Rouverol's Independent Weekly article, "Inside Stories"

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Rouverol's Independent Weekly article, "Inside Stories"

Reprinted with permission from the June 9, 1999 issue of The Independent Weekly.

I first went to Anson County in 1996 to do a series of oral history workshops in the community for the Southern Oral History Program (SOHP). Oral history is the process of gathering, usually by audio or videotaped interviews, recollections, reminiscences and accounts of the recent past. It's based on the premise that ordinary lives matter and that the stories of ordinary people should be included in the historical record. For the past 25 years, SOHP has written books and developed public programs based on these interviews, and trained students and community members in oral history techniques. The workshops are the means by which we reach out to individuals and assist them in their efforts to document their lives.

"Would you be willing to do a workshop at the prison too?" Winnie Bennett, an Anson Community College (ACC) faculty member, asked me. "The inmates are part of community too."

Brown Creek Correctional Institution, an all-male, medium-security prison in Polkton, houses more than 800 inmates. On a cold March day, a high wind whipping through the yard, we arrived at the facility's chapel, and met with about 20 men, whose ages ranged from 20s to 70s. They sat facing us in school-style desks. Some had notebooks and scribbled furiously as we spoke. Others just sat there, looking out the window onto the yard, seeming more than a little disinterested. When I suggested the men record their stories and send them home to their families, to their children, a number of them shifted uncomfortably in their hard chairs, and several looked away, choking up. Slowly the students began to raise their hands.

"Not just our families," one inmate said, "but young people, so they don't land here at Brown Creek."

In talking to the class, I mentioned a project underway at SOHP, a performance based on oral history interviews. One inmate asked if we could send them materials, another asked if we could help them do a performance there. As we walked out of Brown Creek, the inmates flanked us on either side. They wanted to maintain contact. Contact is what working in this environment is all about: Inmates really want to connect. The whole correctional system, it seems, is built on a notion of disconnection.

Nearly two years later, after securing permission from the prison and grant support from the North Carolina Humanities Council, we went back to Brown Creek to create a performance based on the inmates' lives. Would telling and performing their stories help the men reshape the direction of their lives? And could their stories help young people facing the same circumstances that they had faced?

"Who's your friend?" an inmate named Fenton asked Mark-Anthony Hines, the ACC faculty member who had facilitated the original workshop, and with whom I'd be teaching the class. Mark-Anthony introduced me, then headed off to round up the rest of the students.

"Are you a teacher or a student?" Fenton asked me.

"Teacher - and researcher."

"What do you research?"

"I'm a folklorist," I said.

"Really? I'm interested in anthropology," he said. "I'd like to get into a grad program at UNC-Charlotte."

Bit by bit, the other men joined us. We spent time talking, just four or five of us at first. In the end, we had eight. The group was racially mixed, but all were in uniform, gray top and bottom, black boots. It took awhile for us to get the class started. "Prison time," Mark-Anthony explained.

The prison system is like nothing else you've ever encountered. It starts when you walk in and show your ID and the big steel door clangs shut behind you. Every day something new happens: Something goes down on the yard, or someone has difficulties at home. Or someone wants something from you, and in 30 seconds, while they're all watching, you have to decide whether the request is within bounds or without. You're on trial with these guys daily.

We spent the spring semester taping the men's stories, our first step in creating the performance. These group interviews followed the life cycle - from childhood to young adulthood to manhood, and finally to life at Brown Creek and beyond. The men shared their stories and talked about what at-risk kids should know of incarceration.

By fall, when we returned to start on the scriptwriting phase, everything had changed. We had lost three men, transferred to other prisons by choice or circumstance, and we had five new men. "Where's Mr. Hines?" Ross asked, frowning. "He's not coming back?" Mark-Anthony had moved on to another job and it was just too tough for him to stay with the project, I explained. I was trying to sound upbeat. Winnie Bennett (now my project co-director) had found Marlene Richardson, a community theater director and end-of-grade specialist in the local school district, to take his place. Joe Madaras, the ACC faculty member who supervises Brown Creek's educational programming, had also joined us. Joe would serve as our essential glue, helping us to navigate the prison system and keep the project moving forward.

