Archive | August, 2011

Doin’ Time in Canada, Sept. 29-Oct. 2, 2011, by Ashley Lucas

31 Aug

One of Razor Wire Women‘s contributors, Simone Davis, has been very gracious in inviting me to perform my one-woman play, Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass where she teaches at the University of Toronto and at Grand Valley Institution for Women.  She has also arranged through her many connections for me to perform at neighboring Trent University.  This will be my first time performing in Canada and also my first visit to a Canadian prison, where I look forward to meeting the women who participate in Simone’s Inside-Out classes. (For more on the Inside-Out program, read Simone’s chapter in RWW and see the program’s website.)  Thank you to Simone, her colleagues at the Universities of Toronto and Trent, and the staff at Grand Valley for making this trip possible.  Special thanks also to my good friend Adam Ulloa, an incredibly talented graphic designer, who made this amazing poster for the Toronto performance.

For more on the dates, locations, and times of Doin’ Time‘s first Canadian tour, see the Appearances Tab on this website.

Drama Therapy in Prison Contexts by Ashley Lucas

27 Aug

When Jodie forwarded me the link to a news story about the use of drama therapy in a women’s prison in Lebanon, I was reminded yet again of the power of the arts in difficult times and places.  Theatre has been used for thousands of years to document, describe, and reflect the most violent, arduous, and incomprehensible of human actions and emotions.  In the past few decades, many trained therapists have learned to use theatre as an effective tool to help patients tap into their traumatic life experiences and productively think about, discuss, and reenact events which shape their current emotional states and behaviors.

The Geese Theatre Company is perhaps the best known group which uses drama therapy in correctional settings, and they have worked with youth and adults in prisons as well as prison staff members in countries around the globe.  Though I have not seen their work personally, a certified drama therapist friend of mine who has studied their techniques uses them to great success with the court-involved youth with whom she works in North Carolina.

It should be noted that all theatre happening in and around prisons is not necessarily drama therapy.  Though many people casually attribute therapeutic qualities to all artistic activity, especially when its conducted by or with disadvantaged populations, real arts therapy requires a licensed therapist who is trained to guide people through the emotional and psychological issues raised by particular artistic exercises.

My admiration extends to those practicing drama therapists who take on the many challenges faced by the incarcerated and those who work with them.  May this work bring about greater healing and peace in our troubled world.

Save the Last Dance for Hope by Je’Anna Redwood

26 Aug

Day after day, as discouragement seeps into the hidden crevices of my heart—a sound low and pulsating reverberates in the far distance.  Time slides by and suddenly I find myself gasping for the precious air that discouragement steals.

I raise my weary eyes to gaze into the distance.  On the horizon, there shimmers an object too small to decipher, but I judge that it is approaching.  Slowly and meticulously, it inches closer as questions swirl around doubt and trepidation.  Days turn into months, and still no announcement of its arrival.

Try as I might, to facilitate or plan for it, nothing can prepare me for its unexpected appearance.  Suddenly, it stands at my door beckoning me to come outside.  Standing in all its glorious wonder—it pushes away the lingering doubt, fear, and utter discouragement.  The brilliant, translucent, yet opulent rays that spring forth in its eternal beauty capture me, encircling me.

The pulsating reverberations now have become a lilting symphony of tinkling chimes, fluted and stringed instruments.  The sheer giddiness of their intoxicating affects cause me to feel as though I were floating and twirling, dancing on a cloud with my new companion.

As the music slowly fades, I am standing on solid ground with a renewed sense of empowerment as my future looks so much richer.  The one thing I have strived for, worked toward and finally achieved has been given to me.  Those two life-changing, hypnotic words, PAROLE GRANTED, echo within me.

One hundred and fifty-five days go by and although the Governor’s decision is five days late, I do not release what I grasp in my hands.

Suddenly, a crashing, screeching cacophony splits the serene silence while absolute dread marches though, announcing PAROLE DENIED.

