Finding Freedom Behind Bars

A chorus line of staggering zombies casts huge, dancing shadows on the gym walls at the Washington women’s correctional facility in Gig Harbor. After twice-weekly classes in art, dance and memoir writing and three months of rehearsal, this is the May 9 opening night of the inmates’ play Keeping the Faith: The Prison Project, which is being filmed by videographers, including Rick Steves’ old producer Tom Speer and Sundance veteran Laura Jean Cronin.

“They’re reenacting Michael Jackson’s Thriller video,” explains Peter Bagge, the local cartoonist who taught them to draw the backdrop for the show. After the dance, prisoners read heart-wrenching tributes to their own personal icons: a relative who didn’t give up on them, or Nicole Richie, who got clean. “They take something intimate and morph it into something grand in a few weeks,” says artist and Keeping the Faith volunteer Mary Ann Peters.

“It takes a lot of guts to stick your neck out,” adds Bagge. “You could get beaten up or ridiculed.”

“This is our fifteenth-anniversary show,” says choreographer Pat Graney, who invented the program the New York Times calls “one of the nation’s most innovative” in 1995. “Somebody from a social-justice organization told me, ‘You can’t use art as a means to change – art doesn’t do anything.’ I said, ‘Art is change.’ The inmates have destroyed lives. Mostly, their parents gave them their first hit of meth. Often they’re really smart, and they really don’t know it.” In Keeping the Faith, dropouts who never finished anything do hard artistic work with people they don’t necessarily like, bare their hearts to their peers and a hundred outside visitors, and turn pain into expressive achievement. “Their badass nature can be put aside for something greater,” says Peters. Adds Graney: “It’s this trial-by-fire transformational moment.”

Convicts can relate to Graney, who grew up poor and mortgaged her house to bail out her brother, who did ten years for cocaine (now he’s a currency trader). “There’s a high cross-index between artists and inmates,” says Graney, “because you’re not in mainstream culture, you’re catch-as-catch-can.” “There but for the grace of God go I,” says Peters. “Imagine the worst thing you ever did – and you got caught.”
A 2005 KTF performer is now Graney’s project coordinator for a transitional program for released inmates, and half her staff are ex-offenders. Next month, the Department of Justice will decide whether to approve Graney’s proposed inmate mentoring program. She’s also working with Bagge on a comic book of inmates’ memoirs.

Meanwhile, the inmates are working on themselves. At the May 9 show’s finale, one publicly forgives her late, ruined mother. “I’m going to take what we’ve been through, and I’m going to change the world,” she says, her voice quavering. “I’m going to break this cycle.” •