“Immersive and Transformative” Play About Solitary Confinement Tours the Country

An Interview with Playwright, Activist, and Solitary Survivor Sarah Shourd

by | July 21, 2022

The BOX is billed as an immersive and transformative theater experience that takes audiences inside a solitary confinement unit in a U.S. prison. The “End of Isolation Tour” is bringing the play to ten venues across the country this summer, with cast and crew traveling in a converted school bus. It is intended as “a means to reach audiences to enact political change (legislative art) and to engage people to promote healing through drama and artistic ritual (therapeutic theater).”  The tour is presented by the Pulitzer Center, with National Partner Unlock the Box and ten local Community Partners.

I spoke by phone with the writer and director of The BOX, Sarah Shourd, a playwright, journalist, activist, and survivor of 410 days in solitary confinement in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison, where she was held in 2009-10 after being seized while hiking near the border in Iraqi Kurdistan. Since her return, she has devoted her work to ending solitary confinement in the United States. When we spoke on July 15th, Shourd and her cast and crew were preparing for opening night of the End of Isolation Tour in Austin, Texas. Future stops on the tour are Fayetteville, Arkansas; St. Louis; Chicago; Detroit; Phildelphia; Baltimore; Washington, DC; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; and Atlanta.

SPECIAL OFFER: Sarah Shourd is a longtime contributor and friend to Solitary Watch, which is an Organizational Ally for the End of Isolation Tour. Tickets are available to Solitary Watch readers at a 20% discount. Use code Impact20 when purchasing tickets to all performances via the EIT website.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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To start off, can you give me a short timeline of the play and all of the evolutions it has been through?

We first produced the play in 2016, at Z-Space in San Francisco. Then we produced it on Alcatraz Island in the former penitentiary in 2019. And then we did a Zoom production with the Pulitzer Center last year in 2021. Now, the End of Isolation tour’s happening in 2022.

It feels very aligned with the moment that we’re in, in this country, and in the world. There’s resonance to a play about isolation and resistance to injustice. A play about people coming together across racial lines and divisions feels more and more relevant all the time.

I’d like to ask you about your experience of writing the work. Would you be willing to tell me about how your experience relates to it?

When I got back from prison in 2010, I wasn’t surprised to learn that solitary confinement was used in our carceral system. But I was shocked to find out that it was used on such a large scale. We have more people in solitary confinement per capita than any country in the world, except maybe Israel. And we use it as a routine control mechanism. 

So my own experience as a political hostage in Iran definitely was the inspiration for my investigation into solitary confinement, and my motivation is very much the fact that this is my country. These are my neighbors. People in my community are being harmed in a way that is counterproductive to any semblance of progress, including our collective safety or health. 

The practice of mass incarceration affects every single person in this country. And my own experience makes it so that I can’t look away in the way that a lot of other people of privilege and white people in this country can.

In writing the play, you worked with other survivors of solitary confinement? What did they add?

Yes, it’s a collaborative piece. Every word is based on input from someone that’s either currently in solitary confinement or has been, and that includes the actors. Half of our cast is system-impacted, and formerly incarcerated. It includes my community, the dozen people that I initially interviewed and visited around the country. 

And it also includes the audience. A lot of times, formerly incarcerated people come and they say, “Hey, I love that part. But I feel like he would have said this.” And I’m always open. The script has been evolving and being distilled and filtered through the direct experience of just dozens and dozens of people. It’s amazing to be able to bring all of that together. 

Did you find any of that surprising? People’s different experiences of solitary?

What happens to people in solitary confinement, on a human level, on a physiological level, on a cognitive and psychological level, is pretty universal. The ways that people respond to extreme conditions of isolation are similar across the board. It doesn’t matter what country you’re in, what your background is, what your reason [for being there] is. Solitary confinement affects the frontal lobe and it actually decreases people’s ability to make good choices. It makes people more reactive, more in survival mode, and more likely to rely on unhealthy ways of dealing with their emotions and trying to get their needs met. 

“No matter how hard the carceral state tries to divide us and isolate us, humans always find incredibly inventive and creative ways to work around those limitations.”

So every one of the survivors that I’ve spoken to in this country rely on very similar things to what I did in my own experience: a belief system that helps you hang on to some kind of shred of hope. People will count inside their cells, count every line, count every hole in the perforated metal plate, count their body parts, start to have relationships with their body parts. 

So a lot of what the play is trying to capture is that we, as humans, are not built to survive in the conditions of isolation; that were relational. And the beautiful thing is that humans, no matter how hard the carceral state tries to divide us and isolate us, humans always find incredibly inventive and creative ways to work around those limitations. And so the play is really essentially about how people find each other, despite any obstacles that might be presented.

You chose to feature in the plot a mass hunger strike, which seems inspired by the Pelican Bay hunger strikes in California. Why was it important for that to be in this story?

Well, when I got out of prison, I came back to my home state of California, where [in 2013,] there was the largest prisoner hunger strike in U.S. history, which led to sweeping reforms in California. And that was really powerful, and very empowering for me to connect my own suffering to something much larger than myself. 

California is still egregious when it comes to mass incarceration and solitary confinement, but we are much better than we were before that resistance. In the end, the collective resistance across racial lines really shifted the story in California. For the younger generation inside prisons, I’ve heard a lot of people say that once there was that victory, for a lot of people it changed the story about what’s possible, as far as resistance inside prisons goes. 

The whole design of this tour is “legislative art.” So his play has had an impact in California. And now we’re going to the places across the country that are on the frontlines, imagining a world without prisons and the torture of solitary confinement. And, you know, a play about resistance is a pretty powerful thing to ground our conversations in. 

