“Letters” explores incarceration of women of color
Edna Sams had a 4.0 gpa in college, has served hundreds of hours of community service, is a dedicated worker and is passionate about her career field.
But in job interviews, there’s only one thing that the hemming and hawing human resource managers are interested in talking about. As required by law, Sams must disclose in her job applications that she spent time in prison. All that interviewers really want to know is what would happen if once again, Sams finds that she really needs some extra money?
To understand the mass incarceration of women of color in a nuanced way, one needs to hear from women who have experienced it firsthand. Such an opportunity arose last Wednesday when College and Community Fellowship’s Theater for Social Change presented excerpts of “The Letters Behind My Name,” a theater project written and performed by women who have survived the prison system. Through monologues and short scenes, the performers reflected on the seemingly impossible task of re-entering society after the trauma of prison.
An early scene placed Sams side by side with another performer, Leslie Campbell, as the two women were called into meetings with their respective bosses. Though Sans expected to be fired but was offered a promotion, Campbell dreamed of a raise, but was offered a pink slip. As she spoke with her boss it was revealed that Campbell had been working as a teacher, and she’d told her class about her own history with drugs and prison. Campbell’s students admired her and she considered herself an excellent teacher, so she had wanted to show her students that they could achieve whatever they hoped to, despite the challenges life might present them with. For doing this, Campbell was told, she “wouldn’t have to worry about writing a syllabus next semester.”
In an interview with the Justice after the performance, Campbell explained that every scene in “The Letters Behind My Name” comes from the actual experiences of the women performing the play. “Although we’re telling our stories and we’re reliving some of the experiences and trauma that we went through, it’s sort of healing,” she said. Vivian Nixon, another performer, told the Justice that it is important to let audiences hear the stories of real people.
“They may not understand the experiences we’ve gone through, but they can understand those scenes, because there’s parental relationships, relationships with children — everybody understands that,” Nixon said. Nixon spoke at Brandeis in March as part of a panel on criminal justice, according to a March 17 Justice article.
According to Nixon, when “The Letters Behind My Name” has been performed for workers in the law enforcement and incarceration industries, “some really get it and some are like ‘law and order, if we don’t lock them up what are we going to do with them’ kind of thing. … [They] sometimes mistake the need for reform for us saying that they’re not important or that their jobs are not important, which is not what we’re saying at all.”
The play also featured plenty of humor. Scenes showing Sams in job interviews poked fun at uppity hiring managers and their pretended sympathy, even as the scene illustrated serious social problems. According to Nixon, the humor in “The Letters Behind My Name” is included because “nobody wants to feel lectured to. And people want to be able to find the humor in situations and see themselves in situations like that.”
In a panel after the performance, the actors stated that the best thing allies can do for incarcerated women of color is to research why people in poor communities enter the prison system in the first place and how these communities are policed and prosecuted.
Nixon said that the issue must be placed in the broader context of the African-American experience and noted that the public rarely thinks of those leaving the prison system as having survived a traumatic experience. Sams stated that “it’s critical that we focus on higher education. Because once you know, you can never go back to not knowing.”
Statistics from the Sentencing Project and Critical Resistance show that Black women are incarcerated at four times the rate of white women. More than half of the women in state prisons have suffered abuse — 47 percent report physical abuse, and 39 percent report sexual abuse, with some reporting both.
Since 1980, the number of people in women’s prisons has risen at a rate of 4.8 percent annually, twice as fast as those in men’s prisons.
An earlier version of this article misspelled Edna Sams's name as "Edna Sans."