Performances by Illinois prisoners explore domestic violence — and the public is given rare chance to see behind prison walls

For years, incarcerated women in Illinois have gathered to share spoken-word performances, songs and theater presentations to express painful histories of surviving sexual and domestic abuse.

Those who have participated said the experience was powerful and transformational, helping inmates understand they were not alone and that their experiences mattered.

But they were shared only inside the institutions where the women were held.

Last week for the first time, some 20 inmates at Logan Correctional Center near Lincoln, Illinois, were allowed to share a collection of stories and poetry and dance with the public in a virtual release of “Look at Me,” a show written and directed by them.

“We appreciate you guys supporting us,” one inmate, Erika Ray, said to an online audience as the program began to stream. “This is a way to connect us back to our humanity. Incarceration strips you of that. Whether you know it or not, you guys are almost painting our humanity back on us.”

The taped performance included works by 21 women and one transgender male that were filmed at Logan. Wearing matching black T-shirts and purple face masks, each cast member also donned a purple scarf, the unifying fabric that added a splash of color to a high ponytail or a fashionable drape across a chest.

The opportunity to allow the general public a glimpse of the world inside a correctional facility was highly unusual. And in an even greater departure, three of the performers sat for a live panel immediately after the show to answer questions about gender-based violence, a topic that disproportionately affects the female prison population.

“It does look like Logan has joined us,” moderator and event producer Alexis Mansfield said happily after a brief delay getting the connection.

And then the panelists took over, sitting shoulder to shoulder in a nondescript institutional room and explaining the lasting impact domestic violence has had on those incarcerated at Logan and offering opinions on proposed reforms to laws and policies to address it.

They had a chance to say loving hellos to formerly incarcerated women, now dear friends. They thanked family members watching at home.

“It is amazing to see you guys come across in the comments. ... Jada, I see you,” said a smiling Ray, as she acknowledged her 21-year-old daughter, who was watching in her South Side home and smiled when she heard her name.

Connecting virtually with loved ones and friends, however, was only half the story for the panelists, who also said they felt they were being heard for the first time.

“Never have we been allowed to let the world see us speak,” said Jeanine Elam, who directed the performance. “Just the point of being able to show that we are women. Not monsters, not convicts. That we are human beings.”

A well-worn path

Surveys of the female prison population in Illinois have shown that more than 90% of those incarcerated report a history of domestic or sexual violence, experiences that experts say put women at risk for incarceration as they struggle to live with the pain.

Attorneys and advocates also argue that these histories play an even more direct role in how women get convicted in the first place, with some currently serving sentences for crimes in which they were defending themselves or forced to commit a crime by an abuser.

The result is lengthy sentences that separate them from their children and disrupt families. Several of the women involved in the performance have appeals or clemency petitions pending.

In recent years, a prison theater troupe in Logan, founded 20 years ago by staff members and inmates, started organizing a special celebration in October to commemorate Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

But this year, the theater group was on hiatus, and the threat of COVID also reduced programming and the ability to gather.

Rather than cancel, the organizers opted instead to tape performances, which presented an unusual opportunity to share them with the public, allowing incarcerated people to finally join the broader conversation happening outside prison.

The panel portion, however, was live, an even more unusual engagement for prisoners.

The program was produced by the Illinois Department of Corrections and the Women’s Justice Institute, where Mansfield serves as a senior adviser.

“It’s incredibly powerful and also extremely traumatic and sad,” Mansfield said last week as she was driving back from Logan, where she had just recorded the pieces. “The level of talent and brilliance that we have locked away in prison is a real shame.”

An edited version of the program was posted online late last week. While the event was free to the public, a GoFundMe account had been created for donations to a survival fund started by the Women’s Justice Institute.

‘Fight or flight’

As the link to the performance at Logan went live, five women could be seen standing outside a prison door.

They rotated in and out the frame, sharing painful details about their lives, but also claiming Domestic Violence Awareness Month as their own and celebrating themselves in an uplifting call-and-answer poem.

“This month, our month!” DeBraca Harris declared loudly.

“This month is our month!” the others responded.

