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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Prisoners turn playwrights in classes through OSU program


The two actresses sat back to back, holding bundles representing babies while going through a courthouse scene where a girl may lose custody of her infant.

The story is about the prisoner who wrote the piece. She was also one of the performers on that stage in front of a full room of fellow inmates.

Through playwriting, Cyndie Jones, from McAlester, spoke about having a child at age 14 after her own early years were filled with violence and neglect. She described her 8-year-old self running from a man who ended up catching her by the hair, backhanding her to a split lip then whipping her with an electrical cord.

“So many women who got here have these stories, and they are not being heard,” Jones said.

The hour-long performance Friday evening at the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center for women was the culmination of the writing and acting program ArtsAloud, offered through Oklahoma State University. It is also held at the Jess Dunn facility in Taft and the John Lilley center in Boley.

At the end of the performance, three OSU theater students put their own spin on the works produced by the inmates.

As Jones listened to the words of her life coming from the actors, she put her elbows on her knees, breathed deeply and sobbed. It was that overwhelming.

She had no regrets.

“The best healing is to let people know what happened, and that will also help others,” Jones said. “I was so angry when I came here, but I’m trying to trust the judicial system. I want to be an advocate for the women here. I believe people deserve a second chance.”

Budget woes: Oklahoma has a well-earned reputation for locking up its residents.

The state has the second-highest incarceration rate in the U.S. For more than 25 years, Oklahoma has been No. 1 in the incarceration rate of women, with only brief moments at being No. 2.

In December, the DOC announced that for the first time in 49 years, the population of people incarcerated, on supervision or currently in a county jail awaiting transfer surpassed 61,000.

Last week, the Governor’s Task Force for Judicial Reform reported that at this rate more than 7,200 inmates will be added in the next decade. That would bring an additional cost of $1.9 billion to construct three more prisons.

All this is at a time with drastic revenue shortfalls including a state budget failure last year. Funding has not kept up with the increase in prisoners.

Programs to rehabilitate and to transition inmates into the community were cut from the budget years ago. What is offered falls largely to volunteers.

Jodi Jinks, artistic director of ArtsAloud and the Mary Lou Lemon endowed professor for underrepresented voices, imported the program from Austin, Texas, four years ago. It fulfills the research mission of OSU and provides ongoing education and a creative outlet for inmates.

“The emphasis is not on the way they perform. The emphasis is on writing the story then performing it,” Jinks said. “Because this is autobiographical, it is their story, there is an emotional attachment to it.”

Each session develops differently. As the prisoners write from prompts given, a theme emerges. On Friday, the performance was called “Happiness.”

“The goal is to break down the walls for those on the inside and those on the outside,” Jinks said. “This allows for increased empathy, understanding and self-empowerment.”

‘Human again’: OSU senior Peyton Meacham beat back tears several times watching the prisoners perform. She was most moved by this line: “I’m from rolling hills verging on the mountains but not quite.”

“I was wanting to meet her so much and let her know how that line changed me,” Meacham said. “It’s beautiful.”

It was written by inmate Geneva Phillips within a poem filled with poignant metaphors of her upbringing.

“ArtsAloud is life-giving. This is not a place of life, but arts is life,” Phillips said. “So many creative people are in prison. I don’t know why the ratio is so high in prison like that, but it is. This allows us some small moment each week to be human again. Day in and day out, we aren’t allowed to be human.”

Bonding experience: The performance swayed between bouts of laughter and tears dredged from depths of sorrow.

After Jones suddenly stopped her narrative when detailing the taste of blood as the cord lashed her backside, the other prisoners urged her on.

“Come on girl.” “You got this.” “You can do this.”

She continued, ending with her mother’s response to the question as to why she couldn’t protect her daughters from dangerous men. “Some women aren’t meant to be mothers.”

The silence of the room was only broken by a few “mmm hmms” nearly whispered in sympathetic solidarity.

In a well-timed turn, the next vignette told of learning to make fried chicken, only to cause a fire that banned her from her godmother’s kitchen.

The 12-woman ensemble of inmates sang a version of the original “Mouseketeers — Mickey Mouse March,” danced to jingles and created whimsical novelty songs. Women noted their love of fishing, puppies, children and grandchildren.

A woman belted out the television show theme to “In the Heat of the Night,” and an El Salvadoran prisoner had an ongoing joke about not being Mexican.

“I’m also American and I love this country,” she said.

Drama punched between the comedy. An inmate recounted memories of her best friend, who died after a 10-year-old suicide bomber killed him. A woman claimed being from “a heartbroken man with whiskey bottled-up rage.” A prisoner serving life for murder grievously pondered whether she would “outlast the punishment they deemed.”

In an ode of gratitude, a prisoner shared her fears at age 15 being sent behind bars, where she has stayed. With no outside support, her fellow inmates became her family.

“Even though you had your own kids, you had a hand in raising me,” she said. “I thank you for allowing me to grow up and wanting to help me.”

The final act shifted the tenor of the room into one of inspiration and motivation by taking on the theme “What we want the world to know,”

“We’re human, not a number.” “World peace starts with one person.” “Love a little, love a lot.” “Everyone deserves a second chance.”

The rousing ending featured the theme song to the television show “the Golden Girls.” It’s hard not to be uplifted while clapping and singing, “Thank you for being a friend.”

After the show, OSU junior Cody Finger talked about the lessons learned through the project. “It’s eye-opening, and it makes you think twice before judging people,” he said. “And, they really do have very good writing.”

Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376
ginnie.graham@tulsaworld.com

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