Psychologist Abraham Maslow posited a theory of development called the Hierarchy of Needs. He explained that whenever a person’s needs are denied regression toward poor behavior results. Once basic needs are met, progression in character and personality occur. Most people spend their lives trying to meet needs on every level of the hierarchy, with only the most successful reaching the pinnacle of self-actualization.
7. Self-actualization: the realization of potential
6. Aesthetic needs: order and beauty
5. Cognitive needs: knowledge and understanding
4. Self-esteem needs: achievement and gaining of recognition
3. Belongingness and love needs: affiliation and acceptance
2. Safety and security needs: long-term survival and stability
1. Physiological needs: hunger, thirst, sex
The incarcerated populace was especially inefficient at fulfilling their needs in the free world and, as much as many would hate to admit, require the structure and order of prison to satisfy the two most basic levels of the hierarchy—physiological, safety and security needs. Over time affiliation and acceptance occurs, and through programs achievement, knowledge and understanding are reached. Order is a natural byproduct of most institutional settings, but recognizing it as a necessary element of one’s balance as a human being is difficult.
Death row’s production of Serving Life was the culmination of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs fulfilled. In writing and acting in this play each participant recognized the missing stages of their development, overcame and met whatever needs had caused their individual regression and progressed toward a realization of human potential.
Maslow identified a number of traits characteristic of self-actualizing people:
--Clear, efficient perception of reality and comfortable relations with it.
--Spontaneity, simplicity and naturalness
--Problem centering—having something outside of themselves they “must” do as a mission.
--Detachment and the need for privacy
--Autonomy, independence of culture and environment
--Continued freshness of appreciation
--Mystical and peak experiences
--Feelings of kinship and identification with the human race
--Strong friendships, but limited in number
--Democratic character structure; balance between polarities in personality
--Ethical discrimination between good and evil
--Philosophical, unhostile sense of humor
Our performance of Serving Life required a great deal of perseverance and team work to complete. Had this effort at problem centering—something outside of ourselves we “had” to do as a mission—failed, maximum human potential couldn’t have been reached. Also necessary was an appreciation for the opportunity to engage in this unheard of event on death row. Write a play and act in it? A few years ago the idea would’ve been comical.
More than anything, being granted the chance to tell the story of development interrupted to approximately two hundred people in three viewings was a phenomenal experience incomparable to anything else. Serving Life fulfilled needs we didn’t know existed, but it also became the ultimate platform upon which the realization of our fullest potential became possible. If other prisoners were granted the same opportunity to meet every level in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs it stands to reason that prison could become a place where human potential is maximized rather than squandered.