The Keeping the Faith Theater Project
by scott winn
Keeping the Faith has been a great experience for me," says Drey, one of 850 prisoners at the state's prison for women in Purdy "It's been uniting with my fellow inmates...some of us don't get a chance to be real close. This gave me a sort of closeness. It taught me how to be independent, how to receive love."
Drey is a participant in The Pat Graney Company's "Keeping the Faith," a three-month program of movement, writing, visual arts, and performance skills involving 34 incarcerated women. Drey was sentenced to 101 months at the Washington Correction Center for Women for selling $10 worth of crack cocaine.
In the Keeping the Faith program women explore the issues tying them to the revolving door of the penal system. In its fourth year, the program seeks to build self-esteem through positive and creative expression involving movement, writing, and visual arts. The program finishes with performances inside the prison.
Women file into the sweltering gym for the performance. The excitement of a break in the routine fills the air and intensifies the heat. One by one women read stories of their childhood, of the loneliness of prison life away from their children, and of hopes for futures beyond prison. "I had a life outside these walls-notice the past tense," recites one young woman.
The music blares as the performers free themselves in dance, circling around other women jumping rope double-dutch style. Hollers of appreciation come from the audience who sit dancing in their chairs. With a chorus of words and movement, the performers share the messages they got from their mothers and relate the history of their lives.
As the show ends the loudspeaker abruptly demands the audience return to their cells. Guards tame the excitement as the women sneak hugs and high-fives and whisper quick words to each other as they leave the gym. Outside the hot sun reflects off the razor wire spiraling along the top of the surrounding metal fences and concrete walls.
The Feminization of Prison
Women represent the fastest growing segment of the state and federal prison population. In the United States almost 2 million people are in prison or jail, the majority being people of color. The overwhelming majority of women are in prison for committing non-violent crimes. The "War on Drugs" has resulted in mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses, causing the number of women in prison to increase ten-fold nationwide since these laws went into effect in 1987.
Alicia will be released from prison in eight days and is excited to see her six-year-old daughter for the first time in four years. She began living on the streets of Seattle when she was ten. Reflecting on why so many poor women are in prison, Alicia says it is "Because no one listens to us. We are not heard. So many of us come from abusive backgrounds, physical, mental, drug addiction. We come from them type of backgrounds and many aren't going to speak out against this abuse. Like me, I learned that speaking out did nothing but got me in trouble, even around here." Alicia pauses and leans forward, her eye on the preoccupied woman assigned to monitor our conversation, "I mean I have had the crap beat out of me by several officers here. I was so messed up I got taken out to the hospital.
"I feel that the ways things are today they don't look at who we are as people and the circumstances," Alicia continues. "They go with who has the most money, with who has the most influence, you know? I think it is unfair to some of us. Most of us come from poor backgrounds."
The typical woman who is an inmate in prison is under thirty, African-American or Latina, poorly educated, and was unemployed at the time of her arrest. Almost 80% of women in prison are mothers. More than 100,000 children nationwide have a mother behind bars.
Coffee is in prison for the second time. She is a year into a five-year sentence on a drug-related charge. Her degree in drama is apparent during the performance. Her explanation for why more women are entering prison seemed to become an autobiography, giving context to what happened to her and other women. "I believe it has to do with economics. You know the price to live in the world goes up. And these families they are calling families are not good anymore. There's too much drugs and violence and abuse. And we are not collecting much support from fathers-I am not downing them, they don't have money them damn selves.
"So a woman goes off on her own to take care of her children...she doesn't want to prostitute, she doesn't have the skills for a job, she doesn't want to beg on the street, so what is her choice? She sells a little bit of crack, makes a lot of quick money. Pays the rent, buys her kids Nikes. Things are looking swell `til the police come to your door one day and you gotta go to jail."
Keeping the Faith
The Pat Graney Company will be back next year, probably greeting more women than ever. Until the mandatory minimum laws are overturned and women have the opportunities to meet their families' basic needs, the number of women in prison will continue to grow.
Alicia shared some final thoughts she wanted people outside the prison walls to hear. "I just want to be recognized as a person. I want to be somebody in life. This place is not the answer. They send you in here to get rehabilitated and you walk out worse than when you walked in."
~originally published in Real Change