverse and rather impressive–well worth the women’s enthusiasm.  They even had makeshift swords made out of paper machê for the fight scenes.

While the women were trying on costumes and the debate over filming the workshop was happening, we had some time to talk to the workshop participants before they began their rehearsal.  One woman told me about her five children, two of whom have died.  Of the remaining three, two live with her mother.  In my limited Portuguese, I didn’t understand what she was telling me about the whereabouts of the third child, but it seemed important to this woman that we know that she had a life and family beyond the walls of the prison.

This workshop is using the story of Romeo and Juliet but not Shakespeare’s text–even in Portuguese translation.  The UniRio folks have given the women a basic outline of the plot, and the women improvise scenes using Shakespeare’s characters and plot–or at least as much of the plot as they liked.

This particular adaptation of Romeo and Juliet begins on the streets of Verona where the Montagues and Capulets are sizing each other up for a fight.  This opening scene was very funny because one actor in particular (I believe she was a Capulet) was doing such a good job of goading her opponents with gestures and facial expressions.  As in Shakespeare’s original, Prince Escalus (the lead government official in Verona) appears and stops the fight with a speech about keeping the peace.  The rival families dispersed with another round of intimidating looks and hand motions.

Then the whole cast attends the masquerade ball at the Capulet residence.  Everyone appeared in sequined mardi gras masks and danced to baile funk music as though they were at a modern day nightclub.  The cast was obviously having a great time and seemed surprised and excited by this choice of music.  The UniRio students had brought a small boom box and played a number of selections of background music at different points in the play.  Apparently in prior rehearsals, they’d been playing more classical dance music, and the women in the workshop found it boring and wouldn’t do much dancing.  With baile funk as their inspiration, the dance party became a whole lot of fun for the cast and audience alike.

Romeo and Juliet fall in love at the dance, and when Romeo leaves the party, he is so overjoyed that his happiness is positively contagious.  He runs to his friends to sing Juliet’s praises and then collapses in a lovelorn heap downstage center to contemplate the many virtues of his love.  Juliet’s head pops up over the partition in the back of the stage, and she begins a soliloquy about Romeo’s virtues.  He quickly leaps to his feet and runs to stand beneath her balcony.  They have an enthusiastic exchange and run off shortly thereafter to be wed by the friar.  The two women playing Romeo and Juliet were allowed to share what appeared to be a pretty decent kiss, albeit with Juliet’s wedding veil between them–a level of physical contact that I would not expect to be allowed in prison theatre in the U.S.

At this point in the story, we encounter a most excellent bit of comedy along with a casting change.  In order to give more women the opportunity to have significant roles, a new actor takes over for Juliet just after the marriage scene.  An UniRio student named Paolo had been telling me about the double casting before we arrived at the prison.  He referred to the first actor as “the long haired Juliet” and the second as “the short haired Juliet.”  The long haired Juliet played the character as demure and a bit shy, while the short haired Juliet was far more outgoing and demonstrative in her love of Romeo.  The first time we see the short haired Juliet, she is helping Romeo to sneak into her bedroom so that they can consummate their wedding night.  She darts out from behind the upstage right partition, grabs Romeo by the arm, and drags him into her bedroom.  A number of actors were hidden behind the partition, and they enacted Romeo and Juliet’s love making by throwing articles of clothing into the air along with whoops and shouts.  We, the audience, loved it.

Romeo emerges from the wedding night all aglow with his love for Juliet and stumbles into the street fight that kills both Tybalt (Juliet’s cousin) and Mercutio (Romeo’s dear friend).  Then Juliet distraught by this news takes a sleeping potion to fake her death.  Romeo finds her, believes her to be dead, and then proceeds to get falling down drunk.  (The women unanimously disliked Shakespeare’s ending to the tragedy and decided to change it.)  Romeo passes out, and Juliet is first worried that Romeo is dead, then very irritated at Romeo for having gotten drunk.  She shakes him awake and forces him to his feet where he stumbles around still drunk and trying to explain himself, yet overjoyed by Juliet’s unexpected recovery.  The families reconcile.  Another baile funk dance party ensues.  Curtain call.

