GOOD

On A Theater’s Stage, Inmates Get A Taste of Freedom

In a ramshackle Lebanese prison, a drama therapy program is making a difference on a national scale.

Photo by Patrick Baz/Catharsis-LCDT.

THE GOOD NEWS:


A drama therapy program in a Lebanese prison provides restorative justice while creating policy change.

On a stage in Lebanon’s Roumieh Prison, a play is unfolding. In front of an audience that includes judges and members of parliament, the actors bring the scenes to life. But these aren’t your typical thespians; they’re inmates.

In one scene, a middle-aged man with a shaved head explains that he was a militia commander in Lebanon’s civil war before being told to give up his weapons and go home in 1991, after the war’s end. “That’s a reason to take drugs!” he remarks to the younger inmate sitting beside him before summoning a troupe of fellow inmates for a song-and-dance number.

In another scene, a Palestinian refugee with an unkempt beard gives a rambling reminiscence about his beloved donkey, Johar, which he believes to be imprisoned in Israel.

The play, “Johar … Up in the Air,” is part of a long-running project by the Lebanese nongovernmental organization Catharsis, headed by actress and director Zeina Daccache. Since 2007, Daccache and her team have been carrying out drama therapy programs with inmates in Lebanese prisons and others living on the margins of society, including patients in mental health and drug treatment facilities, migrant domestic workers, and refugees.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]We ask people not to say that ‘this guy was in jail, so he’s no longer a human.’ Everyone makes mistakes – there is no one infallible.[/quote]

When funding allows, the therapy workshops are developed into original theater performances. Some have been developed into documentary films. The publicity generated by the plays, in some cases, has led to legal reforms.

Daccache said the idea of working in the prisons came at a moment in her own life when she felt trapped: during the monthlong war between Israel and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in 2006.

As airstrikes rained down on Lebanon, killing hundreds and disabling the airport, Daccache and her neighbors in Beirut remained hunkered down in their homes.

“I felt I was in a prison myself,” she said. “I was in prison for a month – how about those who are in prison for years and years?”

Daccache already had experience as a drama therapist. And she had an idea of what theater would look like in a penal setting, having assisted Italian director Armando Punzo with his theater program in Italy’s Volterra prison. She consulted with Punzo while setting up the program in Lebanon.

After a yearlong process of navigating the country’s bureaucracy to get all the required permissions, Daccache began her first series of workshops in Roumieh Prison in February 2008. The work culminated in the 2009 production of “12 Angry Lebanese,” an adaption of the American courtroom drama “12 Angry Men.”

Daccache works on an adaptation of “12 Angry Men” staged with inmates. Photo by Dalia Khamissy/Catharsis-LCDT.

The play was central to a campaign that led to the implementation of a law — one that was on the books but never applied — allowing for reduced sentences for good behavior.

Later plays that dealt with the plight of female prisoners and migrant domestic workers helped to usher in new domestic violence laws and the repeal of a regulation restricting migrant workers from having romantic relationships.

A new hope

The most recent production, “Johar … Up in the Air,” which was performed at Roumieh Prison in May and June 2016 and subsequently turned into a documentary, focused on prisoners serving life sentences and on mentally ill inmates, who are effectively also sentenced to life in prison.

Under Lebanese law, mentally ill inmates convicted of a crime must be held “until cured” – an impossible standard to meet, Daccache said, especially given that most Lebanese prisons provide no psychiatric care. Only Roumieh has a small psychiatric unit, known as The Blue House. But there is no psychiatrist on staff; NGOs send in staff periodically to provide treatment.

Prisoners enact their play “12 Angry Lebanese.” Photo by Dalia Khamissy/Catharsis-LCDT.

The Blue House residents could not act in “Johar … Up in the Air” themselves, so other inmates portrayed some of their stories. Since the play’s production, draft laws have been introduced that would abolish the “until cured” requirement and ease the process of getting a life sentence reduced.

Daccahe said when she first embarked on the prison theater work, she did not plan to make it into an advocacy project.

