incarceratedA few weeks ago I accepted an invitation to present to several different dorms of incarcerated youth at a Youth Authority Facility here in Southern California. I’ve never hesitated to accept invitations to ply my trade as a storyteller and this instance would be no exception. Entering the facility was exactly what one would imagine: clearing identity checks through security, mandatory guides while on the facility grounds, clearly delineated restricted areas, automated heavy steel doors, etc.

The reality of my situation set in during my introduction and briefing with the director of the detention center, which went something like this:

Director: “Here’s the layout of your visit, the first group you will be performing for are our high risk, mentally unstable serving 25 years to life The second group you’ll be performing for are housed in a segregated dorm, they are our population of sexual offenders, which is a much larger group than your first…”

I have to admit that my mind had not progressed beyond hearing the words 25 years to life and contemplating what crime these youth had committed to be sentenced to 25 years to life and what, exactly, qualified as “mentally unstable” or “high risk.” The director was amazingly warm, welcoming, and had a disarming charm about him; the kind of person you could imagine as a loyal, trusted friend. He continued running down the list of six different dorms that I would visit this day, each housing youth of specific category of criminal offense.

When he finished briefing me, he cheerfully looked me in the eyes and asked, “Is all of this alright with you Baba?”

My response, an uncompromising, enthusiastic… “yes, of course!”
There were hundreds of stories running through my head waiting to be chosen, along with ideas of movement, engagement and music. I had to wait until I was in the presence of each group to actually determine the pieces of the repertoire that would be most effective. The only concrete decision I had arrived at prior to seeing my audience were the themes; I definitely was going to offer them tales and music centered on fear as an illusion of reality and self-awareness and self-knowledge as keys to any type of positive growth.

I had already been told that my first group, those youth serving 25 years to life, were rarely permitted outside of their cells and had never received the type of programming that I had been brought in to deliver. I was the first, the grand experiment if you will.

For any thinking person… yes, but remember I’m the guy who chose the unconventional, possibly nonsensical, career path of as a storyteller so my cognitive capabilities are, quite often, called in to question. Nope! No pressure here.

The dorm was dark, subdued lighting with large cinder block walls painted in varying shades of grey. The brightness of the room came in the form of the artwork that the youth had been able to dress their dorm with. Their themes were acknowledging other cultures and they had chosen to put drawings of leopards, lakes and landscapes on a small, designated wall of their dormitory.

Upon entering the common area they are all required to walk with their hands behind their backs. Movement was strictly coordinated. They were not allowed to stand, walk or turn around without the consent of one of the councilors. Watching them enter and witnessing the visible signs of depression on many of their faces was heart wrenching. The vacant stares off into space and flat affect hinted to me that there was some degree of medicating although I had no other evidence of this.

This is going to sound a little cheesy in the way I describe it but, at the moment, I can’t think of any other way to describe it. You Vegas gamblers will appreciate the metaphor. While watching the inmates enter and listening to the sounds of their dorm, taking in the scents and the environment; it is as if a slot machine in my head is spinning different windows of stories to use, music to play and ideas towards facilitating conversation. Just before I am told that my audience is ready is the moment that the spinning abruptly halts and that jackpot that gamblers crave so desperately, hundreds of coins free falling; for me this moment is the epiphany revealing the right tale to tell, the music and words that will illicit engagement from my listeners.

I could see the trepidation in the eyes of a few of the councilors in allowing me to take over. After all, this was different, experimental… something that had not been tried before. I respected their apprehensions but also remembered that I came to do a job and my life is inextricably tied to my work. I took the reigns of control without hesitation and began presentation by playing my harp in a soothing manner, moving throughout the rows of small desk-chairs that the inmates were seated in, singing using very soft tones and alternating between the song and narrative. I opened this way because I thought it exhibited a level of vulnerability that might break the ice of unfamiliarity. While singing and playing I sought the eyes of the youth, surveying to see which of them were comfortable or uncomfortable with that level of intimacy. It is not surprising that most were not comfortable, only a few seemed to desire that level of engagement in the beginning.

At the end of the song, they all just sat there staring. For me, it was a beautiful silence. It’s hard to describe this specific type of silence, but let me try. There are two types of silence a performer may encounter at the close presenting their art form. One type is the silence equivalent to a comic that has just bombed, a very uncomfortable, intimidating, heavy silence filled with several dimensions negativity. The second is an awestruck, mesmerized silence as if you’ve just hypnotized your entire audience and they are still absorbing what you’ve just done. I have been on the receiving end of both so my sensibilities are quite clear in this area. My youth sat transfixed offering the second form of silence. I smiled, knowing that I had transcended the artificial barriers that segregated us… me as visitor, or performer, and them as inmates.

I proceeded with speaking, telling a few jokes and engaging them with questions interwoven within the tales. If anyone had been witness to their enthusiasm by the end of the performance they would have thought a miracle of transformation had occurred, that these youth had somehow overcome serious afflictions to finally feel themselves as part of our small, albeit, temporary community sharing music and stories. I would love to take credit for imbuing them with this moment of transcendence, but I can’t. The reality is that all human beings crave being acknowledged in some way, shape or form and the chance to have another human being view you with respect is the essence of interpersonal, social interaction. I simply filled a void that needed to be filled.

The rest of my visits throughout this long day elicited similar responses, some containing more laughter than others and music and tales changing depending on the dynamics of the group seated in front of me. Each group dictated my direction.

I would love to go into more detail of how each session occurred, the stories I was able to share, the youth’s response, questions and conversations but I respect my readers time and I’ve already run over what is probably the acceptable word length as far as bloggers are concerned.

I will sum this up by saying that my experience with these incarcerated youth was one of absolute positivity. I am not ignorant of the violence or harm that these youth have perpetuated on the innocent, nor am I in a state of denial about their need to be where they are. If we, as a society, are going to include the word “rehabilitate” in our vocabulary then we will need to clearly define what we mean by that and allow it to fall from the pages of our dictionaries into our lives. There are so many avenues available to touch the soul of another human being and if storytelling, music and other arts are, not only proficient at it, but exceptional, then we need to employ them more, not less, with our youth regardless of their station in life  or socio-economic conditions.

Warmest regards from your ubiquitous bard remembering I am because we are… aluta continua.

Baba the Storyteller

Dooni dooni kononi bè nyaga da.

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