This is the third in our series called New Directions in Dramaturgy.
We’re looking for submissions that draw on dramaturgy to explore relationships, histories and expectations in new and revelatory ways. Find out more about the project here.
Content Warning: this article contains references to drug use, sexual assault/ violence, and suicide.
Wounds That Don’t Show on the Body: Art-Making in Incarceration
By Wendy Staggs
There was a time when, if you googled my name, all you would discover were my crimes. Today, you will see that I am a published poet through the UCLA Women’s Law Journal and no longer identified as a criminal.
Society often defines individuals by their mistakes and overlooks their accomplishments. All of our hearts are spotted with ugly marks, as well as shining points of grace. But in the action of pointing the finger—placing blame, judgment, shame, disappointment at another—it’s easy to avoid our own complexities, our responsibilities for actions we ourselves may have committed, even if only in our minds.
Today, I don’t just think of the damage I have done. I ask myself: what can I do to make a better world around me and how can I encourage individuals who desperately need support? To know that they are not alone, that they have a community–and not just a community of ex-felons, but a sense of connection to humanity as a whole. It took decades for me to figure out how to love myself, so that I could love the rest of my tribe.
As a child I was sexually abused and endured a great deal of loss and pain. I was an only child, an outcast in my school, and felt mostly alone. By the time my teen years arrived I was already experimenting with drugs. At fifteen, while drunk, I was gang-raped by five of my peers. I barely graduated high school. I was manufacturing methamphetamine, and by age twenty-five I was sentenced to my first prison term (I have had thirty-two arrests and two prison terms). After my first release I managed to have children. Ten years after my first prison term I became a substance abuse counselor in the California prison system. Three years later my life would be completely turned upside down by the horrific grip of domestic violence. At age 45, twenty years after my first period of incarceration, I would return to prison for a second term.
“There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds” (Laurell K. Hamilton). “God wants you to be delivered from what you have done and from what has been done to you—both are equally important to Him” (Joyce Meyer). Both of these quotes spoke volumes to me. I read them while in reception at the Central Correctional Women’s Facility. I knew I had emotional scars. They ran so deep that I was afraid I would never discover a way to overcome them. I also knew from counseling that wounded people (whether deliberately or not) hurt other people. Often when two wounded people engage in a relationship it is the construction of destruction—the building of a time bomb waiting to detonate.
Living in prison twenty years after my first term, I immediately learned that the incarcerated population had changed dramatically. This younger population was much more violent and charged. Violence and gang-related incidents occurred daily. How could I ever find healing in such a dysfunctional and brutal environment? It took me witnessing three girls viciously beating a young girl in a utility closet and slicing her whole face and body up with razors for me to go to my cell and hit my knees. I was so broken that I didn’t know how to work on myself, especially since I didn’t even know who “me” was. I made a commitment to do two things: I would serve others and live a life that witnessed for God. That moment of open surrender is where my journey all started—I wasn’t able to identify this turning-point until a much later time in my sentence.
Ninety days into my seven-year four-month prison term I was transferred to the California Institution for Women. Little did I know that I was about to embark on a journey of healing I never could have predicted or fathomed. Never could I have dreamed of discovering that within my own heart was a precious gem, a capacity to create art and to find a community with other art-makers, all of whom have discovered themselves as something other than “convicted felons.”
Looking back, it may seem strange that I became a counselor between my two prison terms. In the scope of my life, it makes sense. From my mother I inherited a sense of duty, of self-validation by serving others. Going into counseling offered me this, just as it had done for my mother, who was an educator—but the quest to help others only plastered over the emotional wounds deep within myself. Those wounds were still present and internally bleeding. More about this later; but at this point I will say that while the knowledge I used daily in my work with clients in regard to anger management, denial, domestic violence, and other self-help strategies enabled me to help others, none of this knowledge kept me safe. I needed to see my life through different lenses. I needed a brand-new way to navigate. I didn’t know what that looked like, but I was going to find it.
