An interview with Ashley Lucas
For 20 years, Ashley Lucas only saw her father when she visited him in prison. She is the author of Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass, a play about the families of prisoners, and co-editor of an essay collection called Razor Wire Women: Prisoners, Activists, Scholars and Artists.
She teaches at the University of Michigan, where she also directs the Prison Creative Arts Project – arts programming for, and a literary journal and annual exhibit by, incarcerated youth and adults.
This past summer Lucas took 12 University of Michigan students to lead theatre workshops at five prisons in Rio de Janero, Brazil. She has travelled the world to study prison theatre.
Christian Courier Editor Angela Reitsma Bick spoke with Lucas shortly after her father came home about what incarceration means for families, creativity within the criminal justice system and judgement vs. justice in the Bible.
What would you like to share about your family’s experience with incarceration?
We’re entering a new phase of my family’s life because my father has come home; it is an incredible joy. It has changed my life more than anything since he was sent to prison. Re-entry is not the end; it’s a new kind of beginning. It is both joyful and intensely painful to be forced to take stock of what actually happened in the last 20 years. My father served 20 years and five months and we will never get that time as a family back. There were things we marked as they were happening, and there are things we can only take stock of now. My wedding, any of my graduations, my sister giving birth to two children, who – until very recently – had never seen my father in any place other than prison, and my nephew is in college now.
We [also] remember different things. I expect him to remember certain things and he either doesn’t or remembers differently. Twenty years is a long time. The mark of disorientation that prison has left on all of us is really new and will take us a long time to figure out. How do you make sense of coming back to a life after decades of absence?
The things that my father takes joy in since he’s come home break my heart, because they’re so simple: to sit in the yard and water his plants, to see the sky, to eat with a real fork and sit on a real chair, on soft furniture. He’s 69 years old with profound osteoarthritis, and he slept for years on a two-inch foam on a concrete slab.
Does writing about people on the margins make a difference in their lives?
When I wrote my play, it was very selfish. I wasn’t necessarily trying to do something for other people; I was trying to do something for myself. I had spent about the first eight or nine years of my father’s incarceration feeling like I didn’t know anybody else who had family in prison except the people I would see at prison and members of my own family, and then I started doing all this reading to try and understand my father’s life, and realized there were 2.3 million people in prison in 2004 in the U.S. alone. And it didn’t make any sense to me. 2.3 million – all of whom presumably had ties with dozens of people in the outside world – how could it be that I didn’t know anyone who had a loved one in prison? Why wasn’t anybody talking about it?
I was interested in trying to figure out why we don’t look more like a community. Why, if we have such profound shared life experiences, we don’t get together and talk about or have shared activities or lobby as a group for our own interests. I couldn’t fathom how big this world of people who have a loved one in prison has to be – and yet we don’t talk about.
I started looking for and interviewing people who had family in prison. And I wrote this play – a series of 13 monologues based on those conversations, some of them imaginative, trying to tell as wide a range of stories as I could about what I was hearing. What does your family look like when there’s prison sitting in the middle of it? And how do we describe that to people? How do we make that experience alive and meaningful to people? Or to people who never knew this was a thing shaping the lives of so many around them? So I started trying to find a way to render that visible. In doing so, I realized that though it was a very healing process for me, and the play has given me immense blessings, it was also a thing I could do for other people. [The play is one of] very few places where family members of prisoners feel empowered to stand up and talk about their own experiences without fear of judgement or some kind of reprisal.
Does that desire for anonymity prevent any growth of community?
It does. That’s why I didn’t know I had a community for so many years. There are intense material consequences for sharing that you have a loved one in prison. It’s often really not a good idea to tell that to people. I had a teacher who I know loved me very much in high school who looked at a recommendation form I had given to apply to college. And I had put in the section that asked what my parents did for a living that my father was a prisoner and he said, “Oh no, you can’t say that, say he makes license plates.” But lying on these applications is a felony. People often thought they were shutting me up as a way to protect me. I’ve met prisoners’ wives who either lost their jobs or received threats about losing their jobs because people perceived them to be aligning themselves with criminals, that makes you unfit to be in a certain workplace. It’s a dangerous thing to try and “out” these people. I’ve been able to do it because I operate from a place of incredible privilege; I’m a university professor and I’m able to talk about my life in that way and not be stigmatized as much as working class people or people living in places where they’re more likely to be targeted by the police.
Are you a person of faith?
I’m a practicing Episcopalian, a rather devout one. I was raised in the Episcopal church and went to Episcopal middle school and Catholic high school, so faith has been a huge part of my life and of my education. And we live two doors down from our church now in Ann Arbor, [Michigan].
Justice is pivotal to so many passages in Scripture. Have your experiences shaped how you read the Bible?
I’m always struck by how easily we forget that Christ was a prisoner who was executed by the state. We gloss that over. I come from Texas, and Scripture gets quoted in the legislature a lot, particularly in discussions about justice or crime and punishment, and usually it’s on the side of condemning people more harshly. And I never cease to be startled by strategic uses of the Bible in that way, because my God is a God of love and compassion who sacrificed his only son to save me, and I don’t know how to reconcile interpretations of justice that insist we should be judging one another. I think the Bible says a lot about judgement and about how we should not be “casting the first stone.” I’m not saying we don’t need courts or laws, but I think that the death penalty is inexcusable, unjust and inhumane. If you are a Christian, you need to do some serious thinking and Bible reading to understand how the death penalty can sit with you as a Christian.
