Libyans sometimes refer to being arrested and taken away without warning as being “taken behind the sun.” This interview series celebrates—through conversations with formerly-incarcerated artists and their allies—the ways in which an artistic, creative life can transmute the impact and redefine the legacy of an experience within the prison-industrial complex.
Danny Franklin is an actor and producer of the one-act play “A Day at Stateville.” The play was written collectively by a creative writing class of incarcerated students at Stateville Correctional Center, working under the guidance of attorney and Stateville volunteer Jim Chapman. It utilizes Augusto Boal’s applied theatrical approach to drama in an attempt to foment revolutionary change and is performed on the outside by men who were once confined at Stateville themselves. To date, more than 150 productions have taken place in churches, schools, and community organizations throughout Illinois.
In 1997, after serving 12 years at Stateville, Danny Franklin came home to Chicago and founded Reaching Back Ministry. He’s been working with and on behalf of formerly incarcerated citizens ever since, helping to ease the transition to community life and educating vulnerable populations through activism and the arts. In addition to performing in and producing countless productions of “A Day at Stateville,” Danny serves as a member of the Changing Minds Campaign Steering Committee, a community effort to improve the Illinois prison system and obtain retroactive reduction of life and virtual life sentences.
Michael Fischer: You’ve emphasized, when speaking about “A Day at Stateville,” that the play is one step in setting the record straight about what prison is actually like. In your experience hearing audiences react to the play in post-show discussions, what’s the biggest reality check people walk away with?
Danny Franklin: You know, we’ve done these performances with men and with women. And I think one of the biggest reality checks is for people to see the women, because the women look so young. People are like, “You did time?! I can’t believe it. You was in a maximum prison? I can’t believe that.” The reaction from seeing good-looking women out here today and to consider that they did time, even maybe had a murder on their rap sheets—it’s like, “Wow, I can’t believe that.” One woman used to be a gang chief, calling shots. We were in the Roseland area performing for a youth group and she was performing with us. The kids just couldn’t believe it.
As far as the men performing the show, it brings a lot of awareness of the system—the system being broke, the system answering questions with questions and never coming to a conclusion. People realize that we actually have some people, human beings, who are incarcerated under such a system. In “A Day at Stateville,” it speaks about the hospital, speaks about the education system, the rooms with computers in it and we can’t use them because there’s nobody around to train us. It speaks about a broken system that doesn’t have any funds to manage it, and yet people are still being incarcerated and over-stocked in that system.
MF: Can you give a few examples of the ways in which Stateville is even worse now than it was when you were there?
DF: Stateville’s one of our oldest prisons in Illinois. Stateville and Pontiac are the two major, old prisons, from back in Al Capone’s days and stuff like that. And of course, Joliet they finally closed because it was pretty much condemned. Stateville should really be shut down too, period. They’ve shut down some of it, closed some of the houses because they were deteriorating, but they still have people housed in the property itself, and it ought to be done. It’s been years since I’ve been there, but there isn’t anything better happening with it.
MF: And at that point, you could see the difference in what was available, programming wise, compared to when you were incarcerated there?
DF: Yeah. That old stuff’s not available anymore because of budget cuts. I think Stateville now is on a 23-hour lockdown. The only time they get out is for shower and yard. But when I was there, it was open; it was like a city. Nowadays, because of the budget and the staff cutbacks, inmate to officer ratios are so high that it’s always locked down.
MF: In 2011, “A Day at Stateville” was filmed for Chicago’s Community Access Network. You spent several weeks at the studio, training as a video producer and director in preparation for the telecast. Could you describe that experience?
DF: I hate that we didn’t continue on in doing something at the studio. I learned a lot about the cameras: panning in and panning out, how to put titles up, graphics, all that stuff. It was all a great experience for me. I’d have loved to continue on because I’m the type of person who likes to train myself on new things. Even now I do photography, and I haven’t been to any school or anything. I just do it myself. I would love to have had continued on with what we were doing at Community Access Network, but life didn’t permit me the time. I just didn’t have any idle time to come down to the studio and just hang out. If I was going there it was for a specific reason, and as soon as that reason stopped, I had to stop going. But I loved the skills and I still know how to do a little bit of it.