After the applause died down, the women and UniRio facilitators cleared away our chairs and formed a circle.  Not only did they include all of us in their circle, they deliberately spaced themselves between us so that each visitor held hands on both sides with an incarcerated woman.  The music began again, and one of the UniRio students jumped into the circle and started dancing.  We all cheered.  He pulled one of the incarcerated women into the middle of the circle and then exited to rejoin the group so that the woman in the middle could have the spotlight.  We danced this way for quite a while, each person in the middle bringing a new person into the center of the circle before exiting to rejoin the group.  Then we held hands again, and Prof. Fiche talked to the members of the group about how important their weekly attendance at the workshop is.  A short discussion ensued, and then we broke the circle.  Out of what felt like nowhere, a table appeared with food and drinks that the UniRio students had brought with them to the prison, and we were all encouraged to eat and drink as we mingled and talked about the performance.  When the food and drink were gone, we all hugged and thanked one another before we left–the women heading off into a different area of the prison as we made our way back to the front gate to reclaim Hector and Andy’s confiscated shorts.

We gathered at a little store across the street from the prison, shared more refreshments, and petted a very friendly stray cat while we waited for the UniRio bus to return from the men’s prison to collect us.  On the hour-long bus ride back, the UniRio students and Prof. Fiche shared snacks with us and much conversation about the theatre work that each of us do, both inside and outside prisons.  Someone produced a tambourine from a backpack and played it expertly as all the UniRio students sang loudly in Portuguese.  We arrived back at the university full of good spirits.  We had planned to meet up with this group again on campus two days from now for their weekly Thursday class in which they plan their activities for the coming week’s workshop at the prison, but as part of the nationwide demonstrations and protests in which many Brazilians are currently engaged, all teachers and students at public schools, including those at UniRio, will be on strike this Thursday.  Fortunately we’ll be here another week and can attend a Thursday class after our trip to the men’s prison next Tuesday.

For now, we’re left to ponder this Romeo and Juliet who chose to live rather than die.  When Jodie and I traveled to Cuba shortly after the release of our book in 2011, we saw the Ballet Nacional de Cuba perform a version of Swan Lake in which the swan Odette not only survives but marries Sigfried and has a big dance in which the chorus of swans become ladies in waiting.  After seeing both this take on Romeo and Juliet inside a Brazilian prison and the Cuban Swan Lake, I cannot keep from wondering if unexpected happy endings are signs of resistance.  When one cannot secure one’s own freedom from incarceration or an oppressive government, then perhaps imagining worlds in which Romeo, Juliet, and Odette can overcome their previously inevitable tragedies gives performers and audiences alike a sense of hope.  We cannot always escape the devastating situations in which we find ourselves, but, like another great character from classical drama–Segismundo in Calderon de la Barca’s La vida es sueño–at least we can dream, especially when we’re in the theatre.

Addendum to Day Two in Rio Post–Thoughts from Sarah Thompson

7 Jul

100_1676Here’s another photo from the start of our journey to the favela yesterday in the UniRio van.  From left to right, you’ll see Liz Raynes, Jodie Lawston, Sarah Thompson, and me.  After I posted my reflections on yesterday’s adventures, I received a very thoughtful email from Sarah, adding her impressions of what we saw in Maré (and teaching me how to add accents to words in my blog posts!).  Sarah has been a real gift to us on this trip because as a recently graduated Latin American Studies major from the University of Michigan (Way to go, faculty at LACS and the Brazil Initiative for doing such an excellent job of training students!), she speaks excellent Portuguese and is on her third trip to Brazil.  She has been serving as translator for those of us with limited language skills, and she knows a great deal about local customs and culture, including practical things like how and where to catch the bus.  As you will shortly see from her comments on our time in Maré, she is an excellent critical thinker with much compassion and insight.

