A Day at Stateville

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #8 in May 2009]

I shall create! If not a note, a hole.
If not an overture, a desecration.

—Gwendolyn Brooks


Transformation through Communication. That’s the name of a class at Stateville Correctional Facility in Joliet, Illinois taught by Jim Chapman, an attorney who volunteers his time to teach this class every Wednesday. The class is comprised of all African American men serving long-term prison sentences. Many of these men are facing life sentences without the possibility of parole, which means they’ll spend the rest of their natural lives behind bars. Yet they maintain hope for a better future, for themselves and for humanity. Determined to matter and to make a difference, the men in this class collectively wrote a play, aptly and simply called, A Day at Stateville.

It’s a short play—with four characters, five scenes and a narrator—about a newcomer’s first day at Stateville. A reading at Kennedy King College on a cold, snowy night in February demonstrated the power of the play. The evening performance was intended to be a private run-through—an opportunity for friends and colleagues to give feedback—but word about it got around and nearly 100 people came to see this first staged reading, starring men who had been formerly incarcerated at Stateville.

Without skipping a beat, the four survivors of Stateville read the script aloud, drawing in audience with every word. The exchanges between Rob, his new ‘cellie’ Earl, and the other veterans of Stateville show the day-to-day realities of life behind bars for these men, and the play offers its audience a glimpse into this harsh world.

For Chapman, the play represents “an effort for incarcerated persons to demonstrate their inherent power by interacting with the community on issues that are important to them. Men and women in prison can’t talk to everybody. This play is their way of conveying their message to the world.”

The interactive discussion that followed the reading illustrated how the play can serve as a catalyst for collectively thinking about societal issues. A larger conversation emerged, and together we grappled with the pressing and difficult question: how can we save ourselves from this epidemic of incarceration that is plaguing our communities? For one woman who attended the reading, the play was an eye-opening experience: “Until now, I never really believed what I heard about how bad it was. On TV, they make it seem like it’s not so bad.” Others who had been formerly incarcerated asked how they could get involved in efforts to reach out to others, especially youth, to interrupt this pipeline from the communities to the prisons.

As the economy continues to plummet and communities face increasing hardships, creating political spaces for transformation and finding ways to creatively engage with one another is not a luxury but a necessity for re-shaping the world we live in. The men at Stateville point the way—from behind the dark, cavernous walls of the prison—as they dare to inspire, create and seek “transformation through communication.” ◊



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