“Sucker for a tomato!” I can’t tell you how many times I repeated that line over and over from 2003 to 2006. I guess I better explain a little. I spent 12 years at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California, where every morning, rain or shine, most of the girls would line up outside of their housing unit, make a single-file line and walk to the chow hall. The walk there was usually pretty quiet. Most women weren’t very talkative after sleeping on a one-inch plastic mattress, sharing a 16×16 foot cell which included 4 sets of bunk beds, two sinks, a shower, and eight lockers, with seven other women and a whole lot of interesting noises during the night. Not to mention having to get out of bed at 6 am to walk in the cold to the chow hall.
When you’re doing time, you either need to get up and go to the chow hall, or if you’re fortunate enough, you can buy enough food on canteen so you can make meals in your room. My girlfriend (who through the journey became my life partner) and I were luckily enough to not have to go. I despised the chow hall and it took almost an act of God to get me up to go. In 2003 I had already done nine years there, and to say I was sick of the chow hall was an understatement. So whenever we could we made our own meals.
As crazy as it sounds, one of my most favorite memories is when everyone except my girlfriend and I went to dinner. She was a wiz when it came to taking whatever they sold on canteen and turning it into the most delicious dish. That’s pretty hard to do when your stove is an old plastic bowl filled with water, the food you want to cook is in a plastic bag, and you boil your food by dropping what’s called a stinger into the bowl which heats the water. Often, when the chow hall was serving something terrible, we would cook for the entire room and have what we called family night. In prison you look for whatever normalcy you can find, and more times than not you have to create it yourself. Cooking dinner was the best you could do.
No matter how much I despised going to the chow hall, there was one thing that could get me to happily get up and go, and that one thing was tomato day. It was very difficult to get fruits or vegetables that weren’t either on the verge of no longer being edible, or were so unripe and hard you couldn’t eat it for a week. So once a week when they would give us a tomato in our lunch, I knew that my girlfriend Teresa would work her magic and make me the most delicious tomato and macaroni dish I had ever tasted. Even to this day, I haven’t tasted anything as good in the free world as the dish she made me in prison.
Now you’re probably thinking that I say sucker for a tomato because I loved the dish she made. However it’s not that simple. When Teresa made me her special tomato dish we needed at least seven to eight tomatoes, which was just about impossible to get being you were only given one. Who in their right mind would give up a ripe tomato in prison? Not many people I tell you. However everyone knew that all the new girls who just came in from county jail would be craving anything sweet. So when we would shop canteen I would buy forty suckers. Then on the way back from chow hall I would stand back a little so the officer wouldn’t see me holding up the line. There I would be holding ten suckers in my hand, arm raised up, yelling, “Sucker for a tomato!” Being that other women also wanted to trade things for tomatoes you couldn’t just quietly stand there and ask someone for their tomato. The key was to imagine those old black and white movies where the guy with the hat stands on the street corner selling newspapers yelling, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” So there I was, hand held high with suckers, yelling, “Sucker for a tomato!” One by one a happy customer would snatch the sucker out of my hand and I would take that precious tomato.
It didn’t matter what kind of day I had on tomato day, because I knew that later that night, even for just an hour or so it would feel like home again.
Our first workshop teaching comedy to women in prison was done in late September, and it was an AMAZING weekend. We were able to teach comedy to nearly 60 women and see them overcome fears, shyness, and a lifetime of hurt to channel their life experiences through the comedic filter and make quality comedy. I am in awe of our instructors and students. I am grateful for the prison staff for being accommodating and doing everything they could to make the weekend a success.
Here is a short account of the weekend:
On Friday night, our improv instructor, Chris, taught about 1-1/2 hours of improv, and I really felt within minutes all the women (about 28 of them) were completely immersed in the exercises, laughing, and all but forgot they were in prison. It was very heartening.
The next day, Saturday, stand-up teacher Kurtis started teaching just like he taught me when I attended his comedy school. He has a great system of teaching, and weaves in a LOT of humor and jokes in his presentation. The students laughed and were entertained, but took in everything. They were open and ernest, and each of them did well in the exercises, such as being interviewed on stage. They were receptive, courageous and awesome.
