Role Play Meets Reality

This weekend I worked with the inmates, again. On Sunday, we specifically worked on role-plays. These role-plays can get quite intense as they can bring out all the areas within an individual where triggers exist and anger hibernates restlessly.  However, they are powerful opportunities for inmates to use the skills and techniques of transforming power they have learned through the Alternative to Violence Program. It is important to note that since transforming power will not work in support of a wrongful or harmful outcome, the scenarios must not be such that they close off all options other than those which are wrongful or harmful.  The outcome, however, must not be decided in advance; the characters must be left free to pursue options that may be suggested by the working of transforming power.  The characters seeking a solution that is just and non-coercive are the ones who will need to be open to transforming power.

The role play for the team of inmates I was grouped with was the following:

An inmate is visiting with his daughter and mother. Another inmate is visiting with his mother. While inmate #1 is discussing all the skills and tools he has learned in the AVP program and other personal growth workshops, inmate #2 who is visiting with his mom is checking out the daughter of inmate #1. The young lady is feeling very uncomfortable, and while inmate #1 notices inmate #2 is a little out of line, he ignores it and continues to engage with his daughter and mother. Inmate #1 gets up from the table to go to the bathroom, at which time inmate #2 walks over to the table where the young lady and grandmother are sitting, and begins to ask them questions, ultimately to get an address or phone number from the young lady. A commotion is created putting inmate #1 at a crossroads between approaching this situation with violence or non-violence.

As the only woman in the group, the inmates though it’d be interesting for me to take on the role of the inmate that was harassing the young lady. It was a role I was familiar with, because for a greater part of my young life, I experienced harassment from men in the form of cat-calling, grabbing, and space invasion. I was a bit anxious about how I would play out the role. I knew part of it would be funny, especially for the inmates to watch me act like a “dude.” But I knew part of it was super important, because aside from them exploring and implementing the tools and skills they have learned through the program, this was an opportunity that maybe they didn’t often get, to think about their treatment of, and toward, women. So I had this deep feeling inside of me that this role play would be more intense and powerful than other ones I’ve been involved in with the inmates.

The role playing began, and I stepped into my role, playing the part of the harasser and aggressor. I looked at the young lady the way so many men had once looked at me, objectifying her like a piece of meat that I found tasty and appetizing. Like something I would use for my pleasure without any regards to her humanity. T the inmate playing the role of the young lady, became tense and obviously uncomfortable. The scene ended with visiting time being called off early and inmate #1 being subdued by a correctional officer after becoming agitated for what was an apparent act of aggression toward his family.

Once we were finished with the role play, each of us were asked to sit in a debriefing chair and one at a time, we were debriefed by inmates who did not participate in the scene, while the rest of the inmates observed the process. We were debriefed first as the characters whose role we played, and then as ourselves.  The debrief is an essential part of the role-plays because it allows to lead the characters out of the role and the emotional state it has aroused in them, back into their real identities and a calmer state of feeling.

My debrief as Christian, the character I played went as follows:

Why did you behave that way toward the young lady?

“Man, I’ve been in prison for so long that I had forgotten what it felt like to talk to a pretty young thang like that?

Didn’t you think it was wrong to disrespect her like that and make her feel so uncomfortable?

“I wasn’t tryin’ to disrespect her. I was trying to tell her how pretty she was and to see if she wanted to talk to me.

But she was obviously shaken up by the way you were looking at her. Didn’t you think to stop?

“I didn’t realize I was spookin’ her, she was just so pretty.”

What about your mom who was visiting you. . . Didn’t you think you were being disrespectful to her?

“Like I said, I was just tryin’ to make conversation.”

How could you have used transformative power to prevent that situation from taking place?

“What’s transformative power?” (My point with this response was to demonstrate that had the inmate whose role I was playing learned about transformative power, he would not have disrespected the young lady the way he did, and he would not have created such an explosive situation for the other inmate.)

I was then asked if I was ready to step out of my role, to which I responded yes.

During my debrief, I spoke of feeling uncomfortable doing to a woman what I had seen so often done to me, my daughter, and many other women. Though I felt triggers during the role, the purpose of the role was much more powerful, and of much more importance than my triggers at the time, so I was able to stay focus.

Once I stepped out of the role I was playing, I was asked how I felt having played that role. I responded that I felt disgusted, as if I had violated every part of who I was. The role I had played went against every principle I lived by, especially my commitment of treating human beings with dignity. I said, “To treat another human being like a piece of meat, made me feel like trash.”

Soon after me, the inmate that played the young lady whom I was harassing came up to answer similar questions about his role.

How did you feel when the inmate kept looking at you in such a perverse way?

“I felt really scared.  He made me feel really uncomfortable.”

What was running through your mind when the inmate approached you?

“I just wanted to leave in a way.  I mean I miss my Dad, but I didn’t know if the inmate was going to hurt me.  Or worse, if my Dad noticed what was happening, he could get in a fight with the inmate and get into trouble.”

How will this affect you the next time you come visit your Dad?

“I don’t know. . . I feel like maybe I’ll be more nervous.  I mean I wasn’t dressed provocative, but maybe I’ll have to not put any make-up on, so I won’t cause any trouble. 

Is there anything you want to say to the inmate who disrespected you?

“Yeah.  I just want to say that I was here to visit my Dad.  I  miss him a lot in my life, and I only get to see him a few times a year.  I don’t want to cause any trouble for him.”

Once he stepped out of the role, he said as a man he had never felt so uncomfortable as he did playing the role of the young lady. He said he couldn’t imagine what other young ladies and women experienced. He turned toward the other inmates and said, “Cuz let’s be real, at one point or another, we have all cat called or in someway harassed women, if not worse.” His eyes began to well up in that moment as he committed to never cat call or harass another woman in any way, again. Looking down at the chair he was sitting in, as if talking to the young lady he had played, he apologized to the women he had ever made uncomfortable, disrespected or harassed.   And all the other inmates began to clap.

At the end of the day, before the men left to their cells, quite a few came up to me and said they were touched and transformed by the scene the other inmate and I had engaged in. They also reaffirmed their commitment to engaging women with respect and dignity. I don’t know how successful they’ll be – like many things, change takes time. But I do know that a seed was planted that day.

Role plays are incalculable.  You never know how they are going to turn out.  Once put in motion, they take on their own life. It is the job of the team to draw something of value out of whatever happens.  All the role-plays I have been involved in have always been a powerful manifestation of the capacity we all have to grow and use just and non-coercive means to solve conflict and engage another being with transforming power.



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