Teaching Artist Spotlight: William Head on Stage (WHoS)

We recently talked with Kathleen Greenfield (they/them, she/her), Kate Rubin (she/her), and Emma Zabloski (she/her), our newest additions to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. In addition to their work with the Justice Arts Coalition, they are also teaching artists and theatrical collaborators with William Head on Stage (WHoS) at William Head Institution in Victoria, BC.


William Head on Stage Theatre Society (WHoS): 

WHoS is the only prisoner-run prison theatre company in all of North America that invites the public into a federal institution to experience their shows.  WHoS has been creating shows for the public for the last 39 years at William Head Institution, which you will find tucked away on the windy coast in the forests of Metchosin, a 35-minute drive from Victoria, BC.   Members of the public may buy a ticket, enter through prison security to the prison gymnasium theatre and watch the fall play performed by the prisoners.

SNAFU Society of Unexpected Spectacles:

SNAFU has been collaborating with WHoS since 2010 and has co-produced 5 productions in the past decade.  SNAFU artists create live theatre, puppet theatre, and dance theatre, based in Victoria, BC and touring across Canada to theatres and festivals.  SNAFU is led by artists Kathleen Greenfield and Ingrid Hansen, who also teach speciality workshops in theatre, puppetry, playbuilding, viewpoints, and physical comedy.


JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?

Kate Rubin: I had been working in the Greater Victoria area as a professional teaching theatre artist and always was interested in social justice issues and had worked on numerous projects over the years with other populations. I had heard about the work at WHoS from my colleagues and was curious and interested to be involved in some way. I was cast along with 2 other women for Macbeth in 2006 and have been involved with WHoS for the past 15 years in capacity as a performer, director, writer, facilitator, mentor and have helped launch initiatives within the prison like the Q & A, the first WHoS symposium, building a larger network of teaching artists, a screening and interview process for teaching artists wanting to work with WHoS, and general support of the men and the company in various ways that present themselves. I have spoken at a couple of conferences now about WHoS and am passionate about sharing the 40 year legacy of WHoS. 

Kathleen Greenfield: I went to see my first WHoS play when I was still a student at the University of Victoria in 2004. Over the years, many of my colleagues were hired to either direct, perform or design shows with WHoS and I would attend but my focus is on creating new work, and WHoS was working with classic published plays.

In 2010, I went to see CHALK which was devised and directed by my (new at the time) creative partner, Ingrid Hansen. This show blew my mind for all of its creativity. The entire show was non-verbal, movement-based and created from the stories of the incarcerated participants, but I wanted to make sure that I was confident enough with my boundaries and wise enough to share some skills before I stepped into the Justice Arts world.

In 2013, I was at the point in my career where I finally felt ready to devote my  time to a WHoS production. I was really inspired by the creation and storytelling work that the company was starting to produce with CHALK and Fractured Fables: A Prison Puppet Project. In 2014, after participating in some skills-building workshops to get my feet wet, I collaborated with Kate Rubin to write (and perform in) Time Waits for No One in 2014. I have since Directed two new plays, performed in three and collaborated in writing the five new scripts. SNAFU Society of Unexpected Spectacles has co-produced 5 plays with the WHOS board of directors since 2010. 

Emma Zabloski: I have always been interested in art-making that is rooted in community building and co-creation of experience.  My first experience with WHoS was going to see the production CHALK in 2010.  This was my first encounter with the prison system and it was an incredibly humanizing and humbling experience.  I was invited to join the artist team as a performer and facilitator by Kathleen Greenfield for the 2016 show, Sleeping Giants.  The experience was transformative and opened my heart to the power of art in carceral contexts.  Although I now live in Toronto, I have travelled back to facilitate movement and choreography sessions with the program and was slated to direct this year’s fall production, but… you know, Covid.  Since being in Toronto, I have also facilitated theatre workshops at a new drama program at Grand Valley Institution for Women.  These experiences inspired me to pursue social work studies, and I now have an MSW degree.  Moving forward, I am excited to continue exploring the intersections between art, social justice, and healing.

WHoS, Prison Puppet Project, 2013 - Photo By Jam Hamidi
WHoS, Prison Puppet Project, 2013 – Photo By Jam Hamidi

JAC: In considering the work of your own organization, what is unique about the programming you have been creating?

KG: I feel that one of the most unique characteristics of WHoS is the fact that it is not a program that is regulated by Correctional Service Canada (CSC). It is a not-for-profit society run by a board of directors that are all incarcerated at William Head.  The WHoS board of incarcerated participants get a chance to develop or practice skills in production and project management and liaise with the outside artists, hiring us directly. It is also unique because we get to bring outside audiences  inside the institution to experience the performance.  And these are FULL PRODUCTIONS with sound, lights, costumes, and a set all built by incarcerated folks. 

KR: WHoS has been an organic creation, initiated and led by many people inside and out for the past 40 years and has had a very unique and varied life of its own. It is valued highly by the men involved (past and present), the larger community, and by many people in both the arts and corrections and social justice worlds. It has remained alive through different political and social upheavals and challenges, and every warden so far has seen the value in the men continuing to run and keep this company going. In the past 10 years, we have been mostly devising original work with the men and building the capacity of the company,  in the hope of providing more opportunity for the men inside to engage in all the aspects of building a show.  We are also building the capacity of those of us working in this field through trainings, workshops, discussions, forums, and building our own form of creative activism within the institutional systems that we work. 

WHoS Rehearsal Photo 1- The Crossroads, 2018 - Photo by Ingrid Hansen
WHoS Rehearsal Photo – The Crossroads, 2018 – Photo by Ingrid Hansen

JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?

EZ: I am grateful for the openings.  Where I get to witness residents take creative risks and step into their vulnerability.  Where unlikely connections and relationships are made.  Where I am constantly being surprised and having my assumptions challenged.  And where we get to collectively resist an oppressive system through the power of making art.

KG: I like the parts where I get to listen and then accept stories that I hear as little gifts. I like to collect these gifts and mush them all together into a collective story, puzzling the pieces  into one cohesive performance. I love discovering participants’  secret talents that maybe someone told them they weren’t good at as a kid. I like to keep an eye out when we are playing drama games, freewriting, singing songs or dancing  to see what gifts people don’t even know they have, and then push them just hard enough to feel confident to share it with each other and eventually an audience. I find this process to be very organic and something hard to teach to other facilitators … like it is my own special skill. 

