Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 15, Issue 19
A former SLO inmate draws on real-life experiences for his role in the Web series 'Solitary'
BY JOE PAYNE
Every day in California and the rest of the country, throughout state and federal prisons, thousands of individuals are being held in solitary confinement. An inmate can be removed from the general population for a variety of reasons, and can end up spending months, years, and even decades alone in the tiny cells.
“Solitary confinement in this country is just amazingly brutal and primitive and unthinkable,” said Deborah Tobola, the founding director of the Poetic Justice Project and former Arts in Corrections director at the California Men’s Colony (CMC) in San Luis Obispo. “I mean, people are kept in cells 23 hours a day, with one hour to shower and walk around.”
Tobola worked at CMC in San Luis Obispo starting in 2000, when Arts in Corrections was still a funded program. She retired before Arts and Corrections was de-funded in 2010, and she started the Poetic Justice Project, which produces live theater with casts composed of formerly incarcerated performers.
The idea of the program formed while Tobola worked at CMC, where she began staging live theater productions in order to get the incarcerated artists to collaborate. The realities of prison life, including solitary confinement, were never far away from the cloistered Arts in Corrections building.
“I remember once,” she recalled, “we lost one of our actors right before a performance. We all watched as he got handcuffed, taken to the administration, and taken to the hole right before our first performance.”
It was during one of these situations—when her program needed a replacement actor—that Tobola met William Brown, a former gang member who had been in and out of federal and state prisons. Brown was new to CMC and was hoping to enter the Arts in Corrections program to engage in poetry and music at the advice of a fellow inmate and friend who was also in the program. Little did Brown know that his friend, Larry Saul, invited him in order to fill the empty role.
“It was kind of a set up, which I didn’t know until later,” Brown said. “I said, OK, that I would try it, if it was a way to get my foot in the door, even though I had never acted before in my life.”
Tobola described Brown as a “natural talent” who got bit by the acting bug during his time in her Arts in Corrections program. After his release and her retirement, she would call on Brown’s talents to help with Poetic Justice Project productions. Recently, a director named Ramon Hamilton with Think Ten Media Group contacted Tobola about casting an actor for an upcoming Web series called Solitary, which depicts an inmate’s experience in long-term solitary confinement.
“Ramon told me they wanted to cast someone who had actually been incarcerated and experienced solitary confinement,” she said. “There were some other candidates, but Mr. Brown was the first person who came to my mind.”
The experience of solitary
Brown first went to jail for bank robbery at the age of 18. Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, he was part of a gang culture that saw both crime and doing time as rights of passage.
“I remember growing up I had an uncle who went to the pen, and back then people were like, ‘Oh, he went to the pen, he’s cool,’ like they were glorifying it,” he said. “But when I went and experienced it, I didn’t think there was anything hard about it. The only thing I got out of all that was a couple of stabbings and a blue stained shirt.”
After serving his first sentence, Brown got caught up in the gang again and became one of the many released inmates to enter the ranks of recidivists.
“I got out, but I was still not using my head, going back and forth in incarceration,” he said. “It was almost like I was addicted to catching time.”
During his incarceration, Brown spent time in solitary confinement. An inmate can get sent to solitary for a variety of reasons, including violent outbursts, defying guards, or suspected gang involvement. Brown was sent to “the hole” on several separate occasions, usually spending months in solitary.
“I think I was in the hole probably for a total of, give or take, six months here, eight months here, nine months there, probably for a total of five years,” he said. “It’s jail inside of a jail, and if you don’t have your wits, it will be over.”
Solitary confinement has a powerful affect on an inmate’s mental health. Guards are trained not to engage with inmates, who are delivered their meals through a slot in the door. The practice has been widely criticized by human rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, and was the impetus for the Pelican Bay hunger strikes that occurred in July of last year.
“You can’t let that time do you or you will lose your mind in there, literally,” Brown said. “There are a lot of people who stay up late [at] night, beating on the walls, howling.”
The California Department of Corrections has published reports that show a higher rate of recidivism among those who were held in solitary housing units, especially if the inmate was released directly from solitary.
“It doesn’t work, I’m telling you,” Brown said. “Now we come home and we’ve lost our minds in the pen, and the only thing you do with solitary is make us hate you more, make us hate the way society is built. It hardens the criminal, honestly.”
