During the week that ended September and began October 2011, I had the privilege of taking my play to Canada for the first time. One of Razor Wire Women‘s contributors Simone Davis took on the arduous task of scheduling three performances at two universities and a prison in the nation where she teaches and makes her home. Simone does some incredible work. In addition to teaching at the University of Toronto, she has brought the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program to Canada for the first time, setting up a course which a professor named Shoshana Pollack now teaches for students from Wilfrid Laurier University and incarcerated women at Grand Valley Women’s Institution. By all reports, the new Inside-Out class is going very well, and at least one outside and a few inside students in the course attended my performance at the prison. During my time in Canada, Simone told me about an extraordinary annual event called Prisoners’ Justice Day which is commemorated all over Canada with fasts, speeches, and protests. Simone gave me a beautiful tee shirt designed for Prisoners’ Justice Day, and I will wear it with pride. Thank you, Simone!
My first performance in Canada took place in the lovely Gill Theatre at the University of Toronto, where an incredible group of faculty and graduate students hosted me and ran the tech for the show. Though the audience appeared to have about ninety people in it, they were so quiet that I could not read their reactions to the play until the house lights came on at the end of the show. (Canadian audiences outside of prisons are in my experience a much quieter bunch than folks in the U.S. or Ireland.) We had a very engaging and productive conversation at the end of the performance. Several days later I encountered an equally supportive audience at Trent University in the small town of Peterborough, where I was hosted by a wonderful scholar named Gillian Balfour whose co-edited collection Criminalizing Women has a good deal in common with Razor Wire Women.
In between the two university performances, I visited Grand Valley Women’s Institution and performed for a group of about thirty incarcerated women. The staff at Grand Valley explained to us that the prison has both minimum and medium security housing units but that the differences between the two were not enough to be much of an incentive for women to want to move down to medium security. The whole prison operates on a higher security level, and with stricter rules, than most minimum security facilities in Canada. True minimum security facilities in Canada do not have fences around them, but Grand Valley does. Even at that, I was surprised to learn that the women there had some privileges that incarcerated people in the U.S. almost never have, like communal kitchens where they can cook meals for themselves. (I also heard about such kitchens at the women’s prison in Dublin when I was there in 2005.) Grand Valley also has some form of segregation cells for holding prisoners in isolation, though I did not see them or hear about how many such cells exist or why women are placed there.
My access to Grand Valley was facilitated by Simone Davis and Grand Valley’s educational counselor Peter Stuart, who not only took care of all arrangements made in preparation of my arrival but also ran the sound cues during the play. Peter approaches his job with good humor, intelligence, and a genuine concern for the well-being and education of the women incarcerated at Grand Valley. He represents the very best sort of work that can be accomplished by prison employees; he works to help prepare women to have successful lives after they leave prison.
As with all audiences I’ve encountered inside prisons, the women at Grand Valley watched my performance so intently and with such obvious emotion that I felt wrapped up in the energy that they offered me. Several women left the performance early, most of them during the Healer monologue–the one published in RWW about a little girl whose father is in prison. They were not in any way disruptive as they left, but it seemed clear that those who were going felt it would be too painful to stay–or at least that it what it looked and felt like to me. The same thing happened with at least one of the women in the prison in Limerick, Ireland, when I performed there. That monologue in particular appears to be the one that elicits the most forceful emotions from women whom I presume are incarcerated mothers.
In the discussion after the performance, the women told me about what visiting with their families is like at Grand Valley. Drug sniffing dogs inspect each visitor and often terrify the children coming to see their mothers and grandmothers. One of the women was very upset about a new schedule for a form of special visitation where families can stay the better part of a day at the prison. Though I did not quite grasp all the details of how such visits are scheduled, I learned that such visits must be scheduled in advance and that the new form of scheduling makes it harder for families on the outside to choose the dates that would be workable for them, resulting in fewer of these special visits. Several of the women in the audience wept as the cuts in visiting were discussed, and then a surprising thing happened. One of the women who had spoken quite a bit during the discussion stood up and hugged me. She thanked me for my performance, then sat me down in the front row of the audience and said, “Now I have something I want to give to you.” She then performed a country song she had written about being an incarcerated mother. The song had several verses and a chorus complete with hand gestures that suggested holding a baby, dancing with a man, and dying. Never before has someone in an audience offered me a performance after my play, and I was delighted and remain deeply grateful.
People in all three of the audiences I met in Canada were deeply troubled by the new omnibus crime bill which looks certain to pass through Parliament soon. The bill introduces mandatory sentencing and longer prison terms than Canadians have faced in the past. The prison I visited was already expanding in anticipation of the many new prisoners expected in the next five years. Peter Stuart at Grand Valley has begun investigating longer term educational programming to benefit the women who will serve longer sentences. Why is it that other countries emulate the very worst of U.S. policies on crime and incarceration?
My memories of the women I met at Grand Valley will remain with me always, and my sincerest thanks go to Simone, Gillian, Peter, and the folks at the University of Toronto for making my first Canadian tour such a success. If any of the folks I met in Canada are reading this and would like to share reactions to the performances on the blog, we would be happy to post them.