This Canadian Jail Rehabilitates Violent Offenders Using Prison Theater

"Just that first time they get the applause is quite profound. It's the first time they've been acknowledged in a positive way."

av Jen Munaretz
2015 10 28, 10:00am

William Head on Stage's Fall 2014 production of Time Waits for No One. Photo by Jam Hamidi

I'm sitting shotgun as a Correctional Services Canada (CSC) staff member chauffeurs a van full of people down a quiet road within William Head Institution, a minimum-security prison on Vancouver Island.

"We used to have the inmates drive," says the CSC staffer from behind the wheel. He adds a few more comments about security tightening up over the past several years, hinting towards the previous Conservative government's tough-on-crime policies that have stiffened penalties behind bars. With a move to stricter security measures, harsher crime laws, and cutbacks to prison rehabilitation programs, I wondered how Stephen Harper's government somehow overlooked the artsy pastime taking place within this Vancouver Island compound: prison theater.

The van pulls up outside the doors of a multipurpose building known as "the gym." An inmate dressed in a suit and tie hands me a program for the show and I'm lead inside to find my seat. This is where 130 of us would watch William Head on Stage's (WHoS) annual play. Getting its start in 1981, WHoS has built up a reputation as Canada's only inmate-run theater company.

All personal belongings are banned from entering the prison. I considered smuggling in an audio recorder, but I didn't want to fuck up this rare chance of getting within the walls of William Head. Unfortunately, that means I can't share exact quotes from this experience (without undermining CSC, that is). So on a separate occasion, I met with some of the WHoS's production staff who introduced me to Ryan, a former William Head inmate who performed in nearly 20 WHoS productions over 13 years.

"When people come in the door, and you say, 'Welcome to the theater company,' you put all the prison bullshit behind you," explained Ryan, who asked us to keep his last name private and the details of his case limited to protect his identity. "This is a safe place basically to explore things, emotions, to cry, to laugh."

Exterior of WHI

Ryan discussed his story of confinement over a cup of coffee. His hair was short and neat, he wore simple blue jeans, rectangular glasses, and a fleece jacket.

"What were you sentenced for?" I asked.

"Murder," he admitted, with a tinge of apprehension. Ryan was just 18 when he committed the act that would put him behind bars for second-degree murder. "I served 19 years of a 20-year [life] sentence." He was granted parole four years ago and has since settled into a relatively normal life in Victoria. He credits WHoS for teaching him teamwork and responsibility, crucial life skills that have helped him transition from a criminal to a law-abiding citizen.

"When I got out, I was like, 'I want to go see some theater, I want to be exposed to some things'... rather than just sort of stay in a shell," he said.

In the play I saw, nearly 20 convicted men took the stage. For many of them, this was their first time performing for a live audience. One man forgot his line for a moment, while another dabbed sweat off his face with a hand towel. In these moments of vulnerability, the prisoners swapped their tough-guy facade for a little compassion from their peers.

WHoS' fall 2013 prison puppet show. Photo by Jam Hamidi

"If one person fails on stage, everybody fails, the play falls apart. So if somebody's struggling, you go over and help them." Ryan told me.

In other countries, prison theater is more widely integrated into the penal system. In the United States, for example, Shakespeare Behind Bars has been putting detainees on stage for the last 20 years. In France, the Ministries of Justice and Culture have created a protocol that puts attention on culture in prisons, with theater being part of that. In the UK, a 2011 study looked into the economic benefits of arts programs in prisons, suggesting for every dollar spent on prison arts, about four times the investment is generated back into society.

But apart from this one Vancouver Island theater troupe, the rest of Canada hasn't gotten the memo about prison theater.

"There are currently no plans to develop or expand a theater program as a national initiative," CSC Senior Communications Officer Sabrina Nash said in an email. Instead, anything arts related is lumped into their social programs. "[Social programs] include sports, theater, fine arts, and hobby crafts and provide offenders with opportunities to learn and practice social skills, necessary for personal and social development," Nash added.

Simply put, CSC does not have any specific data on the impact of the arts in Canadian institutions. WHoS is basically an extracurricular activity, registered as a non-profit society in the province of BC, surviving on ticket sales from the previous year's performance and grant money from Canada Council for the Arts. Once funding is locked in, theater artists from Victoria help the William Head prisoners put the show together and CSC only plays a part with security.

The fall 2015 production of HERE a Captive Odyssey. Photo submitted

During the 80-minute performance, about half a dozen security guards kept a constant watch on the inmates. Aside from their gruff presence, the show didn't feel anything like a prison play. It was actually... pretty good. A long applause broke out at the end with some people even giving a standing ovation.

"Just that first time they get the applause is quite profound," explained WHoS director, Kate Rubin. "It's the first time they've been acknowledged in a positive way, in a big way, with like 100 people all clapping for something they've done, that is giving."

A question and answer period followed, where one lady boldly asked how many of the men will be released from prison by this time next year. Three or four inmates shyly raised their hands in uncertainty. The reality is: many of them don't actually know.

S.T.—a William Head inmate—sought me out to talk about his experience seeking release. He applied for parole in September of this year, but was refused. He remained hopeful in trying for parole again soon, so long as our newly elected Liberal government begins to dismantle the tough-on-crime mindset that's existed over the last decade.

During the campaign trail, Justin Trudeau said he would consider repealing some of the mandatory minimum sentences the Harper government brought in. His election platform, on the other hand, did not detail many changes to the criminal code. VICE reached out to the Liberal Party, but they did not provide comment on their future plans for the criminal justice system.

Read: America Incarcerated

But it's not just the inmates who are waiting for answers. WHoS' staff and supporters are also eager to see if funding will be more readily available for prison arts programs in Canada.

"Do you want to punish people, or do you want to rehabilitate them?" Ryan asked. "If I had my way, [prison] would be a place of learning and growing and healing and the theater company is a huge part of that."

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