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Sharing Our Truths, Love, and Laughter in Brazil, a post by Uche Nna

11 Jun

Hi, my name is Uche Nna, and I am an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan. I anticipate graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and a minor in Gender and Health in December. I thought about joining PCAP after a few friends gave me brief summaries about the work PCAP is involved in and how it has impacted them. I made my true strides to join PCAP after learning about the study abroad program in Brazil. I feel very fortunate to be writing a blog on the final days of our trip. I hope to share with you the moments that impacted me the most. We started this journey on May 20th in Florianópolis, Brazil, and it will come to an official close on June 11th in Rio de Janeiro. In our time here, we have shared our truths, love and laughter within prisons, communities, classrooms, Brazilian homes, and the each other as classmates.

Our time in Rio has been very interesting. We became as mixed up and thrown off by a gas strike as the locals. As the gas strike continued, we watched businesses become empty, signs about being “closed until further notice” went up, the university was closed as students were unable to ride the buses to get to class. As the gas strike moved into its 7th day the roads were barren, we panicked about being able to get to the airport and flying to Rio. We tried to remain cognizant about what our friends in Brazil struggle with when there is conflict, and protest that addresses government policy.

My favorite day in Rio was one of the most exhausting days I had in a while. This day started with my roommate’s alarm at 5:15 am followed by my alarm at 5:30 am. After making our way out of the hostel towards the university, the sun began to rise. We were on our way to prison to do a workshop. When I arrived outside the prison doors of the men’s facility, we joined an assembly of visitors who were shuffled in 4 at a time. By the time we arrived, they were taking in 16-20. I am unsure how long they have been there that day or how early a visitor would have to show up to get a good number. Over the course of 45 minutes, the guards looked out of the 2.5” x 6” rectangular peephole a few times, took our passports, asked us why we had come today and finally let us inside.

Walking through the hallways of the prison, I was really thrown off by how happy some of the staff were to see us. They seemed elated, almost too elated. I was facilitating with about 9 other students (3 from UniRio and 6 from University of Michigan) as we entered the space of our workshop, we began playing catch with each other. One by one men began to pop through the door and joined in with us. There were about 20 men who were in the circle playing this hacky-sack catch game about 10 minutes after the first one came in. We had a fabulous workshop and played about 7 games. Having the space to be playful with the incarcerated men has been amazing over the past few months with PCAP. It always amazes me how quickly they can let their guards down and be fully engaged, excited, and energized through playing games. Theatre in prison enables incarcerated people the opportunity to feel unapologetic joy. Being overzealous and playful in many prison spaces can be dangerous as this is how many people become targets for manipulation and abuse. Theatre gives incarcerated people a break from this and tells them that it is ok to try something new, laugh at oneself, or tell a silly joke. When we were ending the workshop, the men were very excited to tell their future goals. After this, one of the men, who I perceived as a staff member earlier in the day, presented a pile of artwork to us. This is when I realized that some of the staff members were also incarcerated, and I understood why they were so happy to see us.

Later in the day we attended Professor Marina’s graduate class. In this class her graduate student Julia shared some of the work and research she has been doing in women’s prison. She shared information about the disproportionate number of marginalized women, and she read a very impactful letter by one of the women. In this letter the woman says that she wishes she could have been a better mother and daughter. Having wishes like this from the inside can be incredibly painful. Many of us can try to repair and rebuild relationships. The extreme limitations that come with being incarcerated seem to make repairing and rebuilding relationships incredibly difficult. Being able to look back and forward in life and think about the changes we want to make to feel that we have lived a fulfilling life is an extreme privilege. I hope you all reading can act on your wishes and guide the wishes of others when you have the chance. After this long night in Marina’s graduate class we returned to the hostel around 10 pm. The next day was my 22nd birthday, and the fabulous friends at Teatro Renascer sang happy birthday to me and put on an amazing show.


Michigan and UniRio students and faculty with the members of the Teatro Renascer workshop.

Because I am a science student, many people have wondered why I am doing theatre and if it has been uncomfortable or difficult for me. One day I hope to go on to medical school. This work is important to me because I understand that I will not be able to change everyone’s situation, but I hope that I can always pass on joy into the world and provide spaces for people to discover themselves and feel at ease. PCAP continuously rehumanizes me by allowing me to work with the population of incarcerated people, and I am lucky that I am beginning to understand how important it is and how grounding it is to feel human. PCAP helps to humanize the people on the inside, and I am very happy to know this.