Sarah’s response to my blog post from yesterday begins with a reference to an art exhibit that Isabella Porto described to us.  The Crossing Rio exhibition took place at the Centro de Artes de Maré and used art to try to bridge the gaps between various communities in Rio.  Here’s what Sarah wrote:

Anything I’d add would be about the idea of Crossing Rio and combining the two cities, the South Zone (where we are) and the North Zone (where Maré is). As a student of urban development, I found it fascinating to learn that that was the focus of the previous art exhibition, as well as the proposed theme of the play at the end of the year [devised by the children in the second workshop we saw, the one at the Centro de Artes de Maré]. Particularly poignant was how this linking of geography through the barriers of socioeconomic class, quality of life, and so many things also came through the lens of using history, linking past and present. I think I already commented to you about this a little but but I found it so great how they were using the past, like the case of the Revolta da Vacina [one of the historical events featured in the second workshop's play], to make the children reflect on, and think critically about, the protests today. There were tons of moments like the girl saying that she just submitted herself to the power at the expense of her friends without thinking. I saw it in that group but even in the children’s group [at the third workshop in the hospital]– part of the protests have been against Rede Globo, the media monopoly, and by using the newspaper clippings and ending with a discussion encouraging the kids to take liberty with their scenes and use the facts to build a story, pointing out this is what the media does anyway, is a really subtle way to get them thinking politically. And about their own role in the story. It seemed to all be about making sure the residents of Maré, who like all favela residents have been told by the government for generations that they are off the grid, a blemish on the city of Rio, making sure that they understand how much they are a legitimate part of this world, significant in quantity and perspective. So cool.

Thank you, Sarah, for these reflections!

More on our time in Rio soon!  A group of us are going tonight to see a production of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard in Portuguese!

Corrections Corporation of America exploits tax loophole

22 Apr

The front page of this morning’s New York Times describes the latest move in the Corrections Corporation of America’s unceasing efforts to find new ways to make money on the backs of prisoners.  They have found a giant loophole in U.S. tax law that enables them to avoid all federal taxes by declaring themselves a real estate trust.  In practice this means that the folks who engage in the utterly unethical practice of financially investing in keeping a certain segment of our population in captivity now do not have to pay any federal taxes which would fund many of the social programs that help combat mass incarceration.

Jodie Lawston and I have both previously written on this blog about the inextricable links between economics and mass incarceration, and it always boils down to the simple fact that as long as major corporate interests and the government itself have strong financial incentives to lock up lots of people and keep them there for extended periods of time, we cannot reasonably believe that our criminal justice system actually functions to punish or prevent crime.  Instead it works to make sure that people who do not have the resources to defend themselves will continue to be disproportionately incarcerated and used as a cheap–or in the case of Texas prisoners, free–labor source.

The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is not a real estate trust, and our government should not enable  it to escape taxation.  In actual fact the CCA has been entrusted with the lives of human beings who live under conditions that no outside party can effectively regulate.  This means that the health and well being of thousands of people are subordinated to the corporation’s main objective, which is, of course, to make money.

Good Friday, Medical Care in Prison, & the Anniversary of Pepper Ramirez’s Death

29 Mar

The following post was originally delivered as a reflection on Good Friday as part of a service at St. Titus Episcopal Church in Durham, North Carolina, in 2011.  My husband and I had been asked to write reflections based on Bible verses connected to Good Friday, and this was mine.  A dear friend of my father’s died in prison shortly before Good Friday the year that I wrote this, and I post this here today to honor his memory and to remark upon the sad state of medical care in Texas prisons, which only appears to have gotten worse since I wrote this. –Ashley Lucas

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Luke 23:34

                  We tend to think of forgiveness as something personal—a thing we ask of those whom we have wronged directly: the person whose car we rear-ended, the loved one to whom we spoke in anger, the acquaintance about whom we thought unkind things.  This sort of forgiveness gets us through each day by helping to mend our relationships with those around us, repairing and strengthening our ties to those with whom we interact each day.  Without it we would be in shambles, but God’s forgiveness is much larger than we can imagine.

When Jesus said, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.  He was not addressing his executioners, who had just nailed him to the cross.  He was speaking to God, his Father, asking a parent to forgive not just those who were there that terrible day at Calvary.  Jesus asked God to forgive each of us throughout the millennia that would follow his death because he knew we would continue to harm one another and that we would need to be forgiven for an enormity of offenses.