KR:

  •  Seeing the effects this work has on an individual, be it a momentary delight or release, a small behavioral change, or a complete lifestyle change where an individual may never reoffend
  • Watching the delight and freedom of expression that comes in the moment to moment creative work and seeing the confidence of everyone involved grow as we build the play and then perform in front of many audiences over 5 weeks
  • Witnessing the moments of discovery and mutual understanding that can develop between the men and audience members in the 20-minute Q & A period after the show
  • Experiencing and learning about different cultures represented by the men in jail, including a large Indigenous population. In Canada, there is a high proportion of  Indigneous peoples in federal and provincial institutions representing the racial intolerance, inequity and racist beginnings of our county .  We have felt inspired to help create a dialogue about tolerance and inclusivity within the WHoS cohort.
  • Helping to build understanding and tolerance within the institution (staff and security) about the work we do with the men

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?

KG: For almost 40 years, we have produced a large-scale production of with up to 30 incarcerated cast members and roughly 2000 public audience members over 5 weeks  in a converted gymnasium.  This will be the first time in 39 years where we will not present a play in the fall. We spend almost half the year writing, improvising, workshopping, choreographing and supporting the incarcerated men. This year, we will not be allowed into William Head until maybe November (but most likely January) and so we will not be able to develop the  bond that theatre inevitably creates.

BUT…we are working on the logistics of an Audio Project that we can share with a larger network of Prison Artists and Teaching Artists. We are also keeping Inside Artists engaged with the WHoS Great Creative Exchange.

When Covid [COVID-19] hit and theaters closed, SNAFU was offered an opportunity to be part of a socially-distanced live-theatre festival called SKAMpede. With a bit of funding, we were able to pay two returned citizens to perform alongside two teaching artists. It has been part of our mission for a while now to form an outside performance troupe to support Returned Citizens in the community. Now we have concentrated time to envision what an outside performance troupe would look like, and how we can carry out projects that might provide some financial support when jobs are hard to find. Our first performance was a success and we are so excited to see where these small performances in the community will take us.

EZ: Through Covid, we have been working hard to stay connected and offer SOMETHING to residents to help shake the Covid blues.  We have heard from residents that morale is low and tensions are high inside the institution right now.  Residents’ lives are even more restricted than normal with less contact and access to programs.

As artists, we  would normally be at William Head offering weekly creative workshops.  In lieu of this, we  have been developing a Creative Exchange program over the past couple of months,  which  finally launched mid-August!  We are hoping this project will help us stay connected while providing a creative outlet for residents.  Creative prompts (writing and visual art exercises) will be sent to inside and outside artists every two weeks.  We will then swap our artwork with each other and share our thoughts through writing.  We are incredibly lucky to have a program officer and WHoS board members at the institution to help facilitate the process.  We have been able to stay connected through email and phone meetings once or twice a month and collaborate on adapting  our workshops and theatre production this year.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
WHoS 2019 The Emerald City Project – Promo Project – Photo by Sam Redmond

JAC: As we navigate this unprecedented time across our national landscape, both concerning Covid-19 and anti-racism protests, what challenges have emerged in your work with artists, specifically those who are impacted by the criminal justice system?

KR:

  • We have not been able to get inside the prison since the beginning of March.
  • We have had very minimal connection with the men we know through some phone calls and no connection to any potential new residents interested in joining WHoS.
  • The institution staff have had hours cut back and the men at William Head Institution are also very limited in having any extracurricular activity.
  • Our production work with the men this year would have had us in the prison once a week through the spring and then starting in mid June, we would normally be going in 2-3 times a week to devise the fall play.  By mid August,  we would be inside 4x a week, have a script drafted, and would be rehearsing and building sets, costumes, lighting,etc. 
  • Not being able to work with the men and develop a team means that we are relying on one WHoS board member and a staff member to convey anything we want to impart about possible creative ventures during Covid. 
  • The chances for exclusion are high because we can’t guarantee that all communities within the institution are being reached and we have no real way of addressing that from the outside.
  • Any networking with colleagues is mainly done by Zoom calls and these can be challenging, especially in large groups, although they at least provide some connection and support

KG: It’s challenging to not have a chance to communicate with our WHoS participants face- to-face. To try to organize and  facilitate drama workshops without direct contact with participants makes you realize how important body language, facial expressions, and inflection are when we are creating theatre. A lot of anxieties come up when we encourage participants to be vulnerable with us and with each other. When we are not present to respond to vulnerable moments and realizations, it can be discouraging. We have an “everyone welcome” policy in our workshop spaces, but it is difficult to ensure that the group is not being divided by race, faith, class or status within the prison when we are not in the space.  It is challenging to not be inside, actively ensuring that everyone is being welcomed to participate in our Creative Exchange Project.  So much of our work is “lead by example.”

WHoS Rehearsal Photo 2 - The Crossroads, 2018 - Photo by Ingrid Hansen
WHoS Rehearsal Photo – The Crossroads, 2018 – Photo by Ingrid Hansen

JAC: What action do you feel is necessary to alleviate the safety concerns that incarcerated people face, in light of the Coronavirus crisis?

EZ: Luckily, there has not been a Covid outbreak at William Head.  The institution is starting to talk about what opening up to volunteers and teaching artists again might look like.  We don’t anticipate being able to enter the institution until October or November at the earliest.  There will no doubt  be strict institutional procedures in place when this does happen, but I think it is also  important to keep having the conversation as a team and consider what the risks are for residents.  We have also heard from the institution that they are exploring the idea of video conferencing as a teaching platform, which is new (and exciting!) territory.   

KR:

  • Strong checks and balances allowing people into the institution 
  • Temperatures taken
  • Covid testing 
  • Masks worn 
  • Hand washing 
  • 2 metre distancing. *We would normally go into the prison with as many as 12 outside artists at a time when we are working on a production.  Now, we will most likely begin with  2 teaching artists at a time. I say two because I think we still need to support each other in the work as teaching artists, and it is also important that the men have the option to creatively connect with different teaching artists.  The population at William Head is currently divided up into three bubbles.  So one idea would be to work with men that are already in a bubble together, meaning that teaching artists would just need to keep the 2 meter distance and participants can be freed up in their theatre work with each other. 
  • Not work with any immune compromised or extremely vulnerable men * Some kind of screening potentially to make that decision

JAC: The Justice Arts Coalition, 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?

KG: I really like the hands-on workshops with smaller groups that connect Teaching Artists in a practical way. I learn so much more from others through working than I do with talking.