Shaken to my very core, shivering from the devastating assault, I turn to my companion and whisper, “I will save the last dance for you, Hope.”

Je’Anna Redwood is one of the incarcerated contributors to Razor Wire Women.

Phone Calls from Prison, or Why I Hate Phone Companies, by Ashley Lucas

25 Aug

Those of you who have a loved one in prison undoubtedly share my frustration with the phone companies who control all phone calls from prisoners. Those of you who have not faced the difficulties of attempting to communicate with someone in prison might be interested to know about the ways in which major telecommunications companies make money off prisoners and their families.

All of my experiences with phone calls from prison deal with the Texas Department of Corrections (TDC) and county jails in Texas, but I understand that the cost and accessibility of phone calls from prisoners vary in different state and federal prison and jail systems. However, to the best of my knowledge all phone calls made from prisons or jails in the United States are collect calls at rates significantly higher than those paid by folks making collect calls in the free world. (Side note: “Free world” is a common phrase used among prisoners, their families, and prison scholars and activists to describe the world outside of prisons. Despite the fact that there’s a whole lot about the world out here that is not truly free, it’s a convenient term for distinguishing between what is inside the prison and what is not.)  The only instances in which prisoner phone calls are not collect occur when states set up an option for those receiving calls or prisoners who have money on their personal prison accounts to prepay for the phone minutes.

For the majority of my father’s incarceration, we were not able to speak on the phone regularly.  TDC’s policy in the 1990s was to allow each prisoner only one fifteen-minute, collect phone call every ninety days.  All calls, even today, are recorded by the prison, and at times in those early years I could hear a guard breathing on the phone line as I spoke to my father.  My father hardly ever used his phone calls, saving them in case of emergency.  Occasionally he would call us on Christmas or our birthdays, but he had no control over what time of day he might be allowed to call us.  One Christmas he called at 4 AM because that was the only time the guards would give him access to the phone.  We were terrified when the phone rang at that hour, thinking that someone had died, but it was such a rare treat to speak to him on the phone that we got over our shock and enjoyed the sound of his voice.

At some point in 2006 or 2007 (I can’t remember the exact year, but it was after I’d moved to North Carolina to work at UNC Chapel Hill.), we were granted phone privileges on a different order than we had previously experienced.  Texas prisoners now have a certain number of phone minutes to use each month.  I believe it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 minutes a month, and prisoners can only make collect calls to people who are on their visiting lists who have agreed to register their phone numbers with a company called Securus Technologies which TDC contracts to handle its prisoner phone service.  Calls can only last fifteen minutes at a time, but prisoners can use the phone pretty much any time of day.  Those of us receiving calls get a monthly bill for the charges to our phone lines.  Each fifteen minute call costs me $7.85, or a little over 52 cents a minute.

For people like me who live very far from the prisons where our loved ones reside, phone calls help enormously to provide a semblance of family life.  Having the ability to speak to my father on the phone on a regular basis means the world to both of us.  That’s why it’s so upsetting when something goes wrong with our phone calls, and something seems to be wrong at least every other month.

Thank goodness I have a sister who also receives calls from my father because when my phone line is blocked from receiving calls, I don’t know it until my father calls my sister to report that he can’t get through on my line. My sister has as many problems with the phone company as I do, but fortunately we seldom seem to experience our phone troubles at the same time.  The most common reason for our lines becoming blocked is that we’ve reached our charge limit of $85.  It took us years to figure out how this was happening.  Both of us pay our monthly bills for the phone service as soon as we receive them because we never want to miss a phone call from our father, yet we have regularly had our numbers blocked despite always paying our bills on time.  For the first few years we had the phone service, we could never figure out how to get a real person from Securus to speak to us about what was going on with our lines.  We could only reach an automated phone menu.  Only within the last year have we finally been able to connect with a real billing person from Securus, and that person informed me that even though we’d never been told about this, there is an $85 limit on the amount of an outstanding balance that any call recipient from a Texas prisoner can have with Securus.  Apparently in many of the other state prison systems with which Securus has contracts, all calls must be prepaid by those receiving them or the prisoner her/himself.  Texas does not require this, so the alternative is that even if we have not missed a payment or been late, if last month’s and this month’s calls add up to more than $85 before your check for last month’s bill has reached Securus and gotten through about five days of processing at their company before it hits your billing statement, your phone line is blocked from receiving prisoner calls.  Since neither Securus nor TDC notifies us when this happens, we only find out when my father attempts a call and cannot complete it.  When I asked the person at Securus how I could prevent this from happening in future, she recommended that I pay more than my monthly balance each billing cycle in order to prevent future blockage of my line.  As much as I don’t like doing this, it’s now common practice for me.