The day after Brown arrived at the CMC, in San Luis Obispo his first son was born, and the new father became determined to make the sentence he was serving his last. He also resolved to do whatever it took to stay out of solitary confinement. That’s when he got involved with Art in Corrections.
“It was different. I had to humble myself, in a sense, because the guys I did know from the streets were kind of looking at me funny,” he said. “I will always be known in the area I am from, but I thought maybe this is a way to break away from all that.”
Hope in humanities
The California Arts Council recently awarded a large grant to the Williams James Association—of which the Poetic Justice Project is a program—in order to return Arts in Corrections programs to 11 California state prisons. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation committed $1 million in funds to add structured Arts in Corrections programs this year, and another commitment for the 2014-15 fiscal year.
“My little building, the Arts in Corrections building,” Tobola said, “was Hollywood, it was the community college, it was the literary library, it was the music studio, the art studio, all of that.”
Tobola and the actors with the Poetic Justice Project understand first-hand the benefits of Arts in Corrections programs and use the organization to demonstrate the success of those programs. They also share information about the current state of mass incarceration in the United States, acting as a creative engine with the by-product of raising awareness.
“I consider us part of restorative justice, because we hope to awaken people to certain facts about incarceration and rehabilitation and re-entry,” Tobola said, “but also do it in a way that moves the audience.”
That was the challenge Hamilton set out to meet when he started writing Solitary, which, though fiction, is based entirely on real experiences of solitary confinement.
“Everything that we are writing on screen is based on someone’s real experience,” Hamilton said. “We’re not trying to dispose of any myths; we’re trying to expose the realities.”
A co-producer on the project, Five Mualimmak, is an outspoken activist against solitary confinement, having spent 5 consecutive years in solitary himself. Much of the pilot episode was written after Hamilton spoke with Mualimmak about his experience, down to the most minute of details.
“I spent a good amount of time with Five talking about what happens, step by step,” Hamilton said. “We are going to do our absolute best to capture what that feels like.”
People held in solitary confinement for long periods of time report heightened sensitivity of hearing and other senses, as well as auditory and visual hallucinations. The intensity of the experience made it important to Hamilton that the actor who portrays Solitary’s main character, Marcus Edwards, to have experience with incarceration and solitary confinement.
“We realized it’s virtually impossible for any actor, I don’t care how talented they are, to capture that realism and pull from personal experience,” he said, “because it is such a different experience that nobody has had anything close to unless you have been in solitary confinement. It’s that extreme of a situation.”
Brown was the only actor auditioned by Think Ten Media Group for the role of Marcus Edwards. That was after Hamilton called Tobola, who recommended Brown.
“Deborah got back immediately and said she had the perfect guy, it was literally that easy,” Hamilton said. “It was the easiest casting of all time. He really is that talented.”
After meeting with Hamilton, talking about his experience, and reading some pages, Brown was asked to come aboard as the lead in Solitary, the pilot of which is scheduled to shoot in August.
“It’s a humbling experience,” Brown said. “I’m so excited.”
Brown has been preparing for the role like he would any other. The script is always close by, and any time he isn’t busy with fatherhood, he’s out in his garage, working on his lines.
“Sitting here with my eyes closed, I feel like I can reach out and feel those walls,” he said. “I know the food slot is right here, and on the other side is a lock, because they don’t leave the food slot open because that is only for us to get food, books, and sign papers; that’s not used for anything else.”
Besides proving to his community that he can have a life after the gang, incarceration, and solitary confinement, Brown hopes that his performance in Solitary will inspire people to look at solitary confinement and incarceration differently.
“I would hope that it opens the right eyes, not just some eyes, but the right eyes,” he said. “Lawmakers have to stand back and think about doing this a different way.”
Using the transformative power of art to help turn an experience like incarceration or solitary confinement into a meaningful life experience is the kind of thing that motivated Tobola to start the Poetic Justice Project. She hopes Brown can also serve as an example of the importance of Arts in Corrections programs for the incarcerated.
“Arts in Corrections costs a fraction of anything else in prison, and it’s so powerful,” she said. “Mr. Brown came out of Arts in Corrections; that’s where he learned his craft. I love to see that.”
After a dehumanizing experience like solitary confinement or incarceration, the arts can help restore feelings of self-worth, Tobola explained. It can also put a face on the issue.
“It’s being transparent,” she said. “I think it cracks the stigma wide open.”
Contact Art Editor Joe Payne at firstname.lastname@example.org.