“The BOX” Virtual Performance: A Play About Solitary Confinement by Sarah Shourd

by Isa Berliner, JAC Intern

On October 1st and 3rd, audiences from around the globe are invited to a live Zoom performance of The BOX, a play about solitary confinement. Written by a survivor, Sarah Shourd, in collaboration with other survivors, The BOX is a story of human connection and resilience — a piece of transformational theater that asks us to re-examine long-held notions of punishment as it reveals the tragic, and sometimes painfully comic and absurd, realities that dictate life “inside the box.”

This unique Zoom production comes at a moment when millions of people around the world have new reason to resonate with the message of isolation. While Shourd certainly didn’t write The BOX to be performed during a global pandemic, she explains how “the experience — of being separated from loved ones, of being quarantined, of living through a crisis of epic proportions with no clear end in sight— can be a window into the ongoing suffering, deprivation, and resilience of our incarcerated population.” These stories demonstrate the fortitude that has kept these men and women alive, and offer insights into the perseverance we need as individuals and as a society to get through this pandemic and whatever we face next.

Despite the remarkable parallels between The BOX and our current global moment, the story behind this play actually begins over a decade ago. In 2009, Shourd was working in Syria as a journalist and ESL teacher when she was captured by Iranian border police while hiking around a popular tourist destination in Iraqi Kurdistan. She was tortured and imprisoned as a political hostage, spending 410 days in incommunicado solitary confinement — a form of detention considered cruel and unusual punishment under international law.

Upon her release and return to the United States, Shourd was shocked and horrified to discover that tens of thousands of people in the U.S. are held in similar conditions to what she experienced in Iran but for much longer — years or even decades. She began writing and advocating against the overuse of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, investigating and uncovering stories from the “deep end of the prison system.”

“I had a need to tell the story in a more intimate, personal, way,” Shourd recalls. Journalism and theater had always been inter-connected in her work: in her 20s, she used theater to demonstrate against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to tell the stories of Zapatista indigenous communities in Southern Mexico. Empowered by her experience, she turned to political theater.

The question on Shourd’s mind was how to reach people who may not see the humans behind the statistics: “someone that may not be persuaded by the data, that may not be persuaded by the scientific studies or the facts, or may not be able to make something real and tangible and human out of the number.” While the numbers themselves are staggering — of people we incarcerate in this country, of people in solitary confinement, of how long people are kept in these conditions — Shourd points out that such disturbing statistics can have the unintended consequence of depersonalizing the issue. “How can you wrap your head around 80 to 100 thousand people in isolation a day? You really need to focus on a few of those people to understand their stories and get to know them as human beings.” And so, the idea for The BOX was formed.

Shourd spent the next three years conducting an in-depth investigation into solitary confinement in the United States, interviewing 75 prisoners in 13 prisons across the country. She explains that while the suicide rates in solitary confinement are much higher than the rest of the general prison population, many people “still choose life.” Shourd was struck by the kindness and resilient humanity of the people she met: the way they could make her laugh and would make the most of every human interaction. Informed by her personal experience and the people she got to know, The BOX was born.

“The BOX is about how humans will find a way to connect with each other, regardless of the obstacles and the barriers between them. The more governments or carceral systems try to separate us, the more hungry we are to find each other.”

In 2016, The BOX premiered at San Francisco’s Z Space Theatre to sold out audiences of over 3,000 people. The show went on to be performed in a historic production at Alcatraz Island in 2019, and has been adapted into a graphic novel called Flying Kites. Shourd is always writing and rewriting and adapting the play, breathing new life into the story. Now, with this Zoom production, Shourd is working with what she views, in many ways, as an entirely new piece of art. “Storytelling is always taking advantage of new mediums, and I think that Zoom as a medium is still in its really early stages when it comes to entertainment… I think we’re on the eve of a new way of engaging with live theater virtually.”

