“There are ghosts up there,” said our host, Angie Wilson, as we were waiting for the elevator. Angie works with and oversees programming for Pod B in the San Francisco County Jail. She is an extremely knowledgeable and generous resource. When my three cast-mates, Loretta and I stepped out of the elevator into the “vertical” wing, which is currently empty, another employee greeted us and said the exact same thing. Neither one of them said it to scare us, to be funny, or to get any kind of reaction. In both cases, it was said in in a way that was simply matter of fact. Apples are apples, and there are ghosts in the vertical wing. Fact.
Angie had taken us to this particular vertical wing, because it much more closely resembles what our characters might have experienced in a 1950′s prison. Bars, concrete, dim light, chipped paint, and long straight lines leading off into the distance– not like the brighter, bar-less panopticon style the jail mostly uses now. In those panopticon style cells, you feel as though you’re in a fish-bowl more than anything else, since it is essentially a big round room in which everyone can see everything. As we walked past the empty cell blocks in the vertical wing, our heels echoing, Angie pointed out the places where the people who were confined there had eaten, slept, pissed, showered, been nursed, talked on the phone, and also, where some of them were probably murdered. Ghosts.
We walked past the “safety cells”. Small, windowless rooms a person is sent to if they are being uncontrollably violent. Angie said “Go, on. Go inside.” We did. The tight, dark room was bare besides a small grate on the floor. We were quiet. “How long might someone stay in here?” one of us asked. “Oh, a couple hours maybe. Never overnight,” she replied.
In And I And Silence, my character, Dee, is often sent to an equivalent room called “the Hole.” Solitary. The hole was, and in many US prisons sadly still is common practice– inmates can be sent there to solitary confinement for days. Months. Years. I have thought a lot about what effect this might have had on Dee’s own psyche. In my research, I was sobered to find an account from Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, whose research concludes that 15 days in solitary confinement (which constitutes torture) is the limit after which irreversible harmful psychological effects can occur.” These effects are especially strong for juveniles.
The thing is, I really don’t want to end my account of this visit, on that note. Much like the aforementioned ghosts, it is also a fact that during our visit, Angie couldn’t wait to take us to the wing she currently oversees. To say that she is invested in the women on her floor is an understatement. Angie ensures there is robust programming for the women and also educational opportunities– we saw a group of women taking college midterms. Angie seemed to have an incredible knack for seeing everyone there, inmate or staff, past or present, from a genuinely caring and nonjudgmental perspective. I appreciated Angie for her heartfelt and caring pragmatism.
Throughout rehearsals for this play, with Loretta’s invaluable assistance, I am continually fighting the maudlin, sentimental impulse. My job is not to wallow in feelings or sentiment about the injustices of the prison system on stage, but to deal honestly with the facts at hand– to create new “facts” in spite of the given situation. At one point in the script, Dee describes to Jamie a peaceful imagined future, buttoning the hopeful dream with: “That’s a fact.” It is not a luxury. For these characters, living under such extreme circumstances, that kind of hope needs to be a fact.
- Siobhan Marie Doherty, Young Dee