Act I: In 2009, two inmates at the Pelican Bay State Prison in California filed a lawsuit. Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell claimed that they had been wrongly accused of gang membership and therefore subjected to confinement in the SHU (Special Housing Unit—a prison-speak euphemism for solitary confinement). After the suit was filed, Todd Ashker went on to lead hunger strikes calling attention to the use of SHU for prisoners identified as gang members. The final scene of Act I takes place in 2013, when one of those hunger strikes went statewide and garnered national attention. Enter the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) and Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace (ICUJP). They decided to take action in support of the fight against solitary confinement.
Act II: The curtain comes up on Andy Griggs of ICUJP and Melvin Ishmael Johnson of Dramastage Qumran as they put their heads together in the spring of 2013. With a commission from NRCAT, Griggs and Johnson combined their activist and theatrical backgrounds and developed a script about SHU. They used the real words of real inmates who experienced solitary confinement and added the facts about the Pelican Bay lawsuit, including the demands of the hunger-striking inmates: “end group punishment and administrative abuse; abolish the debriefing policy and modify the gang status criteria; comply with the U.S. Commission recommendations to end long-term solitary confinement; provide nutritious food; create and expand constructive programs.” (See page 11 of the downloadable “If the SHU Fits” script.)
Griggs, Johnson, and their partner, Lee Boek of the Public Works Improvisational Theatre, make up the If the SHU Fits Collaborative. They all have been influenced by progressive playwrights and companies such as Bertolt Brecht, Clifford Odets, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, El Teatro Campesino, and Augusto Boal. If the SHU Fits–Voices from Solitary Confinement is a flexible piece of performance art that can be adapted for use by professional actors, people who have experienced solitary confinement, students, or anyone with a desire to share the truth about the torture that is called solitary confinement. The entire script is available for download and can be performed in 30- to 60-minute versions. It is a perfect vehicle for theater/activist types, or “theactrivists,” who believe that the arts should be a catalyst for social change.
Act III: A change occurs. On Sept.1, 2015, the state of California agreed, as part of the Pelican Bay lawsuit settlement, to end solitary confinement for thousands of state prisoners who were being held indefinitely in association with being alleged members of prison gangs. According to the terms of the settlement, SHU will be used only for prisoners who commit serious crimes while in prison, and some group activity will be required for prisoners being held in SHU. When BORDC, which provided a small grant to sponsor performances of If the SHU Fits, asked Griggs, Johnson, and Boek for their reaction to this step toward loosening the grip of the SHU, they replied:
“We see this as a positive step and vindication for the plaintiffs and the work they have done in demanding their rights and the rights of others. We think If the SHU Fits–Voices From Solitary Confinement helped to amplify the five demands and the Agreement to End the Hostilities put forth by the hunger strikers, as part of a collective effort across the state and country to support them. We are thrilled to be part of this movement. We also know that this is just a first step, and that there is work still to be done, and that we will do whatever we can to assist.”
BORDC’s grant, along with grants from NRCAT and the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition have funded performances of the play on the 23rd of every month from March through December. The date 23 denotes the 23 hours per day that inmates in SHU spend alone in their cells. As of this writing, If the SHU Fits has been produced more than a dozen times by the If the SHU Fits Collaborative in Los Angeles-area venues ranging from churches to colleges, and many other times by groups such as the Unitarian Universalist Church of Santa Monica. (See that performance here.) Any group, anywhere, interested in sharing the play with their members to educate them about the heinous practice of solitary confinement, which affects not only gang members or alleged gang members, but also youth, women, immigrants, and the mentally ill segments of the prison population, can visit the If the SHU Fits web site to learn more about staging a production.
If the SHU Fits is currently a Reader’s Theatre piece, but the collaborative would like to see it become a full-fledged theatrical production one day. They and BORDC would also love to see more Reader’s Theater productions, in more cities, at more venues, with post-performance discussions and letter-writing campaigns, so that more people can learn, through the vibrancy of the spoken word, that torture is a moral issue and take action to end solitary confinement. It is impossible to read the passage on page 7 of the If the SHU Fits–Voices From Solitary Confinement script, describing an inmate who laboriously scraped a tiny hole in a window seal, so she could place one nostril against it and breathe an infinitesimal amount of fresh air, and not know that this treatment is wrong.
Read the script. Set up a performance. What happens in Act IV is up to all of us.