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Winnipeg play shines light into cells of women awaiting trial

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Tracey Nepinak plays the incarcerated Char in Jail Babies.


Tracey Nepinak plays the incarcerated Char in Jail Babies. Photo Store

During the recent media call for the new play Jail Baby, a scene is performed in which a woman outfitted in an orange prison jumpsuit is kneeling beside a toilet bowl and seems to be carrying on a conversation with something inside it.

It is surely the first ever stage depiction of "facebowl," a DIY communication system in which detainees in the Winnipeg Remand Centre chat with each other through the plumbing.

Char, the incarcerated woman, is chatting into the commode with her beau of six months and says to the audience, "I don't know what he looks like but he sure sounds hot." The facebowl session is then cut short when another inmate demands to use the toilet for its more conventional purpose.

Hope McIntyre, who co-wrote Jail Baby with Cairn Moore, says the comic scene is based on the first-hand revelations from women who had been awaiting trial in the remand centre, where Facebook is not available. Over the last three years the pair, with theatre artists Nan Fewchuk and Marsha Knight, visited several institutions, including the remand centre, Portage Correctional Centre and Edmonton Institution for Women, to conduct interviews with more than 60 female inmates. Their words became the basis of a comic drama about doing time and the crimes that put them behind bars.

"We learned so much from them and facebowl was part of it," says McIntyre, the artistic director of Sarasvti Productions, which is presenting the premi®re of Jail Baby beginning May 16 at the Asper Centre for Theatre and Film, 400 Colony St.

"They were keen to share the inventive ways they are able to create what they need with few resources. It started with one woman sharing how when she was in remand, she had to heat a pencil crayon for eyeliner. They had all kinds of strange tips, like how to make hairspray in prison."

How women make do in prison is a side story to the main focus of Jail Baby -- which is why are they there in the first place. About 80 per cent of women in prison are convicted of economic crimes. According to the Elizabeth Fry Society of Manitoba, aboriginal women are nine times as likely to be incarcerated in their lifetimes as any other women. They make up approximately 45 per cent of prison populations across the country when they represent only two per cent of the Canadian population.

"I know a lot of women who live in this lifestyle," says aboriginal actress Tracey Nepinak, who plays the facebowling Char, among other characters. "I don't know the statistics, but if you are born into a family with incarceration in it, there's a good chance you will be incarcerated.

"You have to understand their circumstances that lead them to do these things. Who's to say if I would do anything different if I was down and out and desperate?"

Jail Baby follows the birth of Jasmine in jail and her journey through the penal system, starting with remand and working her way into a federal institution. Another storyline is the way the life of a woman whose father commits a crime is radically altered. Both are intertwined with a parody making light of the myths of being behind bars.

McIntyre says the objective of Jail Baby -- in addition to being an engaging piece of theatre -- is to spark a dialogue about these often-forgotten women. Sarasvti was founded in 2000 with a mission to produce theatre that inspires, challenges and encourages positive social change.

The hope is that Jail Baby will counter the public perception that women who commit crimes are monsters.

"The rare cases of violence by women are sensationalized and given a lot of attention, but in reality the majority of crimes by women are economic and non-violent," she says. "Many people aren't aware that most incarcerated women have been abused and most have less than a Grade 9 education."

Most of the women McIntyre and her colleagues talked to belonged in addiction treatment or mental-health facilities and not prisons, she says. Most wrote bad cheques or shoplifted and she questioned the usefulness of warehousing them in a federal prison at a cost of $175,000 per year.

The interviewed women were adamant that Jail Baby have a healthy dose of comedy -- most said they would not have survived their imprisonment if they couldn't laugh -- and address the effect of their being in jail on their children.

"These women can't see a way out for themselves so they imagine how their children are going to find a way out," McIntyre says. "The reality, statistically speaking, is that the cycle does repeat. There is also a link between children and foster care and ending up in the prison system. I think these women know that they are bringing their children into a life that is likely going to be the same as theirs. They really want to figure out how to break that cycle."

Nepinak has performed at Stony Mountain Institution and remembers the chilling feeling that came from hearing doors slamming shut behind her. She plans to inject some of that distress into her performance in Jail Baby, as well as animosity toward the reluctance of government to do anything about the plight of these women.

"What makes so angry is that no one is stopping to say this is not working, that we should try something else," she says. "With this current federal government it really scares me, the amount of money they are spending on prisons and punishment."


Post-play panels with experts:

  • May 17: What are the connections between being poor and marginalized and ending up incarcerated?
  • May 18: Why is there such a high correlation between being aboriginal, incarcerated and having a substance-abuse problem?
  • May 19: Why do so many women cycle in and out of the system, from foster care to juvenile detention to adult correctional facilities?
  • May 21: How do we find the balance between safety/security and justice in Canada?
  • May 22: How can we move towards a healing and restorative model of justice?
  • May 23: Will building more prisons solve our problems and make our communities safer?
  • May 24: What is the focus of the Canadian correctional system?
  • May 25: The difficulties of finding a stable foster home for children when their parents are incarcerated.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 16, 2013 C1

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