The Complex Prison Creative, Part 1

Director Kate Powers and her cast from last year.

Director Kate Powers and her cast from last year. Photo: Rehabilitation Through the Arts

The Prison-Industrial Complex

The US has an incarceration addiction. Ever since 1998, when Angela Davis introduced the term “prison industrial complex,” activists and scholars on the left have been tracking the effects of the prison boom of the 1980s and 1990s on the social fabric of American society.

Since research has shown that attempting to link the growth in the US incarcerated population from 330,000 people in 1972 to around 2 million today to the overall decline in crime since the ’90s is tenuous at best, this begs the question: If the prison-industrial complex doesn’t actually deter crime, its purported function, what is its function then?

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A possible answer to that question presents itself when one keeps in mind that, while the reach of the correctional system potentially extends its grasp to all of us, it exerts its pull most egregiously on urban communities of color. In her article Davis noted:

By segregating people labeled as criminals, prison simultaneously fortifies and conceals the structural racism of the US economy. Claims of low unemployment rates – even in black communities – make sense only if one assumes that the vast numbers of people in prison have really disappeared and thus have no legitimate claims to jobs. The numbers of black and Latino men currently incarcerated amount to two percent of the male labor force.

Angela Davis

Professor Angela Davis coined the term “prison-industrial complex” in 1998.

Even though numerous critics have produced thousands of words since then decrying the resulting overcrowding, too- ready reliance on solitary confinement as an instrument of psychological control and the impact on the communities that prisoners leave behind, it still bears repeating that our criminal justice system is profoundly dysfunctional. Close to 20 years after Davis’s groundbreaking essay, this shit still hasn’t changed. Simply put, the US locks up more of its citizens, both in terms of raw numbers and in terms of percentage of its population, than any other country in the world. (You can find statistics here from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that provide some sobering details.)

And while theoretically the “correctional system” is supposed to improve, or correct, the flaws in character that contributed to inmates being confined to it, the American system of incarceration devotes far more resources to punishing prisoners than it does to helping them improve their marketable skills or emotional self-regulation. And the situation is even worse among for-profit, privatized prisons that have less than zero incentive to spend money on programs whose ultimate long-term goal is to reduce the number of potential revenue-generating bodies trapped by the system.

The Complex Prison Creative

Into this toxic stew of racism, greed, puritanical fixations on punishment, and tough-on-crime political postering artists have stepped to help bridge the gap between doing time and returning to life. The Prison Arts Coalition lists dozens of organizations across the US that offer classes, workshops and performance opportunities to prisoners in just about every discipline imaginable. Many of these writers, actors, dancers and painters offer their services free of charge, preferring to take their payment in the knowledge that they’ve helped make a positive impact on someone’s life.

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One of these groups is Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA), that serves New York. RTA remixes the core assumptions behind the prison-industrial complex into something more humane that might be termed the “complex prison creative”: Rather than locking up and confining the energies of convicted felons, RTA provides a space in which to unleash them, albeit in focused, positive ways. Research suggests that merely by doing what art does best—structuring passion—participants gain invaluable insights into their own at-times impulsive behaviors in the past and begin to develop strategies for negotiating the world in ways that will give them the best possibilities for success.

Structuring passion is what art does best.It appears to work: Recidivism rates for the men who have been served by the program are significantly lower than that of the general prison population. However, this is also a complex process that requires constant negotiations around issues of race and class, performances of masculinity, and the arbitrary, regimented, and punitive mirror world that exists inside a penitentiary.

Kate Powers, a volunteer artist/facilitator for RTA, has become highly skilled in negotiating these tricky complexities—often literally, since every element of the productions she creates is subject to review by prison officials. Serving as the play’s director, dramaturg, and designer requires constant negotiations over decisions regarding details of stage business, textual cuts, and props that productions on the “outside” simply take for granted. If making theater under the best of circumstances is fraught with difficulty, imagine a process where almost every single one of your creative decisions as a theater professional working for free has to be signed off on by bureaucrats.