Every morning I would read this New Zealand Proverb aloud: “Turn your face to the Sun, and the shadows will fall behind you.” I had some internal belief that the more I spoke into existence positive words, the more positive my life would become. I found a place of surrender. Surrender isn’t giving up: it is a de-throning of your ego, an opening of yourself to “what might be.” I was once told that surrendering is moving over to the winning side. But I think it’s actually about resisting that very division between “losers” and “winners” and living with grace and arms that are open—to the now, to the reality of what I have done in my life and what has been done to me, to the reality that I am still here, and that I can be here anew.
I found a place where, no matter what happened around me, I was able to stop in that very moment and restart my day. It all began with me learning to BREATHE! We are all so unaware of the simplest gift of all: oxygen. You can breathe it in with positivity or with negativity, but which ever way you willingly choose is what you will receive. And in some sense this very breath—in and out—can give a measure of control. I became the driver of my own vessel, and my new thoughts and outlook began to control the way my body behaved.
In this idea of “control,” I refer to something that I believe can transcend the ego. It is important, and necessary, to come back to the fact that keeping my commitment of serving others was the kick-start to my healing process. When I was in the middle of the storm, I wasn’t aware of that. But looking back, I can vividly identify that while I helped others, a power greater than myself—something that was not under the control of my ego—was working on me.
During my first prison term there were no arts of any kind offered—not to my knowledge, anyway. But back then the correctional staff treated us as people. Not only is the incarcerated population different today, but so is the correctional staff. Younger officers present themselves with hostility and harbor resentments about us. It is fair to assume that they behave that way because of their own traumas that are undealt with. As I said previously, hurt people hurt people.
But what was positive about the system twenty years later was the inclusion of art-making opportunities and the increased numbers of volunteers coming in to work with us. Having been kickstarted by learning the capacity to breathe, I found myself able to approach many things differently. I became immersed in different disciplines of art—singing, journalism, spoken word, creative writing, acting, reading, yoga, and visual art classes where the media that I used is too long to list. Honestly, I have no idea how I was led to try all of these disciplines, but what I did know is that it brought light, joy, and comfort to the dark places inside of a broken spirit and soul.
In nineteen months, my trauma was transformed from what I saw as a caterpillar to a beautiful butterfly with gorgeous wings. It didn’t come from me sitting around talking about anger or about me being beat on, or my addictions, or the loss of my children. As a counselor, and from my own experiences, all I had seen and heard about were people’s failures and pains, including my own. My transformation came from the capacity to explore that pain through eyes opened by the arts. I began to see and feel and appreciate every creative moment that I engaged in. Looking back now, I can see that this was the stretching and molding stage of healing. Again, I wasn’t able to identify this at the time. Somewhere inside me lived a spirit of creativity that emerged when I gave myself permission to focus on “the now” and to stop reliving my past life over and over again.
These creative endeavors made me happy in a way I had never ever felt before over the duration of my lifetime. There was a connection I felt with everything and everyone around me. A tranquility. It was as if my energy was in harmony with every energy that the universe held. Even women around me who were caught in a cycle of drugs and who radiated negativity—I was able to love them right where they were, with no expectation of return. Not once during my entire second sentence did anyone ever speak negatively to me—NOT EVEN THE STAFF! I was onto something that my new-found intuition was agreeing with.
My first discipline was visual art. Cal State University San Bernardino’s Art Professor Annie Buckley, founder of Community Based Art/Prison Arts Collective, offered a course that included using many different types of media. I have watched women discover an inner creativity that, as children, they had never been allowed to explore. It was common to hear women begin with, “I CAN’T DO THAT!” But with the willingness to try, beautiful souls expressed themselves through wondrous shapes and colors. Sometimes pieces would be created with black, gray, and white. When asked to share about them, some would describe their pieces as a depiction of their current life. Colorless, lifeless, and filled with sadness.