Stepping into the role of director, Shourd describes how she and the cast have tried to approach the work with no preconceived notions. They are drawing from the experience of the previous productions, but with “a beginner’s mind,” responding to the current moment. For Shourd, being able to draw on the parallels to people’s “shrinking world” during the COVID pandemic is one of the most powerful things about this performance: “we’re all suffering that isolation and can relate to the subject matter in a new way.” Shourd reflects that there’s a rawness with a Zoom production: this performance is streaming live into the audience’s homes, directly from the actors’ homes.

While working with Zoom has been wonderful and expansive in some ways, Shourd has found it limiting and frustrating in others. There are aspects of the production that have proven to be easier through the virtual platform, such as how the consistency of what audiences will see allows Shourd and her technical designer to more specifically craft what is in every viewer’s frame. But at the same time, Shourd laments that there’s, “an intimacy and a visceral quality that’s lost over Zoom… It can be quite alienating.”

The medium of Zoom, by nature, puts everyone into disconnected boxes —  reducing each person to a disembodied face. “There’s not a lot of depth to Zoom, so the physicality is lost and Zoom theater becomes a lot about face and hands and voice.” Nevertheless, the loss of intimacy makes this virtual production all the more impactful. In this way, Shourd remarks, “the message of the play is kind of baked into the platform itself,” emphasizing the dehumanization of reducing someone to a pair of eyes or a food slot.

The costumes and props have been shipped to the actors, and the cast is rehearsing virtually. A large part of using Zoom, Shourd explains, is finding creative and interesting ways to use props and taking advantage of the camera’s ability to create illusions. One of the most difficult elements of the show in traditional live theater is showing how prisoners pass notes to each other, through what is known as “kite flying” or “fishing.” Using a line made from elastic in their shorts or a torn piece of sheet, prisoners in solitary confinement across the country learn to very adeptly sail notes to each other underneath their doors. In live theater, actors struggle to learn and accurately portray this practiced art, but through Zoom, they’ve been able to embrace the platform’s potential for smoke and mirrors and craft a consistent method.

The “kite flying” is essential to conveying one of the largest themes in the play: how do these prisoners find themselves and find human connection against all odds? Shourd states, “It’s a play about resistance – about how these prisoners find each other and get to the point where they were ready to risk their lives to participate in a collective resistance against the conditions they’re in.”

The BOX can be meaningful for those who have survived solitary confinement, as well as their families and loved ones.

“Art and theater is absolutely necessary as a form of witness, and for the healing and restoration of dignity to communities of people who have been deeply wounded by this practice. I think that art is like a fire or a hearth around which communities can join or gather and reignite their spiritual connection and heal.”

Shourd also hopes The BOX can reach an audience of people who have never been to prison and are not at risk of going to prison. It’s these communities of privilege that really need stories, “to help them mine their own experiences of isolation and hopefully deepen their empathy for and outrage against what we’re doing in our prisons.” Shourd hopes that youth in particular can connect their experiences of separation and disconnection to our senseless and cruel “justice” system — to see that it doesn’t rehabilitate people and it doesn’t make our society any safer — and be called into prison reform and prison abolition.

Shourd invites anyone who is feeling alone during the pandemic to join this global audience. Unlike anything theater-goers have seen before, the three virtual performances are sure to be powerful and moving. There is no admission cost, but registration is required to attend. Additionally, the Pulitzer Center is hosting a webinar discussion the week after the performances with Shourd and Damien Brown, one of the actors who is also formerly incarcerated: “we want the conversation to keep going.” 

Come see this incredible story of human resilience in the face of dehumanization and isolation: October 1st at 4pm PST and October 3rd at 11am and 4pm PST. 

“We can do so much better, and we deserve better. I really hope that this is a moment of reckoning and awakening.”


Sarah Shourd is an award-winning author, investigative journalist and playwright based in Oakland, CA. Over the last decade the majority of her work has centered around exposing the inhumanity of solitary confinement and the ways it which the practice enables mass incarceration in U.S. prisons. Shourd’s approach to her work in many ways reflects her unique life experiences. After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, she became actively involved in the antiwar movement while finishing her undergraduate work at University of California, Berkeley. During this time, Shourd also lived as an International Human Rights Observer in Zapatista indigenous communities in Chiapas, Mexico. In 2008, she moved to Damascus, Syria to study Arabic, teach Iraqi refugees, and start out as a journalist. In 2009, Shourd’s life took a dramatic turn when she was captured by Iranian border guards while hiking near a tourist site in Northern Iraqi Kurdistan and imprisoned as a political hostage. Shourd was tortured and imprisoned in incommunicado, solitary confinement for 410 days in Iran’s Evin Prison.