Despite the fact that my current overpaid balance with Securus is now -$23 and some change, I have not been able to receive phone calls from my father since the beginning of August.  This is not entirely Securus’ fault, but they have certainly exacerbated the situation.  It all began when Sprint, my cell phone provider, tried to convince me to upgrade my cell phone to a plan that would enable my husband and I to come out of the dark ages and receive email on our phones.  We acquiesced to that, and the representative from Sprint then tried to convince us that we would save money by enabling them to take over our home phone and internet service, which we currently get from Time Warner Cable.  We entertained this idea but vetoed it before the end of the sales pitch when we realized that Sprint wanted to replace our home phone line with an extra cell phone.  Considerable confusion  ensued when I tried to explain to this Sprint telemarketer somewhere in Southeast Asia that my father needed to be able to call me from prison on a land line.  However, I was very firm in rejecting Sprint’s offer to take over my home phone service.

Then I went to the ATHE conference in Chicago and discovered that I got a funny recorded message when I tried to call my husband on our home line.  My father soon discovered that he couldn’t call our house either.  I called Time Warner to report the problem, and they said that Sprint had taken over my home phone number, despite the fact that I had never given them permission to do so.  Several phone calls to Sprint and Time Warner got the issue resolved, but it took over three days to process, which meant that by the time the line was fixed I was in Las Vegas for the SSSP and ASA conferences and missed the window of opportunity when I’d been home where my father could call me.

Upon my return from Las Vegas, I received a message from my sister letting me know that our father told her he still could not get through on my phone line.  I called Securus who told me that my land line was now registered in their system as a cell phone and was therefore blocked.  I explained the situation to them, and they instructed me to get a copy of my bill from Time Warner and send it to them.  Since my Time Warner bill comes to me online now rather than in paper form, I had to go to their website to request a copy of the bill.  I was unable to do this because I needed a Customer Code, which can be found on one’s paper bill, which, of course, I didn’t have.  I called Time Warner and found that their billing department had closed for the night, just five minutes before I called.  The next day I was able to reach someone at Time Warner, got an email copy of my bill, and sent it to the folks at Securus.  After about four email exchanges with Securus, I received the following email from them:

Be advised that the Time Warner statement you’ve submitted does not contain [your] phone number.  Also if your issue has been resolved (Time Warner corrected the issue by having the number read as a landline), there is nothing we can do until the information has been received electronically and updated in our database.  As of right now 8/23/11 5:22 p.m. CST our system still reads it as a cell phone.  Is there anything else we can assist you with?

I replied:

Dear Staff at Securus,

I do not know what further documentation to submit to you to prove that my phone is a landline.  Is there any way that I could have a person at Time Warner call you to verify my information, or perhaps could you call them?  I do not understand what information gets sent to you electronically or how that data is transmitted, but [my number] is a land line with digital phone service provided by Time Warner Cable.  Please tell me what else I can do to resolve this issue, and I will gladly do it.

Thank you,

Ashley Lucas

What I actually wanted to say to them was:

Dear Staff at Securus,

How is it that you can always find a reason to block my phone but are never helpful in resolving issues with my account?  Wouldn’t you make more money off already exploited prisoners’ families by having effective customer service?  How do you sleep at night knowing that you make such exorbitant profits off people who are struggling to maintain family ties to prisoners and thereby are doing one of the only things that actually helps prevent recidivism?