MF: Obviously, filming the play for telecast changes a lot: You can reach a larger audience, but you lose the impact of live performance and immediate audience feedback. Can you talk about that tradeoff?
DF: As far as the actors and the readers, we feel that we lose because we don’t get the feedback with the audience in which we can express what actually happened to me. It’s one thing to do “A Day at Stateville” for some people. But then being able to say, “This is me, and this is what I experienced during my time” is the best part. So when the audience does those Q&As after a live performance, that’s been the most profitable thing for us. A lot of people get behind us and support us during that part of the program, or even start their own activities as far as doing something about the prison system in Illinois. The feedback is the greatest thing, because you get a chance to share and relate from your own experience, where people can now say, “Okay, I can truly see this person who’s been to Stateville.” We had a guy who was innocent and had done 30 years, and people are seeing him and listening to him reflect about what he went through. That’s powerful.
MF: Speaking of the wrongfully convicted: Obviously (Chicago Police Department detective) Jon Burge died recently. It’s been strange to see people coming out with supportive statements in the wake of that. When you see people still defending him, having known people who were in Stateville with you specifically because of him, what goes through your mind?
DF: As far as he goes, I just feel like, “Good riddance.” He’s gone. There’s no more conversation to have about him because he’s a done deal. The thing that should really be talked about is Jon Burge’s boss at that time. And who was that? Richard J. Daley, the mayor. He was Jon Burge’s boss, and he accepted the things that Burge was doing. I feel he knew that sooner or later pressure was going to come down on him. I know a number of people who experienced Jon Burge, and he was certainly dead wrong, but if you grew up on my side of town, in my skin, these things weren’t these wild, outrageous occurrences. That stuff was common. They’d pick you up, beat you, make you confess or tell on somebody else.
Myself personally, right now: I work down the street. I deliver pizzas. Not even a month ago, I was backing out of the parking lot and the police immediately pulled me over, as soon as my car hit the street—detective, unmarked car. And as I pulled to the curb I was surrounded by five cars, for what I’d come to find out was a failure to use my turn signal as I was backing out. And I’m sitting there wondering, “What the hell?” But me having been through this system already, I just grabbed the steering wheel and waited for them to get to the car.
They get me out of the car, search me twice, put handcuffs on me and take me straight to the police station. Impounded my car; I had a stack of seven pizzas sitting on my seat for delivery. They brought four charges against me and the only one that didn’t get thrown out was for a piece of marijuana-laced candy I had in the cup holder. Class 4 felony, so I had to hire a lawyer. I’m going to court for that right now. They took my tip money, and I had to pay the pizza place their money back just to keep from getting fired. But this is the kind of stuff that happens every day.
MF: Only one of the actors who performs in “A Day at Stateville” has returned to prison. Do you consider that a testament to the power of theatre, or is it more a testament to the fact that these individuals didn’t need to spend decades locked up in order to become law-abiding members of society?
DF: They were definitely law-abiding citizens long before their release dates came around. Especially since we’ve had people in “A Day at Stateville” who were innocent to begin with, like we said. And it’s not that every person in the show has always been that way. It’s not like this group is a bunch of angels and should never have been there. Some of them did what they did, but they’re not mad at the system about it. They’re trying to move on.
I always think that the fellowship of the brothers and sisters coming out of the prison system is something that keeps them focused on the right track—gathering in some kind of way. We used to play games or do something at somebody’s house every month. It was good because it kept you accountable in some manner: “I don’t want to make this bad decision, because I’ll be letting down the brothers or letting down the sisters if I do that.” Accountability through fellowship is something that helps a lot of people. Otherwise you’re just out there alone, thinking on your own. When people have a system, a connection with people who’ve been there and done that, they have the space to find a second opinion that can guide them on a different route.
MF: As far as formerly incarcerated citizens being accountable to one another—not to the system or society or parole officers, but to each other: Why is that particular type of accountability so important?
DF: Because people who’ve been through the same stuff understand you more. And somehow, you feel more accountable to them. You aren’t gonna be thinking about what momma taught you or daddy taught you; you’re gonna think about the group. It helps to just network with each other. I’ve been through this; I know what’s out here and where you need to go. You gotta give people information so that they can start trying to get themselves on the right track.