After her release in 2010, Shourd became an internationally known advocate against the overuse of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. As a UC Berkeley Visiting Scholar, she conducted a 3-year investigation into isolation in U.S prisons, interviewing 75 prisoners in 13 prisons across the U.S. Based on this investigation, Shourd wrote and produced a play, The BOX, which premiered in San Francisco in 2016 to sold-out audiences. She also co-authored an anthology, Hell is a Very Small Place, comprised of the stories of incarcerated Americans she collected. Her Op-eds and journalism have been published by The New York Times, Mother Jones, The Daily Beast, CNN, San Francisco Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, Reuters and many more. In 2015 she was a Ragdale Artist-in-Residence, one of 7×7 Magazine’s HOT 20 in 2016, a recipient of the GLIDE Memorial Church Community Hero Award in 2016 and in 2018 she was chosen for the prestigious John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University.

As the End Comes (a tribute to Alice Walker)

by Mardie Swartz

Mardie Swartz has spent 29 years behind bars in Texas. This poem is about the time approaching when she will finally be beyond bars.

I remember beginnings –

The first time I was molested

Sold, abandoned, raped

The first drink, snort, shot of

Whatever would numb some

of the pain. The first time I

ran, and the first time I

just stayed and closed my eyes.

The first time I tried to hang.

 

I recall pissing on myself

In fear when I entered jail

at sixteen. The smell of

vomit, stale bodies, and

broken lives seeping into my

skin and hair as

I huddled in a corner

trying to be invisible again.

 

I can still feel the smooth

slice and burn of steel parting

flesh. The pulse of my lifeblood

racing forth when I tried to

Give the state back my seventy-five years –

The easy way…….

A cascading red necklace

made of anguish and despair.

 

As days became months,

became years

then decades which melded into

monotonous monologues with different

faces but familiar themes,

hope became dust motes in a sunbeam –

briefly glimpsed, but intangible,

Weightless

Subjective

Meaningless

 

And yet.

With the changing of the

calendars, the changes in

the mirror, came the

changes in my soul –

Emerging from the shattered

mess of degradation and shame

arose a survivor, a warrior

an unconquerable heart

who dared to look up,

lift my head,

and piece together a life amid the dross and dregs

of the irredeemable.

 

As the end comes,

I realize

everything I’ve heard

about it

is false.

 

Betrayal no longer matters

Hatreds are forgotten,

forgiven. Abrupt

Partings for weird reasons

are resolved, and love

comes crashing against

my heart’s door.

 

There is no longer fear

of the unknown

but a gripping, relentless

excitement

as months become days,

become hours,

minutes,

seconds –

 

And I walk out the gates

to a new beginning

toward my own

until now unimaginable

destiny

without fences and bars

Making Meaning: a caged bird sings

by Page Dukes

I was released from prison last May, after serving ten years for a crime I committed as a heroin-addicted teenager. I have spoken publicly many times since, about the decisions and circumstances that led me to the criminal justice system. However, at the Art for Justice Forum held at Emory University Law School, I was asked to talk about the role music has played in my life, how it both kept me free on the inside and has helped me to have confidence and livelihood in my newfound freedom.

I was around music my entire life. The daughter of musicians, I toured the country and sang on stage with my mother from as early as 3 years old. I played the cello in elementary school, switching to the guitar when I discovered punk rock. My best friend and I formed a band when we were 13 and played on stages (with big black X’s on our hands) all over Atlanta. It was around that time that I began to “experiment” with drugs— my ambition to use matched and eventually surpassed my ambition to play music. By 18 I was shooting a deadly mix of heroin and cocaine daily, and by my 21st birthday I’d committed armed robbery.

