By Dylan Deprey
Rev. William Harrell was thrust back into the hidden depths of his subconscious. He has suppressed the pain and anxiety of being trapped with no human contact for 23 hours at a time. He survived the hole.
Back in 2001, Harrell was trying to get back on the straight and narrow.
He was shipped out of Wisconsin to serve his time in an Oklahoma prison for failing to pay child support. He participated in programs where the Bible was his textbook.
He was then shipped to Thompson Correctional Center in Deerfield, Wisc. He was trusted, and was given a job. He managed all of the prison vehicles, from detailing the interior to checking the mileage.
One day, a prisoner was involved in an accident. He was told by an officer to not worry, as the officer would pass on the message of the accident. He went to his cell worry free.
To his surprise, the officer did not pass on the message, and would not vouch for Harrell. Harrell technically “lied to an officer.” He was put in the hole.
“People talking through the vents, and the suicides just brought back memories,” Harrell said.
The two-person play, “Mariposa and the Saint” took to the stage for a matinee performance at the 10th Street Theater near Marquette University on April 28. The performance is one of many on a national tour to spread the word to state legislatures on attempting to limit or end solitary confinement in prison systems throughout the United States.
One seat was reserved in the entire theater. It was reserved for Jon Litcher, Secretary for the Department of Corrections. Michi Ilona Osato, assistant director and stage manager, noted that Litcher had been invited to multiple performances but has not yet shown up to one.
The performance detailed the life of Sara (Mariposa) Fonseca’s time in solitary confinement. The story was told through the letters between Fonseca and award-winning playwright and activist Julia Steele Allen. Steele Allen played the role of Fonseca during the performance.
Fonseca’s life was not an easy one before her time bouncing around 27 different prisons throughout California. Her mother was a prostitute. At the age of seven, Fonseca was raped by one of her mother’s pimps, which became a normal occurrence.
She dove into the life of crime out of desperation. At age 17, police seized her house. Having only fifteen minutes to get whatever she could out of the house, she needed money. She followed in her mother’s footsteps, but instead of following through, she robbed the man that took her home from the bar with a butterfly knife.
The play painted a picture of the horrors of what solitary confinement can do to inmates. The mental strain of being “abandoned” was exposed through Steele Allen’s performance as Mariposa (Fonseca).
“As time went by, my heart would ache for strange things: the feel of cool grass under my feet, the feel of rain on my face, the smell of my son’s toes,” Steele Allen said.
Her release date was June 15, 2014. This was just a bookmark in her story. She had thrown a cup of water at a male nurse that earned her another four years in solitary confinement.
The performance described the sites of suicide, sounds of women crying and screams through the vents of the average six foot-by-nine foot cells.
“I am trapped,” Steele Allen said. “They packed me in here like a bunch of sardines.”
After the 45-minute show there was time for the audience to ask questions to the panel that consisted of Harrell, Steele Allen, Osata and David Liners, the state director at WISDOM.
Liner gave a rundown on the steadily rising number of African American men in prison as well as Wisconsin’s attempts at lowering the amount of prisoners in solitary confinement.
“This is a start, but there are still 900 people going to sleep in these boxes,” Liners said.
Towards the end of the discussion, Steele Allen added that Fonseca was finishing her time in a psyche ward in California.
“Once you have witnessed the horrors, you will never forget,” Steele Allen said.
Even after years of ministry work, Rev. Harrell could not bury the torture of abandonment and longing for human contact during his time in solitary confinement.
“I finally knew how animals felt,” Harrell said.