- When I Run in My Bare Feet:Music, Writing, and Theater in a North Carolina Women’s Prison
A group of nearly a dozen women sit together singing, tapping rhythms on a table, and calling out ideas for lyrics and rhymes to one another, as a man with a guitar alternately strums chords and writes down the words to the songs they are writing together. Their music making continues almost seven years of creative collaboration and experimentation across three different media. Throughout it all, the women have resided inside the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women—a minimum-security prison in the capital of North Carolina. The prison itself serves both as the setting for this workshop—likely the only place in which these particular women would be regularly engaging with the arts—and as the primary force that identifies the workshop participants as part of the same community: marking them with the stigma of criminality, limiting their future prospects for professional advancement, and forcing them to live together in close quarters and unpleasant conditions. The women gather once a week in this arts workshop setting within the prison to engage with one another and with various processes of artistic creation, managing not to escape but to enrich and embolden their carceral reality for a couple of hours. [End Page 134]
This article tracks the progression of this particular workshop—a rather unusual one in terms of both its longevity and its multiple shifts in artistic genre from writing to theater to music. As such, it is a significant case study for examining a high-stakes debate about the nature and purpose of engaging in the arts inside prisons. Thirteen interviews with facilitators and workshop participants form the core of the research presented here and provide insight into a range of experiences of the process of art making behind bars. Commonly, such art making is explicitly characterized as and valued for qualities that are therapeutic, and thus arts practice in prison often falls into the (therapeutic) language of confessions and rehabilitation. Many members of prison ministry groups, law enforcement officials, community arts organizations, and university professors connected to arts programs in prisons suggest that the purpose of engaging incarcerated people via artistic practice is to urge them toward personal transformation and reform, often through the process of recounting—either literally or representationally—their past misdeeds and then professing remorse.1 In this line of thinking, the arts serve as a means to an end (i.e., self-discovery and confession) rather than as a rigorous craft steeped in history and studied technique. Prisoners, in turn, are often characterized as the objects of their own art rather than the agents who created it, and in this light audiences perceive prisoners’ art as psychologically revelatory—as a window into the deviant soul.
In contrast, others who study and facilitate arts work in prisons emphasize the potential for community building, the recognition of our common humanity, participation in social justice efforts, and—a consideration that often seems to come last in these discussions, though it is primary to teachers of free world arts workshops—the development of new artists and the quality of artistic craft and product.2 Buzz Alexander, founder of the Prison Creative Arts Project, emphasizes the ways in which artistic practice serves to foster community among prisoners, university students, and community volunteers. He also emphasizes the fact that the arts enable people to both express and recognize our humanity.3 In studying the political prisoner art of the 1970s, Lee Bernstein sees arts work as a way for incarcerated people to become active in social movements and to contribute to the transformation of society.4 In his introduction to the play Short Eyes by Miguel Piñero, director Marvin Felix Camillo insists that the value of both the script and performance lay in the quality of artistry exhibited by the playwright and actors, not as “some great social reform message” or a literal rendering of the crimes or motivations of the incarcerated theater makers.5
One of the myriad difficulties in cultivating art inside the confines of a punitive system lies in convincing both the incarcerated artist and...