In 2018, I was commissioned by Civic Ensemble of Ithaca, New York to help devise and write a new play based on their ReEntry Theatre Program — a free arts initiative for people who've experienced incarceration and/or drug rehabilitation. The program participants developed the raw material through theatre games and writing exercises, which I then took and transformed into a full-length script.
Streets Like This originally ran for 3 sold out performances in May 2018, featuring a cast of program participants, whose personal stories of addiction and incarceration inspired the script. The people involved in this show from the start have gone on to make some tremendous policy changes for social services and criminal justice reform in Tompkins County, New York, and decided to remount the show again this spring.
Then the COVID-19 outbreak happened.
But the cast and company got together one last time and filmed their production without an audience. It's streaming now for free between April 30 and May 17, 2020; and since they can't raise any money through ticket sales, they're hoping the video will bring in some donations so they can keep this program going.
Working on this play and getting to know these actors was an eye-opening and inspiring experience for me, and I know it's had a positive impact on their lives, too. I hope you'll check it out, and if you're feeling generous, throw some money their way so they can keep doing good work in changing the ways our society deals with addiction and incarceration. Read the rest
Prisons in America are already overcrowded, under-supported, and maddeningly profitable for the people who made them that way. And when people die in incarceration under more normal circumstances, it still tends to get ignored or covered up. As a result, some of them have been struggling with how to deal with social distancing, quarantine, and general medical safety during this pandemic. (Case-in-point: Joe Exotic may have been exposed to coronavirus.)
Even in that context, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections offered a particularly absurd excuse for their less-than-bare-minimum effort in treating incarcerated people with basic humanity. According to CourtWatch MA, a volunteer community group that acts as a watchdog for the state prison system, the state's latest prison capacity report claims that the DOC is prepared for a capacity of 7,492 people. But there are 7,916 people currently incarcerated by the state — nearly 500 more than that design/rated capacity. (The state also claims that its operational capacity is 10,157, which is not consistent with the data available records requests.
This week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court asked the sheriffs of 14 counties to provide information about their handling of this overcrowding during the coronavirus outbreak, to ensure that they're all adhering to proper CDC guidelines. Here's the first question they asked:
Approximately what percentage of inmates or detainees sleeps within six feet of another inmate or detainee? Individuals in disciplinary isolation should be excluded from this estimate.
That seems fairly straight-forward. But the sheriff Hampden County responded that "0% sleeps within six feet of one another" at the main institution, the women's facility, the regional recovery and wellness center, and the pre-release center in that county. Read the rest
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. Read the rest
I've been a huge fan of Elizabeth Warren since I saw her yelling at a cop during the 2012 Boston Pride Parade. I generally think that her past history as a Republican should actually be a selling point, as it demonstrates her capacity to examine the available evidence and change her mind. But one place where Bernie still stands out in front is his willingness to extend voting rights to people who are incarcerated.
I'm not surprised that Warren is hesitant to go all the way in allowing people to vote while still incarcerated — after all, unexamined biases against incarcerated people are extremely common — but I am disappointed.
The more I thought about it, however, I began to consider how strange it is that felon voting rights (during or after incarceration) tend to be such a partisan issue. As a progressive, I've come around to understand why it matters, as all human rights matter, particularly in an unjust legal system. As much as I hate it, I can at least understand the true authoritarian racist argument in favor of retaining free labor through a loophole-by-design of the 13th Amendment.
But when I think about the conservatives I know, and the philosophies they claim to adhere to, that's where the contradictions arise. For example, let's ignore the contrived veneer respectability that shines on every deceptive video from PragerU, and take their argumentative claims at face value and in good faith. PragerU pumps out plenty of content defending the Electoral College by rationalizing it around a fear of mob rule, or the "tyranny of the majority." Read the rest
Right now, if prisoners use up their 12 allotted pads for the month, they have to work 27 hours to afford a $4 box of tampons. Read the rest
Earlier this month, California Senator Kamala Harris dropped a tantalizing truth bomb during a speech: many official flags in use in California were made by state prisoners. Via Mother Jones:
Harris was referring to the visit she made to the Central California Women’s Facility in July, a visit on which I tagged along. It was a surreal experience to watch dozens of women, mostly women of color, at work stations inside of the country’s largest prison for women, laying out and printing fabric and then dyeing it royal blue. It was just as surreal, if not more so, to hear prison officials point out that these flags would one day fly atop every state and federal building in California, describing this with something almost adjacent to pride.
• There’s a Pretty Good Chance Your American Flag Was Made by a Prisoner (Mother Jones)
Image: Pexels Read the rest
The vast majority of prisoners like Kenneth Moore held in solitary confinement for extended periods get released with almost no rehabilitation or coping skills. Frontline spent three years inside and outside Maine State Prison documenting the effects on prisoners as they try to return to society after solitary. Be warned, it is as bloody and terrifying as any horror movie. Read the rest
Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison aired last night after a successful festival run. The film is an unflinching look at life in solitary confinement at Red Onion supermax, where prisoners spend 23 hours a day or more in solitary confinement. Read the rest
An update on the health status and prisoner status of Wikileaks source and U.S. whistleblower Chelsea Manning, from her supporters at Fight for the Future. Read the rest
U.S. military officials are preventing imprisoned whistleblower Chelsea Manning from having contact with her legal team or her friends, following unconfirmed reports that she was hospitalized after a health crisis. Read the rest
Today, President Obama met with Americans who have received commutations on prison sentences during his presidency, and under previous administrations. Today, Obama commuted the sentences of 61 more people who were convicted of federal drug and firearm crimes. More than than a third of them were serving life in prison. Read the rest
The infractions she's charged with are so minor, it's hard to believe.