I recently started to do research on a project involving prisons and as part of that research I witnessed a presentation of The Actors Gang Prison Project at a prison in Norco, CA. It was a mind-blowing experience to watch a group of 14 incarcerated men wearing makeup and masks presenting their most honest selves through Commedia dell'arte stock characters. These are men who have lived and are living through experiences I can't even fathom. They are scary looking, tattooed from knuckles to necks, criminals. There's no questioning that, but what I saw today was a revelation. There was so much humanity in that prison. I feel too raw and the experience is too fresh for me to even put together the proper words to describe what I witnessed, but I can say today's presentation opened my eyes to what our prison system could be doing for many of the men and women incarcerated. The men I met today are all going to be released some day and most of our prisons have no programs to help rehabilitate them. The Actors' Gang is doing just that. The men who performed today seemed to be transformed by the experience which included 8 weeks of working together with the Actors' Gang facilitators and culminating in today's presentation. I have to admit I was pretty nervous as I walked through a prison yard to get to the room where the presentation was taking place. And this prison yard was straight out of every movie I've seen. The men were milling around, chatting, playing handball. Some of them were looking at me as I walked through the yard. All I could think about was how in the movies they all have shivs in their pocket and would want to stab me for walking across their path. Well, I didn't get a shiv in the kidney. Instead what I got was some polite help by a couple guys who pointed me in the correct direction. Another guy opened a door for me and gave me a fist-bump. Their performance lasted about two hours and ended with the men serenading us with the Rolling Stones song "You Can't Always Get What You Want." When the song was over I had the opportunity to speak with about a half dozen of the guys. Each and every one of them held out their hands to shake mine, looked me in the eye and said "Thank you for coming here today." I gladly shook their hands in return and thanked them for showing me what looked like some really difficult work. The brief conversations which were mostly about how long they've been in prison (12-20 years for those I met) and how much longer they had (between 2 days and 2 years) but most of them didn't talk about what they did, nor did I ask. One guy briefly mentioned how hard the past 18 years has been for him, and how he's moved from prison to prison, but it wasn't until he got to Norco that he felt like he could live on the outside again. He said "I can't look back any more. I have 21 months left, but I gotta focus on right now." His name was Eugene. He had a nice smile. As I was walking out, Mike, another inmate, said "That was hard, man." I didn't know what to say. I self-consciously responded "but you got through it." As I left the building and walked back through the crowded prison yard, I wasn't so scared. It's not that this place is a vacation and everything is peaches and cream, but I understand this part of our world a little bit better.
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