Also on Saturday, Chris went to a different room in the prison and taught improv to women in four different 1-hour classes. I saw one of those classes and was amazed at the responsiveness and inventiveness of the students. Some of these women were well into their 60s, and some may have been in their 70s. (We were hoping to teach improv to at least 70 students in this setting, but only around 30 could make it due to complications in the prison environment. I wish I understood more of how things work inside prison, but suffice to say, both staff and inmates tried their best to get as many students to these classes as possible.)
Then on Sunday, Kurtis and Joan, our second stand-up instructor, worked with the women on their individual sets, reminding them of the topics of their interviews and other exercises from the day before and helping them hone and punch up their jokes. In preparation for their grad show, Kurtis found out which of the 28 stand-up students wanted to concentrate on stand-up and who was more into improv. Kurtis worked with the stand-up performers and alternated for stage time with Chris rehearsing with the improv gals. Some women did both.
Friends, you wouldn’t believe how good the grad show was!
Joan MC’d, really got things warmed up, and showed by example what a good stand-up comic does by connecting on many levels with the audience, as she did all weekend with the students. The show alternated between stand-up sets and improv exercises. Everyone did so well, and several of the women doing stand-up were excellent! Real naturals! The audience was made up of the stand-up students, the improv students from the 1-hour improv classes, and some staff. Lots of big laughs, lots of applause, lots of glowing faces.
The whole weekend was beyond my expectations. I am very pleased we had such a successful first endeavor!
I have often said that spending time in prison is like a soldier going off to war with a few major differences. As a felon there is no pride like going off to war to serve your country. No integrity for the person you are, only shame for the person you have become, followed by the gripping fear knowing you have hurt someone somehow and not knowing how to make that right.
Many people have asked me why then I say it’s like going off to war, and this is my answer. From the moment you step off that bus and the gates lock behind you, in that very instant, something changes. It feels like you just parachuted out of a plane and landed in hostile territory, where, with every step you take, you don’t know who is friend or foe. Every day not knowing if you will survive.
Your intentions are to serve your time while becoming a better person than you were before. To acknowledge your wrongdoings and work through the issues that caused you to get to prison in the first place.
The problem is that to do these things, you have to have the emotional tools to work through these issues. It’s pretty hard to dig deep and bare your soul in a battlefield. Trust me when I say that every day in prison is a physical and emotional battlefield. Your first priority everyday is just to survive.
Many women in prison have somehow—thru life, relationships, or other issues—lost their voice. And in prison, you are taught to just keep your mouth shut and do your time. Every day you are afraid to express your feelings not knowing who you may piss off.
Many people may not realize that California has shut down most educational and self-help classes. Most inmates leave prison with the same issues they came in with, which unfortunately usually results in them coming back again. This is why I feel Laughing on the Inside is such a unique and amazing idea. To be able to teach these women self-expression, humor, and public speaking is an amazing gift. I know without a doubt that Laughing on the Inside can encourage these women, give them the confidence they need and help them find their voice. It won’t change the entire world, but it will change the way the women see the world. A world they can now express themselves in.
Today three letters arrived in a single envelope, with carefully selected and placed postage stamps that said, “Love” and “Celebrate.” The envelope was addressed in a beautiful hand using purple ink. The return address was a California women’s prison.
I’d requested contact with women inmates to hear their impressions of our nonprofit and its first objective; to bring comedy instructors to teach the women improvisational comedy and stand-up. Knowing as little as I do about prison life, I expected them to say something guarded and light, along the lines of, “Sure, we could use a good laugh around here.”
But the women went so much deeper than that, addressing issues such as remorse, poor choices, emotional self-imprisonment, broken spirits, and physical and emotional scars.
Their wisdom is apparent as they wrote about healing, communication, inner strength, recovery, self-worth, and the unifying power of laughter. They explained how a program such as ours would be a welcome part of their healing journey, and that they will use the skills we teach immediately and when they reintegrate into society.
Their letters, which you can read here, helped me realize that the environment inside prison is at once dismal and transformational. That many of the women there work hard to understand themselves and their past actions, focus on improving themselves, and gain integrity in the process. And they become much wiser people. They are doing what they know needs to be done as they guide themselves and each other toward becoming the people they want to be.
The women also mentioned their need for laughter itself to give them hope, lift their spirits, and raise morale. I imagine there are moments of true lightness in women’s prison, but I’ll bet that is the exception. We intend to treat them to the transformational power of laughter, and teach them the skills to create that for themselves. We look forward to experiencing what they create.