The whole world witnessed in 2009 as American journalist Sarah Sahourd was placed in isolation in an Iranian prison for 410 days on charges of spying. She and two of her companions were taken hiking near a tourist spot in Northern Iraqi Kurdistan. The plights of political prisoners caught the attention worldwide.
The vast majority of those who have been in solitary confinement are not in the headlines. But Shourd is trying to change that. She has been a vocal opponent of solitary confinement and the mass incarceration system since her 2010 release.
Shourd says, “I lost my freedom, human rights, and everything I cared about. I didn’t know when it would come back to me.” “I cannot forget that it’s happening all around me in my country. It is impossible to look away.
The BOX is her play. It runs at The Big Top July 27,-29. The play demonstrates the humanity and cruelty of those who are in solitary confinement. After visiting and talking with solitary prisoners, she wrote the play. She learned how they survived and their lives after being released.
She says that solitary confinement is a metaphor for the whole prison system. It prevents people from making better choices. “It’s important that people know that solitary confinement has been internationally recognized as torture. It is punishment, isolation, targeting people, and telling them that they are not worth anything.
Should claims that solitary confinement is not effective in rehabilitation for incarcerated persons, and it causes harm to those who are subject to it.
She says, “You can picture–people get angry, depressed, panic.” People with mental illness go into solitary and decompensate. Many people are released back onto the streets after being treated so cruelly and inhumanely. It is contrary to everything we as a society want, and I hope that [the play] will make people question the whole system that allowed solitary to exist in the first instance.”
The play centers on the 2013 California prisoner-hunger strike. This was part of an international groundswell of activism that saw the state end indeterminate solitary confinement. The play’s characters are based upon the actual prisoners that Shourd met and wrote to. The performance ends with a “healing round,” in which the audience is freed from the potentially triggering and intense content to focus on new ideas and solutions.
Shourd says, “We try to find the balance between showing the horrors of this practice and showing the humanity of those who are subject to it.” We want people to leave the theatre with an emotional connection to these characters.
She says that part of her work has been to learn antiracism. It’s impossible not to talk about the American prison system without confronting and examining racism. She is acutely aware of the ways her whiteness can serve to center herself, and how it could be detrimental to people of color who are disproportionately imprisoned in the U.S.
She says, “My role in the movement for ending solitary confinement” “The play is a collaboration of both current and formerly incarcerated survivors, which I am.” Playwrighting meant that I had to take extra steps to ensure the narrative was being told by many survivors, most of them people of color. Although I am the writer, I see myself more as a weaver, weaving these narratives together to create something that works onstage.
She hopes audiences will be able to understand the humanity and resourcefulness that people experience in isolation, and how they communicate with one another despite incredible obstacles.
“The most amazing thing about people is how they take care of one another inside. Shourd says that no matter what you do or how many obstacles you face, people will find a way around them. “Incarcerated people are more inventive and scrappy than any other group.”