The Fayetteville-based Prison Story Project will take its staged reading of “On The Row – Stories from Arkansas’ Death Row” on the road this month for a tour across four states.
Founded in 2012 by storyteller Kathy McGregor as a ministry of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, the Prison Story Project benefits incarcerated women and men. While in the program, inmates explore and reflect upon their lives through poetry, creative writing, literature, songwriting, and visual art.
Their work is then curated into a staged reading performed by actors. The program’s stated goal is to enable those whose voices have been locked away to tell their stories, and to give the outside community an opportunity to witness the humanity and redemption of the incarcerated through their own words.
From May through October 2016, the project was given unprecedented access to the men on Arkansas’ death row. Eleven of the 34 men on the row at that time volunteered to participate. The stories and poems the death row inmates wrote were guided by McGregor and creative writing director Matt Henriksen, and then edited into a script by theatre director Troy Schremmer. Their work was presented back to them on Oct. 8, 2016 by professional actors in a cramped aisle on death row between individual cages that held each man.
McGregor said the team didn’t know how the inmates would react to a presentation of their writing, but when the performance started, the room fell to silence.
As one of the men wrote in a thank you letter to McGregor afterwards, “We were all transformed by the writing we heard that day.” The writing, they said, “culminated in something that’s bigger than all of us.”
“We are the broken ones,” another said, “that with your help were patched up to shine like new.”
Henriksen said afterwards the men didn’t dwell on their pasts or blame others for their crimes.
“Some of them had found an immense peace that eludes many of us in the free world, and they wanted to share it purely out of gratitude for having found it,” said Henriksen.
“By facing their crimes, enduring their sentences, and accepting their impending deaths, they each found ways to survive, seek self-forgiveness, experience God’s redemption, and retain their humanity,” she said.
Four of the men that participated in the project were on the list of eight to be executed just after Easter 2017.
Don Davis and Stacey Johnson received last-minute stays of execution.
Jack Jones was executed on April 24 at 7:06 p.m. and pronounced dead at 7:20 p.m., while Minister Kenneth Williams was executed on April 27 at 10:52 p.m. and pronounced dead at 11:05 p.m.
While Williams was on death watch the night before his execution, the Prison Story Project held a community poetry reading of his work at St. Paul’s in Fayetteville (video on the website). Before his execution, Williams requested that Henriksen and McGregor read some of his poetry at his funeral in Pine Bluff.
The Prison Story Project has toured “On The Row” to audiences in Northwest Arkansas and college campuses across the country since 2016.
The project has recently received grants from the Mid-America Arts Alliance; The Whiting Foundation for the Humanities (through the University of Arkansas); and Episcopal Evangelism Society, with additional support from St. Paul’s in Fayetteville.
The Mid-America Arts Alliance funding helped the team tour several Arkansas high schools and juvenile detention centers this year with an abridged version of the script that’s appropriate for students. Those funds will also allow the Prison Story Project to tour to high schools in six additional counties in Arkansas later this fall, and will help pay for the four-state tour this summer.
Prison Story Project’s “On the Row” 2019 Summer Tour
- Thursday, June 13 at 7:30 p.m. – St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Kansas City, MO
- Friday, June 14 at 7:30 p.m. – St. James Episcopal Church in Wichita, KS
- Saturday, June 15 at 7:30 p.m. – Christ Church Episcopal, Tulsa, OK
- Sunday, June 16 at 2:30 p.m. – Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, Dallas, TX