In 2008, Crystal Tiala, chair of the theatre department, started something called the Arts and Social Responsibility Project. It’s just what you’d think—she wanted to help students marry their passions for theatre, design, drawing, and painting with their social justice inclinations.
One of Tiala’s students, inspired by the project, went down to Quito, Ecuador, to do a summer theatre program, helping impoverished children to learn how to read. She made a documentary about the experience called Theater of Hope, which got some press coverage and eventually found its way to Sr. Maureen Clark, the Catholic chaplain of a women’s prison in Framingham, Mass.
The chaplain contacted Tiala with the idea that became Prison Arts Outreach, a group of about 30 students who, in teams of four or five on Sundays and Wednesdays, go to two prisons in Framingham to do crafts, improv and dance performances, and creative exercises with the inmates.
“This is a way of actively involving incarcerated persons in the art itself,” Tiala said. “It’s a way of helping their self-esteem, showing them somebody cares about them, that they aren’t just a number.”
Getting ready to actually go work in a prison is a challenging process. There is a lengthy orientation and a strict dress code—volunteers may not wear anything that could be used as a weapon or currency, which includes denim—the group is limited in the materials it can bring for activities, and they only get an hour. So planning is crucial.
Once the group is actually in the prison, there are more rules. Those extend to the activities—if 20 pens go in a room, 20 pens have to come out—and to the talk: personal connections aren’t allowed, so it’s first names only. Plus, the whole thing is based on the Prison Arts Outreach’s advertising, so sometimes 35 inmates show up, and other times it’s only one. Despite those limitations, the student volunteers have found that the program tends to be one of the best hours of the week.
“The coolest part is when you forget that you’re in a prison. There are a lot of times that the women are so happy to be there for that hour, they’re so cheerful, that you forget that they’re inmates, you forget that they’ve done something bad to be there. … They become more than just what their crime was.”
—Kelly Laughinghouse, MCAS ’17
“For these women, it’s the one time per week that they’re given an hour that isn’t scheduled,” Kelly Laughinghouse, MCAS ’17, said. During one of their sessions, an inmate told a group of volunteers that, outside of Prison Arts Outreach, she and the rest of the women generally didn’t get along. But for that hour, in that room, she said, they forgot the “inmate code” and could all have fun and be together.
“A lot of times, they can get run down and lose their morale, after being there for so long,” Natalie Curtis, MCAS ’18, said of the inmates. “This is a way for them to feel like a human.”
Katherine McCartin, LSOE ’18, said that one of her favorite activities is “six-word memoirs,” where the women express themselves in funny or deep ways, revealing how a short, creative phrase can pack major punch. Sometimes there are great stories told, problems and fears aired. Sometimes it’s as simple as letting the women choose the game—one time, all of the program’s attendees wanted to play Simon Says.
In addition to all the preparation and rules involved, only having one hour per week can make it hard to connect with the women. McCartin said that she never wants the hour to end. Even when connections are made, maintaining them is hard. Sometimes, a woman is released from prison who volunteers have gotten to know. Curtis said that, on the one hand, she is always happy when somebody starts a new chapter, but on the other hand, it can be hard to say goodbye so suddenly. Volunteers can’t exchange contact information, so keeping in touch is impossible. There’s also the problem of relating to women whose situations are sometimes unimaginable to volunteers.
“Sometimes when you’re presented with a story, and you think it’s so far beyond your understanding, and that you can’t advise, all you can do is listen,” Laughinghouse said. “You can say, ‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ and that means something, I’m sure, but it’s hard to know what to say.”
David Makransky, MCAS ’17, was involved with Prison Arts Outreach last year as an organizer. He said that sometimes there is no real incentive for the women to come to successive workshops—they can’t keep the work they do, for example. But certain activities have been hugely important to both the volunteers and the women, like a production of Godspell he helped put on with them during his freshman year. He said that the limitations of working in a prison are just logistics they have to overcome and work around, and sometimes, all the students agreed, the location is almost irrelevant.
“The coolest part is when you forget that you’re in a prison,” Laughinghouse said. “There are a lot of times that the women are so happy to be there for that hour, they’re so cheerful, that you forget that they’re inmates, you forget that they’ve done something bad to be there. … They become more than just what their crime was.”
Featured Image by Drew Hoo / Heights Senior Staff