Even beyond the carceral state, [there is] resistance in this moment in our country to the failure of a lot of our institutions, and the division among Americans is being exacerbated. This is a play about people coming together, beyond racial divisions. And I think that’s something that almost anyone in this country could get some meaning out of in the times that we’re living through.

I found myself really interested in the Officer Jones character that you created. What inspired you to write into the story a prison guard who seems to struggle with the nature of his work?

My experience when I was incarcerated was that a lot of the guards struggled with their work. And a lot of the guards that I interacted with struggled to justify what they had to do. In my case, it was because they knew that I was being used as a tool between governments. Officer Jones relates most to the other Black man, who’s been in the pod for a really long time, because they came from the same kind of background. And one of them, you know, ended up in a solitary confinement cell for 19 years, and the other one ended up with the key to that cell, and with the job of enforcing that punishment. 

I think that it’s important to show that most guards are, I’ll say, victims of the carceral state. They have choice. Free will and choice are real. People are accountable for the choices they make, or should be. And at the same time, the choices we make are limited by the conditions and the circumstances we find ourselves in. A lot of guards literally have no other, or very little other option. Correctional officers often come from families that had been connected to or employed in the law enforcement field for sometimes generations. 

Can you imagine a world in which we don’t rely on mass incarceration? Can you imagine a life in which you don’t rely on the idea of punishment as a solution?”

But there are many ways that we all strengthen and perpetuate systems of inequality. For me, as a white person, I have to be very aware of the ways that I’m reinforcing structures and behaviors and norms of white supremacy. If I don’t do the work of building awareness around that, I’m going to do it without even knowing it. And I think that a lot of people can relate to being in that position where you’re against something, and yet you’re still doing it. 

Because, you know, this is the ocean that we live in. White supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Heteronormativity is the ocean that we live in. And so Officer Jones definitely sees that what he’s doing is wrong, and has very little leeway to influence that. But he does what he can, and I wanted to acknowledge that. 

A lot of that is actually what we’re calling on the audience to do as well. A lot of people, when it comes to mass incarceration, are completely overwhelmed by the problem. And what our tour is asking people to do is start with questioning your fundamental beliefs. Can you imagine a world in which we don’t rely on mass incarceration—you know, the incarceration of millions of majority black and brown and poor white bodies? Can you imagine a life in which you don’t rely on the idea of punishment as a solution? A world in which you don’t judge people for the worst thing that they’ve ever done, and you see the full spectrum of a human being? 

So, yeah, I’m glad you brought up Officer Jones, I do think that a lot of people might relate to his character. Because since all of us have jobs, we’re all in a position where we might not think it’s our fault, what’s going on around us. But we might not know, we might not think what we can do is enough. 

My favorite quote, that has been really on my mind a lot lately, is from Angela Davis: “We must act as if we can radically transform the world. And we must do it every day.” And so that’s sort of the call to the audience. Let’s get outside of this mentality that we can’t fix this, because just 30 years ago, 35 years ago, we didn’t have mass incarceration in this country. And that’s not that long ago. So, this idea that it’s never going to go away so we might as well give up, that’s what we’re fighting against. We are challenging ourselves, and our audiences too, to open the space for transforming their own limitations.

What has the reception been for this play since its inception? And have you learned anything from audience members? 

Well, generally speaking, people of privilege, white people that come to the show are shocked. And I think that is actually a really important kind of opening for a lot of people that don’t understand the horror of what’s happening in our prisons, that it is shocking when you find out about it. And when you experience it in your body, it’s such a visceral way. 

People that are survivors of mass incarceration are often very empowered, because the act of bearing collective witness is inherently empowering. And what we try to do is find the right balance of showing the horror of the practice and the humanity of the people that are being subjected to it. People come up to me that saw the production in 2016, and they say, I still remember that character, I think about that guy.

So that’s one of the things about theater that’s so important. There’s other ways that you can reach more people, but it’s quality versus quantity. We live in this world where everything has to be about how many clicks, how big of a platform you get. The smaller the platform, in a sense, the better. Because each person in our audience is special. And each person in our audience is part of the show—the set is designed to be immersive. So you are experiencing this reality in a way that can change you.

And that’s been shown time and again, by the response that we’ve gotten from audiences across California. Story affects the same part of your brain as lived experience. It’s powerful and embodied and visceral, walking in the shoes of people that are experiencing this. And I think that makes it very hard to look away the next time you are presented with a choice around what to vote for, who to talk to, what stance to take in your community. I think that experience can and does influence your future actions, that kind of intimate and humanizing experience of incarceration.

I want to close by asking you: What can people do who come to see your play? Or who watch the recording, and get frustrated and start to have this humanizing experience? Or have it again, after having experienced incarceration? What can they do? 

Yeah, definitely. I want to respond to that. But I also want to make a point, that this word ‘humanizing’ is something I’m trying to actually move away from. I think that it’s really important to note that audiences are humanizing themselves. We can’t humanize someone else. They’re already humans, right? But we can humanize ourselves. It’s just such an important distinction, because incarcerated people are already humans. And so a play can’t change that or make it true. But I think that all of us can be humanized, by the experience of broadening our understanding and empathy of the world. 

And so as far as action: the Unlock the Box campaign is our National Partner. In every place we go to, there is a different call to action. And all of that can be found on our website at https://endofisolationtour.org/. All of the actions that we are supporting are aimed at ending solitary confinement, in line with the value of decarceration. The fewer people that are in our prisons, the fewer people will be tortured by solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is an inevitable control mechanism that arises from mass incarceration, which is warehousing millions of human beings. It’s impossible to do that without the threat of torture. All of our calls to action elevate the value of decarceration and the strategy of decarceration above all else.


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