How three performances of a play relate to efforts to end solitary in North Carolina
It’s the sound of jangling keys that reminds Craig Waleed of his time in solitary confinement.
“That brings me back to being in there and hearing the keys jingle next to the cell door, thinking, ‘OK then, they’ll let me out. Today’s the day I get out,’” Waleed said.
Waleed was released from prison 25 years ago. Now he works for Disability Rights North Carolina as the project manager for the “Unlock the Box” campaign against solitary confinement. He and other organizers recently sponsored The End of Isolation Tour, a group of traveling actors who put on a play, “The Box” at The Ramkat in Winston-Salem. (Organizers included the North Carolina Justice Center, of which Policy Watch is a project.)
“Solitary confinement, the box, isolation, only harms people,” Waleed said. “It makes prisons unsafe, it makes communities unsafe, and turns people back to their families and communities in a condition where they’re unable to contribute to creating wellness, betterment, for their community and families.”
Sarah Shourd wrote the play after being held in solitary confinement in an Iranian prison for 410 days. Iranian border guards captured Shourd in 2009 while she was while hiking near a tourist site in Iraqi Kurdistan, holding her as a political prisoner until her release in 2011. After returning to the U.S., Shourd became involved with efforts to end solitary confinement
in American prisons. She corresponded with incarcerated people and collaborated with other survivors of solitary to create “The Box.”
The performance emphasizes the humanity of those locked in a cell the size of a parking space for years, even decades. It is about the bond formed between men placed in a “prison within a prison,” as one character in the play describes it, talking surreptitiously through the vents in their cells.
“I’ve been sitting next to you for all these years. I’ve never even seen your face,” one character says to another from their respective cells.
“The Box” premiered in 2016 but was reimagined during the pandemic. The End of Isolation Tour got its name from the reopening of the country after more than two years of COVID-19 restrictions; it also reminds attendees that for the incarcerated, their seclusion is not over.
“A lot of people across the country are coming out of isolation after the pandemic, different degrees of isolation, but prisoners are not,” Shourd said.
Cast members are currently on a 10-city tour across the country. At each stop, performers partner with organizations and activists that are working to change policies and perspectives on solitary confinement in their respective communities.
“The Box” performance is an example of “legislative art,” which Shourd defines as inspiring and empowering people to push for political change.
“These are places that have already experienced success and victory, or some places that are more in an earlier stage of drafting the legislation that they want to get passed,” Shourd said.
That includes North Carolina, where the Unlock the Box campaign builds on the work of the governor’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice. In late 2020, the task force recommended the state change its solitary confinement policies.
People in solitary confinement are kept in their cells for 22 to 24 hours per day, depending on the type of restrictive housing where they are held. They eat in their cells. Exercise time and showers are restricted. Visits by friends and family are limited. Studies show that such confinement causes severe psychiatric harm, and can make people more susceptible to panic attacks, paranoia and problems with impulse control.
The task force’s report states that 90% of those in prison will eventually be released. Those who were locked in solitary are more likely to be rearrested after they go home and more likely to die within the first year of their release, according to the report.
The task force also found that Black people were disproportionately more likely to be in solitary confinement in North Carolina. They made up 80% of those in High Security Maximum Confinement, and 62% of those on another form of solitary, despite comprising only half of those who are behind bars.
Task force members recommended the Department of Public Safety change its policies on restrictive housing and adhere to the Nelson Mandela Rules on solitary confinement, which define it as locking someone in a cell for 22 or more hours a day for more than 15 consecutive days.
Despite the task force’s recommendations, DPS has not changed its solitary confinement policies.
“There hasn’t been any movement by the governor or anyone in his cabinet in regards to those recommendations,” Waleed said. “Those recommendations have fallen on deaf ears.”
Waleed said he hopes with public and coalition support, “we’ll be able to raise enough noise, so to speak, to gain the attention of North Carolina legislators, perhaps maybe the next governor, to sign into law, something that will validate ending long-term solitary confinement in the prisons.”
Half of “The Box” cast has spent time behind bars or has personal experience with the criminal justice system.
Anthony Michael Jefferson’s character, Ray De Vaul, spent 19 years in solitary confinement. Jefferson himself spent about seven months in solitary. In total, he was imprisoned for 23 years for murder before being paroled in 2015. “I can tap into what my prison experience was, and then go into what his mindset must have been,” Jefferson said of his character.
Both Jefferson and De Vaul share a fear of dying inside their 8-foot-by-12-foot cells. Jefferson said when he was locked up, he daily mantra was, “I don’t want to die in here.” Both Jefferson and his character do everything they can to stay alive so they can experience freedom again.
“It’s a scary thing to think that you might not get out of prison,” Jefferson said.
Jefferson said playing De Vaul has been therapeutic. It has allowed him to make peace with his past. It has inspired him to share his story, which he’d been hesitant to do before performing.
“I believe, in an essence, I’m honoring the victim of my crime. I’m honoring my family, I’m honoring guys that I’ve left behind,” Jefferson said. “That’s therapy for me.”
When he was incarcerated, Jefferson worked in the prison’s kitchen for 15 years. He later told the parole board that he dreamed of enrolling in a prestigious culinary institute once he was released. The board granted his parole. After Jefferson got out of prison, the first person he made dinner for a nephew he hadn’t even known existed. That nephew was at “The Box” performance in Winston-Salem. Jefferson, who now lives in California, wrapped his nephew and his nephew’s wife in a long embrace.
Jefferson told the audience that tucked inside their program booklet was a postcard addressed to someone in solitary confinement in a North Carolina prison. He suggested those in attendance write a note and drop it in a bin on their way out of the theater. “Say hello,” Jefferson said. It would give incarcerated people a bridge to the outside world, an opportunity to feel seen from inside the box.