Inside A Washington State Prison

Last week, Don and I were privileged to be invited to a dramatic performance called “To Destinations Unknown: Takin’ a Left Turn at Reality,”at MSU, the Minimum Security Unit of the Mens Correctional Complex at Monroe. The program,  a collection of poems and stories, was given for a group that the Seattle Times called “a very select audience, mostly other prisoners,” but also including a few supporters of Freehold Theatre Lab/Studio of Seattle. Freehold is known for holding classes that are like continuing education for working and wannabe actors, but they also sponsor the Engaged Theatre Program that brings theatre and acting opportunities to “culturally underserved populations,” like incarcerated men and women, youth in detention facilities, and kids in   in workshops for at-risk teens.

This was the third performance inside the walls for Don and me, but our first time at Monroe. Two times before this, we had attended shows at the Women’s Correctional Center at Purdy, which is where the program started in 2003. In some ways the experiences were alike: the inmates had been working for many months with teachers from Freehold to look inside themselves to write, and write some more, and then with the help of a dramatist to create a drama, to find themes, and then build a set or sets, and perform it. At Monroe, where the eight men had come up with 200 pages of writing, the theme was a bus ride, with a row of chairs behind a cardboard half-bus complete with wheels that could be spun. “You never know what’s gonna happen when you get on a bus,” they wrote in the paper program. “Maybe the route has changed OR you get off at the wrong stop OR you miss your stop OR you realize after a few miles that you got on the wrong bus OR you’re stuck next to a passenger who doesn’t realize how loud they are singing along to the music in their headphones…” And that’s how the performance opened. Quite a metaphor for incarcerated men.

As the men spoke out, sometimes reciting their own writings and sometimes their fellow’s, other themes became apparent. One man talked about going back to his wife and child; another told us his son had committed suicide. They spoke of wrong turns, regrets, plans to change, to be other people. When the play was over, each man in turn told us how important this program had been to him, how much he had learned and had changed. One man had been part of the program for four years, and now he encourages others to join. Then we were allowed to stand up and speak to the cast, shake hands (no hugging allowed), and ask questions. An older man told me he was in for second degree murder; he had killed his brother. The younger men had problems of the street, assault and drug dealing. They told us how nervous they had been before the performance, but they went off to the back of the room and did some of the exercises that their teachers had used to get them started in the program.

I was surprised to see how close we were allowed to come to the cast. In contrast to the very intimidating instructions that we had received in advance–no clothing that showed skin, no excessive perfume, no tight-fitting clothing, no scarves, etc., come only at the time to which you were assigned, stay with your group– the atmosphere in the room was quite relaxed, with an audience of prisoners seated just behind us, set off by a yellow tape. They were dismissed shortly after the performance, no conversation or hand shaking with them.

As I remember our visits to Purdy, the experience was much different. The women there had also participated in several months of writing with instructors and their performances also incorporated their output, but there the casts were much larger, the sets more elaborate, and the women more emotional at the end. Lots of tears–maybe that’s to be expected. The much larger audience consisted of family members and guests like us, no other inmates, and no women told us why they were inside. Probably because Monroe was a minimum security unit, the men nearing the end of their sentences, we didn’t see as much razor wire fencing as we saw in Purdy, where, after two years, I still have an impression of fencing inside of fencing inside of fencing.

And then each time, we guests went outside the gates, into our cars, and home. And where are all those people now? I hope, like me, they had a home and a life to go to.

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