As the child of a prisoner and a scholar who studies incarceration, I think often about the fact that Jesus was a prisoner executed by a government with the approval—indeed the zealous insistence—of the populous.  We in North Carolina are subject to both state and federal governments which execute those around us, and the majority of our fellow citizens are in favor of this practice, though few of us know much about life on death row or the individuals who are being killed.  However we personally feel about the death penalty, the fact that it is part of our culture and our system of government is well-known and at times hotly debated.  We know that this is a thing we do, even if we don’t fully understand it.

I awoke this morning wanting to speak about offenses that we almost never realize we have committed.  Just before last night’s Maundy Thursday service, I learned that my father’s best friend had died.  My father has been held captive in Texas prisons since 1994, and over the years he has grown close to a fellow prisoner named Pepper Ramirez.  I never got to meet Pepper, and all I know of him is what my father has told me in letters and in visits.  From what I understand, Pepper ended up in prison because he killed a man who was harming his sister.  Though I do not know the length of his sentence, I am sure he served well over a decade, perhaps two.  Pepper was a good friend to my father, told funny stories, and made big plans for what he would do when he got out of prison.  He had a large and loving family who desperately wanted him home and who remained steadfast throughout the many years of his incarceration.

In the last few years, my father’s news about Pepper always had to do with his health.  Pepper suffered from severe glaucoma which required medical treatment.  Medical care in Texas prisons is a terrifying thing.  In order for a prisoner who is held in a rural area to receive treatment, he or she must be handcuffed, shackled, and chained around the waist to another prisoner.  These patients are then loaded onto a bus and driven to another prison where they may spend a week waiting to be transported to the medical prison.  For men on my father’s unit, the Robertson Unit where the men wait before they are taken to the medical unit is one of the most violent prisons in the state.  Several years ago when my father’s friend Pepper was on his way back from the medical unit where he had been treated for his glaucoma, he was held at Robertson for several days.  The violence surrounding him at Robertson was so stressful that he had a heart attack and was taken back to the medical unit for open heart surgery.  Pepper never received even one doctor’s visit for follow up treatment after his open heart surgery.  He would not risk enduring the trip back to the medical prison.  My father tells me that many men would rather die from their ailments than have to take that trip.  It is widely believed by both prisoners and staff that the process of receiving medical care in Texas prisons is deliberately constructed to discourage the ill from seeking treatment.  It costs the state less to let the elderly and infirm die of their own accord.

Earlier this week my father’s prison was undergoing a shake down.  Pepper has been very frail in the years since his heart surgery, and he collapsed after carrying his possessions either to or from the gym.  I do not know if an emergency response team could have saved his life, but there was not one on hand.  The only doctor on staff is the elderly country doctor who delivered most of the guards who work in that prison, and even he is not on duty every day.  Pepper Ramirez died this week on a cement floor far from his family, and I feel responsible for his passing.

We live in a country where we think we know what justice is, where we are told that get-tough-on-crime legislation makes us safer, where we are encouraged not to think of prisoners as people but as beings not like us who have forfeited their civil and human rights by being irredeemably bad.  The jury that convicted Pepper Ramirez likely did not know that he would not be given adequate health care.  They may not have considered what his family would endure year after year as they watched him deteriorate.  Even if they had thought about these things, they may have felt that he, and perhaps also his family, deserved what they were getting.  I am not a witness to Pepper’s crime, but I am a secondary witness to his character and his suffering.  He was a good friend to my father, and for this I will be forever grateful.  Please pray today for Pepper’s family.  Pray for my father and the other men who lost a friend and who saw too well the fate that might await each of them.  Pray for all of us that we might not forget the lives and struggles of those who are deliberately hidden from us.  Pray that we find ways to end violence, addiction, and suffering through compassion, treatment, and forgiveness.  Pray for guidance to stop cycles of institutional violence.  Pray that we may learn not to be passive bystanders to the suffering of others.

Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.

Solitary Confinement for Children in Prison

27 Mar

Rock Center with Brian Williams recently aired a story about the terrible things that minors–some as young as nine years old–endure in solitary confinement in United States prisons.  Watch a clip of this story aired on the Today Show here.