How Brazil Changed My Thinking about PCAP: A post by Kaitlin Prakken

18 Jun

My name is Kaitlin Prakken. I graduated from the University of Michigan in April, where I studied Psychology and Organizational Studies. When I joined the University’s Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), I was surprised by how immediately I felt that I understood PCAP’s purpose and method. Though I have participated in other organizations on campus, I had never understood or agreed with both an organization’s principals and practices right away as I did with PCAP.

Pico da Tijuca

Katelyn Torres, Kaitlin Prakken (me!), and Ashley Hails at the summit of Pico da Tijuca (we hiked up here!).

PCAP’s director and my professor, Ashley Lucas, has told my classmates and me that PCAP believes that art is a human right. To carry out this purpose, PCAP trains U of M students and community volunteers to facilitate creative arts (creative writing, music, and theatre) workshops in prisons, youth facilities and community spaces in Southeast Michigan. I believed in the necessity of this objective right away because I had learned about the capacity of creative expression to support physical and emotional health in psychology and public health courses, and I had experienced this power firsthand while taking creative writing classes in college.

 I co-facilitated two workshops in two Michigan Department of Corrections facilities through PCAP this year. At the end of each workshop, I felt inspired by the capacity of PCAP to create connection among individuals with different identities and backgrounds. I wanted to come on this study abroad trip about theatre in Brazilian prisons and community spaces to see how programs like PCAP might create connections among communities in Brazil and between us Americans and the Brazilians we meet.

It is the third week that my classmates and I have been in Brazil. We’ve had the privilege of learning about how theatre supports community building in many places: prisons, hospitals, and community centers, from individuals in several different theatre programming organizations. We’ve had conversations with incredible people from these organizations, comparing and contrasting our experiences with community theatre. A conversation with Professor Ana Achar, the director of Enfermaria do Riso, which brings clowns to visit patients in hospitals in Rio, inspired me and caused me to re-frame how I think about PCAP. Ana said that the purpose of her organization is to highlight the health that exists in hospital patients, who are often defined by their lack of perfect health.

I realized that I had been conceptualizing PCAP’s purpose and work from a deficit-approach. I thought that the best description of PCAP’s purpose was that it seeks to provide incarcerated men, women and children with the tools needed to create art, a human right they do not have access to. However, the focus of this purpose is on what incarcerated people do not have. However, I realized that PCAP’s work is very similar to the work done by Ana’s organization. PCAP seeks to highlight the creative potential that still exists in incarcerated people, who live in a system that tries to convince them that no potential exists within them.  This new conceptualization stems from a place of abundance. Focusing on what prisoners do have seemed more respectful of the innate humanity that we at PCAP acknowledge in prisoners, rather than the things that they lack access to.

View from Big JC

View of Rio from the top of Cristo Redentor.

Changing my way of thinking about PCAP’s purpose has helped me to notice new things on this trip.  Although we already visited an infirmary where senior citizens gather to practice theatre last week, when I visited again this Wednesday, I kept noticing how the actions and movements of these old women seemed silly and youthful. Last week, I noticed how loving the women were, but I was anxious about their health. I worried that someone might fall or hurt themselves during an activity.

However, after re-conceptualizing how I think about our theatre work I paid attention to different things in this workshop this week, which shaped how I interacted with the women. Because I was thinking about how much energy women had this week, I didn’t hesitate to suggest games or activities that I might have been hesitant to suggest last week, when I was worrying about the women’s mobility and/or memory. Instead, if we ran into a problem, I figured that we would solve it creatively. I think that this mindset is important for me as a facilitator because it expands, rather than limits, the creativity and possibilities that exist in the group.

We also watched a play this Wednesday that was created in part by a man named Edson Sodré who lives in an “open prison,” which means he gets to attend classes at the local university during the day but returns to the prison each night. We got to hear him speak about his life and why he was involved in the production during a panel after the performance. Sodré explained that he joined a theatre group while he was incarcerated because the group met in a room that had access to a sewage pipe large enough climb through and escape the prison. His escape plan failed, but the man continued attending theatre class. He spoke about how the theatre classes helped him to find freedom in his mind, even while he was incarcerated. Perhaps the creativity that PCAP seeks to highlight in incarcerated people is also freedom, as Sodré stated. I think that acknowledging the freedom that still exists in prisoners could be a powerful thing if done in the right way.

I think that shifting from a deficit-approach of thinking about PCAP’s work will make me a better facilitator. I hope that this way of thinking about community arts is helpful to others doing this kind of work, and I’m grateful to Ana, Sodré, the beautiful students we have met, and everyone else I have met here for shaking up how I think about PCAP and what’s possible in our workshops.

