I’ve been reading the work of Henri Nouwen these past few weeks. Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer, and theologian. His interests were rooted in social justice and community. His writing has made a great impact on my life over the years and I have felt myself guided by what he has to say about the “mystery of silence” of late.
Nouwen says: A way that silence reveals itself as the mystery of the future world is by teaching us to speak. A word with power is a word which comes out of silence. A word that bears fruit is a word that emerges from the silence and returns to it. It is a word that reminds us of the silence from which it comes and leads us back to that silence.
In many ways, The Prison Story Project has honored the silence Nouwen speaks of as we give voice to those who are locked away. Over the past few years we have witnessed the incarcerated women and men we have served carefully struggle to find just the right words to take themselves out of the silence of imprisonment, hoping that their words will help you know them in a way that they struggle to know themselves.
The words of the incarcerated that you hear from the actors at our staged readings return to the silence of your own thoughts as you leave the performances. It is in that silence that we hope you experience the possibility of hope, forgiveness, and welcome to those in our communities who are locked away from us. That, simply speaking, is our goal.
This past May we began a project with those who are locked away in the most silent of all places in prison – the solitary confinement of Death Row.
Varner Prison is a super-max prison where Arkansas’s Death Row inmates are held. Varner is located about 265 south of Fayetteville, Arkansas where the Prison Story Project is headquartered. Matt Henrikson, our creative writing director for Death Row; David Jolliffe, the chair of the One Book, One Community Project at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville; Troy Schremmer, the theatre director for Death Row, and myself have been making monthly in-person visits to Varner to lead storytelling/creative writing classes with Death Row inmates. We have 11 of the 34 men on Death Row participating in this project.
I honestly cannot say exactly why I asked that all of us participating in this project keep silent on social media as we prepared for and began this journey. Perhaps it started with my own fears about the unknown and the fear of facing men on Death Row. After the project started and we began to know the men in a way that few ever do, it was because I realized that the work we are doing is both holy and controversial at the same time.
Now that we have visited with the men in person and via US Mail these past few months, I must acknowledge publicly our deep love and respect for their willingness to tell you the truth about their lives, their times before prison, and the redemption they have found for themselves on the Row. I must also acknowledge the outpouring of support we have received from the organizations that have funded our work and made the Death Row project possible. We gratefully acknowledge:
The One Book, One Community Project, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
The Dorothy Morris Foundation, Hot Springs, Arkansas
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
The National Storytelling Network, Jonesborough, Tennessee
The financial support of these organizations provide for stipends for our creative writing team, theatre director, travel, mailings, and actors. Without their support, none of this would be possible.
We also couldn’t do this without the support from Warden Randy Watson and the staff at Varner. Warden Watson had previously travelled to Randall L. Williams Correction Center for Men in Pine Bluff, Arkansas to attend the staged readings there. That’s how we got to know each other.
There are approximately 1,700 men incarcerated at Varner. Because Varner is a super-max prison Warden Watson will be arranging for the actors presenting the Death Row staged reading to be recorded. He will then arrange for the recording to be aired on closed-circuit tv for the entire prison population.
We have one more creative-writing class with the men on Death Row scheduled for September 24, 2016. We will then return on October 8, 2016, with the actors, to present the staged reading for recording and to say our good-byes to the men we have gotten to know on the Row.
We look forward to sharing the stories of the men we have served on Death Row with the Northwest Arkansas community as part of the One Book, One Community Project, featuring Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson, who will visit Fayetteville in late fall. We will keep you abreast of his visit, and our work, as details are finalized.
In the meantime those of us who have been given this unprecedented opportunity will continue to respectfully and carefully carry the stories of the men on Death Row out of the silence of their solitary confinement.
I’ll close with another word from Henri Nouwen that I believe best describes what Matt, David, Troy, and I are exploring – both in ourselves and in the men on Death Row: In the contemplative life every conflict, inner or outer, small or large, can be seen as the tip of an iceberg, the expressive part of something deeper and larger. It is worthwhile, even necessary, to explore that which is underneath the surface of our daily actions, thoughts and feelings…This (exploration) should not lead to despair but should set you free…
Kathy McGregor, Project Director
The Prison Story Project: On The Row