KR: It needs to include:

  • Dialogue and exchange amongst people working with incarcerated individuals,  like the Wednesday JAC meetings
  • Linking people to different programs and institutions through the database and JAC email stream 
  • Support with creating and building sustainable funding for the different work we all do
  • Online conferences and hopefully live conferences once there is a vaccine
  • Podcast 
  • Workshops 
  • Linking mentors with emerging teaching artists.

EZ: I really appreciate the opportunity to share curriculum and program ideas and successes with each other!

WHoS 2019 The Emerald City Project - Promo Project 1 - Photo by Sam Redmond birds 0
WHoS 2019 The Emerald City Project – Promo Project – Photo by Sam Redmond

JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the pandemic, as well as this period of protest, will alter the public’s understanding of the justice system?

KR: Given a global pause unlike anything before, I hope we can take the time to reevaluate and make the beginning changes necessary to shift how incarcerated people are treated, and in particular to validate the transformative power of the arts to help build esteem, understanding, tolerance and many basic skills sets.

EZ: I am really hoping that the cracks in our systems have been revealed to the point where it will be unacceptable to “return to normal”.   It is hard to ignore racial injustices right now because protests and calls to action are happening on such a large scale.  We are seeing it in the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, in calls to defund the police, in conversations about abolishing prisons.  Structural changes of this amplitude take time.  But I do hope that folks are taking this opportunity to at least imagine what an alternative landscape might look like.

As for our artist team, I hope that we can continue to grapple with the injustices of structural racism and systemic oppression, and critically examine what our roles are in the carceral space.  Art can be an incredibly powerful tool for collectively and critically exploring issues, and for bridging divides between different groups.

KG: I really do believe that WHoS (and the structure of how WHoS operates) will weather this storm and produce a wonderful new project for their 40th Anniversary. I already have members of the public emailing to find out more about what WHoS has planning for this year and the next. It is very difficult, at this time, to see how the recent period of protest has affected the population of William Head, but it has been on my mind in every short phone conversation I have had with our staff liaison and with the leader of the WHoS group. 

Racist behaviours and power imbalances that I have witnessed working inside of William Head have always been subtle. When I have no way to engage with the marginalized groups inside, it becomes very difficult to shed light on microaggressions that are, for sure, happening. When we are finally able to meet again, I would like to start off with creating a contract with the men, identifying some of the micro-aggressions that take place and challenging us all to “be better”, instead of reporting micro-aggressions to the Prison Administration as I think this would just lead to a cycle of policy, punishment and defensive responses from WHoS’ leadership. 

WHoS, Prison Gym turned Theatre,Time Waits for No One 2014, Photo By Jam Hamidijpg
WHoS, Prison Gym turned Theatre, Time Waits for No One 2014 – Photo by Jam Hamidi

JAC: What led you to JAC, and how has your experience with JAC served your own work?

KR: I had heard of JAC through some colleagues and had seen its acronym through the California Corrections conference, and had been curious about it.  A colleague told me she had just joined the Wednesday group in early April and I joined up given a need for connection to others doing this work.  We are in the midst of planning a second conference symposium and it seemed like a great thing to do at this time of Covid to connect up with others who do similar work. I told other members in the WHoS team and a number have joined up including Kathleen and Emma.

KG: Right before COVID struck in March, I had reached out to a small collective of WHoS facilitators to discuss the idea of organizing a networking event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of WHoS and also host a convergence of Justice Arts practitioners from all over the world to share skills, practices and experiences. Come on, don’t you all want to come visit us in the most beautiful place on earth?

We started weekly meetings to discuss what this event would look like and what networks already existed to help make this event a reality. It still might be a huge risk to plan a large-scale in-person conference for November of 2021 based on what governments are saying about travel restrictions, but maybe in 2022? We are still doing all sorts of fun work archiving 40 years of history, collecting stories of WHoS alumni and past teaching artists.  BUT, one of the most exciting outcomes of our collective meetings has been connecting with the JAC network and learning about all of the work that Teaching Artists are doing to ensure that justice arts folks remain connected

EZ: I was invited to join JAC by other members of WHoS.  It has been exciting and inspiring to tap into such a large network of prison artists. I had no idea this existed!  Since JAC is mostly U.S. based, there are some contextual differences for us as Canadians.  But it has nonetheless been an incredible resource.   I have joined the JAC Podcast team as a core organizer.  Through this, I am learning so much about conceptualizing and planning digital projects, including receiving mentorship from a podcast producer.  These are all skills I plan to take back to William Head this fall/winter as we develop our own digital project with participants.

WHoS, Time Waits for No One, 2014 dance PHOTO by Jam Hamidi
WHoS, Time Waits for No One 2014, Dance – Photo by Jam Hamidi

Kathleen Greenfield (they/them, she/her)

Kathleen  lives and collaborates on the territories of the WSÁNEĆ, Lkwungen & Wyomilth people. As Co-Artistic Director of SNAFU, Kathleen has directed the premiere productions of Little Orange Man, Kitt & Jane and Interstellar Elder. In 2013, Kathleen joined the artistic team of William Head on Stage Prison Theatre as a performer, facilitator and writer. In 2019, Kathleen devised and directed The Emerald City Project, co-produced by SNAFU and WHOS.

Kate Rubin (sher/her)

Kate Rubin is an independent teaching theatre artist in Victoria, British Columbia and has worked over the past 30 years with many theatre companies and organizations as a performer, director, facilitator and coach. She initiated and ran her own theatre studio for 23 years and in the past 15 years has also worked in the capacity as a performer, director and teacher/mentor with William Head on Stage Theatre Company at William Head Federal Institution. 

Emma Zabloski (she/her)

Emma is a theatre creator, arts educator, and youth worker.  With her company Zopyra Theatre, she specializes in playful, site-specific, and interactive performance.  Emma is a facilitator and performer with prison theatre project William Head on Stage, and has delivered workshops with Theatre of the Beat at Grand Valley Institution for Women.  She recently completed her MSW degree from the University of Toronto.  Emma loves sewing clothes, dancing flamenco, and soaking up nature time!


For more information on WHoS and SNAFU, please visit:

William Head on Stage: https://whonstage.weebly.com

SNAFU Society of Unexpected Spectacles: https://www.snafudance.com

 

 

 

Teaching Artist Spotlight: Elia Enid Cadilla

We recently talked with Elia Cadilla, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Elia has done research for the FILIUS Institute, part of the School of Medicine of the University of Puerto Rico (among other projects, a study about the effect of theater in the rehabilitation process of female convicts.) Cadilla teaches Acting for Film and TV at the University of Sacred Heart, and directs the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Theater Program since late 2001. Elia speaks on the current effects of pandemic on carceral settings, the role of the arts and radical empathy during this time period, and the ways in which she believes the intersection of creation and justice might help to improve our collective societies.

