Theatre in a Prison with Mothers and Babies: A post by Alex Bayer

17 Jun

My name is Alex Bayer, and I am entering my senior year at the University of Michigan. I am a psychology major and ultimately hope to be a therapist who works with youth. I’ve always had passion for the arts—I was a dancer for 15 years, participated in theatre throughout middle school and high school, and discovered how much I love creative writing during college. I heard about the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) during my freshman year of college and was instantly intrigued by the idea of bringing different art forms (creative writing, theatre, and fine arts) into a prison, where people are constantly denied of their humanity and self expression. Although I was intrigued, I was also slightly hesitant. I was well aware of the stigma attached to incarcerated people and didn’t know enough about the prison system to justify why I wanted to involve myself in this type of work. After taking a study abroad course in Copenhagen, Denmark, called the Psychology of Criminal Behavior and visiting various rehabilitation programs, my frustration with the prison system in the U.S. escalated. By my junior year at the university, I made the incredible decision to join PCAP.

water

Alex on the dock behind a restaurant where we ate in Florianópolis.

It’s safe to say that PCAP has changed my life. Compared to all other classes I have taken at U of M, I have never been surrounded by a group of such intelligent, open-minded yet skeptical, and passionate individuals. I facilitated a workshop at a youth facility in Detroit with Adelia and Kaitlin, who are now two of my closest friends. We went to Lincoln every Sunday at 5 PM and led a group of 10 boys in various theatre games. It didn’t take long for us to fall in love with these boys, and going into that facility soon became the highlight of my week. We continued our workshop into the summer, and only stopped because we were all going to Brazil, where we would have the opportunity to visit prisons and hospitals and exchange our knowledge and excitement for the work we do with Brazilian students who engage in similar work.

We are now in our third and final week of our experience in Brazil. Today I went into a prison with two students from UniRio (a university in Rio) and four students from the PCAP program. We went into a facility with mothers and babies, made for incarcerated women who are pregnant during their sentencing and can keep their babies for the first six months of their lives. After six months, these women are forced to find someone else to take care of their baby or hand that baby over to the government.

view from the mountain

Before arriving to Rio, I had never visited a women’s prison, only the juvenile facility I worked in during the winter. Going into the women’s facility was much different than what I had experienced in the past. I never went inside this facility; we played theatre games with the women right outside of their rooms on a deck. As we walked up to this deck, we passed a church built for the women in the prison. We then approached a group of women on the deck, and they were all holding their babies or gently rocking them in their strollers. At first, I was so distracted by the cuteness of the babies. The women welcomed us and seemed happy for us to play with their kids; many of them even handed us their babies to hold for a little bit. We began the workshop with a name game, but at this point, a lot of women left. Many of them were preoccupied with other tasks, such as breastfeeding or changing diapers. After the name game, we played a couple of games that involved dancing/singing/hugging, and we got much more comfortable with one another. During these games, we had a rotating group of about 3-4 women, depending on who could participate in each moment.

Following the games, one of the women suggested having a group discussion instead of playing more games—a suggestion I would have never heard when I worked in a facility with teenage boys. The woman began by asking Asma, one of our group members, about the hijab she was wearing. The woman was curious as to why Asma wanted to cover up her hair, and explained that Brazilian women are often very comfortable with displaying their bodies in more revealing clothing. Although Asma was put on the spot a little bit, she handled the pressure really well, and the woman was thankful for her willingness to answer the questions. The woman admitted that she has never really talked to anyone from the United States and does not see many people wearing a hijab, so she wanted to educate herself. These questions sparked openness among the whole group, and a lot more women came to the deck to join the discussion and ask more questions to all of us.

In class in Floripa

Our PCAP group in class with Prof. Vicente Concilio’s theatre students in Florianópolis.

The discussion was just like it would be with any group of women I met in Brazil—our group shared experiences with these women, and they did the same in return. It felt natural, and I quickly forgot I was in a prison. At the end of the discussion, we hugged and kissed the women goodbye. It wasn’t until exiting the prison that I was reminded of where I was. Right in front of the prison, a police car was parked with a giant rifle sticking out of the window. My heart immediately sank. I knew that it was used for intimidation and that I wasn’t in any personal danger, but it reminded me of the intimidation tactics that are constantly used against the women I just talked to for the past two hours. I was reminded of the fact that these women aren’t free; the fact that these women will have to say goodbye to their babies soon; the fact that one mistake a person makes could lead to being incarcerated and put in inhumane conditions.

Thinking about these facts cause a lot of frustration, but I then remind myself of the people I am surrounded by and become hopeful again. Such strong, resilient people who also recognize the problems with the prison system surround me. Of all aspects of this trip, the people are why I am most grateful—not just the PCAP group, but everyone I have met on this journey. I am beyond grateful for the various professors and students from Brazil who not only include us in their work but also welcome us with wide arms and make us feel at home. The Brazilian students who speak English continuously translate for us during conferences and classes. All of the students we met have taken a huge interest in us, asking us questions about our lives, showing us around, and teaching us about their culture. Although I knew I would have an amazing experience with the entire PCAP group and our fearless, nurturing leader Ashley, I had no idea how much I would connect with the Brazilian students here. I am looking forward to the rest of my week in Brazil and will always carry the love I have received from all of the people here.

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