One young lady found herself in suicide watch more often than not. Sitting next to her and witnessing the moment when she freed herself from that cycle—from her own kind of internal imprisonment—was phenomenal. There was a place inside where she had locked herself away. She found that through art she could own some measure of freedom. In the very first class she created a piece of art with pastels. At the end of class she said to me before leaving, “Today was the first time in five years that I was able to leave this prison!” By way of her own hands, working with pastels and a canvas, she allowed her imagination to transport her to a place beyond our stark walls.
I became involved in a journalism class that was created by professors from the Claremont Colleges. They brought college students into the prison and we worked with those students to build a newsletter that would be available to every resident within the prison walls. Our publication, Progressive View, was very organized and informative. From the first writing assignment I discovered how powerful words could be. Words can be used to build a person up or tear one down. Words can scaffold new dimensions of a self. I explored different styles of writing and enjoyed creating my own written pieces. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the funding or the supplies that would be necessary to print 1800 copies of the newsletter. When we wrote a proposal to seek funding, the request was denied.
Continuously, indeed, projects that could have brought a community together were halted because the corrections staff found them to have no priority or value. I think in some way they felt that the capacity to express our creativity was a luxury we didn’t deserve. If people can’t address community concerns on a level where the whole community is involved, resentments are harbored and eventually become volatile.
At this time CIW, the oldest women’s prison in the state of California, had a suicide rate that was five times higher than any other prison in the state and eight times higher than any other prison in the nation. There had been more suicides and suicide attempts in a four-year period than in the whole sixty-two years of the prison being open—the desperation and hopelessness that prevailed was very oppressive. It was as if there was a black cloud that surrounded the facility.
October 18, 2015 at 3 a.m. I awoke to a thumping sound. When I rolled over all I could see were my bunkie’s legs hitting the wall. She had tied twenty-seven straps of ripped sheets around her neck and had hanged herself from a pipe in our cell. My natural instinct was to help her. I was able to save her life—but I was in shock. I sat up for the next three hours waiting for the doors to be opened. I told the housing staff what had happened and she was taken to crisis for observation. I didn’t know how to feel. I was desolated and angry at the same time. Later in the day I had a lifer ask me if I was the one who found the girl hanging. When I said, “Yes,” she immediately told me, “I would have left the bitch hanging!”
I was so hurt that we as peers, as human beings coexisting in the same community, had become so calloused to each other’s pains, because our own pains ran so deep that we could forget the value of another human’s life, another human’s pain.
That night I started writing an article for our journalism newsletter about the suicides and attempts at suicide that were plaguing our prison. I shared the importance of listening to someone if they needed to talk. I wrote an article that went straight from my gut to the eyes of our readers. Writing that article gave me a voice. I turned my pain and confusion into a call to action for all of us. I cannot describe here how liberating this whole process was. In fact, it motivated me to become more involved with my community and to support others in their journey of healing.
The following week I sang the national anthem at the education graduation ceremony. Afterwards, I was approached by a man named Marvel Butler who trained and managed a singing group, Genesis Project. There were only six lead singers together with Ilka and Dom who were the two equipment techs. This group performed at all events that occurred within the prison walls. On Christmas, in the pouring rain, we performed for eight hours while every resident waited in line for their dinner. I watched hundreds of broken, imprisoned women, away from their families for the holidays, come to life from the music. Smiling women were dancing and congregating together. It was as if every note carried them into a realm where their current realities didn’t exist. The statement, “Music may very well be the language of angels,” may be metaphoric, but the presence of music has been here since the beginning of time and does demonstrate an internal existence within us all.
I sang in the church choir and in Genesis Project for the rest of my sentence. I can genuinely say that when I am singing is when my heart is at its happiest. I was given a voice, and when I sing, my soul is at peace. Even in the middle of my childhood trauma, singing was the one vessel that could take me to a safe place.
I signed up for a program called The Actors Gang Prison Project. I believed I was signing up for an acting class. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. The Actors Gang Prison Project was created by Sabra Williams after she had joined The Actors Gang theater troupe, founded decades earlier by actor Tim Robbins.