Do you have any idea how much these phone calls mean to us or how devastating it is not to receive them?  What would you do if you only had the time and funds to spend a total of twenty-four hours visiting your father in person each year?

For God’s sake, have a heart.

Sincerely,

One of Your Best Customers

Though I didn’t say that to them, they responded to my last real email with this:

Thank you for contacting Securus Correctional Billing Services.  We have finally received the information update needed for us to know the phone number is a land line once again.  We have ran a test on the line for you to double check that it has cleared your account.   At this time we are happy to advise you that your phone number is once again clear to receive calls from the TDCJ facility.   If you have any additional questions or concerns, please feel free to let us know.

Thank you,

Securus Correctional Billing Services

So, just a few hours after they’d told me my line was blocked and that I had basically no recourse to fix it, the situation was miraculously resolved.  In this case, as with so many things in the prison system, logic does not prevail.  Uncertainty and frustration characterize interactions with the prison power structure and those corporate and government entities connected to it.  We, as prisoners’ family members, must be vigilant and insistent to maintain access to our loved ones, but this poses significant challenges for families with few resources and little time.  I have battled these phone companies with full access to the internet and a reliable income with which to pay my bills.  My family members and I have college educations and social networks which aid us in navigating the system, and still we struggle to figure out what is happening inside the prison and how we can gain consistent access to my father.  Families and individuals far less privileged than us face even more terrible challenges. I have heard many stories from other prisoners’ families about not being able to pay for electricity or other basic necessities because of the extreme cost of prison phone bills.

Though I am deeply grateful for the ability to talk to my father on the phone now that my service has been restored, I still hate the phone companies for the power they hold over our lives, for the corporate intervention in the private life of my family.  I understand that I need the phone company in order to provide this form of access, and I fear them for their ability, and their frequent tendency, to deny my father’s voice to me yet again.

 

Choice Theory Graduation a Highlight for Women Prisoners By Jodie Lawston

24 Aug

On July 15, 2011, several graduations were held at the California Institution for Women (CIW).  These graduations marked a milestone of accomplishments.  One hundred and forty-one women graduated from an educational or vocational program.  I had the honor of attending the evening Choice Theory graduation ceremony.

Choice Theory, proposed by Dr. William Glasser in his 1998 book Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom, has three general premises:

(1)  All we do is behave

(2)  Almost all behavior is chosen

(3)  We are driven by our genes to satisfy five basic needs: survival, love and belonging, power, freedom, and fun.

The principles of this program have been implemented in the Choice Theory Connection Program at CIW.  Like most prison programs, it is a volunteer run program that is a collaboration between the William Glasser Institute, Loyola Marymount University, and CIW.  As such, it is dependent on outside grants and funding sources, in addition to the very committed volunteers and CIW staff who have implemented the program.

Women in the program, who have been certified in Choice Theory addiction coaching, report that it has changed and empowered them.   One of our contributors to Razor Wire Women, Jane Dorotik, graduated from the program and facilitated my invitation to the celebration.  Senator Carol Liu, who chairs the Senate Committee on Women and Children in the Criminal Justice System, was the keynote speaker, and Mrs. Carleen Glasser read a letter from her husband, Dr. William Glasser.  In addition, Dr. Cheryl Grills, from Loyola Marymount University, reported on the effectiveness of Choice Theory (0% recidivism!), and CIW staff such as Kyri Owens and Les Johnson spoke of the program and their commitment to it.

The ceremony was beautifully put together, and the graduates, their friends and families were in a festive mood.  It felt wonderful to finally see some good coming out of the prison system.  Although this program fails to provide any analysis of structural issues (like racism, poverty, and violence—especially state sanctioned violence) that channel people of color and the poor into prison, the program itself means a great deal to women who are deprived of programs due to budget cuts and a punitive approach toward our friends, families, partners, and loved ones who are incarcerated.

