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Cecelia Kouma stands in front of a prison cell at the Jail Museum
Cecelia Kouma at a planning meeting for The Cell Plays at the Jail Museum. (Photo by Peter Merts)

Writing and acting in plays during incarceration, or after it, can be empowering and helpful for someone’s rehabilitation.

Playwrights Project, a San Diego-based nonprofit, has been actively using art as a tool for rehabilitation in the California prison system for several years. It’s one way to humanize us folks behind bars. 

Its groundbreaking production “The Cell Plays” for La Jolla Playhouse’s Art Without Walls Festival takes place in the old, decommissioned San Diego County Jail. Professionals act out single-scene, inmate-written plays related to the trauma of incarceration.

I sat down with the executive director of Playwrights Project, Cecelia Kouma, to talk about art that is borne of incarceration. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What does Playwrights Project represent to you?

Cecelia Kouma: It represents an opportunity for people to discover their voices and analyze what that they’re curious about and struggle with, expressing things in a way that isn’t solitary but communal.

Q: How important is creative writing in relation to mental health?

Kouma: I think that creative writing is essential to mental health. It’s an opportunity to get those thoughts circulating out of your head and help you come to different answers and conclusions that you may not have otherwise. With theater in particular, you’re not just burying thoughts in a journal; you are speaking them out loud, where other people give them energy and emotion. And so it helps change your perspective on these thoughts and helps you get past the cyclical, repetitive mindset that can bog you down.

Five people stand in front of a prison cell in "The Cell Plays"
Photo courtesy of La Jolla Playhouse

Q: What are your hopes for the future of rehabilitative writing in California state prisons?

Kouma: Where do I begin? I hear that there are changes afoot from Sacramento looking at the prison system in a more rehabilitative way. My hope is that there will be all sorts of writing opportunities and ways for everyone to get involved in getting a healthy outlook on their feelings — expressing themselves in new and emerging opportunities. 

Q: In a previous conversation you mentioned how you and your peers in the San Diego arts community don’t consider us inmates or prisoners but rather incarcerated persons. Please expand on that. 

Kouma: I would even say “people who are incarcerated” — putting the person first rather than the label. Because we are all people first and foremost and we should recognize that. … People-first language is really important in terms of restorative justice. It’s important in terms of everything, including people with disabilities and people with justice involvement. Because we are about recognizing our shared humanity.

Q: What female writer, producer or director has been the most influential to you in your career?

Kouma: Lauren Gunderson is the most-produced playwright. I just listened to an interview with her done by Tori Rice and Mabelle Reynoso, who are part of Playwrights Project and host a podcast called “Hey Playwright.” She just has a wonderful perspective on writing and authorship. She says: “I don’t have a way to look at death, so I produce stories that let me face my life and my mortality.” 

Q: What changes have you seen in participants from Day 1 through the end of the writing cycle?

Kouma: Oh, well, I was just out on the yard and I saw one of our participants who transferred from a higher-level yard. I have seen a huge change in people in terms of growth. Mostly I see people more willing to step outside of their comfort zone and express themselves freely with their emotion and their talents in acting and writing.

Q: What would you like the community outside to know about incarcerated writers?

Kouma: They’re wicked smart. Compassionate and creative. They are human beings, just like the rest of us. Yes, they’ve made mistakes, but they have also proven that they are capable of learning from those mistakes — growing as people and understanding why they made those mistakes, then taking action never to repeat them again.

Q: What do you hope to see in the future for the incarcerated community in the state of California related to criminal justice, reform and rehabilitation?

Kouma: I would definitely like the criminal justice system to be looking at sentencing, and to not have such harsh sentences. To also have more opportunity from day one for people to access positive programs and to be able to contribute to society and grow as people. I’d also like to get rid of LWOP [life without parole] and, of course, end the death penalty.

We had a district attorney who came to one of the very first plays we did outside. She said that prior to seeing the play she thought that she had been fair in the length of the sentences she administered, and when she saw the play she saw that she was really overlooking the causative factors. It resonated with her regarding some of the individuals she had sentenced. 

It had made her think about the length of the sentences she administered, looking at the people behind the sentences — and that was just from watching a play. That was before we had folks who had been previously incarcerated who could come in and talk about their experiences. 

Some people say that, after the plays, their favorite part is the talk back because then they can hear firsthand the reflections behind the story. They aren’t better than the plays themselves, but they add a different level of depth and understanding in which you can hear individuals talking about the plays and the reasons behind them.

Q: Is there anything you would like to add?

Kouma: I think that I can speak on behalf of all the teaching artists when I say that we learn more than we teach. Because we feel so honored and privileged to engage in storytelling with the participants and offer some tools for crafting their voices into plays. They provide us a remarkably unique way to reflect on ourselves, each other and the world.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Daniel X. Cohen is a comedy and drama writer and is currently working on screenplays and short stories. He serves as a facilitator for self-help groups. He is currently incarcerated in California.