I also take the parts of the Bible that have to do with visiting people in prison very literally. I believe we are called upon, in the same way we are called upon to tend to the sick, to visit prisoners.
Sister Helen Prejean, the most famous anti-death penalty activist in the U.S., tells this story about how Jesus always sneaks up on her, making her do things she doesn’t want to do. She had always read those passages in the Bible encouraging – in fact, mandating – us to visit those in prison, and she would say to herself, well – prison can mean a lot of things. Shy people are kind of in their own prison; there are all sorts of circumstances in which people are “imprisoned.” And then she started corresponding with this man on death row and realized, “Oh no, there is a literal prison here. There are literal prisons all over the world.”
My work has taught me that the oppression that governments inflict on their people feel very familiar all over the world. The tenets of my faith that apply here motivate me to behave the same way in other parts of the world. What’s really startling about reading the Bible in terms of justice is to think of it as a historical document – we’ve been doing these things to people for thousands of years. We can’t seem to learn from it. We do become morally more progressive over time, but the fundamental injustices that we inflict on people are still there, and the things we’d like to say that we’ve morally moved beyond are just better hidden from us. We’re still killing people, and it’s still horribly cruel. The recently botched execution in Oklahoma [shows that] we are still torturing people. The folks running the prison at Abu Ghraib were trained by running prisons in the U.S. We will never know the kinds of torture that happen in the U.S. because we can’t get in, even government inspectors. We have the resources to keep it hidden better than in other countries.
Can you name some positive church initiatives related to incarceration?
There are so many great things happening in churches in connection with justice movements. We should not rest for a moment until the death penalty has been eradicated from our nation and the world. Whether we live in a country that practices the death penalty or not, that level of activism should be a part of all our churches.
I really love prison ministry programs that involve visiting with people rather than just evangelism. Evangelism is incredibly important, but there are a lot of people in prison who will sign up for faith-based activities because often these are the only activities allowed in the really restricted prisons. There are very few spaces where it’s safe to share information about yourself, because you live in a confined space where you see the same people all the time. And anything that people know about you can be used against you. I feel one of the greatest gifts we can give people is just to go and sit with them. Listen to what incarcerated people have to say about themselves and their own lives. I greatly admire the church programs that encourage people to go once a week and treat them as their brothers and sisters.
Tell me about the notion of art as a human right.
I don’t know why it isn’t more taken for granted, that art is a human right. So many civilizations before us, and there’s evidence of this in the Bible as well, but certainly the ancient Greeks and the ancient Romans, even though they were a pretty barbarous people – all of them understood that art was for the people, that everybody deserved to have access to the arts. That appreciating the beauty of the natural world and appreciating our talent to appreciate and reflect it is something particular to humanity that we should learn from and be a part of. There was story in the New York Times today about how a conservative politician in England has severely limited the ability of people to send books to British prisons, how much access people in the prisons have to literature and – thank goodness – there’s an outcry around the world from the literary community, because people see literature as a fundamental right. We are able to access our humanity through the arts, and also we learn and grow differently through the arts than we do through other educational structures.
We often hear about art being cut when school budgets need trimming; does the same principle apply to prisons?
Yes, absolutely. Very seldom do you see any prison programming where the arts are funded. California had for a time a writer-in-residence program at some of its facilities that was funded publically, but in the U.S. that is not historically one of our traditions. People in Scotland view arts practice in their schools and in their prisons as a thing that all people should have access to. Universities near prisons can bid for a contract for government dollars to teach in the prisons. I met a woman in Scotland who teaches theatre and her only students, that she’s paid to teach by the university system, are people in prison. But that’s not the case here – we don’t offer up government dollars to make sure people in prison have anything, much less the arts.
When you visit prisons around the world, what do you learn about humanity?
It’s remarkable that, despite vastly different legacies of things like colonialism and slavery and global politics, how much prisons turn out to be pretty much the same everywhere you go. The basic premise of locking people away from society and the natural world and the kinds of interactions we would perceive to be important to our socialization – the ways that cut people off from that look pretty much the same no matter where you go. If you look at the flip side of that, the way that we educate people around the world is really different – the way that we express what we value and what we hold dear has a certain level of commonality. It is so striking how much a prison feels like a prison no matter where you are.
How does your faith relate to what you’ve seen?
Our God teaches me that just as people are capable of incredibly bad things, our fundamental humanity is about goodness. Original sin is real, but there’s a reason God wanted to save us – we are things of beauty and compassion and we’re capable of incredible sacrifice on behalf of other people.
One of the things that prison has taught me is that we are often absolutist about the wrong things. That the way we are pressured by different forces by society and popular culture is to be pretty absolutist about things that are actually pretty murky and difficult. I would rather be absolutist about the beauty of humanity and the worthiness of every human being to live a good life.