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Cities: Atlanta

Barbwire Theater Comes to Atlanta

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 playwright Samuel Beckett’s Waiting 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 of existentialism: “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.

In Americus, 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 annual FREEDOMWALK, 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.

Activists 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. 

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Discussion Questions

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 education?

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 America, Africa) and do the same exercise, comparing the pattern you find to that of the United States.       

Writer: Christina L. Davis
Editors: Kamille Bostick, Christina L. Davis, Mary Boyce Hicks, and Professor Barbara McCaskill
Researcher: Christina L. Davis
Web Site Designer: William Weems

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