I was not able to make it to our last planned visit- the first visit to Decatur, following Lele’s transfer from Logan- so I was beyond excited to hear we would be watching her in a theater performance of Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
None of us knew Lele had played the cello when she was younger and the prison wasn’t even sure they would be able to host the performance until some last-minute monetary donations were made (see: Rauner State Budget). Shakespeare Corrected was inspired by Shakespeare Behind Bars program in Kentucky and their mission is to “create a theatrical experience intended to inspire transformation and redemption in students, participants and their families.” Alex Miller is responsible for this particular program at Decatur Correctional Center, and he made sure to drill that information into the audience when he delivered his self-congratulatory monologue, prior to the performance.
After wrestling our way through a crowded, yet lax security line, the three of us immediately made our way to the front of the stage for the best seats. Its funny, when someone you love is featured in a production, you instantly picture them at center stage- the star of the show- regardless of their role. I had imagined Lele sitting upright in a formal, black orchestra chair, sheet music in front of her, in plain view of the auditorium. Reality struck when she came in through the back doors with the rest of the musical performers and was ushered behind the stadium-style seats. It was early enough for us to change seats towards the back so we could at least crane our necks to watch our girl deliver the soundtrack.
Before everyone had settled, Lele snuck up on us for some big hugs and gave us the few treats she had in her sweat pant pockets- 2 peppermints and a grape jolly rancher. I took the jolly rancher- a reminder of my elementary and middle school days when teachers passed them out as rewards for good work. We were all in great spirits and Lele RADIATED- a much healthier and happier glow than when I had last seen her at Logan a few months ago. She motioned at the other members of the orchestra and exclaimed, “they’re all my friends!”
Decatur is certainly less abysmal, cleaner and less depressing than Logan Correctional. Lele let us know that the food was significantly better- none of that awful soy-based product that was making her sick. However, the rules are different at Decatur and Lele has not been able to visit with her mother as she had at Logan. The folks working on her case are trying to overcome this arbitrary hurdle, but for now her mother is not able to see, laugh with or hug her own daughter.
After the performance we were given the opportunity to take individual and group pictures with Lele. A faulty digital camera, operated by an incompetent dude with wrap-around sunglasses on his backwards baseball hat, was used to take the shots- each of us posing with Lele- being silly, cute and full of feelings. After the photos (which must be purchased by the inmates separately- not complimentary gifts) we again took seats and surrounded Lele as we all chatted and tried to catch up with the little remaining time we had left. Some of the other performers approached us and Lele introduced us all- making sure to compliment them on a truly impressive performance. Lele gestured to her close friend, a fellow inmate, who came by with her visiting 8 year-old daughter to say “hello.” It was awesome to have the ability to move around inside the auditorium, mixing with prisoners and their families, in comparison to the heavy monitoring and isolation of the visitor’s room at Logan.
We could not stay as long as we would have liked this time around. Since the process of separating inmates and visitors to be escorted into Decatur’s visitation room is never quick, we eventually had to say goodbye to our friend. A C.O. appeared through the door and we were told we had to clear the theater. Once we were back in the car, Red posed a question to us.They asked us to imagine having been through trauma or committed a crime which resulted in incarceration. They then asked to imagine what it would be like to have art, group projects, creative processes and reflection as a predominant form of healing and personal growth, rather than cell blocks, unpaid labor and miserable confinement. We all confidently agreed it would be a much better world if that were the case.