We recently talked with Lori Pitts, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Lori is the Founding Director and a Facilitator at Voices Unbarred, a platform for individuals who are currently or formerly incarcerated to have their voices heard. Voices Unbarred uses the ideology and techniques of Theatre of the Oppressed to guide their participants in identifying needs, discussing issues, exploring solutions, and telling their stories–culminating in creating and performing an original play around relevant issues that is performed for peers, legislators, and the wider community. Through this process, participants learn key reentry skills, feel humanized, and realize they can be change agents in society. Voices Unbarred believes that those most affected by the issues are the best situated to lead the reform process. Lori speaks on the current effects of pandemic on carceral settings, the role of community advocacy during this time period, and the ways in which she believes the criminal justice system might grow from the turmoil of this moment.
JAC: As we navigate this unprecedented time across our national landscape, what challenges have emerged in your work with artists, specifically those who are impacted by the criminal justice system?
LP: The biggest challenge for us is the lack of access to our participants. We were about to start a new session in a prison that is now postponed. It can take a long time to get into a new facility and build trust, so we hope that we are able to start where we left off with the administration there. We were also about to start a new project creating a full script with our returned citizens. Much of our style of work using Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) techniques relies on human interactions and seeing what comes from those, so creating virtually doesn’t feel like an obvious fit. We are excited to explore the possibilities though! The creator of TO, Augusto Boal, thought we should “demechanize” ourselves–get rid of preconceived notions and structures that we follow habitually–so that we can truly examine our society and move beyond habitual thinking
and interacting. We are getting to use these methods we follow on ourselves now! How can we create together virtually? What does a finished product look like? How can we share our work with others in new ways?
Of course, another challenge comes in the form of worrying for our participants in the prisons. I can only imagine how scary it is to be in a prison where you can’t really physically distance from others and you don’t have access to health care or cleaning supplies. On top of that, you are no longer allowed visits from your family or friends and all outside activities are suspended. You are completely isolated and yet not safe from Covid-19. We want to do more to help with their physical and mental health, but aren’t sure what we can do besides advocate to our representatives and raise awareness. It’s a real challenge not to know how to be helpful.
JAC: What action do you feel is necessary to alleviate the safety concerns that incarcerated people face, in light of the Coronavirus crisis?
LP: We definitely support REFORM Alliance’s SAFER Plan.
Lowering the number of people in the prison system is vital to stopping the spread. There are so many people we have worked with who are nonviolent offenders and who would be getting out in the next few months anyway. If those people are released early, as well as those who are at high risk for Covid-19, we could significantly decrease the crowding in prisons.
It’s also important to not re-incarcerate people for technical parole violations at this time, such as failure to pay a fine. Let’s look into alternatives to incarceration!
Finally, people who are incarcerated should have free access to health care visits, sanitizing products, and masks. They are under the care of our governments and shouldn’t be denied access to these basic things during this pandemic (or ever).
I’m hoping many of these changes stick around after we’ve gotten to the other side of this, but let’s just start here.
JAC: As you know, the JAC is focused on ways in which art can connect those in the prison system with those on the outside. How has this relationship been jeopardized by COVID-19? How have you been keeping connections active during this time?
LP: Many people are focused inward right now. Life has been vastly disrupted in some way for most people, and it’s a scary time. Adjusting to a new way of life is a hardship and is completely valid. However, when we’re scared, we don’t want to have to think about others’ horror stories. Things are hard enough. We now also are confined to our own neighborhoods, houses, and virtual contacts, which puts us in a bubble where we don’t have to hear concerns that vary wildly from our own. Both of these factors can make it hard to get people to think about those who are currently incarcerated and connect with them. Prisons and jails have also had to make drastic changes to their operations to try and protect people’s physical safety, so making sure people inside have access to creative arts or outside connections has become a lower priority. Overall, making connections is tough right now.
Voices Unbarred is not currently in a position where we can have contact with our participants in the prison, unfortunately, so we are mainly focusing on keeping connections with our returned citizens. We are pushing content on our social media that aims to raise awareness about people in prison during the Covid-19 pandemic. We, also, have been highlighting other organizations’ efforts to keep people connected, like The JAC and the pARTner project’s initiative to write letters to artists on the inside! We are also so excited to see JAC’s virtual workshop series starting to take place for those in the prison. It is so important to keep these connections in place, and we’re glad the arts world is stepping up to do it.
JAC: The JAC, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include?
LP: First, I have to say that we love the support that the JAC is already giving us! We’ve been so excited to partner with them on past events and appreciate the connections that have been made. Being able to connect with others in the field, prisons, and community members are very important factors of a supportive network, so I hope those aspects continue to strengthen. I also think an outstanding support network should provide places to get feedback or advice on curriculum and best practices for this field of work. Finally, it would be great to have access to funding resources and partnership opportunities. The network could provide these, as well as compile a list of others that offer these resources and opportunities.
JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?
LP: “You all were the greatest part of LCP for me. You made me feel human again. Thank you so much for that. … I tell everyone about your group and what you did for me and for those you reach. … I would like to stay in touch. You all are great and truly helped me in many ways. … Thank you soooo much for what you all do.” — M
When I hear the impact our sessions have had on our participants, like in the comment above, it is incredibly rewarding. Voices Unbarred started as a small idea in my head to use theatre as a tool for those most impacted by incarceration, so to see it working and hear that it’s meaningful is beyond amazing. We are incredibly grateful for the many relationships we’ve formed with our participants. They continue to reach out to us upon release, and even work with us when in the same city! Seeing our talented, brave, and committed participants grow and thrive is what this work is all about.
JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the Coronavirus pandemic, as well as this period of isolation, alters the public’s understanding of the justice system?
LP: There have always been issues with the justice system. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted some of these issues for people who may not have been aware before. I hope this helps people see how inhumane prison can be and how it affects us all. The coverage of the conditions inside some facilities, as well as the changes being made to try and stop a prison pandemic will hopefully bring these issues to the front of peoples’ minds. We keep prison so far on the edge of our society that it’s easy to forget about or be unaware of what’s happening. This global crisis will allow us to examine our systems and the things that don’t work, and give us time to start making changes. I hope that some of the temporary changes made to the system right now show people that it’s possible to approach incarceration in a different way, and maybe some of them will stick around!
Also, while being at home is not the same as being in prison, it does give you some insight to how isolating prison is and what that can do to your psyche. Many people were complaining about going stir crazy inside their homes after just one week, and that’s with access to streaming TV, freedom to cook what they want, and being able to go outside for a break. Some people are experiencing true depression or financial hardship during this time. No matter your experience, from mildly irritating to truly bad, I hope this period of social isolation and fear helps people empathize with those in prison and see how damaging long-term isolation can be. Maybe this will help people realize that a prison sentence doesn’t have to be so cruel.
Lori Pitts is an Applied Theatre practitioner, Joker, teaching artist, performer, and director in the DMV area. She is passionate about creating platforms for voices that often go unheard. In addition to her work with Voices Unbarred, she is a core member of the DC Coalition for Theatre & Social Justice. Pitts teaches and performs regularly with Young Playwrights’ Theater and has recently been seen on stage with Second City at Woolly Mammoth, Rorschach Theatre, Ally Theatre, and The Welders. She is a member of the inaugural cohort of the Culture Caucus with The Kennedy Center, a graduate of the 202Creates Fellowship, and is a two-time recipient of the Arts and Humanities Fellowship Program grant through the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her work within the community.