It is one thing to read news reports about Louisiana's flawed justice system and quite another to hear formerly incarcerated women recount personal stories about lengthy sentences and the lasting impacts on their lives. In a program at Catapult marking ArtSpot Productions' 20th anniversary, Kathy Randels and former members of the drama club at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women at St. Gabriel kept the audience spellbound with poignant and courageous accounts of lives changed by incarceration.
On a bare stage, in the glow of a single spotlight, each member of The Graduates, a trio of drama club veterans, stepped forward, softly singing, "What about me? Am I forgotten?" Their performances were rich and powerful in the way only first-person testimonials can be.
Teace Dafillo recalled the sisterhood she felt toward fellow inmates — support she found lacking outside prison. She still is learning not to avoid eye contact, because staring anyone in the eye in prison could invite trouble.
A tall, elegant woman, Rhonda Oliver received a 20-year sentence under Louisiana's Habitual Offender Law for shoplifting goods valued at $179. If lawmakers believe locking up nonviolent, petty offenders for long periods of time rehabilitates them, "I am living proof they are wrong," she said. In prison, Oliver studied the law, discovering that her sentence was unconstitutional. After serving 14 years, she was freed by a federal court.
The show's climax occurred with Fox Rich. Appearing in a diaphanous, white dress, pearls and wide-brimmed hat, she was demure, yet simmering with rage. Sixteen years ago, she and her husband made the worst decision of their lives, stealing from a bank, she said. After two years in prison, she worked at a car dealership, raising six sons while her husband serves a 60-year sentence.
"We are trapped in the prison industrial complex," she said.
The couple acknowledged guilt, took responsibility for their actions, suffered humiliation and made restitution, she said.
"We thought money was what we needed for our family, but we already had what we needed," Rich said.
Rich was pregnant with twins when shackled and sentenced. Her boys, Freedom and Justice, enter college this fall.
The Graduates participated in drama workshops led by ArtSpot founder Kathy Randels and Ausettua Amor Amenkum at the women's prison. Performances there are generally closed to the public.
The May 27 performance opened with Randels' solo piece Rage Within/Without, developed in part with the Illinois Clemency Project in 1994. Randels incorporated interviews with women who murdered abusive partners.
The final act featured performance artist Lisa Biggs dancing a hypnotic, slow-motion Electric Slide while calculating the explosive growth of women in prison. The number of women incarcerated in the U.S. increased more than 600 percent since 1980. Women receive longer sentences than men, mostly for nonviolent crimes. Drama helps some of these women find a voice.
"Art helps you tell your story and share it to realize you are not alone," Biggs said.