one balmy June afternoon, in the nondescript gym
of the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in
rural LaGrange, Kentucky, a scenario that has
lived more than a year in my imagination springs
at last into vivid life. For fifteen months, Id
followed Shakespeare Behind Bars Lucketts
all-male, full-drag Shakespeare company. On a
magazine assignment, I am in Kentucky again to
cover the culmination of a years worth of
work weekly rehearsals, impromptu practices
on the prison yard as it crescendos into
a short, sweet season: Four performances, three
for the prison and one for invited guests. This
afternoons performance will be their long-awaited
rehearsals a fight scene, the curtain call
are underway when I reach the gym. The
actors work, oblivious, as the audience gathers.
Among the men already on the bleachers, I notice
two sharing swigs from the same water jug
one a pumped and buff caricature of the prison
bodybuilder, the other languid and cool, with
a shoulder-length frosted auburn shag and a precisely
groomed mustache. Another, younger man moves closer
to the center of the bleachers. This kid has a
fabulous haircut, I think to myself. Its
a surfer cut, the kind youd see on Venice
beach in the 70s, bleached blond and bristling
up, antigravity, ending at the nape in a fringe
of light brown. Where do you get a cut like that
in prison, I wonder. What does it take to look
that sharp? What do you have to do to look that
good in a place like this?
play begins. As Big G, who shot a cop dead, and
Mike Kelly, who took a butcher knife to his ex-girlfriend
and her mom, launch into the first scene of Titus
Andronicus, my eyes suddenly blur and burn with
tears. Wait a minute, I scold myself, spanking-new
blue spiral notebook in hand, struggling to tamp
down this unanticipated eruption of jumbled emotions.
Dont cry, not here, not now. Cover the story;
be a pro. I uncap my pen, and start to write.
year before, I visited the prison for the first
time, to sit in on a mornings rehearsal
in the visiting room. That first visit, I was
sheltered from the guts of the prison, kept off
the yard, the quarter-mile long "campus"
around which Lucketts world turns, day in
and day out. On this visit, my third, I am no
longer a "fish," or prison virgin, as
Big G thoughtfully explained. I know the drill.
I arrived in Louisville midday, picked up my el
cheapo rental car, and swung out onto the highway
toward my hotel on the suburban outskirts of Louisville.
Craving a familiar jolt of java, I looked in vain
for a coffee bar not a latte in sight.
There was, however, a humming Coke machine in
the breezeway near my room. Driving again, I chugged
an ice-cold diet Coke in the car on the road to
a good distance back from the road, the prison
complex is fronted by the vast asphalt parking
lot, as if to say: We who work here can leave,
and do. You, gents, who live inside, can watch
us come and go. By now, this obvious truth no
longer shocks. I follow the drill, enter the prisons
double glass doors and greet the armed guards.
I surrender my bag, camera, tape recorder, and
notebook for x-ray examination. Walk through the
metal detector, pat-down optional. Collect my
effects and wait for my escort into the prison,
all the while chatting up the good ol boy
guards who no doubt wonder what on earth this
white woman from up North is doing at their prison,
a minute, my escort, Karen Heath, meets me. We
shake left hands; her right is a truncated stump,
that way since birth a nimble fragment
with a bit of a thumb and indeterminate digits.
She grabs her two-way out of her back pocket just
as we say hello, answering "Were comin
in," to its disembodied squawk.
a nice flight?" she asks, making small talk
while the double set of mechanical doors push
open and drag shut. In a little vestibule, her
radio crackles again and she dials down the volume.
The second set of doors deposits us at an inner
guard post, where a team of guards in a glassed-in
booth hold my ID in escrow, swapped for a prison
visitors pass until I leave that night,
minutes before 9 pm count. While this process
once seemed gratuitous, an unnecessary power play
by the prison bosses, today, its just normal,
the way things are. Like a show horse riding posts,
you mark the course, make your turns, and in you
go. True to form, were in, and on our way
onto the yard.
yard at Luckett is a turf-and-clay
rectangle laced with concrete walkways and surrounded
on three sides by structures of varying form and
function. Its long sides are lined by seven cellblock
dorms where Lucketts 1100 inmates
live, each block softened by small patches of
grass and redwood picnic tables. Geraniums bob
blood-red in the planting beds.
the near end of the rectangle where we
enter, close to the guards watchful presence
is the visiting room, one long wall all
glass and the other lined with vendnserve
snack machines. The far end of the yard, its chain-link
perimeter rigged with glittering concertina wire,
is anchored by a one-room guards shack.
gym squats in that outer corner, at the extreme
end of the yard. Karen and I walk the gauntlet
and chat past the chow hall, past pill
call, where meds are distributed four times a
day, past the half-built chapel and laundry and
classrooms where substance abuse programs alternate
with sex-offender therapy groups. Walking the
yard, Im chatting and laughing, but wholly
aware of my presence in this foreign country,
and of its citizens, the men who line the yard,
watching, smoking, and spitting onto the cement.