Toys Swords and Keys and No Blue Onstage

I recently had the opportunity to attend her production of Shakepeare’s Twelfth Night at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, NY. A few weeks before the performance, she sat down to talk with me about the show, and almost immediately the conversation turned to costuming and the unique challenges it presents in this environment:

The men are in civilian clothing during the performance…They’re dressed for Illyria, but strictly speaking their costumes are contraband because they’re not really ever supposed to be wearing anything other than their ‘state greens’ [the standard prison uniform inmates are mandated to always have on].…There are also colors that they are not allowed under any circumstances to wear, and that means I’m not allowed to costume them in those colors: They cannot wear black; they cannot wear blue; they cannot wear gray because correctional officers wear those colors.…The way you think about “how do I visually tell the story” has to shift a little bit.

Powers points out that this regulation makes it almost impossible to put a character in a business suit—a reality that made designing her production of Death of a Salesman a few years ago particularly challenging (there are only so many brown three-pieces to go around). When asked its rationale, she responds, “It’s a security issue for the facility.” Once an inmate is no longer wearing his state greens, he no longer looks like a prisoner. The wardens are concerned that one of her actors might try to slip out of the facility posing as an officer or a member of the audience.

Samuel "Minister" Morris in an inflatable plastic crown and royal purple tunic as Duke Orsino.

Samuel “Minister” Morris in an inflatable plastic crown and royal purple tunic as Duke Orsino. Photo: Rehabilitation Through the Arts.

While this is an understandable consideration, I’m also reminded of Elizabethan sumptuary laws and how Shakepeare’s actors where granted special dispensation to wear colors and fabrics onstage that were normally reserved for the aristocracy and royal family. When viewed through that lens, I’m struck by how potentially disruptive of the entire prison power structure the simple act of dressing an inmate can be. In this context the mundane blue button down shirt and black jeans I’m wearing as I write this become highly charged symbols of both authority and normality. As Powers says, “The day that we bring the clothes in, they [the actors] are so excited because clothing is such a privilege. They can’t wait to see what they get to wear…It’s a piece of freedom to be able to wear the costume.”

Clothing is a piece of freedom.

The tense prison environment also makes choosing props an exercise in diplomacy. One of the funniest scenes in Twelfth Night features an absurd duel that starts out between the drunken fop Sir Andrew Aguecheek and the page Cesario (who is really the play’s heroine Viola in disguise) and then escalates as other characters join in. Obviously, other than the ones carried by the guards, weapons of any kind—real or fake—are forbidden within the facility, which makes staging a sword fight a wee bit tricky. The question of how to solve this problem ended up informing the entire production:

 I wanted to create a world where, whatever my sword solution was, it was an inherent part of it. Not that it was a tack-on. So the first thing I thought was,“What if we did balloon animals, and I’ll do all the props that way. But foolish me, no, I can’t do that because you can put those up your butt and hide stuff. You can put drugs in them. They [prison officials] said the only way I could use balloons would be if we could account for every single one. They would have to count every single balloon we were taking in, and we would have to take out exactly that number at the end of each performance. And I said, “I can’t guarantee that because what if one of them breaks?” And they said, “Well then you can’t do it.”

Her eventual solution was to make all of the props very obviously toys: sealed vinyl inflatable swords, crown, and palm tree. Malvolio’s ring of keys is represented by an over-sized, bright-primary-color dog’s chew toy. This last prop in particular required as much careful consideration as the armaments:

Keys are a problem because there’s a thing in prison in which a handful of officers will engage in what the guys call “key-jangling syndrome.” It’s a power thing where a given officer will, as he’s walking the cell block where guys are trying to study quietly, jangle his keys as a way of reminding them who has the power and who doesn’t. So one of the things we need to be mindful about with Malvolio and his fetishizing of his keys is that we don’t seem at any time to be mocking that behavior because it could shut down our program.

It’s a reminder of how necessary theater becomes within rigidly hierarchical social structures that assert authority through oppression and the threat of violence. Like prison. Or Elizabethan England. It’s why theater is often the most potent in the times and places where the rules governing it are the most stringent. Within its singular ability to suggest alternative ways of being lies its inherent power and threat.

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As Powers says, “One thing I’ve heard every single year—and I’ve heard if from guys who were in the program when it started 20 years ago and have been home for 15 years—is that on the nights they perform the play they are free.”

In the next part of this column, I’ll describe attending the performance and meeting some of the guys in the show. Check back in a few days.

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