A majority of the American public views the prison systems as one of the necessary evils of a society that punishes the guilty to protect the innocent. However, search with prisons now private corporations instead of being owned by the federal government, prisoners are now in the role of slaves on the new plantation.
This June, The Conciliation Project (TCP) will be revamping its thought provoking play The PIC: Prison Industrial Complex.
In The PIC, the audience will be given a chance to understand what the prison industrial complex is and how it operates within society. According to Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, the writer of the play, the prison industrial complex is a complex societal system made up of policies, institutions and laws that create an industry for the exploitation of the prison system as a commercial business.
The TCP was created in 2001 by Pettiford-Wates, or Dr. T as she is known. The organization’s mission is “to promote, through active and challenging dramatic work, open and honest dialogue about racism in America in order to repair its damaging legacy.”
In conjunction with the Conciliation, Alliance Building, Recognition & Engagement (CARE) Initiative, The Conciliation Project through The PIC will be tackling an issue in American society that gets little attention, which is the prison system.
The PIC debuted in 2008. Each time the play is presented, it receives updates and new content to show the changing names and faces but the same events and themes are consistent.
The PIC is aiming to deconstruct the presented truth of what society tells us about the prison system. The play offers a different truth. One that shows a nation that uses “criminals” as livestock fueling a capitalistic system where prison yards serve as the new plantation.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. It is 743 per 100,000 people. Russia’s rate is 577 per 100,000, the second highest in the world. Canada’s rate is 117 per 100,000 and China’s rate is 120 per 1000,000.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there are 2.3 million people in prisons or jails. This number shows a disparity between the United States and the rest of the world. The PIC takes a serious and sometimes mocking look at why our prison system is this way.
The play also deals with two discussion points. Pettiford-Wates says that it is imperative that the audience is posed with the questions “What is a criminal?” and “Who does the law protect?” “If the answer is simply someone who breaks the law, then I submit to you that everyone is a criminal,” Pettiford-Wates said. “Because everyone has broken the law…even the simplest laws like traffic laws.”
With answers like “someone who breaks the law”, the actors push the audience to expand their knowledge of how the prison system actually works for all members of society. How are those of lower status handled versus individuals of higher class? The differences that occur between race and gender are also explored.
Through the presentation of actual stories that have happened and thoughts on what is justice and what is right or wrong in the prison system, The PIC shows the audience just how damaged the prison systems are in the United States.
A scene is depicted showing how arbitrary justice plays a part in the prison industrial complex operation within the United States incarceration history. It uses the real life story of Marcus Dixon, a 17-year-old black Georgia teen who received 10 years for having consensual sex with a 15-year-old girl. In contrast is the story of Andrew Klepper, a 15-year-old white middle class teen who hired, robbed and brutally assaulted a prostitute by sodomizing her with a bat. He received a plea bargain and was placed on probation and sent to a troubled youth facility. Presenting the viewers with harsh truths like the cases of Dixon and Klepper, The PIC urges the audience to view the justice system, in connection with the prison system, as a devastatingly flawed piece of American society.
Some cast members who were also new to the idea of the prison industrial complex said that being in the play has opened their eyes to how they view the prison system in the United States.
Saidu Tejan-Thomas, an actor in The PIC, became more aware of how prisoners are dehumanized. “I didn’t see (prisoners) as human. I mean they are human in a literal sense but they lose that human quality as soon they have that criminal tag on them,” Tejan-Thomas said. “Through this process I’ve learned that they are human but because of the conditions they’ve been put under is what may change them for the better or worse.”
Rachel McManus, who also stars in the play and has starred in other TCP productions, says she learned that prisons were the new plantations. “The prison industrial complex is the current form of slavery,” McManus said. “You used humans as rent and as labor. You are treated like a dog and your rights are ripped away, you can’t vote…its very similar to how slaves were treated.”
After viewing this play, audiences may come away with answers to the questions: ”What is a criminal?” and “Who does the law protect?” However, among those answers will probably be more questions about how the current prison system exists as an acceptable form of “rehabilitation” in American society.
“I’m hoping (the audience) will rethink the idea of prison period,” Pettiford-Wates said. “Perhaps also look at people who are incarcerated as human beings instead of criminals. Because the label criminal dehumanizes people and when you start dehumanizing people you can do horrible things like put them unmasked in gas chambers.”
The play opens on Saturday, June 13 at 7:30 p.m. at Unity of Richmond. Additional performances will continue at 7:30 p.m. on June 14th, 15th, 20th-22nd, and 27th-29th. General admission ticket price will be $15, and $10 for students and senior citizens.
For more information on The PIC or the TCP, contact The Conciliation Project at 804-477-6453 or visit www.conciliationproject.org.