When Wayne Allen, 28, a convicted armed robber, was stabbed to death in the Lorton Reformatory last winter, the prison code of silence locked his friends in a state of unspoken grief.
Displaying emotions that could be mistaken for a sign of weakness can be one of the most frightening and dangerous aspects of prison life, inmates say. But members of the in-house drama group, Lorton Voices, seem to have found a way to sidestep the code of silence.
On Monday night, an inmate lay moaning on the floor of the Lorton Reformatory Chapel, a soaked red rag wrapped around his wounded head. His subsequent death, which paralled Wayne Allen's, climaxed act 3 of what was, after all, a play.
At Lorton, though, play is more than make-believe. The 30-member Lorton Voices portray themselves in their latest production. Wayne Allen was one of them.
"It (Allen's murder) was a devastating thing for the group," recalled Harry Poe, a local playwright who holds drama workshops for the Lorton Voices. "It's something that you don't talk about down here for fear of reprisals, although they know that when you lose touch with your feelings you stop being a human being."
It took the troupe less than two months to come up with the script for "Who Can We Turn To?" a play about a first offender who comes to Lorton -- a college of crime, as they call it. Here the rules and regulations of the new social order bear only a resemblance to the "real world" to confuse the newcomer, sometimes fatally so.
Word had it that Allen wrote a letter to the girlfriend of another inmate, and for that he took a 36-inch blade through the ribs.
The FBI managed to break the code of silence in the case of Wayne Allen. A convict was subsequently convicted in the slaying, the third of four murders at Lorton so far this year. For most men, however, it was just a reminder of what prison officials had long conceded: Prisoners make their own rules and mete out their own forms of punishment.
"It's a painful thing," said William David, 31, who plays George Taylor, a newcomer to Lorton, although he himself has been in Lorton nearly five years.
"We live outside the law here; it's like the law is for working people, and we are not regarded as such. I have 87 days to go and each night before I go to bed I say, 'thank you, God.' If I wake up, I'm all the more happy."
In the subculture of Lorton, prisoners say they live in constant fear, not only of the dangers they know, but also of those they do not. The slightest incident -- brushing another inmate's foot with a mop, stepping on someone's toe -- of no consequence today, tomorrow could be cause for a blade through the neck.
Many men turn to religious groups, not only for spiritual salvation but also for protection against rape and assault.
"We are a very tight group and we stick together all the time," said Eddie Harris, who played the role of a mental patient inadvertently imprisoned with the "general population."
"We try to practice whenever we can. It helps us become better performers but it also helps us stay in touch with real feelings."
It also helps members of the troupe -- and their audience of inmates -- deal with and respond to matters of love and death often regarded by prisoners as taboo.
"The main thing that bothers me is dying away from home -- or that my parents will die before I get out," said Howard Poole, who plays the role of the prison superintendent. "Death is so crude around here. They use shanks, (homemade knives) man. You'd at least expect a hand gun. Every morning I see light, I thank the Lord."
The group was formed in 1969 by Rhozier (Roach) Brown, who at the time ws doing a life sentence for murder. Brown subsequently was paroled and went on to become a successful television producer.
In 1974, Brown tried to operate two separate Inner Voices, one for outside Lorton and one for inside Lorton. The group inside Lorton began to feel slighted and broke off to form "Lorton Voices." About 60 percent of the group is serving time for armed robbery. Ten men are serving life sentences.
"I'm in for life," says a leader of the group known as Chief. "But what makes my day is seeing a young guy who's been in and out of the hole [solitary confinement] join the group. And soon he gets into the positive aspects of himself and stops going in the hole."
In a world where inmates receive little positive feedback from other men, the applause that follows a performance is a sound that sustains, the actors say.
"It's like a goal you have reached," said Eddie Harris. "It takes discipline, hard work, really, and coordination with your partners to get a scene down like you want. When you've done a good job, you know it, you feel it deep down. That can take you a long way."
"I just like knowing I look good," said Gaither Spencer. "It's not like you got a whole lot of women running around to give you feedback, but when we perform, if you have a woman -- she may be in the audience and you can tell how she looks at you that you looking good."
Says Harry Poe, "We just want to bring some light on the situation down here, and drama is about the best way. It's also a chance to show the beauty, talent and intelligence of these guys. They need the opportunity, for positive expression."