All the Jail's a Stage

Missouri inmates are performing tales of murder, greed and insanity -- and learning how to leave their old lives behind

In 1999 Wilcox proposed that inmates at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, a medium-security prison in Pacific, learn and perform the first act of Shakespeare's Hamlet. "I wanted the challenge and the name recognition, and because I was working in a men's prison, I wanted as few women characters as possible," Wilcox remembers of her selection.

Over the next four years, Pacific inmates performed all five acts of Hamlet, the last of which was the centerpiece of a one-hour documentary on National Public Radio. "The Hamlet Project" has also attracted the attention of Warner Bros., which wants to produce a movie about it.

Wilcox asked Reta Madsen, a retired Webster University English professor, to come with her to Pacific and help the inmates decipher what they were reading. The first time the actors read the play aloud, "Only two or three of them could read the lines at all acceptably," Madsen remembers. "I thought, 'this is going to be a disaster.'"

Hayward Silas Jr. (top) and Janiece Moore
Jennifer Silverberg
Hayward Silas Jr. (top) and Janiece Moore
Chris Harris (top) and Patty Prewitt
Jennifer Silverberg
Chris Harris (top) and Patty Prewitt

Convincing hardened convicts to think about how a fictional character feels is not easy, nor is it easy to convince them to stand up in front of other inmates and act with feeling. Wilcox says it's all about encouraging the prisoners to take risks, "whether it's the risk of public performance or the risk of playing 'Zip Zap Zop' and looking stupid, or the risk of getting into a piece of literature and figuring it out."

As they began to let their guards down, the inmate actors started to understand that the moral conundrums faced by Hamlet were not unlike the choices they made in their own lives. "By the end, they were acting," Madsen says. "It was an incredible transformation of their ability to read and speak the lines, and understand what they were saying."

Act I, Scene IVShrill screams echo off the classroom walls at Vandalia. Guards would come running if this kind of racket was heard anywhere else in the complex. But when the cast of Macbeth is warming up before practice, noise and laughter are the rules, not the exceptions.

"Respond physically to the way you feel when you hear this news," Wilcox instructs them. "There's a tornado coming!"

Almost everyone throws her hands over her head and shrieks. "Now open your eyes and respond in slow motion to what you will do next," Wilcox says. Everyone runs, but no one runs for the door. When Wilcox points this out, they all burst out laughing.

They regroup and Wilcox gives the next cue. "You've been paroled!" she shouts. This time everybody screams and runs for the door, giggling all the way there.

Lena Malawey laughs as she watches from her wheelchair. The 41-year-old mother of two suffered a stroke last year, shortly after beginning a seven-year sentence. Her soft, youthful face is framed by short, light brown hair. A single blue teardrop is tattooed beneath her eye.

After the stroke, Malawey says, she was unable to memorize lines but found herself with a gift for drawing, something she had never done before. "That's how I came to be the art director. It's like it's just there," she says as she sketches Lady Macbeth. "I want it to appear to the audience what she's thinking," Malawey explains of the drawing, which will eventually be made into a set. "This is where she starts plotting the death of the king."

Suddenly, a piercing alarm interrupts Malawey.

"OK, ladies," announces Diane Davison. "It's a fire drill!"

Everyone hustles down the long, wide hall. Davison unlocks the door and reminds them to stay in a line as they make their way to the yard. The inmates stand in the drizzling rain, trying to keep warm in their brown prison-issue jackets as the guards count them, then count them again -- then count them again.

Malawey rolls her wheelchair to the back of the line. "The prison system teaches you to be hard," she says. "With prison, the closeness -- human closeness -- is not allowed. In Agnes' class, you're allowed to touch people."

Inez McClendon and Katrina Watts sing "You Are My Shining Star" as they stand in line. McClendon, who is 26, wears a black 'do-rag on her head and has two gold-capped teeth. She looks tough. She is tough. But when she speaks, the soft voice of a nightingale comes out.

"That's the only place I'd love to be 24/7," she says of Wilcox's class. "It's a struggle trying to stay out of trouble here. It's always tense. In that class, you feel free."

McClendon was arrested for armed robbery in St. Louis when she was eighteen. Now she's writing rap lyrics, skits, stories and poems. "When you're eighteen, you don't got nothing but ego and attitude," she explains. "This class has given me courage. You don't have to have your walls up, your mask on. You can let it all hang out and let everything go."

Act I, Scene VThe band members take their places against a white wall, and the choir sits in two rows about twenty feet away in the gym at Bowling Green. Stan Schell is rehearsing his lines as the musicians and singers practice the opening number.

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