“Thirty Colorado inmates staged One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest…The cast was strip-searched before boarding the bus to their show. The leading man was shackled so tightly that he performed with abrasions on his wrists. And the moment the men finished their bows and the house lights came up, they had to slip out of costume and back into green prison uniforms.” J. Healy, The New York Times
ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key
Excerpt: How a Prison Play Goes on Tour By Jack Healy, The New York Times
“So goes life on the road for a production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, put on by 30 medium-security inmates of the Sterling Correctional Facility, out on Colorado’s remote eastern plains. While prison plays have been around for decades, the challenge of this show was audaciously new: It went on tour.
Over a week in September, the cast and crew took the play to a men’s prison in the tiny town of Limon, Colo., and to a women’s prison in Denver, a 130-mile bus ride from Sterling. Many in the audience had never read the Ken Kesey novel nor seen the Oscar-winning film adaptation starring Jack Nicholson, which tells the story of men inside a 1960s-era Oregon mental ward. For the prison staff, the logistics of transporting a complicated set and 30 prisoners were daunting.
For the cast and crew, the six-month journey into the play, through rehearsals and character studies and improv games, and then out beyond the prison walls, was transformative and surreal. It was the first time in years some had been outside Sterling’s 20-foot walls and razor fences.
The show, produced by the University of Denver’s Prison Arts Initiative, is part of a recent expansion of arts programs inside prisons and jails that dovetails with the movement to rethink a corrections system that now holds 2.2 million people in the United States.
Wendy Jason, the managing director of the Justice Arts Coalition, has counted nearly 350 arts programs behind bars nationwide, double the number that existed eight years ago…’People are looking for new ways to engage the system and to transform it from the inside out,’ Ms. Jason said. ‘Is it possible? That’s one of the questions that keeps me up at night.’
Advocates for prison arts — who now include many current and former inmates — say that learning to paint or performing a monologue can imbue humanity and purpose into the bleakness of life behind bars.
Some studies have suggested that prison arts may reduce disciplinary actions inside prison, though it is unclear whether they and other rehabilitation programs reduce recidivism… As the Sterling men’s prison bus, lined with wire cages, plugged across the plains on the way to shows…some men stared at new condos, new highways, new hospitals, new suburbs that had transformed the cityscape of Denver since they had been locked up. ‘You see the cities and the lights,’ said Terry Mosley Jr., 39, who has been incarcerated since he was 18 for killing an 18-year-old in a fight outside a grocery store. ‘You don’t get to see those horizon lines. It’s just walls around you.’
As the men put together the set, each screw and bolt used to build it — the common room of a mental institution — had to be cataloged and tracked…’To build something like this in prison — you have no idea of what it means,’ said Vern Moter, 51, who is serving 24 years for fraud and was part of the stage crew…Before the show in Denver, while the men paced the stage to get into character and checked out the acoustics, their run-throughs were interrupted by corrections officers doing their regular head count of prisoners…For Dean Williams, the executive director of the Department of Corrections, bringing artists and audience members into prison was part of a strategy to make life inside prison as similar as possible to life outside.
It is called normalization, an idea inspired by Scandinavian countries where inmates cook their own food, interact with people from the outside and have a less adversarial relationship with corrections officers.
‘There’s a few of us leading these systems who realize that something’s wrong,’ Mr. Williams said. ‘We’ve made prison a place of starkness, idleness, a place without purpose. Then we’re confused where people get out and they don’t make it. I think that is on us.’
As the cast and crew prepared for Cuckoo’s Nest, a few said that corrections officers asked the men why anyone convicted of violent crimes should have a spotlight and applause…Several of the inmates said the play allowed them to feel human again.
‘This whole thing is some weird dream,’ said Christopher Shetskie, who is serving a life sentence without parole for murdering two women in 1995 and 1996, according to newspaper accounts at the time. He played a doctor in the play.
Amy Mund, [Shetskie killed her sister] did not believe he should have the privilege of performing with the troupe.
‘He brutally murdered two young vibrant ladies in the prime of their lives,’ Ms. Mund said in an email. ‘I question why he is allowed to participate in plays and travel outside the confines of the prison. As a victim of a violent crime, that does not sound like justice to me.’
Mr. Shetskie said he knew he could not undo his crimes.”
NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.
Level: Intermediate – Advanced
Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.
Time: Approximately 2 hours.
Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.
Objective: Students will read and discuss the article with a focus on improving reading comprehension and improving oral skills. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.
I Pre-Reading Activities
Predictions: Analyzing headings and photos
Directions: Examine the titles of the post and the actual article. Examine the photos, then create a list of words and ideas that you and your group members think might be related to this article. Can you describe some of the expressions on the faces of the people?
II. While Reading Activities
Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.
- The Sterling Correctional Facility is located out on Colorado’s remote eastern plains.
- The challenge of this show was audaciously new.
- For the first time a prison show went on tour.
- For the prison staff transporting 30 prisoners was daunting.
- For the cast and crew there were rehearsals, character studies and improv games.
- Going beyond the prison walls was transformative and surreal for the prisoners.
- Advocates for prison arts include many current and former inmates.
- Advocates say that learning to paint or performing a monologue can imbue humanity and purpose into life behind bars.
- Some studies have suggested that prison arts may encourage rehabilitation.
- Some inmates have been incarcerated since they were 18.
Grammar Focus: Word -Recognition
Directions: Students choose the correct word to complete the sentences taken from the article. They are to choose from the options presented.
As the Sterling men’s/mens prison bus, line/lined with wire cages/cage, plugged across the/an plains on the way to shows, some man/men got carsick from the unfamiliar speed/sped of the road. They stared at/on new condos, new highways, knew/new hospitals, new suburbs that had transformed the cityscape of Denver since they had been locked/lock up.
Directions: Review the following statements from the reading. If a statement is true they mark it T. If the statement is not applicable, they mark it NA. If the statement is false they mark it F and provide the correct answer.
- The cast was never strip-searched before boarding the bus to their show.
- The leading man performed with abrasions on his wrists.
- After the show prisoners changed into their street clothes.
- The play performed by the prisoners was West Side Story.
- The film version of the play starred Jack Nicholson.
- It tells the story of how gang members live in New York City.
- The name of the prison is the Sterling Correctional Facility.
- The prison is located in Utah.
- Wendy Jason is the managing director of the Justice Arts Coalition.
- California spends $8 million each year on creative-writing workshops.
III. Post Reading Activities
Directions: Have students use theWH-question format to discuss or to write the main points from the article.
Who or What is the article about?
Where does the action/event take place?
When does the action/event take place?
Why did the action/event occur?
How did the action/event occur?
Discussion Questions for Comprehension /Writing
Directions: Place students in groups and have them discuss the following questions/statements. Afterwards, have the groups share their thoughts as a class. To reinforce the ideas, students can write an essay on one of the topics mentioned.
- Has someone you know served time in prison? What was their experience?
- In your opinion, should anyone convicted of violent crimes have the opportunity to participate in artistic programs while incarcerated?
- Is the purpose of prisons to punish people for the crimes they’ve committed or to rehabilitate them?
- According to Dean Williams, the executive director of Colorado’s Department of Corrections his goal is to “normalize the prisons by making life inside prison as similar as possible to life outside.” Do you agree with his idea?
- The article provides reasons why some officials and families of victims opposed the play production. One such person, Amy Mund, whose sister was killed by one of the performers in the play stated “He brutally murdered two young vibrant ladies in the prime of their lives. I question why he is allowed to participate in plays and travel outside the confines of the prison. As a victim of a violent crime, that does not sound like justice to me.” Do you agree or disagree with her? Please provide reasons for your answers.
- For students from different countries, describe the prison systems in your country. Are prisoners allowed to participate in art programs?
Main Idea / Debate
Directions: Divide students into two teams for this debate. Both teams can use information from the article and sources from the Web to support their arguments.
Team A will list five reasons that support arguments for a theater or arts program in prison.
Team B will list five reasons that support arguments against a theater or arts program in prison.
Each team will have time to state their points of view, and the teacher decides which team made their points.
For organization, have students use this great Pros and Cons Scale organizer from Freeology
1-Minute Free Writing Exercise
Directions: Allow students 1 minute to write down one new idea they’ve learned from the reading. Ask them to write down one thing they did not understand in the reading. Review the responses as a class. Note: For the lower levels allow more time for this writing activity.