This program was structured around a 16th-century form of theater called Commedia dell’arte. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined how deep and raw this work would be. There were writing assignments, active exercises and games, guided meditation: all included in a collaborative and supportive program. The first two weeks of a ten-week session always weeded out the individuals who didn’t think the program was for them. It hurt my heart every time I saw a young lady say she didn’t want to play games. I could see the invisible brick walls that had been erected around her in hopes that she would find protection from the hurt or ridicule inflicted by her peers —and inflicted by her own self as she imagined others’ judgments.
The women who summoned the courage to stay found themselves in a group of people who never would have spoken to each other on the yard. Every color and culture was present. Every ten weeks brought new members to our Actors Gang motley crew—a few would leave and more would stay—then the raw and beautiful process would begin. The week came that we picked our character from the fourteen stock characters of the village. The makeup would go on. In white face, this is where the work really began. Being in makeup allowed us all to work on the inside of ourselves, but through an identity other than our own. We did all of our exercises in four emotional states: happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. All other emotions fall under one of these four. In the first few weeks I realized how long I had been overcompensating with sadness and fear. In my teen years, I had overcompensated with anger. I was stumped. I felt like I had once been happy…the truth was that I had just put on a happy face to make myself appear happy. I was riddled with unresolved hurts, disappointments, shame, grief, and pains so deep that I didn’t think I would ever recover. Being able to embody new roles gave me the chance to really step aside from my former “character” and to transcend the walls of where I used to be. In white face exercises, my tears flowed constantly. When directed to pick an emotion, sadness and fear felt so natural. It didn’t take long to identify that the horrific domestic violence I had endured had conditioned me to respond with only those two emotions—and that while I counseled others whom I was helping, I had still been avoiding this incredibly limited emotional palette in my own mind and heart.
Over time I started to allow myself to be angry about what had happened to me and my children, and to arrest the cycle of self-blame. This permission, again, was a step to liberation. After I released the anger that had been buried under all the sadness and fear, like a dawning sun, natural organic happiness started to emerge, ready to shine its rays into a shroud of darkness.
The most profound moments of this program were in watching our crew of broken souls collectively building a solid foundation for all of us to stand on TOGETHER! When someone was having a hard day, the rest of us would support them on the front lines of the exercises. The graduation ceremonies were moments that would forever be emblazoned in our hearts. So many broken pieces that never could have been repaired without each one of us facing those four emotions together. It took many to build a village. I will always be grateful for this work. As Sabra puts it, “The beauty of this work is that you can take it wherever you go. It doesn’t stop at the door.”
Bryonn Bain, who is a lawyer and the African American studies professor at UCLA and an award-winning spoken-word lyricist, proposed a pilot program for CIW. He would bring in UCLA students and professors to work alongside our residents. I was chosen by written essay to be one of nine women to participate in a creative writing class. I thought I knew all about using words until Bryonn introduced me to spoken word and the power of poetry. What a completely different act of creation this was, compared to journalistic writing.
Our class was going to be adapting a script called What It Iz. It was a script that had been written on the east coast by formerly incarcerated individuals. We were adapting it to fit the west coast so that a group of UCLA students could perform it.
Before we started working on the script we would do some theater warm ups and then sit and share pieces that we had written since our last meeting. These moments became sacred for ALL OF US! The deep, raw, truthful nature of these pieces would often bring the room to tears. Moments of clarity danced around in my head. If our raw pains could grip others’ hearts, couldn’t their raw intentions of support and love grip ours? I became aware of this thread that ultimately tied every one of us together. Whether a professor, a correctional officer, a student, a felon, we all, as human beings, had our own pains. It was evident that the more we offered empathy and genuine compassion to everyone collectively as a whole, the more we all started to grow. No matter what our profession, we are as fall leaves blown by the winds. Sometimes the winds are gentle and other times they plaster us over abandoned walls. But with the support of one another we can be lifted again. I have always said, “It is not in how many times you fall, but in how many times you rise back up! That’s what keeps you going!”