While at the graduation, I learned that Razor Wire Women has made its rounds at CIW.  The women inside pass it around to one another, sharing their own testimonies and stories about their lives and how they relate to the book.  One of our contributors, Je’Anna Redwood, is writing her own book about her life experiences, and Jane Dorotik continues to write about and advocate for prisoner rights.  It is our hope that Razor Wire Women furthers the discussion of incarceration, but also, gets people to think through the structural issues that lead to mass imprisonment.

Razor Wire Women at SSSP and ASA in Las Vegas, by Ashley Lucas

22 Aug

The annual conferences for the Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP) and the American Sociological Association (ASA) both took place in Las Vegas, Nevada, this week.  The irony that we were speaking about gendered forms of oppression in a city known for its rampant, public exploitation of women’s bodies did not escape us.  Talking about incarcerated women and their families in Las Vegas feels like talking about workers’ rights while being at a decadent party thrown by the owners of sweatshops.

That said, each of these sociology conferences hosted a handful of panels related to incarceration and quite a few on the subject of women’s rights.  We are honored to be among those present at the SSSP and the ASA who link our scholarly work to activist and community efforts for social change, and we were particularly inspired by the graduate students who told us about their work as scholar/activists in sociology departments scattered across the United States.  We hope that this blog and our book can serve as resources for them as they continue their studies, activism, and teaching.

One of RWW’s incarcerated contributors, who I will not name here because in the book she does not disclose the location of the prison where she lives, currently resides in Las Vegas prison.  Despite the fact that she was sentenced to serve time in a different state’s prison system, this woman had to be transferred to the federal system and ended up thousands of miles away from her family because she endured such severe sexual abuse by guards in her home state.  As a result, this woman has not had a visit from her family in years because they cannot afford to travel such a distance to see her.  As I sit in the decadent illusion of Cesar’s Palace, my thoughts are with this razor wire woman who lives in an equally unnatural structure here in the Nevada desert.

Razor Wire Women at the 2011 ATHE Conference in Chicago

17 Aug

Greetings, razor wire women of the world!

This week the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) held its annual conference in downtown Chicago at the Palmer House Hilton Hotel, and the buzz about Razor Wire Women rippled through the conference.  I am overwhelmed by the amount of enthusiasm and support for this book and blog which were expressed to me over the course of the four days I spent at the conference.  Though our publisher, SUNY Press, does not attend this conference, I heard reports that ATHE attendees were asking publishers at the book exhibit where they could buy our book.  SUNY provided us with a stack of flyers providing a discounted purchase price on our book for ATHE participants, and demand for the flyers was so high that I ran out of them days before the conference ended.  The Women and Theater Program (WTP), which is a focus group within ATHE, helped to promote the book by sponsoring both a roundtable discussion of Razor Wire Women and a panel on documentary theatre, which discussed several plays, including Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass.  (One monologue from the play appears in Razor Wire Women.)

Theatre scholar Sara Warner of Cornell University joined me on the roundtable discussion about Razor Wire Women and spoke about her research on the Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women.  Sara’s chapter of RWW is one of several articles she has written about the extraordinary performance work done by director Rhodessa Jones and a mixed company of professional theatre makers and women detained at the San Francisco County Jail.  Sara has published several articles about the Medea Project’s work, and her most recent one appears in the final section of Razor Wire Women.  As it turns out, at least one woman in the audience of our panel that day, Lisa Biggs, has worked with the Medea Project in years past.  A heartfelt discussion ensued as the women who had gathered to engaged with the roundtable asked questions and shared their experiences of witnessing or participating in theatre in carceral settings.

