Breaking Down Social Barriers
Luke Neilsen, an inmate, is led into his past by “ghost” Jacqueline Williams, a Dartmouth student, during a skit in which he sees how the consequences of stealing could be much worse than his present reality during the first of two recent performances of Telling My Story at the Sullivan County House of Corrections in Unity. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Pati Hernandez, left, who teaches “Telling Stories for Social Change” at Dartmouth College, meets with students and inmates minutes before their first performance at the Sullivan County House of Corrections. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Royal Hillsgrove writes the word “learning” on the board at the end of a skit during the performance of Telling My Story at the Sullivan County House of Corrections in Unity. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Dartmouth Students Rebecca Niemiec, Hazel Shapiro, and Karoline Walter speak of their expectations about working with inmates during their performance of "Telling my Story." (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
They spoke of privilege and of anger. About bad choices, demons and false assumptions. Of freedom, family and hope.
They were contractors, fathers, sisters, brothers, athletes and musicians.
When inmates at the Sullivan County House of Corrections and Dartmouth College students came together recently for a pair of performances — the final piece to a course called “Telling Stories for Social Change,” — the outsider was hard pressed at times to determine who came from which set of circumstances.
“That was one of the purposes,” said Jane Coplan, program director at the jail.
It was only when participants told their stories that it become apparent which group would return to campus and which to the jail.
“I’ve learned a lot,” said inmate Scott Supernois, who is a father and grandfather but admitted to losing many things because of drug use. With 25 days left to serve, Supernois said he looks forward to life outside prison.
“I just hope there will be something outside of here waiting for me.”
Jill Britton, a teaching assistant at Dartmouth, co-taught the one-term course, which is part of the college’s Women and Gender Studies program. One day a week, students would arrive from the college and meet with inmates. The over-arching goal was to develop a more personal understanding of each other and dissolve stereotypes, Britton said.
Without the orange prison garb or the college sweatshirts, “What’s the difference now,” several students and inmates said in unison at the conclusion of a series of skits.
“There are visible and invisible walls and social walls that divide us,” Britton said. “This brings people together across some of those lines.”
Pati Hernandez, an adjunct professor in the Women and Gender Studies Program at Darttmouth who teaches the “Telling Stories” course, said the goal is to develop self-awareness and communication skills through art.
“Whether you are an inmate or a student, we are all human,” Hernandez said at the beginning of the performance. “We have hopes, fears, likes and dislikes. We want to bring these two groups together.”
One skit involved a party with drugs that was interrupted by police. That was followed by a court scene and the offenders going to jail. Another skit involved a burglary that was being planned but was never carried out after the ringleader had a “visit” from the ghost of his future the night before, similar to Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. He sees himself alone and in jail and decides not to go forward with the burglary.
While the purpose of the skits was to make clear how personal choices can lead to trouble with the law, it was the testimonials at the end of the performance that carried a more powerful and moving message.
“This was more than a class for me,” said Dartmouth senior Karolyn Walter in her testimonial. “It was an experience and process for learning and reflection. It is just as easy to find similarities (in others) if you look for them.”
An inmate, who asked that his name not be used, said he came to the program with a bias toward the students because he had once planned to attend college, before some bad decisions put him on a different path.
“I put walls up. I didn’t want to be here,” he said. “I had negative opinions of them (the students.)”
While he laughed and talked with students after the performance, another inmate, Luke Neilsen paused a moment to say his negative opinions also had changed.
“I learned to be a lot more positive and see people in new ways,” Neilsen said. “We can all do the same thing. I don’t see myself as someone who always messes up.”
In his testimonial during the skit, Neilsen blamed his anger for putting him in a “dark place.”
“I’m trying to change for my son, my family, but also for myself,” he said.
Telling My Story is a nonprofit organization that works with inmates in an effort to eliminate stigmatizing stereotypes through interaction with people “on the outside,” its website says. “By working and creating together,” the site says, “program participants from both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ can understand what they have in common and discover opportunities to shift deep patterns of social exclusion.”
Hernandez, who runs Telling My Story, said this is the fifth time she has done the program in Sullivan County.
“What it really does is expose the students to a different reality,” Hernandez said.
In society today, once someone is incarcerated “he is a criminal or she is a criminal,” she continued. “We don’t see them as a person. We are trying to break down those walls and stereotypes.”
Student Hazel Shapiro said she came away less inclined to think about an “us vs. them” mentality.
The performance took place inside the Ahern Building on the campus of the Sullivan County Complex, which houses the county correctional center and nursing home.
In one of the skits, a group of inmates talked among themselves, making stereotypical remarks about college students while the students, on the other side, spoke similarly about the inmates.
“They are probably doing this for an easy college credit,” said one inmate. “They probably come from broken homes,” said a student.
In conclusion, the message was they are “not just Dartmouth students” and “not just inmates.”
Student Melissa Gordon said it was through listening more than anything else that gave her a better understanding of the inmates.
“We don’t place enough value on listening to the voices we don’t usually hear,” Gordon said.
Gordon said later that she enjoyed the real-life experience of coming down and meeting with the inmates.
“It was more like life than class. That is what I loved most about it.”
Finally, there was inmate Royal Hillsgrove who struck a universal chord with the word “freedom.”
“Freedom to me means being with my wife and family and working outside,” he said. “Right now my only freedom is in my mind.”
Patrick O’Grady can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sullivan County House of Corrections inmate Royal Hillsgrove was pictured writing the word "learning" during a presentation at the Unity jail in a photograph in Saturday's Valley News. He was misidentified in the original version of the photograph's caption.