When I interviewed last winter for William Buzz Alexander’s English 319, a class that centered on theater workshops in urban high schools, juvenile facilities and adult prisons, I was asked why I wanted to work with people whom society deems criminals, misfits, scum of the earth.

Sarah Royce

I gave a vague answer at the time, but now, as I begin my fourth creative workshop at a juvenile facility and my first workshop at an adult prison, I have a better answer.

Most marginalized populations are represented in jails, prisons and juvenile facilities. These places, given the nation’s growing incarceration rate – already the highest in the world – have often become warehouses for the poor, uneducated, underserved, disabled and homeless populations that the government doesn’t seem to care about until they break the law. Going into these places allows one to notice the cracks in our social and economic systems and to bear witness to those who have fallen through. Bearing witness is especially crucial given the invisibility of prisoners and the lack of accountability for criminal justice practices and abuses in this country. (Writ of habeas corpus, torture, due process – what?)

My point is not to victimize incarcerated populations, although many of their stories are utterly heartbreaking. One of the goals of this column, as with the workshops, is to humanize people who have been reduced to animals by this country’s sensationalist media and draconian justice system.

The young men and women I worked with last semester wrote about people they cared about: their parents, their grandparents, their spouses, their children and their friends. They looked at their lives critically, exploring times when they struggled or perhaps made a regrettable decision. They remembered times when they were happy – for example, sharing a blanket with a younger sister or smelling coffee and omelettes in Grandma’s kitchen. And some of their writing was wonderfully creative: a Blake-like myth about metaphorical beasts and heroes, a story about a haunted house and an off-the-wall limerick.

In these workshops, my partner and I tried not to be typical teachers, authorities who lecture and instruct. We tried to create a safe space where everyone could explore their lives and interests through the craft of writing, and we participated in this process. In the workshop with teenage boys in Detroit this fall, I shared a piece about my own insecurities as a child, describing my poor self-esteem, my perceived otherness from some of my peers and my sensitivity.

After I read my piece, the guys were silent. After a few seconds, one guy asked, “Was that true?” I told him it was, and he said that he didn’t think I would have shared all of that with them.

Although I was nervous, I thought it was important to show the guys that one of their writing “teachers” (as some of them still called us) had experienced his own difficulties as a child, and that, in some way, our stories overlapped.

Nevertheless, I was fully aware that I got to go home at the end of workshops while they stayed there. I often asked myself why this was – what was the essential difference between them and me? If we had switched neighborhoods growing up, would I have joined a gang and they a club that met in a hollowed-out bush overlooking the golf course? If I had been abused repeatedly, would I have developed a drug habit to escape the pain? If I had attended a public school in Detroit instead of one in Lawrence, Kan., would I be at the University right now, writing this column?

In these workshops, there were no black-and-white answers (unless you mean the nine black guys and one white guy in my Detroit workshop this fall), no clear-cut victims and perpetrators, no good guys and bad guys. The fact that I had never been incarcerated did not make me categorically better or more human than the other guys in the room. As one workshop participant wrote: “We all got problems, you ain’t gotta pretend.”

Unfortunately, many of us at the University have spent the first part of our lives pretending: pretending that because we have, we deserve; and because others don’t have, they don’t deserve. Pretending that because we are free, we deserve to be free; and because others are locked up, they deserve to be locked up. These dichotomies have been deliberately maintained by prison walls, and until we break through these barriers and bear witness to those on the other side, we will continue living in a world of black and white.

Cravens can be reached at jjcrave@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *