A New Play Imagines the End of Isolation for All Incarcerated People

“The Box,” a play about solitary confinement in prison, is going on the road this summer as part of the “End of Isolation” tour. The play is written and directed by Sarah Shourd, one of three American hikers who were imprisoned by Iran from 2009 to 2010. It features formerly incarcerated actors, including John Neblett, who plays “Jake Juchau” in “The Box.” Truthout spoke to Shourd and Neblett about “The Box” and their hopes of moving audiences to understand one of the darkest experiences of prison. The tour kicks off in July with visits in Austin (July 15-17), Chicago (August 5-7), Detroit (August 9-10), Atlanta (September 2-4), and other cities along the way. Tickets are on sale now.

Brian Dolinar: Sarah, tell us about how you came up with “The Box.”

Sarah Shourd: I conceived of the play “The Box” after I got back from my own incarceration. I was held as a political hostage of the Iranian government, and I was in solitary confinement the entire time for 410 days. When I got back, I realized that solitary confinement was used in a completely routine fashion in the United States.

I was a journalist, and journalism didn’t feel visceral enough. I don’t think people’s minds are changed by facts. I think that people will find the facts that support the way they feel. And the way they feel is based on the experiences they have had in life. I think you need a new feeling to open yourself up to new facts.

The idea came from my colleague Jim Ridgeway, one of the cofounders of Solitary Watch, who was a dear friend. He saw that I had experience with participatory theater, this methodology from Brazil, Theater of the Oppressed, which I did a lot with in my 20s, and still do. We use it in engagement circles with the play. Jim said, “You should write a play.” I thought, “I guess I should, that sounds like something I should do.”

I started to travel around the country to visit people in solitary confinement. First, I wrote to people intensively for months and I asked them if they wanted to participate in the project. I sent them prompts. I visited 10 facilities across the country. I tried to see as many of the people I had been writing to as I could. I had a few interns. Luckily, I had some support from UC Berkeley, and we typed it all up, read through it all, and went into a creative, internal space for a while, and hammered out the play.

The play has had a few iterations, so what’s the purpose behind the most recent “End of Isolation” Tour?

Shourd: The play has been produced three times now in California. The play is inspired by the California prison hunger strike in 2013, which was the longest prison hunger strike in U.S. history. A historic settlement from a lawsuit came out of it that finally banned indefinite solitary confinement and put in a system of safeguards and step-down programs so that when people are put in solitary, there’s a way for them to get out. They are not just going to die in there or wait until they might get out of prison. The play contributed to a movement in California. State Sen. Mark Leno said that the buzz from the first production helped him push through legislation to ban solitary for youth in California.

We want to take that same visceral power and contribute to people fighting on the front lines around the country. We’ve reached out to organizations that are mostly led by formerly incarcerated, or system-impacted individuals, which are trying to pass legislation. We’re going to the states on the front lines to help them to bring in new audiences, start dialogue and make change.

How did you capture the experience of solitary, the sensory deprivation, in a play?

Shourd: It’s absurd to try. Because I don’t want to torture my audience. But I don’t want anyone to leave the theater thinking, “Oh, this is not a big deal, this is just like spending a day in your bedroom.” What the play captures is the unbearable intimacy of being celled next to someone for years and never seeing their face. It is the experience of being completely alone, of being overwhelmed by the lack of positive stimulus, and the overwhelmingly negative stimulus around you. You are in a pod with mentally ill people that have no business being there in the first place. You are subjected to their screams, their crying, banging. The play shows the horror to the degree that is fair to our audiences.

More importantly, the play shows the humanity of the people being subjected to solitary, their incredible bravery and courage, and what’s possible in there. These people just don’t give up on life, they don’t give up on resistance and they don’t give up on themselves.

Many people in the audience come up to me afterwards. Often formerly incarcerated people feel empowered, they give me a high five and say, “You nailed it! That’s exactly what the guy’s cell next to me was like, how’d you know?” It’s the power of witness — to have something that’s so invisibilized, so hidden, be witnessed collectively, and then have everyone stand up and applaud them.

John, how did you get involved in “The Box”?

John Neblett: I caught the acting bug in 2006 when I started performing with the Marin Shakespeare Company while I was incarcerated at San Quentin prison in California. In 1984, I killed a man and was sentenced to 15 to life. I did almost 30 years; I’ve been out since 2015. I formed friendships with the community volunteers in the Marin Shakespeare Company, that’s really been my support network.

I knew Lesley Currier, the managing director of the company, who introduced me to Sarah Shourd. Then, in 2016, Jared Rudolph (founder of the Prisoner Reentry Network) brought me to the premier of “The Box.” I never knew I would be in the show as a performer. I later got a call from Lesley — they needed another actor for “The Box,” so I jumped at it. After three interviews, I got the job.

I never did time in solitary, but I can still get into my funks, I can get hardcore depression. You have to have some kind of support system. You have to find purpose in your life to get out of that desolation.

What are your hopes for the “End of Isolation” Tour this summer?

Neblett: I’m happy to be traveling, making connections with my friends in the cast. It’s good for my soul, holding me together, keeping me away from that funk that’s killing other guys that are getting out.

I’m hoping we meet new audiences. The audience is likely to be people in the choir who are already sympathetic. What I’d like to do is I’d like to move people to activism.

I’d also like to keep going with my acting. I’m still working with the Returned Citizens Theatre Troupe, doing shows based on our life experiences.

Have you thought about any parallels between your experience of solitary in Iran and the widespread use of solitary in the United States?

Shourd: We practice solitary in the United States on a far greater scale, astronomically greater than Iran, or any other country. We use it as a control mechanism that enables mass incarceration has gotten so completely out of control. Even a lot of Republicans, “tough-on-crime” people, are saying that this has not worked. It’s not serving the public’s desire for safety. It’s doing the opposite.

Solitary confinement is very similar in this country to what it is in Iran. Twenty-two to 23 hours in a cell with a window that’s covered with a perforated plate. One hour in an open-air cell. It’s exactly what I experienced in Iran, what a lot of people here are experiencing. I was in indefinite solitary; I didn’t know if I would get out or how long I’d be there. That’s true for a lot of people in this country too. The difference I think is just the scale. The scale in this country is truly shocking.

In Iran, they put me in solitary because they didn’t want me to be able to learn from the other prisoners or get information out, so it was more for security reasons. They didn’t want me to leak out what I learned from other prisoners, what was happening to the women inside. That’s not a common reason here, except in cases of political prisoners. We could draw the parallel. A lot of people are put in “the hole” in the U.S. because they are organizing, or they have power, and they are put in solitary to silence them, and to break them. So that’s a parallel you could draw.

Can you talk about producing the play in the midst of the pandemic? Both how you’ve staged the play as immersive, or as a socially-distanced set up. As well, solitary or isolation, 23 hours-a-day, has been the widespread response to the pandemic in prisons and jails. How has the play become even more relevant during the pandemic?

Shourd: Solitary Watch and The Marshall Report released a report that found the use of solitary confinement during the pandemic went up 500 percent.

The pandemic was a reckoning for a lot of people around the harmful effects of isolation in their own lives, being separated from loved ones during quarantine.
It’s definitely a moment to ask ourselves: What is it about our culture that we believe that separation is a necessary thing that makes us safer? Whether it’s separating ourselves from each other in the little boxes of our homes, and not creating enough community spaces. Or what we do to people inside prison.

A lot of people are coming out of the pandemic having experienced some kind of internal transformation. But the laws are still the same, and institutions are still the same. It’s important for us to come together and envision something. We want to hold onto this time of reflection about what’s important in life, what we need, what we mean to each other.