On October 24, 1969, Rick Cluchey and his acting company, Barbwire
Theater, perform an excerpt of Cluchey’s play The Cage before
an Atlanta audience.
Their goal in this
WSB clip is to use drama to make the public aware
of the need for prison reform. While an inmate serving a life sentence
for robbery and kidnapping in San Quentin State Prison, Cluchey
cofounded the San
Quentin Drama Workshop, later renamed Barbwire Theater, with
fellow inmate Kenneth Whelan. He and other prison actors wanted
to call increased attention to the poor conditions of America’s
prisons, and to criticize the correctional system for its failure
to rehabilitate prisoners.
As Cluchey has confirmed in interviews, a performance of Irish
for Godot (first published in English in 1954) in San Quentin
during the late 1950s planted the seeds for the Barbwire Theater’s
emergence over a decade later. The prisoners appreciated Beckett’s
play because their own life experiences had given them a deep understanding
“dread, boredom, alienation, the absurd, freedom, commitment, [and]
nothingness,” as Steven Crowell writes in The
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Along with other inmates,
Cluchey petitioned for permission and aid to develop a prison theater. The
Cage, his existentialist drama, the first written by an American
prison inmate, opened in December 1965. The governor commuted his
sentence in 1967 and released him with life parole for his work
in prison reform.
In June 1969, Cluchey and his actors staged The Cage at
the invitation of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and
Welfare (now the Department
of Health and Human Services) for the National Citizens’
Conference on Rehabilitation of the Disabled and Disadvantaged.
Subsequently the group members, many of whom had worked with the
San Quentin Drama Workshop, consolidated into Barbwire Theater.
They chose San
Francisco as a home base and social awareness as an agenda.
They toured prisons and cities across the nation to place the concerns
of inmates before the public. Today, Cluchey, along with Jonathan
Stuart, the first production manager of The Cage, uses
theater and music to create social change.
The Cage exposes the ugly side of prison life and the
criminal justice system. The correctional officers in the play hand
out undeserved and violent punishments, ignore the pleas of an inmate
for his epilepsy medication, and violate inmates’ privacy and dignity
through strip searches. Each of the six cast members represents
problems with correctional institutions, such as the poor health
care and nutrition of inmates, sexual harassment and rape, and a
constant fear of violence at the hands of other inmates. As testament
to the prisoners’ perceptions of being abandoned by the larger society,
the play critiques the judiciary through a mock trial that ends
with the command, “You’ll wear a number and go faceless forever!”
Since the 1960s, prison and jail reform has been a contemporary
civil rights agenda in Georgia. In the fall of 1974, the Georgia
Advisory Committee to the U.S.
Commission on Civil Rights reported that the state’s prisons
held 10,111 inmates and reported a recidivism rate of sixty to seventy
percent. By July 2007, the prison population had increased fivefold
to 50,715 with a lowered recidivism rate of 39 percent. To reduce
Georgia’s prison population, the Georgia
Department of Corrections (GDC) created the Operations, Planning,
and Training Division in 2004 to target substance abuse, broaden
employment opportunities for ex-convicts, and provide inmates with
access to education.
James E. Donald, Commissioner of the GDC, reported
in 2005 that the state ranked fifth in the nation in number of prisoners,
even though it was the ninth largest state by population. The growing
number of prisons owned by private, for-profit companies, the disproportionate
number of black and Latino men in American jails, and the construction
of prisons in rural communities to strengthen their economies are
post-Civil Rights Movement reform issues.
Georgia, John Cole Vodicka founded the Prison & Jail
Project (P&JP) in 1993 to forward the Civil
Rights Movement’s goal of social justice. Vodicka acquired first-hand
experience on the conditions of U.S. prisons when he served eleven
months for refusing Navy orders. Vodicka eventually chose a career
in journalism that enabled him to reach a broad audience in his
quest for prison reform. The P&JP seeks to ensure that Georgia’s
convicts do not become the faceless numbers in Cluchey’s play. The
now in its twelfth year, is one method the P&JP uses to raise
awareness on the plight of today’s prisoners. This 105-mile trek
involves six counties, and it includes public gatherings at local
correctional facilities and courthouses where participants discuss
local concerns and issues, from prison reform to rural health care.
The weeklong event culminates with a rally at the Corrections
Corporation of America prison in Lumpkin
County, home of over 1,500 undocumented residents.
for prison reform have built on the examples of grass-roots organizing
and communication developed during the Civil Rights Movement. Where
the Movement demonstrated how poverty heightened racial divisions
and race hatred, prison reformers seek to expose the intersections
between poverty, inferior education, and crime.
Resources (click here)
Printable Version (click here)
1. Read (or listen to) the
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter
from a Birmingham Jail. How does King describe the experience
of going to jail as a dignified and powerful move, and what did
he expect to gain for the Movement by doing so?
2. View clips of Cluchey and members of the San Quentin Drama Workshop
in action on YouTube. Cluchey’s
education as a performer and playwright in prison calls attention
to the experiences other historical figures whose incarceration
became a school. Discuss the prison experiences of Malcolm
X, American Indian Movement activist Leonard
Peltier, the former Black
Panther and journalist Mumia
Abu-Jamal, or former
South African president Nelson Mandela on Robben
Island. Can you think of others who have educated themselves
and their fellow inmates in prison? What can make prison a stimulating
environment for personal transformation and reflection and political
3. Read the Essence magazine article "Stolen
Girls" about the imprisonment of young Civil Rights Movement
activists in the Leesburg Stockade. How did women’s experiences
in jail during the Movement differ from those of men? Did women
face any perils in confinement that men did not?
4. Is it important to emphasize punishment or rehabilitation of
prisoners? Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of both positions.
5. Take turns reading aloud stanzas from Paul
Laurence Dunbar’s famous poem Sympathy,
written in 1899. How does the poet use the image of
the cage to suggest both confinement and freedom?
Take it to the Streets!
On a large sheet of paper or poster board, copy a map
of Europe on one side and a map
of the United States on the other. Label with an X (for death
penalty) and a Z (for no death penalty) the European countries
and American states. Divide the states and countries so that
members of the class can research death penalty policies together
in teams. What patterns do you see and what do these patterns
reveal about attitudes towards the death penalty? Can you account
for how each country justifies its use or not of the death penalty? If
time permits, select another continent (South
and do the same exercise, comparing the pattern you find to that
of the United States.
Writer: Christina L. Davis
Kamille Bostick, Christina L. Davis, Mary Boyce Hicks, and Professor
Christina L. Davis
Site Designer: William Weems
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