In the jail, I got clean for the first time in many years. I realized all I had given up, all I had to lose and to live for. At the Art for Justice forum, I remembered the time a volunteer let me play her guitar after a jailhouse church service—how grateful I had been to her, how I probably scared her with my weeping, and how that moment was the first time I had felt anything in a long, long time. That was perhaps the first in a series of releases—in which I opened up a little at a time, and began to grow, in the darkest, dankest of places: the basement of the Fulton County Jail at 901 Rice Street.

There were long years when I didn’t get to play at all. I sang a lot when it was all I had. I remember finding spaces where the acoustics carried and amplified my voice— in the dungeon below the courthouse, where we sat shackled, anxiously awaiting an uncertain fate, or to be sent back without any answers at all; or in the visitation room, where we waited to be “shaken down,” having watched our families leave crying, trying to reassure them that we were okay.

It was in that room that I last saw Kelly Gissendanner, who was killed after 18 years on death row, having turned her life around and become a pillar of hope and encouragement in the prison community. She’d been visiting with her children in the room where they kept her quarantined from the rest of us. After her death warrant was issued, they had stopped letting her attend church and classes with us. I knew it may be the last time I would see her, so I sang for her. I cried, and she cried, and she thanked me. In Kelly’s last hours, she sang “Amazing Grace.”

Music is something that could not be taken from us. In a place designed to dehumanize you, where you’re told you are worthless—a uniform, a number, a discarded sub-citizen—you must make your own meaning. The system is not designed to rehabilitate, but to “correct–” to punish. I knew where my meaning was—music was my first religion—and I also believed that I would survive and thrive no matter how large the obstacles I had placed in my way.

How many others bought the view that their lives were worthless? That they were defined by their crimes, that they will never be anything more than a number, a statistic, an “offender.” The system will strip you of everything, even your humanity, if you let it. And once that happens what do you have left to lose?

The first panelist, Rachel May, a co-founder of Synchronicity Theatre, hosts theater workshops, where they give young girls in juvie the platform to tell their own stories. I remembered young girls who were in solitary confinement until their eighteenth birthdays. I remembered the ones who felt they had nothing to lose, facing long sentences, longer even than the one I had faced in my youth. And I hope that they find the freedom I did in music and in art and in words, that they will inspire others inside, and one day speak to an audience who wants to know how they made it through.

Another panelist had been making art since a childhood teacher had encouraged him to do so. In prison, he honed his portraiture skills, capturing the character of each person who lived in his unit, in graphite on paper. Like music, it was more than just a talent. It helped him to know who he was, and how he could serve a purpose in a void of meaning. It also helped him to develop his skill—one that would sustain him when he faced the task of finding work with a record.

I sang and played in the chapel services for my last three years at Lee Arrendale State Prison. I’ve since met women who tell me they remember hearing me sing in church— and they thanked me. It humbled me, that my voice and my music could have such an effect, could be a conductor for the same peace, beauty and transcendence that it brought me.

I talked and talked and talked at the Forum, until I realized I had taken up all the time. It was strange and wonderful to be asked about my experience with music in prison. The transformative power of art is no new idea—everyone has felt it, and yet we forget that the people who have been condemned, hidden out of sight and out of mind, need it too. The artist in a world without color, the musician in a room with only her voice bouncing off cement walls, the writer stripped down to the basics of pen and paper and his words—they are bound and confined, but their inner lives are rich, and they matter.

About the guest contributor:

Page Dukes is a formerly incarcerated writer, musician and college student. She grew up in Atlanta, the daughter of a touring singer/ songwriter who brought her along on the road during school breaks. She experienced life on the road with her mom and played in her own band back home, but started using drugs in her early teens, and by the age of 18 was hopelessly addicted to heroin. She committed armed robbery at 20 and served the mandatory minimum sentence of ten years in prison. While incarcerated she taught writing classes in the GED program, studied theology with the Atlanta Theological Association, trained and re-homed shelter dogs with the Forever Friends Canine Rescue, and performed with the Voices of Hope Choir. She was released last May and since has studied journalism and philosophy, worked as a reporting intern at the Marshall Project in New York this summer and the publications chief at the Roar, Piedmont College’s student media. As a founding member of the Athens Reentry Collaborative, she and several post-incarcerated peers work with academics and advocates to provide resources and support to reentering citizens in Athens, Georgia. She recently celebrated 11 and a half years clean.