“I only intended to do drama therapy and theater,” she said. “But once you are inside and you hear the stories of the inmates, there is no way you don’t become an advocate.”

Over the course of the project, many of the inmates begin to take responsibility for their actions and grow in empathy, she said.

“Everyone who comes to the drama therapy sessions, they are people who want to work on themselves,” she said.

Roger Khoury acted in “Johar … Up in the Air,” playing the former militia commander, while serving a five-year sentence for drug trafficking – the last of several stints in rehab and prison. Khoury said the drama program was one of the few things that gave him hope.

“Only there I felt myself to be a human,” he said. “I felt myself to be outside, in freedom. I felt that I had value. I felt that there were people doing right.”

The project also gave him one last meeting with his mother, who died while he was in prison. His sister, visiting from Canada, brought his mother to see the special performance of “Johar … Up in the Air” for inmates’ family members. After the play, they sat together and ate fruit cocktails and cake and talked for hours.

Khoury was released recently, but his drug conviction means he can’t get a driver’s license, and finding work is difficult with a criminal record. He works under the table as a security guard and sometimes makes money on the side by buying cheap goods and selling them at a markup. He said he hopes the work by Catharsis will encourage others to give former inmates a chance.

“We ask the people not to say that ‘this guy was in jail, so he’s no longer a human,’” he said. “No, this guy did something wrong. Everyone makes mistakes – there is no one infallible.”

Articles
Screenshot via Sweden.se/Twitter (left) Wikimedia Commons (right)

Greta Thunberg has been dubbed the "Joan of Arc of climate change" for good reason. The 16-year-old activist embodies the courage and conviction of the unlikely underdog heroine, as well as the seemingly innate ability to lead a movement.

Thunberg has dedicated her young life to waking up the world to the climate crisis we face and cutting the crap that gets in the way of fixing it. Her speeches are a unique blend of calm rationality and no-holds-barred bluntness. She speaks truth to power, dispassionately and unflinchingly, and it is glorious.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
Ottawa Humane Society / Flickr

The Trump Administration won't be remembered for being kind to animals.

In 2018, it launched a new effort to reinstate cruel hunting practices in Alaska that had been outlawed under Obama. Hunters will be able to shoot hibernating bear cubs, murder wolf and coyote cubs while in their dens, and use dogs to hunt black bears.

Efforts to end animal cruelty by the USDA have been curtailed as well. In 2016, under the Obama Administration, the USDA issued 4,944 animal welfare citations, in two years the numbers dropped to just 1,716.

Keep Reading Show less
Science

The disappearance of 40-year-old mortgage broker William Earl Moldt remained a mystery for 22 years because the technology used to find him hadn't been developed yet.

Moldt was reported missing on November 8, 1997. He had left a nightclub around 11 p.m. where he had been drinking. He wasn't known as a heavy drinker and witnesses at the bar said he didn't seem intoxicated when he left.

Keep Reading Show less
Communities
via Real Time with Bill Maher / YouTube and The Late Late Show with James Corden / YouTube

A controversial editorial on America's obesity epidemic and healthcare by comedian Bill Maher on his HBO show "Real Time" inspired a thoughtful, and funny, response by James Cordon. It also made for a great debate about healthcare that Americans are avoiding.

At the end of the September 6th episode of "Real Time, " Maher turned to the camera for his usual editorial and discussed how obesity is a huge part of the healthcare debate that no one is having.

"At Next Thursday's debate, one of the candidates has to say, 'The problem with our healthcare system is Americans eat shit and too much of it.' All the candidates will mention their health plans but no one will bring up the key factor: the citizens don't lift a finger to help," Maher said sternly.

Keep Reading Show less
Politics
via Gage Skidmore

The common stereotypes about liberals and conservatives are that liberals are bleeding hearts and conservatives are cold-hearted.

It makes sense, conservatives want limited government and to cut social programs that help the more vulnerable members of society. Whereas liberals don't mind paying a few more dollars in taxes to help the unfortunate.

A recent study out of Belgium scientifically supports the notion that people who scored lower on emotional ability tests tend to have right-wing and racist views.

Keep Reading Show less
Politics