  JACAs 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?

EC: This is a complex question, with a complex answer. The main negative effect is frustration, both for the ones who are still inmates, as for the ones already free. Ironically enough, the situation – in terms of sheer survival – can be more dire for the ones out of prison than for the ones inside. The ones still incarcerated have food, lodging, medical attention. We’ve had to help out several of the women outside through our non profit, which is NGO, because many didn’t have the necessary tools to handle this situation. Many times they have to accept the most menial jobs, which don’t have benefits such as health insurance, for even though unemployment benefits have been extended for people who don’t usually receive them, some don’t have the tools to navigate the system, or lack a proper ID, and so on and so forth. On the other hand, those inside the prison are experiencing a type of incarceration they had left behind when they joined the theater group, mixed with a new restriction, which is the lack of family visits to prevent contagion. They communicate with their loved ones by phones provided by the Department but lack, of course, physical contact. However, in my communications with members of the group, I find there is a general understanding that this affects the whole population, not just them, and that these restrictions have managed to keep them healthy. They have access to information from outside, and are aware that some prisons in other states and countries have horrific stories going on. That doesn’t detract from their desire to go out and do their work, and see their families, but it makes it less hard to bear. The males of the Correctional Theater reside in a correctional institute that houses programs with certain privileges, and they’re concentrated right now in exercising to stay in acting form, and writing new ideas to work on as soon as we can resume our activities. The females reside in an area of the women’s prison, and are not as well organized as the men. This responds to patterns established in their own communities, and is one of the situations we deal with in the Program, but it’s a work in progress. The net result is that it’s easier for the men to manage their frustration at their inability to perform their job as actors and educators, but in general they are all coping, because they have something to look forward to.

JAC: What action do you feel is necessary to alleviate the safety concerns that incarcerated people face, in light of the Coronavirus crisis?

EC: All prisons should have a robust health system, access to prompt medical care, and a crisis management capacity that has been sadly lacking in many prisons, both stateside and in many countries, from what I infer from the different news leaking out of some facilities, and from what transpired in our zoom meeting this past week. As far as what action is needed, I can refer to our own experience here. The minute the magnitude of the covid threat to health was ascertained, on March 13, the Secretary of the PR Department of Correction and Rehabilitation ordered a lockdown eliminating access to all civilians not indispensable for vital operations, with an organized plan that included checking temperatures of any indispensable personnel before allowing access to the institutions, with observation and testing in place, established correctional officers’ shifts rotation, preventive isolation of any possible source of contagion, such as inmates that had to go to hospital, and upon return were quarantined until proven clean. It hasn’t been easy. A lot of people have had to work remote to ensure safe conditions for the inmates, but it has worked. All our inmates are covid-free. The 2 that pop up in statistics are two juveniles who came in already contaminated, were isolated at once and treated. If you have that kind of preventive crisis protocols, all concerns will not go away, of course; families will still want to see their loved ones and send them things, etc., but the bottom line here is we have to protect the lives of incarcerated people and stop the virus spread. A good management plan, such as instituted here in Puerto Rico, will accomplish that. Of course, nothing in the world is foolproof and we might have some cases in the future, but the situation has been managed successfully, so far.

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?

EC: It’s very difficult to balance safety with social connectivity in such a dangerous scenario as covid-19 presents for an incarcerated population; heck, it’s very difficult for the rest, non-captive population, with a great deal of stress and psychological damage taking its toll on a lot of people. The theater’s usual chores have literally, been one alleviating factor that has contributed to helping them cope. They have kept on writing, exercising, inventing alternatives to keep on with their acting through virtual strategies, etc. They recently sent me a proposal to perform by some platform through the sergeant, but it was one I had already presented to the administration. Regardless, I’m sending it also, in support of the already proposed tactic, but I’m conscious that getting it implemented will take some time. We’ve kept in touch through several avenues. One, their families. Even though not all inmates have a supporting, caring family, quite a few more than usual do when it comes to the theater group. This is because we foster family relations in different ways: we try to have relatives assist activities at open venues: theaters, for example, where anyone can attend. Usually the Secretary or the Sub Secretary (both very favorable, through the years, to the Theater Program) attends such an activity, and up to the very last one, they have authorized at the end of the performance relatives getting close to the inmates and congratulating them, hugs and expressions of affection included. The pride in families when they see their previously errant relative standing on a theater stage, applauded for their artistic work and their honesty (for the plays often depict the route that led them behind bars, and their reflection and repentance as well), have many times created a new bond of communication and respect between the inmate and his/her family. I try to keep in touch with those families that respond positively, and also with what are called “counseling friends” – people from all walks of life that decide to sponsor an inmate and give them some of emotional support and even sometimes some financial assistance for their more immediate needs, such as depositing money for their phone calls (which are very expensive, as we all know), and other urgent things. Two, our own team – the correctional officers and the penal case worker who see them during their shifts, let me know how they are coping, and advise them while at the same time letting them know what I’m doing to keep the Program going during this time. Three, I keep in touch with the commander of the institution, who is very favorable to the Theater Program (because they have an excellent behavior in and out of the institution, and help out in anything needed, plus keep their living quarters immaculate – part of their theatrical discipline) and with whom I maintain an open communication.

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?

 EC: Knowledge. Powerful networking. Funding. Not necessarily in that order. Funding is probably of the first order. Regardless of our commitment, our reptilian brain commands us to survive – food, lodging, health needs are fundamental. Most artists have never been the most savvy when it comes to making money a priority (first-hand knowledge speaks). But when the urge to survive slaps you in the face, it’s a must needs that has to be addressed immediately. And there the powerful networking and the knowledge comes in. We have to be able to identify possible sources of funding. People with the knowledge of where to find accessible grants, interested philanthropic or high profile personalities that can attract them, people with knowledge to create platforms that attract a lot of traffic and hence, support through the acquisition of high visibility… I can go on, but they are the same rules I have applied as a producer to my own productions in the past, and these are all very connected. You need one to get the other, and so we reach the egg and hen dilemma. If we all pool our resources together, the goals will move forward faster.

JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?