Since my release, I have spoken at many conferences across the state of California. I was an Inaugural UCLA 2017 Beyond the Bars Fellow, a teaching artist for The Actors Gang Prison/Reentry Project, a member of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and the California Coalition of Women Prisoners.
All of this work has been very meaningful, but none has been more rewarding than speaking in the Arts in Corrections Conference or speaking on panels in support of the art programs that changed my life while I resided behind those prison walls. My goal is to make arts a mandatory requirement for residents on the inside. The arts can unlock parts of a person that have been locked away for many years. We were all born with a unique gem right in our core. Our lives’ failures, traumas, disappointments, and pains have laid layer after layer of muck over our priceless gems. Through art we can find ourselves at the door of an archeological dig that seems impossible to engage in. When archeologists are excavating a site they do not use bulldozers, jack hammers, or even shovels. They use soft brushes and dental picks to ensure that the artifact is not damaged. Every stroke of a brush, note of a song, or choice of words collaborating to speak our truths, is one step closer to unveiling our priceless gem.
I used to wonder why people such as Curt Tofteland would go to prisons to teach Shakespeare, why Annie Buckley and her teaching artists would come in to teach visual art, or why Bryonn Bain found it important to come into prisons and teach the power of words and law. I no longer wonder why. I have learned why—we are all connected. The arts enable us to see difference not as something that excludes us, but as an opportunity to find our own priceless gems. We are surrounded by creative works of art daily. The mountains, the ocean, the animals, the flowers, the blue skies. These volunteers know how powerful healing can be from engaging in the arts. Children make art with no knowledge of judgment. As we grow into adults, we grow into fear of judgment—and nowhere more severely than in a place where everyone has experienced nothing but judgment. Sharing our art-making experience with others is what brings healing to the whole group, not just to the residents behind bars.
I’d like to use another metaphor here—the beauty of a rainbow. Each color so vivid as an offering for all to see. However, before the rainbow reveals its beauty, one must weather the storm. I’ve been caught up in many storms in my life, some so painful that I never thought I’d recover. Miraculously, by willingly involving myself in an act of creativity, I dug my way out each time.
It’s important to express that the miracles of art don’t make everything perfect. Far from it. My life has had painful complications as well as accomplishments since my release. My seventeen-year-old twin boys have made the decision not to have me in their lives; and I have had challenges in reconciling my relationship with my daughter (who was in foster care during my sentence). However, using the tools that I obtained through the arts, I have been able to not place judgment on my children’s decisions, as well as not allowing their decisions to condemn me to that controlling shame and grief all over again. Not having my boys in my life is profoundly painful. But I have found a place of conscious decision: a place where I live freely and continue to grow within myself, in hopes that one day when they are ready to speak to me, I will be a mother who is healed and stands ready with arms open. In the meantime, my daughter and I are working together to heal.
Thank you to all of the volunteers across the world who give freely of themselves. The incarcerated population, a community usually thrown away and forgotten, is learning how to unearth their priceless gems because of your gift of unconditional love. Because others gave so freely to me, I feel a deep sense of responsibility to never forget the ones I left behind those walls
Wendy Staggs, in addition to being a formerly incarcerated person, has worked as a substance abuse counselor within the prison system. Having overcome her own trauma, Wendy has a passion to speak for those who have been silenced not only by their trauma, but by our failing judicial and prison system. Her journey of self-discovery was nurtured by way of participating in the Arts while incarcerated. She has become an outspoken driving force in conferences across the nation, and will not stop speaking out until there is some resolve for change. Wendy was an Inaugural 2017 UCLA Beyond the Bars Fellow, and a former Alumni teaching artist for The Actors Gang Prison/Reentry Project, as well as a member of The Anti-Recidivism Coalition and California Coalition for Women Prisoners. Wendy has become the first alumni of the Community Based Art/Prison Arts Collective program to become a Board Member. Wendy has also inaugurated Project Alice in the community. This is a visual arts group, and an open studio, for formerly incarcerated individuals, foster children, or anyone who is system impacted/affected.