Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

L.A. Arts Group Dramatizes California Prison Crowding Litigation

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The judges who wrote the 184-page court order in Coleman/Plata may have hoped they were writing history, but it turns out they were contributing to art, too! The Los Angeles Poverty Department, an arts and activism collective made up largely of homeless people, recently completed an innovative project combining public education, performance art, film, and theatre:

Project events started with a panel discussion about the effects of California’s parole reform on parolees. As we build the performance, State of Incarceration, we performed it in Skid Row, in parolee re-entry programs in the San Fernando Valley and LA and in 5 performance events at the BOX gallery that took place within a wall-to-wall prison bunk-bed installation. In the BOX’s basement we showed images charting the expansion of the prison population and new prison construction in California over the past 3 decades and the 21 year and counting history of the lawsuit challenging the quality of the health services in the state’s over-crowded prisons.

We invited our audience to read one page of the 184-page lawsuit. We’ll continue doing this until all pages are filmed. The resulting 5+ hour film will be part of the project.

The finished performance piece opened in late January at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica. Unfortunately I didn’t find out about it in time to alert readers — it closed Feb. 5 — but here’s one reviewer’s summary of the experience:

In some shows, one may feel like one is in prison; in this one, that intent is deliberately visceral: Metal bunk beds line the walls and center of the theater and audience members are crammed into the room, often sharing bunk beds with the actors playing the inmates. The directors interspersed disturbing silences between a series of monologues and starkly delivered poems that illustrate the despair and hopelessness of prison life. In one such silence, convicts recline on their beds, and the guards patrol every inch of the room. During this sequence, the charged quiet belies the undercurrents of seething rage, and the piece approaches the claustrophobia, sorrow, and anger of being in prison.

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