In January of 2018, I was hired by the Civic Ensemble of Ithaca, New York to take part in a fascinating playwriting opportunity. The company had started a ReEntry Theatre program in 2015, teaming with state social services to implement a theatre education curriculum to help people dealing with incarceration and substance abuse rehabilitation to transition back into society. In the past, the program participants had written their own monologues and brief scenes, along with learning some improv exercises. But they brought me in to work with those program participants, and all the raw material they'd produce, and turn that into a full-length play—a singular, cohesive vision that was lightly fictionalized but drawn directly from the participants' real experiences dealing with prison and addiction.
The result, Streets Like This, had its world premiere in May of 2018. But now the company is re-mounting it at the Cherry Artspace (also in Ithaca) from March 12-22, 2020.
Working on this play was a very cool experience. The program participants were all people who had seen a lot of shit, but also had some incredibly deep empathy but for what they and others like them had gone through. Many of them possessed an intuitive understanding of the complex systemic issues that drove them into the desperation — the violence, drugs, sex work, and petty crime — that landed them in prison in the first place. And having been through prison — sometimes more than once — they also had a better understanding of the ways that the system is set up to fail people just like them.
I thought of this as I read this recent NPR article about books in prison — specifically, the restrictions that people in incarceration face when it comes to the things they can read. Having worked so closely with people who have endured the American prison system as a penalty for mostly the circumstances of their birth, this left me particularly frustrated:
A recent report from PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates for free expression, found that book censorship in U.S. prisons represents "the largest book ban policy in the United States." And while censorship guidelines vary in different prison systems, the restrictions "are often arbitrary, overbroad, opaque, [and] subject to little meaningful review."
A 2013 report from the RAND Corporation found that getting an education in prison decreases the likelihood someone will return after they're released. The report also found that for every $1 spent educating someone in prison, taxpayers save $5 on reduced reincarceration costs.
You don't need to be a prison abolitionist to understand how book censorship in prison is inhumane and counter-productive to the supposed goals of rehabilitation. You just need to be a logical, empathetic human being who cares more about living in a safe and equitable society than you do about punishing people who have stepped out of the lines that you drew for them. Unfortunately, that's still a hard ask for too many Americans.
Who Should Decide What Books Are Allowed In Prison? [Lee Gaines / NPR]
Civic Ensemble's ReEntry Theatre Program Presents Streets Like This [Broadway World]