EC: No contest there: to see how their lives change completely. Even before they are able to go home free, they change. I’ve seen people who came from being drug dealers, prostitutes, addicts, gunners for the punto (the drug dealing business), thieves, car hijackers, you name it, become actors, artisans, writers, preachers even, for even though I do not participate myself in organized religion I do applaud the ones who look for it in order to deal with their past lives, as sometimes they need to feel God has forgiven them, and so they can forgive themselves and start anew. I keep track of many of my ex students. They send me information about their new lives, jobs, mates, homes, etc., and it’s a source of joy that we all share with each member of the support group and with other inmates that look up to the ones that have made it, and see in them that they can make it, too.

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?

EC: One of the jokes (we use humor a lot in the Program, in order to cope) we have shared within the Program has been: well, now a lot of people know how it feels to be trapped in a cell, to not be able to walk down the street when you feel like it. We’ve discussed how this new awareness can maybe change the way some people view incarcerated people, and perhaps influence lawmaking in some way or other. If you ask my personal opinion, I feel we have a long way ahead. The US has less than 5% of the world population and yet it has  22% of the world’s imprisoned population, far ahead of several totalitarian regimens. There is too much feeling of “otherness” towards imprisoned persons, and I firmly believe that we can change that through the arts, for I have seen it happen here in our system. When I began, almost 19 years ago (and I had already had a close look at the system though volunteer work with imprisoned youth), the officers almost uniformly disliked the Theater Program. What helped me in the beginning was that I was a well-known and respected artist, and so the manifestations tended to be polite in general, but there were also quite a few not-so-polite ones. Now (even though there’s still rejection from some quarters), we have no problem getting officers who want to be part of the Program and it’s actually a coveted position. Very soon some people who were skeptical about theater in prison saw the change in attitudes and behavior and recognized it as a positive movement towards rehabilitation and many became advocates of what the arts could do to change lives.

JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?

EC: It’s funny how you manage to ask a question that sounds simple but its answer is anything but. It’s been a long road. I believe free will and fate coexist happily, thank you very much. Early in my career, my looks (then), would get me TV bimbo and femme fatale roles time and again, but I felt a very strong pull towards social theater and the minute a very respected theater director, Victoria Espinosa, cast me in a one-woman show as an aging, run-down prostitute (I was still very young, and so it was a fantastic characterization for me, which are my favorite roles), and got rave reviews for it, someone asked me to do it in a low-income residential project. From then on, somehow, I would get offered opportunities to work with low-income, high risk populations, both in PR and when I moved to NY. There I lived 8 years, and I found myself splitting time between acting in theater, TV and doing some film work, but giving a lot of my time to social theater. I taught at the Human Solidarity Institute (mostly to immigrants), ASPIRA – to disadvantaged youth, and the New Federal Theater, at the Henry St. Settlement Playhouse, almost always with disadvantaged populations. When we returned to PR for family reasons, after several years in high-profile work in TV stations and theaters, I eventually gravitated once again towards teaching high-risk behavior populations, and when the then Secretary of Correction and Rehabilitation looked for someone to teach at the women’s prison, it was almost by default that my name came up. The first year there were 4 teachers – 3 males actors working with the male population and I with the females. One year later I was the only one left, and wound up directing the whole project.

Elia co-authored an article for an arbitrated publication (IRB approved), about a small-scale (3 subjects sample) research study on how and why theater can be a rehabilitation tool. Below is that article.

CORRECTIONAL THEATER PROGRAM 2020

People can learn more about Elia’s work at:
Facebook: Elia Enid Cadilla
Twitter: @EliaEnidCadilla

 

Actress, producer, director and writer, Elia Enid Cadilla has represented Puerto Rico in film and theater festivals. Cadilla was Chairperson of the first Cultures of the Third World Symposium at the United Nations, and has received honors and awards for her work in several fields of endeavors. She was a member of the Board of Directors of the PR Association of Film and Audiovisual Producers for over a decade and hosted the First Puerto Rican Coproduction Forum for Ibero American Films. 

Cadilla produced and directed the TV film “Cal y Arena”, based on a story she co-wrote. She’s producing and codirecting the documentary “Cicatrices” (“Scars”), about formerly incarcerated females who have used theater as a rehabilitation tool. She also wrote the series “De carne y hueso” (Flesh and blood), inspired in the real-life stories of incarcerated men and women. 

She produced, co-wrote and directed the series “Después del Adiós” (Beyond Goodbyes), lauded by the media as the best production of this genre in Puerto Rico. She’s written, produced and directed short film series for the Office of Women Affairs, and has produced and directed films for TV, musical videos, television specials and public service advertising campaigns. She coproduced and wrote the script for “Múltiples Ellas”, breaking the Performing Arts Center’s attendance record, a statistic that remained unequaled for several years. Cadilla produced, among other projects, seven environmental education festivals (with concerts, multimedia exhibitions, recycling, reforestation and beach cleanup drives and educational conferences), and was awarded and recognized both by government agencies and private environmental organizations. 

Cadilla was a leading figure in soap operas. Her roles include costarring in TV films and the Spanish-Puerto Rican film “Agua con sal”. A recent performance was in “The Vessel”, starring Martin Sheen. She produced and starred in Cyrano de Bergerac, receiving the best actress award of the Drama Critics Circle, which also chose the play as the year’s best.

The Hamilton Project

by Guy La”Tron” Banks, a.k.a Tronee Threat

It’s two a.m. I can’t sleep. I find myself inside the restroom stall of the dorm I share with 200 other men, but no one happens to be in here with me and it is quiet enough to hear my thoughts and feel my emotions. I throw on my headphones and tune into rapper Swoope’s song “You Got Me”. The song is an exact expression of my feelings at the moment. I feel like God got me – like he is really looking out for me. The past three days have been so beautiful. I’ve seen loved ones, as well as strangers all, come together throughout this weekend with the same purpose. It was glorious. I have caged my emotions the whole time, but right now tears, Mr. Kool-Aid smiles, and laughter is starting to run wild. I am alive. I can see greatness before me. I feel closer to my dreams than ever before. The moment that I’ve just lived out was so much bigger than me and I’m ready to take it to another level. My eyes are on the stars but my head is against the ceiling. I feel like a jumbo jet in a dark and dirty warehouse. My joy and excitement are anchored by reality. My motivation is fueled and frustrated all at once.

