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. Sarah Shourd, one the three American hikers imprisoned in Iran between 2009 and 2010, wrote and directed the play. 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 begins in July with stops at Austin (July 15-17), Chicago (8-8), Detroit (9-10), Atlanta (September 2-5), and other cities. Tickets are available 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 prisoner by the Iranian government and was kept in isolation for 410 days. When I got back, it became clear that solitary confinement in the United States was routinely used.

I was a journalist, and journalism didn’t feel visceral enough. I don’t think people’s minds are changed by facts. I believe that people will find the facts that are in line with their feelings. How they feel is influenced by their life experiences. To be open to new facts, you need a new feeling.

Jim Ridgeway, one cofounder of the company, suggested the idea to me. Solitary WatchHe was a close friend. He was impressed by my experience with participatory theatre, the methodology from Brazil, Theater of the Oppressed. This is something I still do a lot with, even though it was not as common in my 20s. It is used in engagement circles along with the play. Jim said, “You should write a play.” I thought, “I guess I should, that sounds like something I should do.”

I began to travel the country to visit those in solitary confinement. I first wrote to people for months, asking them if they would like to be involved in the project. I sent them prompts. I visited 10 facilities in the country. I made every effort to see as many people as possible. I had a few interns. Fortunately, I had some support from UC Berkeley. We wrote it all up, went through it all, and then we got into a creative, private space and hammered it out.

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

ShourdThe play has been staged in California three times. The play was inspired by the California prison hunger strike2013 was the longest prison hunger strike in American history. It resulted in a landmark settlement through a lawsuit, which finally banned indefinite solitary confinement. step-down programs so that when people are put in solitary, there’s a way for them to get out. They won’t just die there, but they will also be able to escape prison. California was helped by the play. State Senator Mark Leno claimed that the buzz generated by the first production helped him to pass legislation banning solitary youth in California.

We want to have the same visceral power as those fighting for justice and to be able to help them. 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 could you capture the feeling of solitary, or 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’s the feeling of being completely alone and being overwhelmed by the lack or negative stimuli around you. You are surrounded by mentally ill people who don’t deserve to be there. You are subjected their screams, crying, and banging. The play shows the horror in a way that is fair to our audience.

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 come up to me after the show. 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: In 2006, I was bitten by the acting bug and began performing with the Marin Shakespeare CompanyWhile I was in San Quentin prison, California. I was sentenced for 15 years to death in 1984 for killing a man. 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.

Lesley Currier, the managing Director of the company, introduced me to Sarah Shourd. In 2016, Jared Rudolph (founder and CEO of the) introduced me to Sarah. 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, the job was mine.

I never spent any time in solitude, but I can still get into my funks. I can also get depressed. You need some sort of support system. To get out of this despair, you must find meaning in your life.

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. People in the choir will be able to sympathize with us. 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 TroupeShows based on our personal experiences.

Are there any parallels between your experiences in Iran with solitary and the widespread use in the United States of solitary?

Shourd: In the United States, we practice solitary on a much larger scale than Iran or any other country. It is used as a control mechanism to allow mass incarceration to get so 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.

This country is very similar to Iran’s solitary confinement. Twenty-two to 23 hours in a cell with a window that’s covered with a perforated plate. One hour in an open-air cells. 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 believe, is just the scale. This country is truly astonishing in its scale.

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. This could be a 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 how the play was produced in the midst the pandemic? Both how you’ve staged the play as immersive, or as a socially-distanced set up. Solitary or isolated living, for 23 hours a day, was the most common response to the pandemic in prisons. How did the pandemic make the play more relevant?

ShourdSolitary Watch and The Marshall ReportUnpublished report reveals that the use of isolation confinement during the pandemic increased 500 percent.

Many people had to face the reality of isolation and being separated from their 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 inside prison to prisoners.

Many people are emerging from the pandemic having undergone some internal transformation. However, the laws and institutions remain 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.