Insulated from verbal assault by Karens
escort, I still feel eyes on every part of me.
I button my jacket over my white shirt and khakis;
expose as little as possible but see everything,
everything I can.
the play, full-throttle, bristles with energy.
Titus confronts his enemies; we witness murders,
deceptions, rape and dismemberment, see the grinding
wheels of revenge set into motion, and all in
Act I. Despite the thrall of the drama onstage,
I am distracted by an utterly mundane inner conflict:
I need a bathroom. Shifting on the unforgiving
gym bleachers this need is eminently clear; no
leg-folding, ankle-tucking arrangement relieves
the building pressure. Shouldnt have had
that Diet Coke in the car. Shouldve gone
before you passed security, before you walked
the yard and crossed the line into this other
world. But I didnt. Now, I need to go. Bad.
the play is going gangbusters. The guys are buzzing
with enthusiasm, half-drunk on the momentum of
performance, and the audience is with the story,
cheering the villain, and rooting out loud for
the vicious, manipulative queen. Between scenes,
I watch the inmate audience, a show in themselves:
Men lounge on the bleachers with no regard for
decorum, sprawling across two or even three rows
of seats like large cats in honeyed sunlight.
The kid with the great haircut is picking his
teeth but stops when his friend comes onstage;
he whistles and stamps when the scene is done.
Some aimless men drift around the gym on the perimeter
of the performance. Others leave in the boring
parts; the double doors squeak open and bang shut
throughout the second half of Act I.
bathroom needs grow more urgent with every passing
scene. Finally, the act break!
gotta go," I say to Karen Heath.
she says, half-scolding me as she laughs. "Lets
get you to a staff john. I cant promise
a porcelain bowl, but at least therell be
a seat." I stash my notebook on a bleacher
bench and take off after Karen, off to the loo.
via the guards desk, where a bank of video
monitors reveals the gym from every angle, Karen
collects the bathroom key. We hustle past a pool
table to the staff bathroom and at last, I lock
the door behind me relief! Returning to
the gym, I see the mens room and quickly
avert my eyes. Its walls are glass, the men observable
the company is in a state of high excitement.
The first act went well: Stuttering Mike sailed
through his first scenes without a stumble. Nobody
laughed at Leonard and Randy in drag, in the womens
roles. The audience is getting the jokes and the
smutty bits along with the story. The energy is
contagious and the men are having a blast. Now,
checking their props for Act II, everyone is a
little high, kiting along, giddy with the pure
fun of performance.
at the bleachers, Im looking to get settled
before Act II. I reach for my notebook and its
gone. My pen, too vanished. Maybe they
fell under the bleachers; I look. I check behind
the risers, too, no notebook. Flustered, confused,
I cant figure why someone might take my
book. I remind myself, youre in a prison,
there are different rules here. Be professional,
cope but where is my book?
sees me rooting around. "Whats up?"
books missing," I say, "Probably
just got set backstage or something," trying
to downplay the loss. I am, after all, a guest
in her institution and it is, after all, only
a notebook. Its one of several Ive
filled for the story and much as I would like
to have it, its absence isnt any serious
disaster. Most of all, I dont want to disrupt
the show the men are ready to begin Act
II, the audience is returning in dribs and drabs
after a smoke break, and I am a guest, an observer.
Karen is having none of this. She shifts instantly
from her laid-back genial persona to erect attention,
her eyes flashing across the gym to scope out
you leave it?" she demands.
here, on the bleacher maybe it got moved?"
goin back to check," she says, striding
off without waiting for my answer. She moves purposefully
to the backstage area, and I can see her asking
the guys, looking around Im sick,
I wish I never lost the book, I dont want
to be a bother or any nuisance, its only
back there," she says when she returns, speaking
in a low whisper as the act begins. "But
the guys are all looking for it."
theyre emptying out prop boxes, looking
under the chairs and shaking out costume pieces.
I feel terrible, responsible for distracting them
from their work, like a naïve dunce for leaving
my book in the first place. Who would want a book?
It just didnt dawn on me that my cheap little
notebook could be an object of desire, I didnt
think of it. Still a fish, after all.
I say to her, eager to shift the attention back
to the show, "Itll turn up or it wont.