We started taping the new men's stories within a few weeks. We'd been told by prison officials not to have the students talk about their crimes on tape, but some volunteered the information. Most of the students - like the prison population at large - were there on drug charges or for armed robbery or shootings.

McCarl started off: "I was born July 30, 1973. I was born in the Bronx, New York. It's like I was adopted at three months. I met my logical sisters when I was 6. I was between there - going in and out of foster homes. Then my family - well, my family died when I was 11; my father died when I was 12. I stayed with my sister in Jersey. As far as my turning point, I guess I was age of 12, when I sort of felt didn't nobody love me no more." Later, he said, "I had a lot of stuff. By me holding back a lot of things, it caused me to explode."

As the semester wore on, I learned a lot about daily life at Brown Creek. The inmates spoke of the fights that break out in prison because of problems at home, because the food's bad, or, as Miller said, because "you just get tired."

"This man fought this other man, because the guy was cleaning up too loud. He was stacking chairs too loud," Ross said, rolling his eyes. Everyone complained about "Vikings" (those who never wash) and about "gunslingers" ("perverts," the men explained). They talked about people latching onto you, about waiting in line for absolutely everything, and about patience.

"Prison builds patience in the little things," Fenton said. I saw that patience on our last day of class in the fall term. Joe had gotten sodas for the men, and Marlene and I had brought baked goods. No one opened their sodas until after the session had been taped. I had brought some special plates with autumn floral patterns. Fenton laughed when he saw them and shook his head. After we ate, Fenton came up to me and said, "I'd like to have one of those plates, if you have any spares." And all the men followed suit. We gave them the plates and some plastic forks, one set each. "Didn't I tell you that these little things mean a lot?" Fenton said to me.

Fenton never made it to the actual performance. He had been one of our top performers, even though every time he delivered his lines they came out differently. When I arrived that day, Joe met me at the gate. "Did you get my message? Fenton's in 'the hole.'" The "hole" is slang for the segregation unit. Segregation, as the name implies, is where inmates are isolated from the rest of the prison population.

It took a while for us to absorb the news, and the men were looking to Joe and me for guidance. "Did he tell you? Man, can you believe it" Tabor asked as I walked in. Everyone was scattered across the room. They all looked zoned out. Tabor kept saying, "It's not going to work."

But then we did what we always did when this project seemed to be coming unglued: We sat down and talked. I asked the men, "How do you feel about the fact that your families can't come to see this performance, that the at-risk kids can't come in, and you've just lost one of the lead actors to segregation?" We talked out strategies and tried to run the lines. Some of the students were reassured, but Tabor still wasn't convinced. The audience began to arrive and Joe started welcoming folks. We all went into our "backstage" area. Then Marlene arrived, and in just under ten minutes, she talked us through a new plan. The men filed out into the main room and took their seats on stage.

They were masterful. Tabor, the project's poet, covered many of Fenton's key lines. Ross and Miller pitched in too, telling Fenton's story so that the audience knew he was an essential part of the project. And as a result, he still seemed present - there was still a connection.

One by one, the men spoke about their families and childhood, about young adulthood, about turning points in their lives. Coulter addressed the audience directly about the sexual abuse he had encountered as a child. Then the voice-over blared out of the boom box we were using, a taped version of the letter he had written home to his wife during the course of our project. "I found my abyss," he said. "But guess what? This is a different season. I went through a process of stripping away of dead leaves, and now I see the leaves of magnolia."

"How do I see my life now?" Deu asked the audience. "It is like I am standing on a big mountain that I have struggled and struggled and struggled to climb up, and I have been in a haze and a fog and had doubts, but now that I am on this real high ridge, I can see everything more clearly. I can understand why I did the things that I did. I can understand what the things were that affected me, and how I have let them change me. One thing hasn't changed from then to now, and that is I still have this thing: I want to change the world. But now I realize that I have got to change myself first."

The Southern Oral History Program
(a component of the UNC Center for the Study of the American South)
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Chapel Hill, NC 27599-9127
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