The "Inferno" Inside a Women's Prison | Connecticut Public Radio

The "Inferno" Inside a Women's Prison

Apr 19, 2012

Three former prisoners at Niantic's York Correctional Institution are staging a play mixing Dante’s Inferno with real life prison stories. WNPR’s Patrick Skahill has more.

When Lynda Gardner was sent to jail for larceny in 2005, she didn't think she'd be reciting lines from Dante's Inferno.  She just thought she was in hell.

"I woke up in York and decided for the first six months I was going to kill myself," Gardner said. " I felt dead."

But then, Gardner discovered Wesleyan Theater Professor Ron Jenkins. Jenkins works in prisons around the world, collecting the personal stories of inmates. He also introduces prisoners to writers like Shakespeare and Dante, encouraging them to get on stage and recite lines from The Tempest and The Divine Comedy. Gardner said the inmates aren't always so sure.

"Professor Jenkins, when he came in said, 'Yes, you can do this.'  It was the first time someone said I could do something." she said. "So, for him to put that light in me. I was reborn ... And then it was, 'My God! Who the hell is this person in here?'"

That person turned out to be both an actress and an activist. Since her release from York, Gardner and has teamed up with two other ex-inmates, Deborah Ranger and Saundra Mahoney-Duncan, who also served time at York for non-violent crimes. The trio is performing Jenkins' latest work, To See The Stars, a play mixing lines from Dante's Inferno with prison stories collected from his travels around the world. In the play, two inmates, performed by Gardner and Ranger, discuss how Dante speaks to prisoners.

(sound from the play) That poem is about us in prison. Going through trials and tribulations with will and determination. My father used to read that poem to me and he always said, It's not about hell. It's about hope.

Saundra Mahoney-Duncan says she hopes their performance brings awareness that prisoners aren't just statistics.

"There are names. There are daughters. There are nieces. There are aunts. There are mommies. Sitting behind bars. Some make some extremely poor choices … because we’re all sinners, we all make mistakes," she said.

The group performed at the Charter Oak Cultural Center In Hartford on Saturday. There will be a performance tonight at 7 p.m. in New York City to benefit the American Friends Service Committee and the Women's Prison Association.

For WNPR news, I'm Patrick Skahill.