No big deal, Ive got other notebooks."
looks me square in the eyes, and it is clear to
me. This is indeed a big deal, because of where
we are. In a prison, there are rules, and rules
make the system move. Break the rules and there
are consequences. Take what doesnt belong
to you and there are repercussions. Theres
no gray to this landscape; just black and white,
wrong and right, actions and consequences. After
a minute, she says, "Im checking the
surveillance! Every inch of the gym is observable
and observed. The guy had to know he could be
seen in his light-fingered act. Karen beelines
over to the guards station and disappears
inside it. Meanwhile, the action on stage demands
and deserves my attention. I try to focus on the
work, the men, the art thats being made,
but feel naked without my book. Empty-handed,
I sit and watch.
a scene change, Karen is at my ear, whispering,
"We got him. We got the jerk who took your
book. Hes in the hole now, we grabbed him
up when he came back to watch Act II." Minutes
later, another guard arrives and gives her my
notebook, and the show goes on. I scribble my
the performance, a half-dozen men in the cast
come up to apologize for the theft. "He was
my friend who done it," says one, "I
feel like he did it to me."
never been so glad for video surveillance in my
life!" says another, shaking my hand and
patting the back of my notebook for emphasis.
shoulda seen us backstage," laughed Sammie,
the Shakespeare groups leading actor. "Were
sposed to be getting ready for the
hangin scene, and were all goin,
wheres the notebook? Wheres the notebook?
Glad you got it back."
dont let go of it again," cautioned
Karen. She was smiling when she said it, but there
was steel under her grin. We were not going through
next afternoon, before the second performance,
I hung out backstage with the company as they
checked their costumes and preset their props.
We kept on joking about the notebook saga. The
fellow who took it had stashed it under the mattress
of his bunk, then came back to see how Act II
turned out when the guards stopped him.
should be on Americas Stupidest Criminals,"
joked Sammie. Commit a theft in a prison!
apprehension guaranteed! and saunter back,
to see the end of the play? No one could figure
him out. As we were laughing, Karen came in and
pulled me aside.
here," she said. "The guy who took your
book, Peter, hes here and he wants to apologize."
stood still, startled to be confronted with the
reality of the thief.
dont have to talk to him," Karen continued.
"You dont have to at all. But if you
want to, he wants to talk to you, and hes
right over there." She gestured to a young
man standing near the guard station; it was the
fellow with the ace haircut, the surfer do.
"Ill talk to him," I said, "I
want to hear what he has to say."
the few yards across the gym to meet Peter, my
breath went shallow and my cheeks got hot. I was
nervous, and I was scared. I had never been scared
for my safety in the prison not during
long interviews with men convicted of murders,
of brutal sodomies, of grisly sex offenses retold
with frigid cool. But now, in the pallid green
glow of the gyms fluorescent lights, I felt
vulnerable. Still, the reporter in me wanted to
hear what he had to say. Why had he taken my notebook?
looked at me, without looking up or down, and
began to speak. "I am sorry for what I did,"
he said, in a deliberate, methodical recitation.
His eyes were unwavering, his face illegible,
a blank mask.
took your notebook and hid it away. I dont
know why I did it, but I did it." Peters
eyes were opaque as sea glass, as empty as marbles.
He went on, "I should not have taken it,
but I did. I cant say why. Im sorry."
"I dont know why you took it, either,"
I said. "I hope you figure it out, though."
We clasped hands, an awkward handshake. No more
than 24 or 25 years old, this guy was a goner,
completely AWOL behind eyes as blue-white as skim
maam," he agreed, "I hope so.
I hope to do so." Neither of us broke our
a big man to apologize like that, Peter,"
said Karen quietly. "You done the right thing.
Takes a big man."
maam," he said to her. "Im
sorry," he added again, to me.
life had the symmetric grace of art, this exchange
would yield an epiphany, a light-bulb instant,
where Peter would see and renounce the error of
his ways. But reality is blunt and often bitter,
and life stubbornly resists the neat little package.
Instead of the cathartic moment, there was nothing.
With his sharp haircut and opaline eyes, Peter
was just passing through, marking the time that
stretched ahead, remote and dead to it all. The
theft, being caught, his apology all hollow.
what did I think? Did I truly believe, somewhere
in the secret depths of my idealistic heart, that
this encounter could affect a young man whose
remove from life now seemed utterly complete?
I thought I knew where I was, thought I knew what
I was doing but it was only a wishful veneer,
my own yearning for connection, for that sizzling
jolt of recognition. Did I actually imagine that
my presence, my work, could affect any life behind
these cinderblock walls?
that moment, I think I did. Now, I knew different.
I would come and I would go; countless other well-intentioned
outsiders would venture into the world of the
prison, each seeking to learn or to aid, to mend
or improve, but the men themselves only stayed
impenetrable, stolid, embedded in Luther
Lucketts compressed universe. I was an outsider
who, by my presence, violated the well-oiled precision
of the prison routine a nuisance, probably,
or a distraction to be tolerated. To Peter, I
was nothing; my notebook a tempting gimcrack waiting
for his sticky fingers. I would, it seemed, always
be a stranger in this very strange land.
play went on that evening, with a slightly smaller
crowd than on opening
night. I held tight to my notebook. And this time,
Peter stayed for the whole
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