Youth: Surveyed and Unafraid!

As stated in my previous post, Art Under Surveillance, I recently ended an intensive project at Doncaster prison working with incarcerated men.  Earlier in the term, I also completed a Forum Training week with Cardboard Citizens, a non-profit in London that creates Forum Theatre with the homeless.

Both of these experiences had something very small but significant in common: a sensitivity to the written word as it pertains to surveillance and information sharing.

The project theme at Doncaster focused on gangs.  While the final performance was largely devised from improvisational and physical theatre, my co-facilitator and I led a short writing exercise examining the men’s relationship to gang life. Several participants refused to write anything except “no comment”.  We never pushed writing as the primary means of developing story; it was clear the men were acutely aware of implicating themselves on paper.

At Cardboard Citizens, I acted as a supporting facilitator while remaining in the role of “student”.  I took notes during the workshop for my own benefit as a practitioner.  Several other participants also opted to take notes, but my lead facilitator quickly reminded the group that everything said within the workshop was confidential.  Later, she told me she made the announcement because a participant was writing down information about people’s personal lives instead of taking instructive notes.

In both cases, I was warned about how writing during the process would most likely be regarded by participants: with suspicion.  It interests me that such a “low-to-no-tech” method of recording is still held as a viable option for spying and reporting.  Has the advancement of technology, and the comfort level we have with it, made writing unfamiliar, and therefore warrant greater scrutiny?  Who carries around a pen and paper nowadays anyway?

The age range of both groups was, on average, 20 years and older.  I mention this fact because of a peculiar writing incident that occurred with adolescents during my time at Storycatchers Theatre.  Storycatchers is a writing based company, producing original musicals inspired by the personal stories of the participants.  The participants are 14-18 years old, and involved in our programs outside and inside of prison. During programming at a boys facility, a participant wrote a story that implicated him in a crime for which he had not been caught or charged.

Let me state a couple things, as the story is a veritable ethical landmine:

1) This situation had never happened in the history of the company (apparently, I got lucky). Normally, if participants chose to write stories about their crimes, they were already charged and serving time, or currently being investigated.

2) Storycatchers immediately brought this to the attention of the facility and internal information.  We shared the story, spoke to the participant and let the facility do its job. We had to protect the company, programming, ourselves, and ultimately, the participant. Fortunately or not, internal information never corroborated the story with any unsolved crimes, and as far as we know, dropped the issue entirely.

Admittedly, I had never thought to say, “Don’t write about a crime you haven’t been caught for.”  We always go over confidentiality expectations, state that we are mandated reporters (meaning if information given to us by the participant that puts the participant or someone else in danger, we must report it), and advise them to write the story they’re most comfortable sharing (though ultimately they do not have to share it with the group).

The experience taught me to be even clearer with young participants, and openly discuss the connection between writing and information sharing.  There seems to be a disconnect between youth and an awareness of the power of the written word.  Incarcerated/vulnerable adolescents have an unfamiliarity with writing, either due to poor education or exposure/over-exposure to technological alternatives, that causes them to take risks in writing that the comparable, older version of the population does not.  In my experience, adolescents are more willing to write their stories; apparently so willing that they run the risk of condemning themselves*.

But how much of the youth’s bravado was really the consequence of age and naivete?  The alarming part of my participant’s admission was how oblivious he was to the concept of surveillance and being “caught”; even in the midst of a prison, where every move is monitored.  Is the rapidly increasing comfort level with technology, and the ease with which we share information, creating generations of youth who are unafraid of surveillance? And when paired with imprisonment, are these youth not only unafraid, but accommodating?

*I must point out that if our society did not criminalize a large portion of the adolescent’s natural inclination to take risks, but rather supported and provided more healthy, positive avenues for risk-taking, perhaps we would not call a story told in honesty an ethical dilemma? That was for you, Performance Research group.

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