07 April 2016

Member's review of a play about solitary confinement

(This post was written by longtime Group 342 member and current organizer, Barbara. Although it is not a writeup of an official Group 342 event, it does relate to our group's discussions on and work again solitary confinement policies.)


Doing Time in Solitary

On 7 April I saw a performance at Haverford College of a one-woman play called Mariposa & the Saint, a beautiful (yet deeply disturbing) work that depicts the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement.

Together, writer and activist Julia Steele Allen and inmate Sara Fonseca (a 33-year-old mother of two who was nicknamed Mariposa because of her butterfly tattoo) have crafted the text of the play, basing it on Mariposa's letters to Julia over the years and doing all of the playwriting through correspondence as well. 

Mariposa has never been to rehearsals or performances of the piece that she’s co-written. She hasn’t even seen photos of her friend Julia in the title role. That’s because Mariposa has been confined to the Security Housing Unit (the SHU) of a California prison since their collaboration began three years ago.

The 45-minute monologue is nonlinear, alternating between the present time and flashbacks to various periods in Mariposa’s life. The staging is sparse. Piles of white and off-white fabric blocks are the only props, and Mariposa pushes them closer and closer together in the course of the play to depict the increasingly suffocating atmosphere of a solitary confinement cell.

The action opens on a very animated Mariposa, dressed in a white prison outfit bearing with the upper-case letters S, H, and U. Although she shares how much she misses her young son and daughter, we sense a strong life force within her, something that even the criminal (in)justice system cannot dampen. She recites the Native American tale of how Wit’-Tab-Bah the Robin got his red breast and whistles, and imitates a robin’s song. 

We come to understand, however, that Mariposa’s life has been as disjointed as the narrative: a child constantly moving from one location to another with her mother and repeatedly raped by her mother’s “tricks"...a young, single mother herself, evicted from the room where she was living with her baby...a prisoner, separated from another inmate whom she had come to love as her wife. 

The monologue is punctuated by hand-clap commands from the C.O. (played by an actor in a nonspeaking role) and a couple of popular songs. Little by little, Mariposa grows lethargic, paranoid, agoraphobic. At the end of the play, when she is just a month away from being released from the SHU, we learn that she has thrown a glass of cold water in the face of a male nurse, an act that earns her another four years—four years!—in solitary. 

Mariposa is serving the rest of her time in solitary in the prison's psychiatric section.


Here's an AIUSA petition to urge the US government to correct the abusive practice of solitary confinement.

Here's information about the AIUSA campaign against solitary confinement.

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