Domnica Radulescu, a professor at Washington and Lee University, had heard about my theatre work in prisons at the 2007 WTP conference and since that time had tried unsuccessfully to gain access to a Virginia prison so that she could start a theatre workshop with prisoners.  She asked for advice about how to convince prison administrators to let her into a prison to do theatre.  Those of us in the room who had done this type of work before came up with a few tips that I thought might be useful to those of you reading this blog who have similar goals:

  •  Locate volunteers who are already working in the prison and get them to introduce you to the prison staff and administrators.  These volunteers might be doing faith-based ministry work, tutoring, or some other kind of work within the prison.  Their purpose in the prison does not necessarily need to align with yours, but these folks can help you get your foot in the door and earn the trust of those who run the prison.
  • Pitch your idea for a project or workshop in the prison as something that would benefit all people who live and work within the prison.  Theatre and other art forms help people build life skills, such as public speaking, literacy, and teamwork.  Your primary objective in wanting to do arts work in prison may not be about giving this skill set, but helping prison administrators understand the benefits of theatre will enable them to see your ideas as positive contributions to a very difficult workplace.
  • Keep in mind that prisons are complex environments with many security and scheduling concerns.  Be adaptable and work with those who run the prison to make sure that what you are doing does not inconvenience them any more than is necessary.
  • Follow all prison rules, even if you personally object to them.  Sometimes rules exist for legitimate reasons you do not understand. Even if the rules are truly arbitrary and unfair, you must remember that your ability to work with prisoners is completely dependent on your ability to gain access to them.  As a volunteer, you have no control over how the prison is run, and when you enter a prison as a volunteer, you do so only because those who are in control have given you permission to be there.  If you do not respect their rules, you will not be allowed to return, and the prisoners who meet with you could suffer consequences for your behavior.  Any breech of the rules could also cause administrators to shut down other programs for prisoners besides the one with which you are involved.
  • Remember that prison guards and administrators are people, too.  This may seem like ridiculous advice, but it needs to be said.  Activists and prisoners’ family members may have very negative feelings about prison guards and administrators because of their personal experiences with them, but as in any profession, some people who work in the prison behave badly, while others display profound empathy and kindness.  If you walk into a prison assuming that all guards and administrators are the enemy, you will likely not last long at that prison, nor will whatever program you have come there to start.  People who work in prisons have incredibly difficult jobs, and some of those people genuinely want to help maintain prisoners’ personal safety during their incarceration and encourage them to live better lives upon their release from prison. Prison workers who have this mindset can be an incredible asset to your program and can do a great deal to provide you and the prisoners with access to space, time inside the prison, and resources.

Immediately following the panel on Razor Wire Women, I had the good fortune to be on a panel about documentary theatre, which was organized by Jules Odendahl-James, who does really amazing scholarship on forensic media.  Jules, Magda Romanska and Joan Lipkin each gave really remarkable presentations about various documentary plays, and I performed a couple of monologues from my one-woman show , Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass.  After which, Nina Billone Prieur presented a paper about how her students at Duke University responded to my play after seeing me perform it on their campus.  Nina was particularly fascinated by the fact that my play, which depicts a variety of characters who have loved ones in prison, unsettled quite a few of their students.  Though the play makes no ostensible arguments about the guilt or innocence of people in prison, some of the Duke students felt that to have sympathy with prisoners’ families meant that they had to somehow relinquish their beliefs that people in prison deserve their incarceration.  Nina provided a very cogent analysis of the ways in which the students’ overall affinity for me as a performer or a narrator of these experiences and as a prisoner’s child myself seemed to some to disrupt their abilities to perceive prisoners as purely “bad,” despite the fact that I at no time play the role of a prisoner during the show.  This was the first time that I’ve ever heard a scholar speak about my work as a playwright and a performer, and I am humbled to have created the site for Nina’s very perceptive analysis.

Many thanks to the scholars and theatre makers at ATHE and the good women of the WTP!  Jodie and I are very grateful of your support for Razor Wire Women and for your own efforts to engage with incarcerated people.  This week the two of us are headed to Las Vegas for two conferences: the Society for the Study of Social Problems and the American Sociological Association.  We hope to see some of you there!

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