Lifting the lid on solitary confinement: 'The Box' brings transformative theater to Detroit

Loneliness. Fear. Trauma. Resistance. An eye-opening play about mass incarceration is traveling the country in a converted school bus and will soon be in Detroit. Many of its cast and crew are survivors of solitary confinement, also known as segregation, isolation, or social and sensory deprivation (SSD). The widespread prison practice confines people in cells 20-plus hours a day, with no meaningful human contact for weeks, years, or even decades. 

The End of Isolation bus displays a mural by artist DJ Agana. “The Box” is written and directed by an American journalist, author, and activist Sarah Shourd, who was held in solitary confinement for over 400 days as a political prisoner in Iran. Following her release in 2010, she began advocating against the excessive use of segregation in the U.S., where daily, at least 80,000 incarcerated men, women, and children are held in isolation. Shourd spent three years collaborating with incarcerated people across the country, who shared their own stories. These conversations forged a groundbreaking piece of theater that premiered in San Francisco in 2016 to sold-out audiences. 

"The Box" has since been performed for crowds on Alcatraz Island, Marin Shakespeare in San Rafael, California (a sold-out virtual run in 2021), and, through its End of Isolation Tour (EIT), is making its way to Detroit’s North End to present on Aug. 9 and 10 at The Jam Handy Building.

EIT is presented by the Pulitzer Center, with national partner Unlock the Box, and community partners at each stop. A portion of tickets is reserved at each show for formerly-incarcerated and system-impacted people.

An engagement circle held as part of the Alcatraz Island tour, 2019.

"The Box" has two distinct audiences, says Shourd. One, in particular, needs healing. 

“There are survivors who come to our shows. The pain and suffering they've endured, and the hardships they've overcome are so invisible, unrecognized, and unappreciated,” she says, “that the collective act of bearing witness is very empowering.”

For the majority of viewers who don’t know what confinement looks, smells, and feels like, she says she hopes their eyes will be opened. The performance brings audiences deep inside the U.S. prison system to experience the horrors of isolation, as well as the humanity of those subjected to it. Billed as “immersive” and “transformative”, it’s intended “to reach audiences to enact political change (legislative art) and to engage people to promote healing through drama and artistic ritual (therapeutic theater).” 

“None of us can not be affected by mass incarceration,” she says. “People think, ‘If I just live a good life, and don't do anything wrong, I'm never going to prison.’ And maybe that's a lot more true for some communities, for affluent communities, for white communities,” she says. “But, in most of our communities, no matter how hard people try, they may be condemned for the worst thing they’ve ever done, and hurt in a way they can’t recover from, as a result of our system being so slanted toward harsh punishment and having lost its will to rehabilitate.”

The 2020 Pulitzer Zoom production. In the years since her release, Shourd’s been thick in the fight for prison reform through her writing, podcasts, advocacy, and lectures across the U.S. and abroad. But theater's visceral form of storytelling, especially an immersive experience like this one, offers a connection, she says, akin to walking in someone else’s shoes.

"The Box" is intentionally performed in nontraditional spaces, close to its audience. Each production is followed by an engagement circle, where audience members hear from and interact with those who’ve been directly affected.

“I hope it sensitizes people to this issue and gives them a distaste for this practice of putting people in cages,” says Danny Jones, a solitary survivor, juvenile lifer, and returned citizen. At the age of 17, Jones spent nearly a year in segregation inside the Michigan Reformatory, an adult prison in Ionia County. Today, he’s part of a steering team for the Open MI Door campaign, an EIT partner working “to end solitary confinement and advance safer, more therapeutic alternatives to segregation in Michigan.” Jones remembers his isolation experience vividly.

“What I saw in that environment was different from what I was experiencing in the general population,” he says. “You could feel it, like, in the cells, there's a lot more pain, a lot more struggle, and strife. The smells, and the writings on the wall, told the story. It shared with you other people's pain and trauma who were previously in those cells.”

Free of those surroundings today, Jones still has trouble sleeping at night. Sometimes, if woken by a sudden light or noise, he goes rigid — feeling paralyzed — wondering if something is about to harm him. He attributes the fear to his months of isolation, which included being housed for some time in an observation cell where the lights never went out.