If criminal justice administrators routinely agree that minors are so much at risk in adult prisons that they must be kept in solitary confinement to protect them, shouldn’t we rethink our decisions to send children to prison?

All About My Mother: A Mother’s Day Tribute to the Woman Who Raised Me in a Prison Visiting Room; a post by Ashley Lucas

13 Apr

Children with an incarcerated family member have little choice about whether or not they will be able to maintain meaningful and regular contact with an imprisoned loved one.  The adult(s) who raise that child in the absence of incarcerated family members get to make all of the decisions and bear the many burdens of enabling a child to build relationships with his/her incarcerated relative or of choosing to keep that child from the person behind bars.  Either way, these adults inevitably struggle emotionally and intellectually (and almost always financially) with the many convoluted difficulties of parenting a child whose life is shaped by incarceration.  This Mother’s Day I pay tribute to all moms and grandmothers (biological, foster, adopted, or otherwise) raising children of incarcerated parents.

My mother never dreamed that she would one day be a prisoner’s wife.  My father’s incarceration came as a shock to our entire family–one that we are in some ways still reeling from seventeen and a half years later.  Our family was economically devastated by the legal battles we waged for years before my father’s conviction, and my mother had given up her teaching career when I was born so that she could stay home to raise me.  With my father gone from our home, she had to return to work and became the sole breadwinner for our family.  I was fifteen years old and very frightened and disoriented by the radical changes in my life.  My mother was certainly overwhelmed, confused, and bereft, but she dedicated herself to raising me and to enabling my father to continue to raise me from inside prison.

For my remaining years of high school, she drove me once a month eight hours in each direction to and from the prison.  She bought me stamps and stationary at every gift-giving holiday and helped me to scour craft stores for rubber stamps and ink pads to decorate my daily letters to my father.  She photographed practically every moment of my senior year of high school so that my father could see all that I was doing.  When I was accepted to Yale University and considered declining their offer, she convinced me that I had to take this opportunity, though it meant leaving her alone and not being able to visit either of my parents more than twice during the school year.   She helped me send back my financial aid package three times until they finally gave me enough scholarships and loans to make my tuition affordable, and she went further into debt herself to make sure I would be able to complete my undergraduate education.  She made me see that living each of my days to the fullest would ultimately be a greater gift to both her and my father than my staying home to be near them.

In the beginning, we understood nothing about how prisons operate, what my father’s days looked like, which of our fears were overblown, and which things we had not yet learned to fear.  My mother faced the challenge of not just figuring these things out for herself but also of finding ways to explain them to me.  She bears my suffering along with her own and never complains about the burdens I have given her to carry.  Together we learned this world of visits and lawyers and collect phone calls and the nightmares we do not name.   She taught me to pay attention to what the people around us also endure, to talk to the other families in the visiting room and listen to their stories.  She made me realize that we are not alone in this experience and that in many respects we are much more privileged than most.

One day when we were driving away from the prison, my mother stopped on the side of the road to pick up a woman who was walking down the dirt road into town.  She had obviously just had a visit at the prison, too.  She had no coat on that cold day, but she wasn’t hitchhiking, just walking home.  My mother drove her ten miles to the shabby house where she rented a room, and in the course of that car ride the woman told us that she had moved to this dusty little spot in the middle of nowhere Texas just to be near her husband in the prison.  Her whole family was in Oklahoma, and she couldn’t keep more than a part time job because of her disabilities.  She volunteered at a nursing home and walked the ten miles to the prison and back once a week.  She didn’t own a car, and the soles of her shoes were worn thin.  For months after that, every time we went to the prison, my mother scanned the road for that woman and always asked my father for any news he had of her and her husband.  My father contacted a prison ministry group who visit the prison and asked them if they would help find a coat and rides to and from the prison for this lady, but we never knew if any of the prison ministry folks ever caught up to her.  My mother watches all the families we see in the visiting room and is so grateful when she finds a way to help one of them, mostly in the form of information or advice about the prison system.  She works as an administrator for a public school district, and often teachers will send kids to talk to my mother about what is happening to their incarcerated siblings, parents, or uncles.  She joined a prison ministry team at her church and helps folks coming home from prison navigate their new lives.