MF: One of the primary goals of “A Day at Stateville” is to foster intergenerational conversation with youth and disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. What are some of the most meaningful interactions you’ve had with young people as a result of the play?
DF: At first, they’re just ecstatic about seeing people who were in prison and relating it to the movies they’ve seen on TV or whatever: “What are you gonna do, old man?” And this old man was the man who was calling shots, calling out hits in the prison system. So, they’re just amazed at stuff like that, and to listen to some of the stories. But our whole thing is to elevate from making the community aware to focusing on the government itself. Who is it who’s causing and allowing this? We look to generate a database. Jim Chapman has a database now of everyone who we’ve done the show for, and he keeps connected to those people through the internet. Now we’ve got people down in Waukegan (Illinois) and places like that who he can write to and share what’s happening in state government right now that will affect this issue.
So, the show has started to form its own voting bloc, so to speak. And it’s not about getting people out to protest everything. It’s just about opening peoples’ minds and changing their minds about prison. Because the fact is that people are coming out of prison, whether you like it or not, and they’re coming back to your neighborhood. So, if you don’t have any empathy for that and don’t know how to work with these people once they return to your area, if you aren’t willing to get to know them, then they’re going to continue to do the things that they’ve done in the past. They don’t have too many other options.
MF: You’ve previously spoken of the person you were before incarceration as someone from a “past life.” Does that really feel true to you, or is that fracturing of identity—renouncing our pasts full-stop, dividing ourselves into Before and After—something we do in order to put other people at ease? Aren’t we giving something up by splitting ourselves in two like that?
DF: It’s true; I’m the same person I was before prison. I just don’t dib and dab in the same fields, because if I did, I’d make the same bad choices that I made back then. So, it’s not that I’ve changed, it’s more that I’ve changed my environment so I can make good choices that are acceptable to the community and to society. I’m still me. I’m still Danny, the guy they called “Bone.” I’m just not in the same environment that I once was. I don’t take to the streets for my earnings; I’m not a gambler or a hustler anymore. Even my case all started from the fact that I was gambling. Would I do the same thing today if I was in that same environment? Yeah, probably. But it’s up to me not to put myself in those environments anymore. I wasn’t out here trying to do wrong, but in the hustler’s environment, you’re always going to do wrong eventually.
It’s hard to change when everything about your circumstances is against that change. It’s certainly stacked up against me, and all I’ve wanted since I got out is a chance to survive properly out here. I’ve had to create that. That’s why I do photography. That’s why I’m delivering pizzas. Why? Because I can’t get a job that I’d like to get, because of my record. And I’ve been trying since I’ve been home. I remember when I heard about Uber, I was like, “This is the job for me! My own car, my own hours.” I went through the whole process before I realized they were never gonna let me do it. Even the little jobs I can’t get. But I don’t let it get me down; I just do what I do. I’ve got a nice hustle, delivering these pizzas. They pay nice. I just need to find myself a genuine opportunity.
I was running a cleaning service when I first got out. I was labor at first and then ended up running the business for a few years. I was going into peoples’ houses as part of the job, for years, cleaning peoples’ whole houses with no problem. Nothing’s going missing, nothing like that. Then somebody finds out about me and they want to lock their doors, but I’m over here saying, “Look, I’ve already been in your house. Not only that: Everything was fine.” I also tried to do real estate for a while. I went through the training, the course, all of that—and then found out that you can’t get a real estate license as an ex-offender. Funny how they forget to tell you that until after they have your money for the class.
But every time something like that happens, it doesn’t matter to me. I just start looking for the next job, the next opportunity.
Featured image: Arial view of Stateville Correctional Center.
Michael Fischer was released from prison in 2015. He’s a Moth Chicago StorySlam winner, a Luminarts Cultural Foundation Fellow, and a mentor for incarcerated authors through the Pen City Writers program. His work appears in Salon, The Sun, Orion, Guernica, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, and his audio essays have been broadcast on CBC Radio’s Love Me and The New York Times’s Modern Love: The Podcast.