About the Art for Justice Forums:

California Lawyers for the Arts was awarded one of 30 grants from the new Art for Justice Fund to facilitate six Art for Justice Forums in Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, New York and California during 2018. These one-day forums are designed to engage the arts in justice reform efforts and increase support for arts in corrections programs, as well as delinquency prevention and re-entry services. More than 200 persons, including elected legislators, artists, returned citizens, educators, arts and justice reform organizations, and others participated in the first two forums at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on April 3 and at the Houston Museum of African American Culture on July 14 . A short video of the Michigan Art for Justice Forum is linked here. Videos of the plenary panel sessions are also available here. The Defender Network.com published photographs from the Texas Art for Justice Forum, while the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition summarized the day’s discussions in a blog report.

The 2018 New York Art for Justice Forum at Columbia University

by Philip Hall

In 2018, the creation and discussion of art is widely acknowledged as a vehicle for social justice. Years ago, such a concept would have been largely ignored. Current tightened state budgets, plummeting crime rates, as well as an examination of mass incarceration, is prompting the investigation and support of art as a vehicle for social justice.

New partnerships are helping to force that change.

On November 16, 2018, I attended the New York Art for Justice Forum. This event was presented by Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, Rehabilitation Through the Arts, Kernochan Center for Law and Media and the Arts at Columbia Law School in collaboration with California Lawyers for the Arts and the Center for Institutional & Social Change at Columbia Law School.

The Art for Justice Forums, convened in five other states (Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Georgia and California), and attended by government officials, educators, teaching artists, advocates, policy makers, and lay persons, was an impressive effort to examine how art can further the national conversation to end mass incarceration by improving rehabilitation services, delinquency prevention and community reentry.

The daylong event had a good turnout, despite a snowstorm that hobbled travel across the state. When I arrived, Katherine Vockins, CEO of Rehabilitation Through the Arts, greeted me. I met Katherine in 1996 at Sing Sing and joined the Theater Workshop program she started with some of the men serving time. Later during the morning, Katherine spoke passionately about the benefits of arts programs in prisons and how she believes that the arts can transform the language around criminal justice.

Anthony J. Annucci, Acting Commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, the Keynote Speaker, expressed how programs such as Rehabilitation Through the Arts enables the corrections system to reach its goal of improving the institutional and post-release lives of men and women. Commissioner Annucci acknowledged the “traction” rehabilitation has gained as a “penal philosophy,” and the importance of putting a “human face on every incarcerated individual.”

Elizabeth Powers, State Policy Advocate for the Innocence Project, moderated a panel discussion on the impact of the Criminal Justice System upon youth. Panel members took questions from the audience and spoke of art as a bridge to help young people cope with trauma, and to be empowered through sharing their personal narratives. JoAnne Page, Chief Executive Officer of the Fortune Society, led the Arts in the Community discussion. She told the audience how a play written by an incarcerated man in the 1960s, about brutal, dehumanizing prison conditions, became the conceptual pillars for the Fortune Society. Panel member, Piper Anderson, writer, educator and Founder of Create Forward and Mass Story Lab, spoke about her belief that the restorative power of storytelling can be utilized to address the harms of crime, punishment and mass incarceration. She shared the positive impact of storytelling upon the life of Mass Story Lab participant, Lewis Conway, a formerly incarcerated Austin, Texas resident, who became a community organizer, City Council member and mayoral candidate.

