Featured Article: “How a Prison Play Goes on Tour”
Thirty Colorado inmates staged “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” for nearby prisons. For some, it was the first time in years they were outside 20-foot walls and razor fences.
In this lesson, students will explore the power of the arts for “transformation” and consider whether people who have committed terrible crimes should be provided with these artistic opportunities.
What should be the purpose of prison? Should jails and prisons punish people? Should they serve as a deterrent to crime? Or should they try to rehabilitate inmates?
Make three lists with arguments for why each purpose (punishment, rehabilitation and deterrence) might be important as a goal for incarceration. Then circle the arguments you find most compelling.
Next, share your lists with a partner and discuss which of the arguments you find most persuasive.
Questions for Writing and Discussion
Read the article, then answer the following questions. As you read, add to or amend your list from the warm-up.
1. Scroll through the photos in the article: What do you notice? What do you wonder? Which image stands out to you and why? What story do these photos tell?
2. The article states that while prison plays have been around for decades, putting one on tour is new. What logistical challenges did the tour present for both the prison staff and the inmates?
3. What do advocates of prison arts believe are the benefits of providing artistic opportunities to inmates? What evidence does the article give to support their belief?
4. Why was Ashley Hamilton “astonished” that the Department of Corrections allowed her to direct an adaptation of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”? Do you think it was an appropriate choice to be performed in prisons by prisoners?
5. Why does Dean Williams, the executive director of Colorado’s Department of Corrections, believe that most prisons have the wrong approach to incarceration? Do you think his goal of “normalization” is a sound one?
6. How has being part of the cast and crew of the play positively affected the prisoners? Give three examples from the article.
7. The article explores some reasons corrections officers and families of victims are opposed to the production. Amy Mund, whose sister was killed by one of the performers in the play, said:
He brutally murdered two young vibrant ladies in the prime of their lives. I question why he is allowed to participate in plays and travel outside the confines of the prison. As a victim of a violent crime, that does not sound like justice to me.
Do you agree? Should people convicted of murder and other violent crimes be denied the privilege of performing with the troupe? How would you respond to the corrections officers who have questioned why anyone convicted of violent crimes “should have a spotlight and applause”?
The article states that there are nearly 350 arts programs — including creative writing, poetry, visual art, dance, drama and music — in prisons nationwide. In general, do you think these programs are an important part of the rehabilitation process? Or do you think they are problematic because they mitigate the punishment prisoners are supposed to be receiving?
Imagine you are lobbying your state or local jail or prison to create, renew or defund a prison arts program.
Make your case for or against a prison theater or arts program using evidence from the article to support your arguments. Whether you choose to argue for or against the programs, make sure to address the concerns of the friends and families of the victims of violent crimes.