The prompts were not especially difficult and many of the essays I submitted are also blogposts on beyondsteeldoors.com or featured on prisonwriters.com. Much of what I did turn in was never used, , but the writing that made the cut builds a single facet amongst many in the ugly picture of capital punishment and mass incarceration. I am proud and glad my contributions help move this story along in the direction all of my writing is intended to go – that of criminal justice reform.
Serving Life journeys through the early years of several different childhoods and relates to the universal problems contributing to mass incarceration. From abusive, disruptive and delinquent childhoods to misguided cultural values learned in poor minority communities, this play navigates the school-to-prison pipeline and exposes cultural myths about death row. It also reveals many of the negative influences leading to our poor decisions and life choices.
There was significant rehabilitative value in writing this play and it helped all of us better understand how some of us got to death row. This provides a blueprint for criminal justice reform and the advocacy of programs within the system, a map that needs to be shared with the general public. This play humanizes death row prisoners and demonstrates why communities must invest in their young as early as possible to reduce the risk of incarceration.
It is vital community leaders with a vested interest in criminal justice reform witness a performance of Serving Life. The drama class production of Twelve Angry Men displayed our ability to undertake a project more important than our own individual interests. This is especially true of Serving Life because it can benefit all of death row and Central Prison as it relates to the rest of the prison system in North Carolina. While Twelve Angry Men was central to the conversation on capital punishment 60 years ago, Serving Life is essential to evolving what is now a national conversation – a dialogue designed to teach, enlighten, and provoke thoughts of effective and humane justice.
Where can you see Serving Life? Most recently the play has been performed at a Hidden Voices fundraiser, Songs in the Key of Justice, held at the Historic Murphy School, in Durham, NC. It has also been show at “The Pit” across from the UNC Chapel Hill dining hall. Future performances should be requested at Hidden Voices.org .
So far the response has been tremendous. An article in the Daily Tar Heel stated “for once the Pit was silent.” One audience member at the Songs in the Key of Justice fundraiser commented:
“Thank you so much for sharing your stories with us. This country is not a place where everyone gets an equal chance in life, and I hate that. This country was built on injustice and oppression. And in your stories I hear the echoes of the reality that America cares more about some lives than others. I want to declare and affirm that despite prison walls, YOUR LIFE MATTERS. You are each amazing and beloved men, and I hope that you can know and feel that truth in the depth of your souls. Thank you again.”
When writing about my experiences as a troubled teen and life in prison over the last 18 years, it never occurred to me that such an outpouring of love could come from any community. I realize now that communication and the facilitation of our stories to the general public was necessary to changing the narrative told about those of us on death row. Up to this point, and even afterward, there is the overwhelming image of the people on death row at their worst. Serving Life shows we’re all human beings even though some of us make decisions that really impact others. In this case it seems we’ve finally been able to do some good.
NOTE: It may help to know the people who performed Serving Life at UNC Chapel Hill and the Historic Murphey School were:
Jade Arnold: attended UNC Wilmington, became a theater major and graduated with his BA in Fine Arts. He recently directed the Mountaintop for Justice Theatre Project.
Phillip Bernard Smith: performed in Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, An African Odyssey; and as the character Rashard in The Meeting, performing with the founder of National Black Theater Festival, the late Larry Leon Hamlin.
Estes Tarver: award winning actor, director, writer and producer who is currently recurring on Season 2 of “Under the Dome” on CBS as Tom Tilden.
John Flynn: Nashville staff-writer, social justice activist and nationally acclaimed singer-songwriter.