These are the thoughts and emotions surrounding me after the final show of four performances in a span of two days of The Hamilton Project. The KUJI Men’s Chorus lead by Dr. Catherine Roma teamed up with, Dr. Jessie Glover, Lori Hiltenbeitel, and a band of supporters, at Marion Correctional Institution in Marion Ohio, and took Lin’s masterpiece from the heavenly heights of Broadway all the way down to the lowly floors of the jailhouse. I was first introduced to the idea of performing Hamilton in November of 2018. KUJI had just finished what was then our best performance to date, the reenactment of Les Miserables with students from Salisbury college. Dr. Roma was already thinking about what was to come next for us and she wanted to keep elevating. She asked me what I thought about doing Hamilton. I had heard of the musical, but I never paid much attention to it. I had seen some hip-hop musicals and never really thought they were any good. I remember watching MTV’s “hip- hopera” Karma and thinking, “this really sucks”. I love hip hop and I want to see it rise to levels unimaginable, but not at the expense of it being “corny”. KUJI did good with Le Mis, and it made us better. It taught us discipline, accountability, priority, and brought out hidden talents within the group. Best of all, we built unity throughout the process. So maybe another musical will help us advance as a group. What if musicals could become KUJI’s “thing”? Dr. Roma could be opening up the lane of hip hop, knowing I will put my all into this project because rapping is what I do and hip hop is what I am. I was also skeptical because in hip-hop good rappers don’t rap other artists’ music. But, I trusted Dr. Roma and believed in my team so I said: “let’s do it”. By February of 2019, we were gearing up to do Hamilton.

I still had not heard any of the music. Dr. Roma gave me the soundtrack and from the press of play, I was caught in Lin’s web of dope beats, flow patterns, wordplay, and storytelling ability. I thought so far so great. The music wasn’t corny. It solidified my decision to pursue the project. I wasn’t sure what role I would play in the musical. KUJI is made up of many good artists who could fill several roles. I was instantly spellbound by a song called “Wait for it”. It was to be performed by the character Aaron Burr. He also had a daughter and I have two. Again another of his songs (“Dear Theodosia”) directed toward his daughter expressed my sentiments well. However, the group thought I should play Alexander Hamilton (the lead role) which is the most demanding role of all. I accepted, so it was time to fully commit.

The Hamilton Project, Marion Correctional Institution
Makaveli as Hercules Mulligan, Tron as Hamilton, Sam as John Laurens. Photo: Kyle Long

After listening to the music I started memorizing the songs. Lin used a lot of rhyme schemes that I was already familiar with, so the flow came first. Flow is the cadence and style of the song lyrics. Next, I learned the lyrics by reciting day and night until they were committed to memory. Then I explored the meaning of it all. I could mimic the musical at that point but I still had to become my character. I wanted to see Miranda’s vision and feel Hamilton’s struggle. I wondered what was Lin trying to say. How true was the story of Alexander Hamilton’s’ life? The only thing I knew about him was that he was on the ten-dollar bill. I learned all the basics of Hamilton’s story by listening closely to the fragmented story of the soundtrack. It taught me about Alexander’s family, his upbringing, intelligence, and work ethic. Dr. Roma brought in material for us to read about it. We met with Dr. Glover once a week for a month and dissected each song. I began to see him as a person, leader, family man, politician, and genius. I tried to imagine Alexander as a performer. I knew this would be the most difficult part of the job – portraying a white politician as a young fly MC. Everything I learned about theater and acting as a member of Theatre of Conviction for the past four years, (which is also run by Dr. Glover) paid off. As I understood his dream and struggle, overtime got in tune with the spirit of Hamilton, and it became real on stage.

I related to Alexander’s ambitions to create something great, bigger than himself. In “The Room Where it Happens”, the lyrics “God help and forgive me, I want to build something that’s going to outlive me” are the echoes of my soul. He knew that what he was about to attempt was big, and big dreams are dangerous. He longed for change – for a revolution. It would call for great sacrifices from many. He knew the pain of those sacrifices and so he asked for forgiveness. He coveted divine help, knowing the magnitude of his task and the righteousness of the cause. I dream of using Hip- hop to transform the ghetto and empower its people. I don’t want to simply take the fruits of a successful hip-hop career and give back to the ghetto; I want to plant the hip-hop tree in the ghetto. I want to restore control of the art form and its benefits to people who produce it. We forge the art form in the fire of our oppression; it’s only just that we benefit from it. Alexander also knew that he needed the education to be able to execute his goals. “Imma get a scholarship to King’s College”, he said. He wanted to go to a prestigious college and establish valuable relationships – social capital. I need education too. I need to thoroughly understand the music business. I need to meet powerful and passionate people. That is why I’m attending Ohio University while I’m in prison. I hope to use it as a springboard to Berklee’s School of Music to gain a wealth of knowledge and relationships and obtain a degree in Music Business and Management when I’m released. I admire his obsessive nature and big-picture perspective. I learn from his mistakes and shortcomings. His infidelity and lack of self-control destroyed his family, stained his reputation and single-handedly prevented his presidential hopes, which would have allowed him to make a greater impact. He was never home and didn’t spend enough time with his family. I know it’s critical to value my relationships and remain faithful. These connections tapped into my internal energy reserves and allowed me to bring life to every rehearsal.

The rehearsal was challenging. We were only able to rehearse for two hours a week as a group. We lost a couple of months because of inconsistencies in prison and personal schedules. We battled and struggled with one another. We gained new members and lost some. We met with Dr. Glover and Lori every other week to stage the scenes. Driving two hours to the prison Dr. Roma, our Choir Director, was there as much as she could be, but some days we were on our own. Those times called many of us to leadership. This was new to all of us. No one had ever done a hip-hop musical; it showed and it wasn’t looking good. We needed an extra push. Time was running out and we were getting discouraged. Then, the women arrived.

Dr. Roma brought in seven women to fill the female roles in the play. It was the day before the first show and we had not blocked the entire musical. We had chosen 23 out of 46 songs and did not have a good sense of how all of them were supposed to be sung and acted out. The stage lights were not ready, and we still needed our costumes. We had not tightened up our harmonies as an ensemble yet, and now we were adding seven more strangers to an already volatile concoction. Things could have gotten ugly. But, the women were like a warm cup of coffee on a brisk morning, warm relaxing, and yet energizing. They were accomplished professionals, and passionate about music. Lori, Bennyce, Lisa, Audrey, Danielle, Jillian, and Ashley were ready to go when they walked through the door. Working with them was easy and familiar. I walked into the chapel where we were putting on the show and they were all on the stage singing “Helpless”. I joined in with Danielle, who was playing Eliza and we sang the song like we had been singing together forever. I knew that was a good sign that we were going to be alright. We got into the costumes and into character. We tried to run through the music from the beginning but we ran out of time. Our next time meeting would be the following day, showtime, and no time to do a full run-through, so we gathered in unity and sung a hymn together. “I will be your standing stone, I will stand by you”. This was like an agreement within the group. We would support each other.

