About the contributor: Connie Kohler is a semi-retired professor emerita at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health. She is the producer of several radio dramas highlighting health issues. She has been working with inmates since 2013.
Johnny Gunn, aka Hardcore, played football in high school and for a while in community college. His large, athletic frame was once intimidating, giving him a place high in the prison pecking order. But, now in his 50’s, though Hardcore still does bench presses, much of his muscle has turned to flab, a condition he doesn’t seem to acknowledge as he continues his steady diet of honey buns and other delights from the commissary. Now he has diabetes and must change his eating behavior. After injuring a big toe, Hardcore is at risk of losing it or more. But he’s more focused on being an advisor and friend and keeping his status as big man on the block.
Ron is a younger inmate who sees that Hardcore’s days as king of the block are numbered and challenges Hardcore for the position. When a new inmate named Jimmy H arrives he asks who is the meanest guy who nobody will mess with. While Hardcore tries to claim that distinction, other guys in the block tell Jimmy H it’s Ron. Ron is the toughest. But Ron has issues, too. Back home his mom and siblings aren’t doing so well – which causes Ron much stress. He’s had a couple of passing out spells that might mean high blood pressure. But he’s not one to go whining to some pathetic prison doctor.
Meanwhile, in an attempt to emulate Ron, Jimmy H seeks out the local tattoo maker, a guy called Skillet. He gets a homemade tattoo from Skillet who uses ashes and soap for ink and a makeshift tattoo gun. When Jimmy H starts feeling sick, he learns that his tattoo has led to Hepatitis C. Now it’s Jimmy’s turn to use a homemade instrument as he goes after Skillet with a shiv.
Unfortunately, when Charles McCracken, one of the older lifers, tries to stop Jimmy H, he gets the sharp end of the shiv in his arm. Charles has been diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease and has spells of confusion. He tells Johnny Gunn (Hardcore) that he is scared about what will happen to him as he looses control of his wits and body. When he wanders uninvited into another inmate’s cell and comes very close to getting beaten, he’s put into a cell in the infirmary for his own protection. But Hardcore and others worry that Charles will only get worse in solitary.
These are some of the inmates in the fictional prison called United Correctional Facility. They were created by a group of prisoners in an Alabama maximum security prison as the cast of characters for “Corrections”. “Corrections” is the title of a serial drama (in audio format) that prisoners write and perform. The first season was aired by a local radio station and the second season script is near completion. The tagline for Corrections is, “Because being incarcerated is hazardous to your health!”
I facilitate weekly meetings of this group of writers and performers. Because my background is in public health, the drama revolves around health issues common in prison. The writing follows what has been called the “entertainment education” (EE) methodology. Serial drama is a particularly good EE platform because it allows the story to model typical healthy and unhealthy behaviors and their consequences. The goal of the drama is to change audience expectations about the consequences of behaviors such as overeating and smoking. This is done by showing a character suffering the negative health consequences these behaviors often lead to, such as getting a dirty tattoo leading to Hepatitis C. Another goal is to promote a confident attitude toward changing unhealthy behaviors by having characters model how to do it with all the setbacks and small successes that are part of it. By showing how the prisoners in the drama overcome typical obstacles to changing unhealthy behaviors, the drama gives the audience the sense that, “If he can do it, then I can do it.” The primary intended audience is inmates but the group hopes to reach people in the free world to give them a different idea of what prisons and the people in them are like.
For season one the group identified TB (something the warden wanted addressed as well), diabetes and poor eating practices, Hepatitis C, stress and aging in prison as the most important health issues to address. Aging in prison is seen as especially important because many who were given long sentences during a “tough on crime” era are over 50 years old. As these inmates age, their health declines leading to chronic disease and dementia. These are costly problems that the prison system in this country isn’t prepared to deal with.
In creating this drama, inmates have learned more about health and staying healthy. For season 2 we are addressing the issue of screening for prostate cancer. Several men were confused about the digital rectal exam versus colonoscopy. One member of the group who had repeatedly refused to be screened by digital rectal exam, actually changed his mind after a few weeks of discussing how to influence inmates to consider getting checked. Another health issue that the group researched and wrote into the script is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and it’s relationship to depression and violent behavior.
While writing this blog I asked inmates to write down what they would say in a blog. Below are samples of what several inmates wrote.