“Hearing those banging noises, people slamming their lockers, crying,” he says, “or screaming out in desperate need of attention for some type of social interaction, other than a guard walking past and just looking at you, and counting you off as a commodity sitting in this box, in this cage.”

Jones says he hopes "The Box" will reach new groups of people, that it will spread widely, and change the hearts and minds of decision-makers and legislators who have the power to change this practice. He also wants to help survivors like himself navigate the damage they’ve endured. 

In Michigan, over 3000 people are held in solitary confinement each year, according to Open MI Door’s 2020 report, “Solitary: The Family Experience.” Forty-seven percent have been there for over two years.

Due to COVID-19, and staff shortages inside the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC), those numbers for people who are being held 22 or more hours a day are probably low, says Lois Pullano, executive director of Citizens for Prison Reform, and coordinator for the campaign. Her team is corresponding with over 150 individuals who are currently in solitary confinement in Michigan and also works to connect with their families and to provide direct advocacy in extreme cases. These have included, but aren't limited to, the loss of food, water, showers, exercise and medical attention. Many families also report the long-term removal of visits, the use of chemical or physical restraints, or excessive force. 

“The play provides insight into the toxic culture that exists inside our Michigan prison system,” Pullano says. “In particular, you see that staff, if they stand for the right thing — and they have this struggle that develops within them — often, they're retaliated against. They often become hardened.”

Pullano shares that her son, who was held in solitary confinement in the adult system at the age of 15, is still dealing with pain from witnessing the poor treatment of people housed around him. 

“It inflicts permanent trauma and harm on these individuals, and on families, because we hear it as our loved ones are calling,” she says. "It also traumatizes the staff, and they carry that home to their families. This is why it's so important for us to bring awareness and change to these practices. Therapeutic spaces and rehabilitation are what we believe people need.”

Open MI Door is drafting legislation that would create greater oversight of MDOC. Pullano hopes by "The Box" performance, to be able to point concerned citizens to congresspeople who are willing to support the work. Meanwhile, a take-action link on the campaign’s site provides the opportunity for people, based on their address, to urge their legislators to support corrections oversight.

Michigan is one of 19 states with campaigns to end solitary confinement in partnership with the national campaign, Unlock the Box. The United Nations Mandela Rules call the practice torture, when used long-term, and many at the forefront of human rights, civil rights, and public health agree. The global blueprint prohibits the use of prolonged solitary confinement of more than 15 days, advises the measure only be used as a last resort, and never on people with disabilities. 

Research shows that segregation in the U.S. is not heavily associated with serious or violent behavior. It's frequently a response to nonviolent misbehavior, like abusive language, the need to protect an incarcerated person, or in response to symptoms of mental illness. Reports show Black and brown people and people with mental illness are disproportionately subjected to isolation, a practice that’s also widespread among juvenile facilities. Studies found that any amount of time spent in isolation increases the risk of death for returning citizens in the first year, including deaths by suicide, homicide, and opioid overdose.

It can be hard to even make eye contact, says Frannie Shepherd-Bates, co-founder and director of Detroit Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in Prison (SIP) program. “If you’ve spent a long time not being seen, it can be very uncomfortable to feel that people see you.” 

Bates is a firm believer in the ability to perform arts that transform hearts and minds. For the last decade, SIP has helped to empower incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people to create personal change, and to connect to their humanity and that of others. She’s working to promote "The Box" and to encourage SIP alumni to take advantage of the free admission offered. For those who’ve experienced isolation, she says theater helps them find a way to relearn the social skills they may have lost by being alone. 

The Jam Handy isn’t a traditional theater space, and this isn’t a traditional play, Bates says. So maybe people will come without built-in expectations or barriers.

“Audiences and theater performances start to breathe together, their hearts start to beat at the same rate,” she says. “The closer we can come to an experience, the better we're going to be able to understand it, and the more empathy we're going to be able to have for people who've experienced the things we have not.”

Tickets for "The Box" can be purchased here.

Follow the End of Isolation tour on Instagram @end_isolation and on Facebook @EndIsolationBeginTransformation
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Read more articles by Sarah Williams.

Sarah Williams is a freelance writer and photojournalist based in metro Detroit. Her work focuses on individuals and nonprofit organizations investing in their communities through arts and culture, holistic healthcare, education and neighborhood revitalization. Follow her on Instagram @sarahwilliamstoryteller