The audience arrived. Our first performance was for the general population in the prison, accompanied by the Warden, Deputy Warden, Majors, and of course staff security a.k.a Correctional Officers. We took our places. Mine was behind the curtain, where I would spend time before each show praying and calming my nerves. I listened as Dr. Glover gave an introduction, and then the music started. “How does a bastard, orphan son of a whore…” delivered by Scienze who played Aaron Burr. The execution of his lines set the tone were good, as I prayed that he would do well, and he did. Performer by performer, everyone hit their lines flawlessly in the opening. Then it was my turn to take the stage. I stepped out from behind the curtain into the light and spoke the words with a melodic cadence “Alexander Hamilton”.

I was surprised at how well the population received it. It is hard to impress people that you virtually share every waking moment with. Most of them, like us, had little knowledge of the story and were educated and entertained at the same time. They were glued to their seats, in awe of what they were hearing and seeing. Many of them are still talking about it now.

It was the Deputy Warden’s last day working at the institution, she was moved to tears by the show. The joy was real and you could tell it was going to get better as the performances continued.

The Hamilton Project, Marion Correctional Institution
John, Aziz, Makaveli, Sam, James. Photo: Kyle Long

Our second show was for an outside audience that included family, friends, former inmates, and children. The former first lady of Ohio Karen Kasich was there. She wrote “I adored the show. It brought tears to my eyes and made me laugh and smile as well. I think that’s a sign of some good acting!! These folks obviously made some devastating choices in their lives, and are they paying the price. But that does not mean they are ‘throwaways’ “. Others also wrote heartfelt comments and donated to our mission. My mother and mother in law shared the night with me. My aunt whom I had not seen in ten years showed up unexpectedly with my cousin who is suffering from mental illness. They were all blown away by the show and we are still in contact because of it. The entire environment was like nothing I had ever experienced before, inside or outside of prison. I’m still not fully capable of explaining how it felt or how we pulled the shows off with such little preparation. There were times I was experiencing altered states of consciousness, when I had a heightened sense of awareness about what was taking place in the 1800s, being relived in a moment of music and theater. I knew something was happening that I was and am thankful to be a part of. This would not have been possible without the hard work, creativity, and support of everyone that was a part of the experience. I truly believe that everyone who was supposed to be there was there. Murphy’s law was in effect, it was a struggle, but nothing was able to stop The Hamilton Project from happening.

Since the show, we have heard a lot of great feedback and request to do it again. One wildly entertaining and motivating reflection came from a 15-year-old name Cleo “EVERYONE DID AMAZING AND U MANAGED TO MAKE AN EDGY TEEN WHO IS BENT ON BEING AN EMOTIONLESS EMO SMILE AND BE VERY HAPPY”. Her comment speaks to the many physical, and emotional transformations that were taking place during and after the show. I had not been able to freely speak to my daughter for the entire nine years of my incarceration, but because my mother in law attended the show, things changed. She was so impacted that she went home and told my daughter’s mother – her own daughter – what she witnessed. She told her how she felt I had matured and talked about all the positive things in store for the future. My daughter’s mother opened up and is now supportive of my daughter and my relationship. My mother-in-law was reconciled to my mother at the show after years of feuding. Both of them met and were impressed with Dr. Roma. It was a time of true unification. Real relationships were formed and bonds were strengthened.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. My dreams are coming together. I’m not doing anything special. I’m using my natural God-given gifts and combining them with hard work and purpose. I’ve longed for times like this. I’ve always wanted to sing with a stylish, edgy, talented choir. I’ve always liked the sound of the music choirs produce, collective voices singing in harmony, and now I have the opportunity and it feels great. However, when I think about what’s to come, and what has to be accomplished, some anxiety kicks in. When is my time coming? Will I ever sit in a classroom at Berklee? Is it a silly fantasy to picture me in a studio making beautiful music and working to get it out to the world? Will I have a chance to be a real father to my daughters before it’s too late? I want to build an entire community and an artist-run label. I want to buy my mother her first home. I want to hug Dr. Roma and Dr. Glover without feeling like the police are going to apprehend me. I’m concerned about my age and time were against it all. I feel like a hot air balloon inside of a shack inflating, covering the floor, bursting out the windows, and ceiling trying to make it out but still being held back from its destination in the sky. My time is coming soon, I could be released as early as next year. But, as I learn more and reach new levels of awareness that time seems further and further away. Then I’m reminded of the words of Greek Philosopher Heraclitus, he said, ” All things come into being through opposition”. So maybe this struggle I’m experiencing – this struggle – frustrated motivation will birth something beautiful.

In the words of Dr. Jessie Glover, “there is a non-zero percent chance we will be doing Hamilton again in May of 2020”. Dr. Catherine Roma seconds that, “we are definitely doing it again”. We will get on the same page eventually, and I’m ready for whatever.

The Hamilton Project, Marion Correctional Institution
Tron as Hamilton, with ensemble. Photo: Kyle Long

About the guest contributor:

Tron is a rapper with ambitions to launch an artist-run record label that can uplift his community in Columbus, Ohio.

About the production:

The Hamilton Project was a collaboration between KUJI Men’s Chorus and Healing Broken Circles, a nonprofit organization that runs a community center inside Marion Correctional Institution. It had support from the MCI Administration and Chaplain, Otterbein University, Wilmington College, Puffin Foundation West, the Ohio Arts Council, and the Braddock Fund. If you are interested in The Hamilton Project 2020 remount, please follow ohioprisonartsconnection.org.

 

A guest’s reflections on the Iron Cages exhibition

by Jennifer E. Tinker

The evening of January 9th, 2020 proved to be a cold one, yet the decade opened with warmth exuding from inside President Lincoln’s Cottage, where I experienced artwork celebrating the core of the human spirit at a well-attended opening. The physical space and its history lent itself to the celebration of courage and the undying strength of creativity. The Cottage was where Lincoln developed the Emancipation Proclamation, and it is now where the Justice Arts Coalition is displaying the work of 25 currently and formerly incarcerated artists in an exhibition that runs through the month of January. This tapestry of multiple mediums exploring the values of human dignity, internal liberty and hope is a beautiful partnership, in concert with the Lincoln cottage’s new program, A Home for Brave Ideas. This duo advocates for incarcerated artists to be recognized as having a voice and provides an avenue into public dialogue around the intersection of the arts and social justice. Through innovative guided tours, exhibits and programs, Iron Cages reflects the Mission of a Presidency caught between the crosshairs of a punitive society and the reality of our shared humanity. 