Prison Arts and Education Conference at UDESC: A post from Julia Timko

12 Jun

Hello folks! My name is Julia Timko, I have been a student of Ashley’s and a PCAPer for the past three years. When I transferred to the University of Michigan in 2014 and enrolled in Theatre and Incarceration it somehow slipped my mind that we would actually be going into the prison, but after my first week at Women’s Huron Valley, I was in love with everyone in my workshop. Working with PCAP has changed my life in so many ways and I am so grateful to have had the experience. I recently graduated with a degree in theatre, and although I will no longer be at U of M, I hope to continue the work wherever I end up. This starts with Brazil.

While in Florianópolis, our group attended the first “Seminario International de Arte e Educação Prisional” at the Universidade do Estado de Santa Catarina. We, the Americans, were the international element. Everything was conducted in Portuguese, with our fearless leaders Ashley and Silvina (and some lovely English-speaking UDESC students) translating as best they could along the way. As a person who is often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of social injustice in the world, it was so moving and inspiring to be in a room full of people who cared deeply about folks who are incarcerated and have identified that the arts are a way to help them. It reminded me that even though these problems are numerous, there are also so many people in this world working towards justice.

On the first day of the conference, (after singing both the Brazilian national anthem and the anthem for the state of Santa Catarina) we listened to different presentations about prisons in Brazil and the kinds of work being done in them. The conference provided handy little pads to keep notes, and I used mine to get down some of the quotes/ideas that really stuck with me. The first of these is the idea the prison is the last frontier of education. As the daughter of an educator, education is something that’s on my mind a lot – what the purpose of education is and how we make the system better for those who come from marginalized backgrounds. People in prison generally tend to be forgotten in the overall discussion about education in the USA, and I feel that it’s important that they be factored in.

Later on in the day, one of the speakers discussed the fact that prisoners in Brazil have been conscripted to work on restoration projects such as fixing up old buildings. The people who are made to do this work develop skills that they could easily take with them once they are released, but even when they do have skills it’s difficult for them to get hired. Similarly, some incarcerated folks are taught to bind and repair books but are not taught to read them. These issues that were brought up, with specific reference to people incarcerated in Brazil, are also issues that are faced by people who exit prison in the US.

Another similarity worth mentioning (but briefly, as I wasn’t able to get the full translation) was the fact that false research about who is more pre-disposed to go to prison continues to affect darker skinned Brazilians. This is something that we have been talking about with our UniRio friends as well.

While it was challenging to listen to an academic conference in Portuguese, overall I was very grateful to have been included in the conversation and to have learned more about Brazil and the way that the system functions. If anything it has made me more determined to continue the work.


Apropos of nothing written in this blog post, I’d like to share this picture of a monkey that was spotted on an adventure to the Botanical Gardens in Rio. Just after this picture was taken, we watched him eat a banana out of a toddler’s hand.

The Centre for Christian Spirituality: Arts Programming in and about Prison in Cape Town, South Africa

28 Aug

I’m now back in Michigan, getting ready for the start of the new school year. I apologize for not doing any Brazil blogging while in Brazil, but we had such a lovely, jam-packed trip that my schedule simply did not afford the time. I am going to post a little more on South Africa before writing about our adventures with the PCAP Brazil Exchange this year, but rest assured, I’ll get there as soon as I am able.

A poster from the Robben Island Museum.

A poster from the Robben Island Museum.

When Andy and I were in Cape Town, South Africa, our first order of business was to head to Robben Island to see the historic prison turned museum where Nelson Mandela had spent the majority of his incarceration. Unfortunately, we only got to see the small museum on the mainland shore where one catches the ferry to the island itself. August is winter in South Africa, and a rain storm and high tide caused the cancellation of all boats to Robben Island on the one day when we had time to make the trip. It feels wrong to have been on a prison-focused research trip to South Africa and to have missed Robben Island, but we couldn’t do anything about that.

Despite this, our time in Cape Town was quite productive. We met with staff members and formerly incarcerated participants of two local theatre projects and learned quite a lot about the nature and content of prison theatre in this part of South Africa. The rest of this blog post is devoted to one of those projects, and a later post will describe the work of another group called Young in Prison.

