On Friday, May 9, “A Day at Stateville,” a play written by men currently incarcerated in Stateville prison, and performed by those formerly incarcerated there, was staged at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Urbana. I spoke with one of the actors, Danny Franklin, who explained how he got involved. The play attempts to counter the story of prison life glamorized in Hollywood movies and television series. “This is what it is,” Franklin told me, “the way it is.”
The play was conceived by men who were a part of Jim Chapman’s creative writing class, all of whom have sentences of natural life and are never going home. They made the play to give some “hope,” Franklin said. It was written to give those on the outside a view of what’s “really happening on the inside, give some understanding, that not everybody in the prison system is bad.”
In 1997, Danny Franklin returned home to Chicago to found Reaching Back Ministry. His group holds an Annual Feast and Fellowship to benefit those formerly incarcerated and help them transition back into their communities. “These kinds of things keep us accountable to one another,” Franklin explained. It was at one of these picnics that he first met Jim Chapman who invited him to join the play. As a child growing up, he had taken part in a “couple plays” and agreed.
Opened in 1925, Stateville is a maximum security prison located some 50 miles southwest of Chicago. It was modeled after Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon,” famously described by French philosopher Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish as a form of modern-day social control. Stateville no longer has any pretense of being a “correctional center,” as it is called.
Danny Franklin said since he left, “things have gone downhill” for those at Stateville. “There is no more schooling, no more education, as far as classes,” he said. “The system has failed from what people thought it was, a rehabilitation system. People are being warehoused. There’s no money to rehabilitate them.”
He continues to work with those reentering society. “Once the individual comes home, we need to reach them with resources to they can restart on a positive note,” said Franklin. He recognized that some end up back in prison. But he was quick to point out that none of the men in “A Day at Stateville” had gone back. “When you’re doing something positive, it means you’re not doing anything negative.”