Prisoners' Play Discourages the Drug Life
Thursday, April 5, 2007
They tried to make the play about drugs and crime as realistic as they could, but props are hard to come by in prison, the inmates said. So a piece of cardboard stood in for a gun. A bit of flour sifted into plastic bags represented cocaine.
The characters' remorse, however, was genuine, the inmates said, and so was the play's lesson: Stay away from drugs, stay in school and, whatever you do, stay clear of prison.
Produced by prisoners at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup, the autobiographical drama was written by one of them as a cautionary tale from his life as a drug addict, dealer, predator and victim. After staging it in past months for fellow inmates and administrators, the actors invited some students from Dundalk High School in Baltimore County to their show last week, hoping the story would help turn around teenagers who could be heading down the same path.
"This isn't 'Scared Straight,' and it's not some glorification of the drug life, either," said Michael A. Williams Jr., 37, who wrote the play. "We're just trying to show them the reality and expose them to what we went through so they don't have to go through the same pain."
The prisoners had been rehearsing for months, running through lines, cobbling together a soundtrack and even creating a few sound effects on a tape to simulate telephone rings and gunshots. The play, some of them said, was a way to redeem their mistakes, to create something positive from the things that had put them behind bars.
But on Friday, they faced a tough audience.
More than 20 boys had been brought on the field trip by assistant principal Beverly Smith, who asked that the students not be interviewed. With a stern face, Smith shepherded the teenagers past guard towers and razor wire.
But before they made it inside the prison walls, the boys were cutting up. Several wisecracked about the metal detectors they were required to go through. Some had to pass through five or six times, each time telling the guards that they had nothing else with metal on them even as the guards removed another chain or belt or money clip or watch or boot.
When they were ushered into the briefing room -- where correctional officers usually meet for the daily roll call -- many of the teenagers seemed less interested in the officers' introduction before the play than in a picture tutorial on the wall on how to recognize gang signs.
"I'm telling you this is no joke," said Capt. Stephanie Dickerson, getting their attention. "I suggest you listen up today. Some of these guys you'll meet today are in here for life, and we're getting them younger and younger these days."
With that, she led them into the prison's chapel, where Williams and about 20 other inmates awaited with grim looks.
Launching into the play, called "Where Y'all At?," with a rap song, Williams and his supporting cast began walking the audience through his life in crime -- from the first snort of drugs at a nightclub in Baltimore to being shot over drug money, multiple arrests and his verdict.