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

For parolees like Johnson, there's much to learn about life after being away so long.

Says Wilcox: "They don't know enough about budgeting. They don't know enough about apartment hunting. They don't know enough about buying a used car. They don't know enough about patience. Because they've been waiting for so long, they've used up all their waiting time and they're trying to make up for lost time."

Mary Riorden, the associate superintendent at Bowling Green, hopes parolees will draw on their experience as actors and realize that "things don't happen overnight."

A guard interrupts a Macbeth rehearsal to count 
inmates at the minimum- to maximum-security 
women's prison in Vandalia.
Jennifer Silverberg
A guard interrupts a Macbeth rehearsal to count inmates at the minimum- to maximum-security women's prison in Vandalia.
Jing Jing Tsong

"Hopefully, they'll be able to set their goals and work at it gradually as opposed to expecting immediate gratification," Riorden says.

Patience is one of dozens of virtues that Johnson says he learned from Agnes Wilcox and the Prison Performing Arts program.

"I played one of the parts of Hamlet," he says. "Of course, Hamlet was trying to determine what action he should take in avenging his father. This is a big moral issue he had to deal with. If I had taken half the time that he took to contemplate my actions, I could have saved myself seventeen years of heartache."

When Hamlet realizes that he mistakenly killed Polonius instead of his uncle Claudius, he feels there is no way to avoid being destroyed, Johnson explains.

"I think when a person gets into that frame of mind, he would like for somebody to step in and help him, but he doesn't ask for help," he says. "For me, I was angry. I didn't know how to express it, so I couldn't explain to someone what I was feeling, so there was no help."

When a conflict arose, the 21-year-old Johnson grabbed a gun and pulled the trigger. Luckily, his victims lived.

Like Oedipus, Johnson hopes for forgiveness from society and from those he has hurt. He has found most people are willing to give him a second chance. He's bought a car and has an apartment in north St. Louis, and he hopes to try out for a play at a community theater one of these days.

"Do I forgive myself?" he asks. "To a certain degree. But I don't want to ever forget what I allowed myself to do."


John rises from his desk and walks to the front of the classroom. He wears a red sweatshirt and red sweatpants. He looks out at the seven other African-American boys in the class, also clad in the red uniforms of the St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center. As they tap their wooden pencils against their wooden desks, the beat energizes the room. John begins reading a rap he wrote a few days earlier. His face is round and soft; his voice is softer.

"I'm fifteen years old, and I live on the south/These streets are real rough/If you know what I'm talking about/I'm addicted to the streets /Because I thought it was fun/I was just a teenager/And I thought I needed a gun."

John's shaky voice trails off. "If you were someone who wasn't you, how would you read it? Like who's your favorite rapper?" asks Agnes Wilcox at a hip-hop workshop sponsored by Prison Performing Arts.

John says his favorite is Lil' Wayne.

"How would Lil' Wayne read it?" Wilcox asks.

John's classmates chime in with their advice. "Give the man some time," Wilcox says firmly. "How would he start it? Is Lil' Wayne quiet? Is he loud? Go for it!"

John continues, this time louder. His back straightens. His classmates lean forward.

"Everywhere I went/Everywhere someone wanted to fight/Sometimes I walked away/Sometimes I had to fight."

"Yeah, yeah! You sound like the real deal!" Wilcox yells from the back of the room. "Who is this for? Is this for your brother? Read the last two lines real loud, for your brother."

John finds his voice again and shouts his words: "I'm a smart young man/But sometimes I don't listen."

"Way cool, man," Wilcox applauds. All the teenage boys crack up.

"Oh, I'm sorry, am I not allowed to say that?" she chuckles. "Because we used to say it back before you were born, man. We might be old, but we had slang back then too!"

"Agnes -- this lady has so much energy, she amazes me sometimes," says Charles Reid, assistant superintendent of the juvenile detention center. "She's brought the symphony, jazz groups, choirs, theater. The things she's exposed these kids to, they probably would have never seen."

Many of the boys and girls incarcerated at the juvenile detention center cannot read or write proficiently and struggle to express themselves. And most of these kids, whose ages range from eight to sixteen, are eaten up with anger, sadness and fear.

"We do a lot of crying here," Reid says. "They talk about not living to be twenty. They tell me about their friends being killed. Can you imagine a kid being sixteen and never having a birthday party or never seeing his father?"

Eighty percent of the kids in the city juvenile detention center will re-offend and find themselves here again for one to three months, awaiting trial. When they turn seventeen, many will end up in the state prison system.

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