Teaching in Corrections: Embracing the Contradictions
The following is a piece written for us by Voices UnCaged Teaching Artist, Vinny Mraz.
A men’s medium security prison sits on a small hill off Route 36 in a rural part of New York filled with small communities and the thick smell of dairy farms, especially in the middle of summer.
In 2016, embarking on my first trip in to Groveland Correctional with my two co-teaching artists I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. We pulled into the parking lot under the watchful eye of the guard tower, made our way past the sally port and up to the main gate. There, as one heavy metal door closed behind us and as we waited for the next one to open I thought about this big divide between “out there” and “in here”. This separation, a physical one as well as a psychological one, was the first of my encounters with this great divide.
This divide, what I’ve started to think of as the Janusian void, requires a kind of tight rope walk. Janus, the Greed God of transitions, doorways, gates and passages was not on my mind the first time I walked into Groveland. It’s only now, looking back on this experience with a distance of 4 years, that I see standing in that kind of purgatory; one gate closed, one yet to open, how this God and his eponymous way of thinking are inherent in teaching theater in corrections.
Janusian Thinking is the ability to imagine two opposite or contradictory ideas. In prison there are many contradictions, often purposefully to maintain order and control. So we find ourselves in a world that often shifts and changes on purpose. Walking into this space, one not created for me as a civilian, I have to become aware of these shifts and be prepared for the unexpected. At Groveland and other facilities I’ve worked at the key to maintaining calm in what can be an anxiety-inducing space is to keep Janus in mind.
I’ve tried to reduce these contradictory ideas down to their simplest selves. Here’s what I think they are:
Idea 1: We want to create a trusting ensemble of men who are willing to take creative risks, share out honestly and bring their hearts and minds to this creative process.
Idea 2: We must be aware not to ask any personal questions, especially not why they are in prison, nor should we offer up too much personal information about our own lives outside of here and must keep a comfortable distance physically and emotionally.
To walk across this void of the “us” and “them” is to come face to face with the way the system works. My job in that room is to erase all of that. I try to see these men as being no different than myself. My first time encountering this I was nervous I was being too formal. Whenever I teach I try to put forth my most approachable, confident and playful self. In order to help build an environment of trust and play I feel my role as facilitator is to model that kind of spirit and energy. This first time though, I am anxious and quieter than normal. I become aware I might say the wrong thing. I don’t know if I should act “tougher” or more masculine. These thoughts are racing through my mind all while attempting to be present with my co-teachers and the men and focus not on myself but on our first few moments all together.
As I’ve gone on to work in other facilities throughout New York State I’ve often wondered about other civilians first time going in to teach. Do they also feel this nervousness? Do they worry about doing or saying the wrong thing as I did? In some ways I see this as a good thing, a sign that we are keeping ourselves in check and abiding by the rules. On the other (Janus returns!) I think that feeling anxious and nervous is a sign of someone not ready to do this kind of work. I start to worry my own inexperience is going to do more harm than good, the gravest danger that any teacher can do as far as I can tell. Once more I return to the middle ground in between these ideas. It is ok to be nervous because everyone in that room is nervous. Some are performing in front of their peers for the first time, some might be fearful of looking foolish or dumb and having what they’ve done or said in this room be spread around to other men. We are nervous as teachers to do our best work, give the best possible workshop and leave these men with a few more creative tools to use.
As I’ve moved through other workshops including a few more summers at Groveland I have found the embrace of contradictions easier. In the face of this pandemic I’ve had nothing but contradictions thrown at me as have we all. The world is a very complex and compound knot. To try and untie it all at once will surely result in further mess and frustration. So I have learned to take things one step at a time and to know that in that room everyone is doing the best that they can despite the stressful circumstances that surround our work.
The refrain we heard many times in that first week from one of our older more veteran participants was that this class “took us out of prison for 3 hours.” For him and I suspect for many of the men being in this class meant being invited to enter a different world for a little while, one where play and joy were actively sought out and encouraged. In the middle of the gym floor under the gaze of one guard on a big lifeguard chair and a few more in the glassed-off office we sought this alternate world. We dove headfirst into that middle ground, in between the world of rigorous rules, shifting justifications and distance and the world of emotional vulnerability and creative risk. Aware that perhaps we were floating in that “other world” for those 3 hours trying to shed the self-consciousness and fear and instead arrive at a state of harmonious joy.
I’ve found this state in other facilities as I’ve taught. My first reaction to it was how strange it felt to be laughing and playing in this way inside of prison walls. But life does not become simplified in prison and to reduce this work to only that of the stereotypical idea of mostly autobiographical pieces that force participants to relive past traumas is to miss the other moments entirely. I’ve tried to find that suspended state, aware of both the “out here” and “in there” and know that from this point we are better equipped to remove this divide all together and to see all of us as “in there”. As long as we all live in this country alongside our systems of mass incarceration, we are all “in there”. Then that moment will come, waiting in between those two locked doors that one will open and then we can all walk through it together.
-Art and essay by Vinny Mraz