My mother always encouraged me to speak my mind and to have no shame about my father’s incarceration.  Her faith in me and her support of my scholarship and performance work enabled me to write my play Doin’ Time.  When I performed at the women’s prison in Dublin, Ireland, my mother came with me.  During the post-performance discussion, the women in the prison seemed even more moved by my mother than they had been by my play.  They were in awe of her support of my work, and many of them felt that their own families would not have wanted them to speak publicly about incarceration because of how its stigma reflects on them.  My mother’s pride in my work moved them to tears, and many of them wanted to shake her hand or hug her after the show.

I hesitated to get engaged to my now husband, long after I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him, because I couldn’t bear the thought of my father not being present for my wedding.  When the time came, my mother walked me down the aisle, gave me away, and sat next to a beautiful sign she had made, which stated that that seat was reserved for my father and the many other incarcerated people we love who could not attend the wedding.  She has never tried to replace or ignore my father’s presence in my life, and she always finds a way to honor him and the love we share.

My mother gave me my relationship with my father after he went to prison.  If she had not accepted his phone calls, taken me to visit, encouraged my letter writing, I would not have continued to know him as well as I do now.  The prison has taken much from each of us, but it cannot take our family; my mother wouldn’t let that happen.

Matt Puckett, May You Rest in Peace; a post by Ashley Lucas

21 Mar

At 6:18 PM yesterday the state of Mississippi took the life of Larry Matthew Puckett.  His death was premeditated, and surely both Matt and his family were tortured daily by the knowledge of his impending death.  Since Matt was given a death sentence on August 5, 1996, he and his loved ones lived through sixteen years overshadowed by the terrorizing fact that his execution loomed before them.  Matt Puckett will never again suffer the agonies of this life, but his family surely will not ever be fully at peace again, just as the family of Rhonda Griffis, whom Matt was convicted of murdering, cannot ever be at peace.  We have added one murder to another.  Matt was killed in the name of a very misplaced notion of justice.  He was killed in the name of all Mississippi citizens, and in a sense all of us who live in the U.S. bear some guilt in his death because we are constituents of a federal government that condones state sanctioned murder.  We, the People, have done this to Matt, his mother, and the rest of his family and friends, and I, for one, am deeply sorrowful and ashamed of what has been done in my name, what will certainly be done again many times over until we demand a new kind of justice–one that seeks to make us more humane and less vengeful.

Many of Matt’s supporters believe that he did not commit the murder of Rhonda Griffis, but whether he did or not, his death will not bring her back to life.  Last night those who loved Matt have been cast into a shared category of grief with those who loved Rhonda.  All of these people now must mourn a person whose life was cut short by another person’s hand.

When I attended the Prisoner’s Family Conference a few weeks ago, I met an extraordinary woman named Charity Lee whose very existence is the best argument against the death penalty that I have ever heard.  Charity was six years old in 1980 when her father was murdered.  Her mother was tried and acquitted of murder-for-hire.  In 2007 Charity’s thirteen year-old son Paris stabbed his four year-old sister Ella to death. Charity, like most mothers, loves both of her children immeasurably, and she has, in different ways, lost them both.  Paris is incarcerated in a youth facility and will soon be transferred into an adult prison population where he will likely serve another twenty years before his release.  Charity works tirelessly to help both the families of murder victims and the families of people accused or convicted of murder.  As a member of both groups, she believes that healing and reconciliation among these families is not only possible but necessary.  She started the ELLA Foundation, named for her daughter, with a mission “to prevent violence and to advocate for human rights through education, criminal justice reform, and victim advocacy.”  Charity’s work and that of groups like Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation will one day bring about the end of the death penalty in the United States.  When those who have lost what is most precious to them because of violence demand an end to the state’s ability to kill its own citizens, we should listen to them.

Rest in peace, Matthew Puckett, Rhonda Griffis, and Ella Lee.  Those of us who remain must prevent future murders and seek ways to protect the safety of all people without further violence.

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