Families and Prison Performances

Inspired by a trip I made in 2003 where I met Leslie Neal, Founder and Artistic Director of ArtSpring, and attended a performance at the Broward County Correctional Institution in Florida, I returned to York CI (Connecticut’s only state-level prison for women) determined to open up the prison performances to family members.  I learned from the incarcerated women in Florida that the work they were doing was very important to them.  However, they also hoped for the opportunity to share this work with their families as well.  This made so much sense to me as many of their families had seen or heard about them doing very few positive things.

We have made great strides in the arts-based programs at York CI.  Currently, we have two annual arts-based residencies with Avodah Dance Ensemble (since 2001) and the Judy Dworin Performance Project (since 2006).  Each of these residencies culminates in performances and (since 2005) one of each of these performances has been set aside solely for families.

The families’ performances are growing in popularity.  Initially, a few family members showed up albeit with some trepidation.  Dance or dance theater at a maximum security prison was not something anyone was familiar with: not the inmates, not the staff and certainly not the families. They have been a definite hit, however.   While watching, laughing and crying during the performances and drinking coffee and eating cookies afterward everyone has been happy to have been a part of it.

We had always hoped these performances would be beneficial to the women and their families but did not consider what might go beyond that.  When we asked the women the usual probing questions about the anticipated benefits of the programs, the responses varied: they felt like they were not in prison when they were involved in the residencies; they liked the interaction with the artists and the other women; they had something positive to share with their families when they called home during the residencies.  This was great.  To change the conversation with their families was a success in and of itself.  Imagine having something positive to say about being in prison!  The women also reported that their families were asking questions.  They wanted to know when another performance would be happening; they even inquired about women whom they had met at the earlier performances.  We started to see that the benefits were spreading beyond our women and their immediate families.  We were creating a network of similarly situated people: families with loved ones in prison involved in the arts.  The families had seen their daughters, sisters, and mothers doing something positive and they liked it.

Initially, Avodah’s families’ performances were held in the visiting room.  It was not ideal.  The floors were carpeted, the ceilings were low and we had to move all of the tables and chairs out of the way to create a performance space.  But it was not about the space.  It was about the performance and the connections with the families.  In 2008, in response to the increased recognition and the complexity of the Judy Dworin Performance Project’s, Dreamings the families’ performance was moved inside the prison to the recreation building.   The space was larger but the acoustics were not good.  Performance in prison does not come easily.  The move inside the prison was an important accomplishment.  Until this time families were not allowed past the visiting center.  They never saw what the prison was like behind the walls that separated the visiting center from the rest of the prison.  Having the opportunity to walk inside the prison was unique.  Seeing trees, grass and the series of buildings that make up the compound seemed to have lessened visitors’ anxiety about the inside of the prison.  It was no longer an unknown and they could even imagine their loved one walking from their housing unit to dinner, to school, and to visits.  This was important as we know that it is not just the inmate who is ‘doing time’.  Loved ones are ‘doing it’ along with them.  Being able to lessen the anxiety of the families is a terrific benefit.

We plan to keep expanding the arts-based programs at York to include the families in as many ways as possible.  We have been given limited permission to video tape aspects of the performances and a long term goal is to share those recordings, perhaps in a documentary.

I hope other programs in prisons around the country will expand to include family members as well.  It makes such a difference.  I would be grateful to hear about others’ experiences, successes and failures, as we have much to learn from both.

Joseph Lea has been employed at York CI for more than 14 years as an educator and currently as the library media specialist.  He completed a year-long sabbatical in 2007 where he attained an MA in Applied Theatre from the University of Manchester in England.

3 thoughts on “Families and Prison Performances

  1. Joe Lea

    Persistence is the main strategy, not taking ‘no’ as the final answer is another and always coming back the next year with another request helps. Even if I was turned down the previous year, I keep asking. We have been hosting dance and dance theater residencies at York CI for 8 years. Not until 5 years into the process did we get the first families’ performance approved.

    Initially, the performances were for the incarcerated women only. We increased the audiences to include available staff and then outside guests, e.g. funders, DOC staff and local government representatives. Each year we worked toward the goal of expanding the audiences by adding a new group. Eventually, families were included and now we even have the families come inside the prison.

    The first reaction to performances is usually to think of it as only having entertainment or recreation value. One of the most persuasive arguments I have used is to discuss the benefits of developing audience skills; being able to observe, evaluate, interpret, and discuss movement, theater, metaphor, imagery etc. I include stated educational benefits for each performance (I work in the Education Department).

    It is important to talk to staff, all staff. Officers can be great allies. If they like what they see, if they see a difference in the inmates who are participating in the programs and if they feel like their opinions are taken into consideration, it helps. We ask staff for comments to be included in programs, grant proposals, press releases etc. It is important to make staff feel as much a part of the program as possible. We thank everyone in the programs and at the performances, even if they contributed only a little to the program. Everyone likes to be included and acknowledged.

    There are still people on staff who are not supportive of the families’ performances (inside the prison). Fortunately we have a very supportive Deputy Warden who approves our projects. Judith is also correct in stating that it is mainly due to my position as staff in the facility. It is easier for me to make repeated requests (I see these people every day). Success also breeds success in DOC. Our track record is great and we do everything we can to keep it that way. We try to offer very sound plans, taking into consideration safety and security as well as the underlying benefits to the inmates and staff.

    I hope this is helpful.

  2. theprisonartscoalition

    Hi Julia: Hope Joe can give more details, but I suspect that at least part of the answer is that Joe has worked at the prison for many years, brought in a tremendous number of excellent artists and programs, and so prison authorities are more willing to trust him. Another example of what’s sometimes possible when good work is done over the long haul.

  3. Julia Taylor

    Joe, could you talk about what tactics were used with the other prison staff to allow families in to see the performances? In my work here in Kentucky, the staff has been quite resistant to that idea.

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