After lunch, three breakout sessions were formed: “Youth,” “Adults in Prison” and “In Community to discuss strategies for supporting and gaining recognition of the arts as a viable tool in the struggle for social justice. Forum members reassembled and presented the following ideas:

  • Helping formerly incarcerated persons to sustain interest in the arts after release
  • Surmounting the funding challenges for jail/prison-based arts programs
  • Creating value for arts programs inside correctional facilities
  • Advocating for the recognition of teaching artists as valued professionals in the correctional setting
  • Creating a coalition of arts organizations to share ideas, resources and support
  • Influencing law makers and governors to share resources
  • Demonstrating how arts programs save money
  • Artistic engagement with correctional staff
  • Supporting the artistic work of community engaged practitioners
  • Creating justice for youth as a model
  • Utilizing art to address the anti-social and dehumanizing power of the Prison Industrial Complex
  • Engaging the services of a public relations expert to gain wider support for criminal justice Reform
  • Creating a documentary film about the transformative power of the arts

“Art as a vehicle for social justice” is part of a national discussion that is both timely and overdue. Because it is not a new idea, its advocates must find innovative ways to chart its course. Failure to navigate the current swelling tide of public interest will find the concept receding from focus.

One idea that impressed me called for the creation of or use of an existing documentary film about the transformative power of the arts to be submitted to a film festival. This generated a discussion about the support such an effort could garner. I immediately liked the idea because I have always been awed by the power of film.

Throughout the day, I thought about the power of words as I listened to speakers use terms like, “justice-impacted,” “criminal justice involved” and “returning citizens” to refer to men and women impacted by the Criminal Justice System. Words are loaded with powerful ideas. The old language is stigmatizing and dismissive. But there’s something about the new lexicon that I don’t like; the clinical sound of it all. Those shiny, officious terms always give me the impression that great effort is being made to appear sensitive. Hearing them at the forum made me want to stand up and say: “Your intentions are good. You are invested in the human dignity of the populations referenced. What’s wrong with saying ‘men,’ ‘women,’ ‘children,’ or ‘persons’ when discussing those impacted by the justice system?”

As a playwright, I often consider how we are born into complex social systems that, much like the world of a play, influence our thoughts, sense of self and behavior. Writers like to believe that their characters act upon their own volition, pursuing their needs, sometimes tragically, independent of the story’s context. Undoubtedly, there are social determinants of criminality: poverty, social exclusion, income inequality, racism, and economic factors, to name a few. Neither I, nor the men I knew on the inside, who have taken responsibility for our actions, believe that we have been victims of inexorable social forces, or actors without agency. Instead, we examined our lives, wrestled with our pasts, and took steps to change.

During my incarceration, art was a catalyst for change that compelled me to accept responsibility, develop empathy, a broadened perspective and a sense of myself as more than my past.

As the conference drew to an end, I reflected upon how my friendship with David Rothenberg, Fortune’s founder, began after he attended a public showing of a play I wrote during my incarceration.

That play, “The ‘Nigger’ Trial,” was performed at New York University in 2001, and in 2005 at Sing Sing. I will always appreciate David for taking the time to see the play and recommending it to the public as he hosted his Saturday morning radio show for WBAI. The playwriting skills I developed as a member of Rehabilitation Through the Arts continue to factor into every meaningful, supportive relationship I enjoy today. They gave me what Katherine Vockins referred to as an “honestly earned self-esteem.” That’s a wholesome way of seeing myself. Yes. Art works.

About the guest contributor: 

Philip Hall, 52, born August 17, 1966 in Brooklyn, New York, is the youngest of the five children. In 2016, he was released after a 30-year period of confinement and continues to write. He thanks God for the opportunity he was given to rejoin society.

While incarcerated, Philip participated in numerous rehabilitative programs. He developed his love for plays and playwriting after joining Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) at Sing Sing. In 2001, his play, “The ‘Nigger’ Trial,” was performed at New York University, and in 2005, he was transferred to Sing Sing from a medium security prison to attend the run of the same play.

Several of Philip’s other plays, “Front & Back” and “Corridors” have been performed at Sing Sing and at Playwrights Horizon in New York City to support the work of RTA. Today, Philip works as a Health Counselor at MetroPlus Health of New York and has been accepted into The Fortune Society’s transitional housing program.