Mass incarceration, solitary confinement, maximum penalties, domestic violence, and sexual assault—these topics are regularly analyzed, discussed and contemplated at John Jay. But to really feel the impact of the criminal justice system in America, Associate Professor Amy S. Green in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies worked for three years developing and then directing the play whatdoesfreemean?, written by Catherine Filloux, which recently finished showing at The Tank theatre in Manhattan. To learn more about the play, her process and her hopes for change, we sat down and chatted with professor Green.
“One of the reasons why I was so excited to work on this project was that when we think about mass incarceration, broadly in the media, we mainly think about men.” —Amy S. Green
The play follows two women entangled in the criminal justice system. Mary is an African-American woman convicted of a non-violent drug offense, serving a long sentence. And Ann is an older African-American woman serving a life sentence for killing an abusive husband. Throughout the play the audience sees a special friendship form as they talk about their families and lost dreams. “One of the reasons why I was so excited to work on this project was that when we think about mass incarceration, broadly in the media, we mainly think about men,” says Green. “We know it’s people of color that are disproportionally affected, but we don’t really think about what it does to women, both the women who are themselves incarcerated, and the children and spouses left behind.”
“When we asked one of the women what it was like to be in solitary confinement, she said, ‘Lock yourself in your bathroom for an hour and see what that feels like.’” —Amy S. Green
To learn more about what it’s like being in solitary confinement—also known as the “Segregated Housing Unit” or the “SHU”—Green and her team spoke with a group of formerly incarcerated women. “When we asked one of the women what it was like to be in solitary confinement, she said, ‘Lock yourself in your bathroom for an hour and see what that feels like.’ That image really worked for us and it became a line in the play,” says Green. The character Mary ends up in the SHU because she was trying to get Ann critical medical attention. While in the SHU, Mary starts feeling the affects of complete isolation. “It’s a sensory deprivation that takes about 15 hours for people to start to decompensate, and then the brain takes over,” says Green. In the middle of the stage, in a simple box of light, Mary counts each of her body parts to stay connected to the real world, knowing that if she escaped reality, it would be hard to come back. Sadly, Ann dies while Mary is in solitary confinement.
The Way Out
One of the takeaways for Mary, and also the audience, is that she has to push past her own values, beliefs and personality to save herself from the system. “Mary’s public defender sees potential in her and counsels Mary to do whatever she needs to get out,” says Green. “And if that means telling the review board how grateful she is for everything she’s received, and how proud she is of making sandwiches in the kitchen, she’s got to do it because she deserves another shot at life.” There’s a mental toll it takes on Mary to debase herself to the board—with a myriad of “yes, sir” and “yes, ma’am” answers—but after Ann’s death, survival and reclaiming her life takes on a whole new meaning.
Green is quite clear that her play is a critique of our country’s current criminal justice system. “When we started writing the play, we had some hope because the Obama administration was working towards prison reform,” says Green. “And in the last eight months, we’ve moved backwards, and it’s really terrifying because it’s not sustainable.” Like many, Green views the current criminal justice system as a derivative of slavery. “It’s like slavery never ended. It just keeps changing form, from Jim Crow to the latest form, mass incarceration.” Understanding the destructive impact mass incarceration has had on families and communities of color, Green was always cognizant of her own race. “The entire cast is black except for one male actor. But I’m white, and the playwright is white. We gave the cast enormous freedom to tell this story from an authentic place, one that was respectful of black people in America,” says Green. “I didn’t want it to feel like all white people are bad and all black people are good, or vise versa. And, at the base level, the officers who run the prisons often look like the people in prison, making the cruelty even that much harder to imagine.”
“Can we be a free society when we are taking away the humanity of 2.2 million people?” —Amy S. Green
The title of the play, and one of Mary’s questions during the play is: What does freedom mean? So we asked Green, after years of preparing the play, what freedom means to her. “For me, instead of one answer, that question brings up more questions. Can I be free in a society in where this kind of mass abuse of fellow citizens is happening? Can we be a free society when we are taking away the humanity of 2.2 million people?” says Green. She ended her thought with an image that she’s viewed many times at the Eastern State Penitentiary, one of the most famous prisons in the world. There, in the prison’s courtyard, stands a 16-foot-tall, three-dimensional bar graph depicting the amount of people incarcerated in the world. “The U.S. just towers over every other country. The next highest level of incarceration is Rwanda after the genocide. It’s out of control, and it’s a blight on Americans,” says Green. “We’re hoping that our play gets people talking and voting on this issue.”