Photo by Bruce Guthrie

The evening of artwork by incarcerated artists and performances by local prison and reentry theatre program Voices Unbarred inspired visitors, bridged differences and made tangible a connection to the past while presenting a platform for the work still to be done. As a mother, daughter, sister, wife, teacher and American, I cannot urge my fellow citizens enough to take the opportunity to immerse themselves in this exhibit, participate in the dialogue through interactive pieces and share the experience with others. 

Ultimately, freedom of expression is the greatest freedom of all and no one can steal a person’s creativity, as it is theirs alone. The compassionate commitment to self-expression that these brave artists have shown through creating art in and around the US carceral system unites us all and allows us to understand that transformation happens from within. Please find the time to experience this healing and powerful art exhibit in our nation’s capital. 

“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
― Abraham Lincoln

 

About the guest contributor:

Dr. Jennifer E. Tinker deeply enjoys literature, art and dance. Jennifer practices yoga, and has implemented school gardens in various U.S. educational locations. Eco-Literacy became a main focus of her educational framework from 2012-2016. Since, she has lead several workshops in language-acquisition and Visible Thinking Strategies for teachers in the U.S. as well as China, Thailand, Japan and the Philippines. Her strengths lie in the humanities, and she currently is a teacher in the D.C. Metro region. She continues her family’s tradition of creating and collecting art.

 

Exhibition tour information here.

Please join us on January 30 for a very special closing reception!

In My (Our) Shoes

By Mary Walle

About the guest blogger: Mary Walle is a Senior at the University of Michigan studying History. She’s been involved with the Prison Creative Arts Project since January 2012. Through PCAP Mary has participated in three theater workshops and performed in four original plays, one with the young men at Wolverine Human Services and three with two groups of men at Gus Harrison Correctional Facility. Their final production was February 7. Mary continues to work with PCAP but is not currently participating in any workshops in order to focus on her Senior Thesis Project on the Sanctuary Movement in Detroit. She dedicates her thesis to the men she worked with at Gus Harrison. 

I was always conscious of my clothing going inside nearly every week of this past year. Wear something baggy to cover my form. Make sure I have socks. (One time, I wore sandals and panicked in the parking lot. Thankfully, I was let in.) Definitely wear a bra. Nothing ‘revealing’ or ‘suggestive.’ Suggestive of what? That I am a woman in a men’s facility? Turns out that’s pretty hard to hide. And the catcalls made it clear that everyone has eyes and no baggy sweater can hide: I’m a woman inside.

I walked inside Gus Harrison Correctional Facility every week for a year. For a year I’ve been part of two successive theatre workshops. For a year I have walked inside Thursday evenings at 7pm and left at 8:30pm. Yesterday I walked out for the last time.

I was purposeful with what I wore. My shirt and pants as unattractive as I could manage. But I was also purposeful to wear something that might share some of myself without a need to exchange words. Shoes. Shoes tell something about a person. Inside and outside but perhaps they can tell a particularly important story inside.

Danny wears plain black shoes, always covered in dirt and dust. He’s a gardener. He tends and manages immense gardens, cultivating greenhouses of poinsettias and more. 5.7 always had meticulously shined shoes. They were beautiful and spoke to me of self-respect and pride.

Glover-Bey mostly wore brown boots that didn’t look like they were made for actually working in. On occasion though he wore white high tops with a glossy sheen. The day of our play he wore the high tops. They took his hunched form across the back forty. White shoes against blacktop. We walked from different points to the same destination unable to acknowledge each other on that barren blacktop, but our shoes took us to the same place. A place, if only for a moment, where we could.

My shoes too said something about me when I wasn’t allowed to say much about me.

I first always wore my Birkenstocks. I got them in eighth grade. It’s a big deal in my family to get Birkenstocks, a right of passage if you will. I wore them for ease. Easy to slide off and on in the bubble. Then I branched out one week, I’m not sure why.

I’m not sure if it was at first conscious or not that I changed my shoes. One thing I could, with some freedom, change to mix up the monotony of baggy sweaters and those same jeans. My own prison uniform. I think it was the converses next: one red pair, one with a colorful pattern. Two of my favorite shoes. I bought them in high school. The red ones are worn down, beaten by my plodding feet which hustled through the hallways and campus walkways, up many flights of stairs, through puddles and slush.

Now they carried me through the prison yard, a place my high school self would never have expected to be.

I love my red shoes. I once wrote a poem about them. The others are fresher. I’ve taken better care to not beat them up so badly and maintain that crisp new shoe look. One week I must have felt particularly feisty and I wore dark green shoes that had bright green spiky bottoms. Ricky commented, “What shoes are you wearing? I’m down with the chucks but what are those?” They’re another side of me. The spunky, wacky, stand out, side. I didn’t say this but maybe my shoes did for me.

Shoes can be controlled in a mostly uncontrollable place. They say something about a person. I didn’t notice everyone’s shoes. Most were of a uniform variety, black and simple, scuffed and broken to various degrees. Most I suppose blended with the uniform I became so accustomed to seeing that sometimes I didn’t see it at all. Except when my purple jacket laid next to a set of their same blue and orange jackets.

But some shoes stood out. I felt were prided or told a particular story. Some I could infer others still a mystery, much like the men I knew.

In a way shoes inside are just the same as outside where people wear all sorts of shoes to “express themselves” and also just practically for different reasons. When so many forms of expression are denied a person, when everyone wears ‘prison blues’ with the orange stripe across their back, down their pants, and an orange hat so bright it hurts to look at, I imagine shoes begin to mean something more. Any show of difference would. It’s so natural, so human to want to be different, special, unique.

I wish my shoes and Glover-Bey and Danny’s shoes could talk. They might speak of everywhere they’ve been with me and them, of when they were bought and why. So much of what needs to be said can’t be said inside. So much of what is said is not spoken at all. It’s said through body language and eyes. I look into a man’s eyes and my eyes are saying with all I am “I see you.” Do you see me? Just as I am. Incomplete and imperfect but I come. Every week I came. I saw you and you saw me. We knew each others shoes.

I don’t know what shoes mean inside. I can only imagine, as I can only imagine what it means to live, be, and survive in there. You don’t hear their voices or see their shoes except through the mediation of my eyes and voice. I wish you could.