In the lobby of the beautiful Baxter Theatre, we met with Laurie Gaum from the Centre for Christian Spirituality and a reentrant named Lesley who has performed in a couple of theatre projects organized by the Centre. Laurie coordinates events for the Centre and has done a number of projects both inside Pollsmoor Prison (for some interesting photos of the prison and those who live within it, click here) and with reentrants in Cape Town. The Centre for Christian Spirituality was founded in 1986 by Father Francis Cull and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Centre’s website and the brochure that Laurie gave me both indicate a strong predilection towards addressing social justice initiatives as well as worship and spiritual contemplation. The language of justice and reconciliation appears frequently in their promotional materials, and this seems fitting not only because of the South African nation’s history with Apartheid and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but also because of the Centre’s active work in and around prisons. As Laurie described the Centre’s programming to us, he talked a good deal about masculinity and gender-based programming to help incarcerated men and reentrants explore both their spirituality and their family histories.  The Centre engages in visual art workshops which encourage prisoners to work with clay in silence and writing workshops which focus on gender biographies, family history, sexuality, spirituality, and leadership. He spoke of using theatre to enact “images of the male soul.”

The Centre is currently engaged in producing a series of dramas based on spirituality as it relates to social issues. The first of these, entitled Other, focused on stigmas of sexuality and HIV/AIDS. Though we didn’t hear a great deal about this production, we did learn that it involved a chorus and projected images on stage.

The second of theses dramas, called Fatherless, used three real life stories portrayed by their authors. Lesley Thomas, the reentrant who accompanied Laurie to meet us, was one of these author/actors. Fatherless grew out of a workshop that Laurie had been co-facilitating on masculinity in which a number of participants described instances of fatherlessness. In the production the three author/actors each told their own stories in different areas of a church. The audience stood in the middle and shifted to face each performer in turn. Lesley’s story had to do with going to prison and leaving his children as a result. Lesley grew up without a father and then was not present for his own children before or during his incarceration. He theorizes that everyone in prison is there because they focused too much on themselves and not enough on the other significant people in their lives. Lesley noticed while he was in prison that most of the men around him told stories about being fatherless and that the vast majority of visitors to the prison were women. He saw no fathers coming to visit their incarcerated sons.

Fatherless had two performances at the church in its initial run, and now officials in prison are talking about wanting to bring this performance inside the walls. Because the performance was created by volunteers, three of whom are professional actors along with a director and his assistant, Laurie worries that the group will be hard to hold together long enough to take the show to a new venue. They are also talking about the exciting possibility of taking the production of Other to the professional stage at the Baxter Theatre.

The Centre’s drama project focuses on masculinity because the participants find this theme both significant and difficult to address. They want to continue creating original performances and hope to address the issue of violence against women and children in one of their upcoming projects. The Centre works with a major NGO on issues of gender violence, and Laurie and Lesley are both trained as Gender Reconciliation facilitators. They see performance as an ideal medium for raising awareness and stimulating community involvement in social justice issues.

Lesley wants to change cultural perceptions in South Africa about incarceration as a rite of passage into manhood. He feels that many South African men actually want to serve time in prison because becoming a part of a prison gang earns them respect both inside the walls and on the streets when they return home. He says that many people believe that if you have not been in a prison gang, you aren’t a real man.

In our travels throughout South Africa, people kept recommending journalist Jonny Steinberg’s book The Number which recounts one man’s journey through life in a prison gang. (I confess here that I have not yet read Steinberg’s book and apologize if I am in any way misrepresenting prison gang culture in South Africa. I cannot tell you how much accuracy the following account holds, but I can say that we heard basically the same story from a number of different people throughout our trip.) The three main prison gangs in South Africa all identify themselves by numbers: the 28s, the 27s, and the 26s.  Apparently there are a few other numbers, but those three are the largest and most powerful. The shorthand explanation of the gangs that we received from several different people went something like this: The 28s control sex inside the prisons–both protecting some people from rape and bartering with the bodies of others. The 26s control drugs and money, and the 27s negotiate between the two. Once you are inducted into one of these gangs, you are a member for life, and your gang status and rank (accorded in military terms with the titles of general, captain, etc.) follows you both after you leave the prison and throughout any subsequent returns to prison.

Lesley managed to serve ten years in prison without joining a gang, and he now works with incarcerated boys, encouraging them to eschew gang life as well. He says many people believe that you have to join a gang in order to survive but that he teaches boys how to avoid this fate.

Lesley studied music throughout his time in prison. During Lesley’s incarceration (and perhaps now as well), imprisoned musicians had special privileges to sit outside and play their instruments. Les bonded with his children during visits by playing music for them, and since his release, he has grown closer to his son and daughter by playing music with them at their local church. Lesley plays the clarinet, and his children play the clarinet and trumpet. They have a new life as a reunited and committed family, and Les and Laurie continue their work with the Centre, striving to help other men learn to live peacefully.

*Many thanks to Laurie Gaum for his helpful feedback and edits on this post!

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 she 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.

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 their 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.

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