“For the mothers that survived, that came out better on the other side,” Harris, 42, continued. “For the women that strivin’, thrivin’ and still survivin’.”

Miles away, Jada Lesure sat at her dining room table on the South Side of Chicago and leaned close to her laptop screen.

There were technological issues streaming the performance over Zoom but the chat room soon lit up with comments and reaction to the poems and stories, many of them celebrating Erika Ray when she entered the frame.

Lesure smiled as the comments flew by: “Erika Ray rocks” and “Free Erika Ray,” some read. Lesure, who works at a beauty salon, noted how stylish her mom’s braids looked.

“It just makes me feel so good,” said Lesure, who said before the performance that it was important for her mother and the others to “unwind” from their pasts, even if the truth wasn’t easy to hear.

Lesure has not visited her mom in more than a year, due to the pandemic. She was just 7 years old when Ray was sentenced to 42 years in prison in the 2006 murder of the manager of a restaurant where Ray worked.

Ray, who denied the charges at the time and has an appeal pending now, was convicted of driving three others to the restaurant, waiting outside and then driving them away after they robbed and fatally shot the manager.

Indeed, some of the stories included harrowing details, like one woman who spoke of being dragged from a CTA bus into mud, then beaten and raped by an acquaintance. Another reflected on being forced into a relationship with an adult man at just 16.

The stories also told of acceptance and forgiveness of a past; others talked about a determination to not repeat it.

“Look at me,” Mishunda Davis, 39, said boldly into the camera at the start of the performance. “ ... The first time you hit me, stars danced in my eyes. ...You beat me up while I was pregnant. ... I knew I couldn’t beat you so I took it out on others. The abused became the abuser. ... Twenty and a half years later I grew and gain new life. ... Never again will I be a victim or an offender. This is my vow.”

There are also self-searching reflections about how one can become capable of killing another person, something Elam addressed during the panel.

“Abuse is a terrible cycle,” said Elam, who is serving 45 years for murder. “You question yourself. You question everything about yourself. Can you make it on your own? You have been knocked down to your lowest common denominator. It’s either fight or flight. For a lot of us it was flight.”

Until, she continued, the years of suffering violence caused a reaction.

“One day your fight kicks in,” she said. “I’m not flight no more. I’m fighting. And you sometimes make a bad decision.”

Organizers said they are aware that there are also victims and families harmed by the actions of the women, a pain that also has to be reckoned with. But Mansfield argued that society must, at the same time, address the histories of violence that many women bring to prison.

“Until we address that, we won’t be able to stop the cycle,” she said. “We will never have healing if we can’t deal with the harm. ... And when relationships are unsafe, when there is abuse, when there is violence, it often is the catalyst to incarceration. There is more than one victim in these cases.”

‘We’re here’

The Wednesday event builds on the work launched in 2018 by the Women’s Justice Institute, which convened a statewide coalition of formerly incarcerated women, policymakers, politicians and advocates to consider ways to reduce the women’s prison population and also make laws, policies and practices more gender-responsive.

Earlier this year, the institute released a lengthy report that included 250 recommendations, ranging from eliminating prison charges for basic needs to mass commutations for women where a history of gender-based violence was not initially considered by the court system.

The report was intended to be a blueprint for any elected official, policymaker or agency.

Near the end of Wednesday’s event, in a recorded statement, state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, said she will be introducing legislation seeking reform in several areas, including, for one example, expanding the use of coercion and control as a defense.

“We have to stop putting so many survivors in prison and free the survivors who have been there for decades,” said Cassidy, who also thanked the Department of Correction for making the performance public. “I am just blown away by the courage and resilience and strength of so many voices today.”

Some of those in the “Look At Me” performance, including Ray, have been involved in the statewide reform effort.

But the event Wednesday marked a new level of engagement, Ray explained at the end of the panel when she was asked about whether incarcerated survivors have been included in the #MeToo movement.

“Today we’re included in that movement,” Ray answered. “... I think we have said, we deserve a space there too. Every story that was told in this piece, the stories that we hear when we are in our cells and when somebody can’t sleep. ... Those stories that we hear that were not told today — those stories we carry with us when we perform. ... We’re here.”