Imagine waking up every day to someone telling you when to eat
When to sleep
When to make your bed
When you will have the opportunity to visit with friends and family
Imagine waking up behind a barbwire fence
With limited rights . . . with limited sight . . . imagine be out of sight out of mind
Imagine a world of cell mates and lethal mazes
The men at United Prison don’t have to imagine this life
They live it . . .
For some it will be the death of them!
Corrections is a story written by inmates
Addressing issues revolving around health in the prison environment
These inmates are using art to create a fictional radio drama that is true to life and will hopefully bring awareness and produce health behavior and social changes
These inmates are using a negative environment to grow, build, and be productive and positive
We call this program Corrections. We meet, we discuss, we write, we record
We hope you listen and enjoy.
Alecio Randall (Alecio wrote the following as if he were me, Connie, in first person.)
This challenge takes me into the underside of society. There I help to identify health issues and corrective habits with men (whom) most have cast away from thought and mind.
We embattle (sic) a variety of topics, writing scripts, creating cast, and recording dialogue from inside prison. From high blood pressure to dementia to violence, any and every health issue is explored combined with real life inside on a fictional scale.
Various challenges of going to prison on a weekly basis don’t diminish the rewards of implementing change, hope, and positive ideas and habits. For the very men I know will re-enter society. Hopefully, the message of good health, getting rooted into these courageous and bright minds provides a toehold for change.
We have a plethora of common goals and purposes in our agenda. We do not write just for entertainment, but so as not to bore our audience we do throw a healthy dose of entertainment into the mix. One of our most vital goals is education. Educating the public on prison issues usually kept suppressed from the public, such as: aging, diseases, deficient health-care, drug abuse, etc. And furthermore, not just how the day-to-day prison life affects inmates, but also how the officers, faculty and staff face challenges and risks daily by working a prison facilities.
Another one of our goals is to give the public an inside view of the issues prisoners face on average inside of prison facilities So when our audience listens to seasons of “Corrections” on the radio, they not only hear the drama, but we place them in the midst of it all, giving them a simulation effect of actually being there, and causing them to visualize the “writings on the wall” painted by our cast members.
James E. Rogers, Jr.
(Providing two examples of the issues we struggle with as a group. The group struggles often with whether to go for maximum realism vs. getting administration’s approval to air. Recently the question has been raised about possible harm from modeling illegal practices, such as using contraband cell phones to video bad goings on and get it out to the public. James commented on the issues below)
We debated whether or not we should use a cell phone to do a documentary of the elderly inmates. (Note: not in real life, but as an element of the scripted plot.)
A Side: the administration would view this as unacceptable. A way to promote b/s.
B Side: cell phones are being used throughout the US system. Therefore those on this side of the debate want to be as realistic as possible and put the facts out there. Also that cell phones are not being used as escape devices as the administration states. The majority of the cell phones are used so people can keep in touch with their loved ones, research to help with their appeals. Mainly to stay in touch with their loved ones, trying not to become so distant that when they do talk or see one another that it wouldn’t be strange, awkward or whatnot.
That debate led to another debate: how realistic should we be?
A Side: we don’t have to be 100% correct.
B Side: we don’t have to be 100% correct but we should be as realistic as possible because we are putting a lot of valuable information out there and if I was to do some research and find most of the info inaccurate then how would I know how much of this information that I could take as true.
How arts brings awareness to health issues?
Expression is shown in many forms and the arts has its forms. Visual is the easiest to grasp, where shown through TV and being verbal. You once had silent TV as well to show these issues.
Radio is another form, but you need a hook or to be very creative to hold the audience’s attention. Promotion or with the health issue(s) at had they need to dramatize.
A lot of people in society view people in prison as big, hulking, tattooed killers. They can’t fathom the thought of them as humans that age, get sick, and die in here like people do in society.
For victims of crimes, when the judge says I sentence you ( . . . ) the saga ends. For criminals, it just begins. Often times the criminals end up in an overcrowded prison suffering from various ailments, not able to take care of themselves and no help from anyone to help them with day to day activities.
I hope that these dramas entertain as well as offer insight into these matters.
It has been the best experience of my life. I had never participated in anything like this. At times it’s so much fun it should be against the law. At other times it makes you want to scream. You just have to realize that we are not professionals or perfect, and we are here to entertain and spread a message. At times the message is lost because the entertainment takes over. So as you listen, remember that is as realistic as we were allowed to make it. The memorial (scene) was so close to me because I’ve attended several while here. The aging because I’m old now. I was 32 when I came. I’m 51 now. The health issues because I have some of them now. I hope you enjoy listening to Corrections and learn something, too.