Prison arts program gives inmates a creative outlet


Erika Force

The outside of Cook County Jail in Chicago.

By Erika Force

In a space where fences are electric, walkways seem endless and freedom to express oneself seems out of reach, Jordan describes her son. She takes on more and more of his physical characteristics, morphing into him through improvised words and actions in front of an audience.

Cook County Jail is where approximately 9,000 women and men live behind bars daily, according to Cook County Department of Corrections, but it is also home to the Piven Prison Program, where Piven Theatre instructors teach improv classes to female inmates. 

Jordan read from one of her poems during a Sept. 27 class:

“I want my words to challenge a justice system meant to oppress and sentence another victim / I want my words to encourage and inspire, to change the very thought of evil and its desire / I want my words to open doors, and give life forevermore.”

The women allow themselves to be playful and take risks in the class, according to Gillian Hemme, one of the program’s  founders and instructors. They are able to feel safe and free and live in their imagination, Hemme said.

Before starting the program in Chicago, Hemme and some colleagues from the Piven Theatre Workshop went to Los Angeles to observe The Actors’ Gang, a theater company based in Los Angeles that brings theater to inmates through its Prison Project.

“I was so struck by how generous the performers were and to see them just experience raw emotions—watching joy bubble up from toes to smiles,” Hemme said. 

Following the trip, Piven Theatre found a receptive audience for its own project when the founders brought the idea to the Cook County Sheriff’s department at the Cook County Jail. The team of women from Piven taught a five-week pilot course during Spring 2016 followed by a class once a month in the summer and finally a full fall semester class, which meets every Tuesday with Piven Theatre instructors. 

Cook County Jail serves as a pre-trial detention place for those who cannot make bail. This means the inmates could very well be innocent of the crimes they are being held for, according to Hemme. 

“It is about giving [the women] space and ability to express themselves,” said Abby Pierce, an instructor who has been taking classes at Piven’s Evanston location since fifth grade.

While the curriculum and games are very similar to Piven’s programming for all ages, the goals and structure of the prison project are quite different.

The classes always start with a meditation, separating class time from the rest of the inmates’ time in jail. There’s a physical warm-up, followed by theater games that build performance skills and loosen minds and bodies, releasing stress, aches and pains, Hemme said. Throughout the class, the prisoners and the instructors suggest words that resonate with what they are feeling and experiencing. Each class ends with a poem using those words.

“Freedom from the pain and hurt / Freedom from eating out of garbage cans and sleeping in the dirt,” said inmate Reatha in a poem written during the class.

Outside the classroom, women inmates are in an environment in which any sort of emotional vulnerability is unacceptable. They are constantly on “fight-or-flight mode,” according to Piven Theatre instructor Becky McNamara.

She referred to the situation as a “constant state of shutting down and trying to stay out of fights,” adding that inmates sometimes get in trouble on purpose to be put in solitary just so they can be alone.

Kerry Wright, the jail’s deputy director of the Department of Inmate Services and Programs, said initially she was hesitant about the program because many of the women did not get along with each other. She sat in on the first class and could tell they did not want to participate for fear of looking silly or being themselves. However, as the classes progressed, that changed, she said. 

“They got very comfortable with themselves and each other,” Wright said. “They were a lot more insightful about themselves as people in general.” 

This behavior even extended outside of the classroom and into their daily lives within jail. Britany, an inmate with rage issues, “went from having an incident every other week to almost no incidents at all,” Wright said. 

“This class bring out a lot of emotion and laughter! / The terrible thing is, is that we have to depart for a whole nothing week,” Britany wrote in the class.

A male inmate that The Actors’ Gang worked with in Los Angeles told McNamara the program helped him to understand the difference between being angry and being scared, she said, adding that he realized he does not have to hit someone when he is frightened. However, in Chicago, where crime gets national attention that often builds a negative stereotype about the city and recidivism is a problem,  arts programming has consistently demonstrated a positive impact, she said

“More cops never help; more money plugged into large system services does not help,” McNamara said. “Putting someone on a basketball team or asking someone to show up to help make a mural has a better impact on the community.”