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I’ve been running prison workshops for years, but I still get nervous

DANIEL FISHEL FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

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'Why do I come here?" It's a beautiful Saturday afternoon in July and I am about to help run a three-hour drama workshop with my husband, Nick. I feel nervous. Each time I come here I ask myself that same question.

We are standing outside a medium-security prison near Kingston. After several minutes, the buzzer sounds and the doors slowly slide open. We walk through and they close behind us; we walk to another sliding door, which opens and closes, and then up a ramp to yet another door, which opens. A burly guard, sitting behind a thick plate of glass, asks for our identification and checks our names against the visitors' list. We go through an electronic scanner, then through a heavily reinforced door to a path, surrounded by grass. The green grass is soothing, after all the grey concrete.

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We follow the path to the chapel where we are met by a group of inmates chatting outside – "Hi guys. How was the journey? We've been looking forward to this." It has been two months since our last visit and we know some of the guys, and greet them by name. We know how important this is for them.

My fears begin to melt with their welcome. We've been running these workshops for seven years now, but I am still nervous at the beginning of each one. The dynamics of prison life are unsettling – violence, drug use, lockdowns – and can affect the engagement and participation in the workshop.

Nick and I are co-artistic directors of The Hunters: Down To Earth, a Christian ministry using drama and play therapy to explore social, ethical and spiritual issues. We invite prisoners to act out stories of their lives through exercises, role playing and improvisation to gain a deeper perspective of what has brought them to this place.

We find chaplain Maurice in his office. He greets us warmly and gives us the list of who to expect for the session; of the 14 names, most are regulars. Many are lifers; they are not going anywhere for a long time. Those who come to our sessions are trying to escape from their situation for a while, using their imaginations and learning more about themselves in the process.

We move into the chapel and find the men sitting in a circle. Mark is at the piano and Richard is playing the guitar (gifted musicians, they are planning to go on tour when they are released). I walk round the circle, shaking hands and greeting everyone. I am conscious of being the only woman and feel vulnerable in this macho setting.

It is good to see familiar faces, like Jim. He is in his 60s and has a great sense of humour. He has helped many fellow inmates and will be missed when he is released in a month's time. Isaiah, a young native man who is usually bouncing with energy, sits zombie-like in his chair and barely recognizes me. He has just returned from a regional treatment centre, where he underwent intensive therapy.

We begin with a couple of warm-up exercises, followed by a good discussion about the importance of boundaries. Next, we move to one of our key exercises. We form a circle and everyone is given a number between one and six. The number fives are asked to stand outside the circle. Their task is to get into the circle while the others try to prevent them. The rule is simple: Don't hurt yourself or anyone else. I am impressed by the ingenious ways some of the men find to get inside the circle, and there is much laughter and good energy.

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Suddenly, I'm aware of a cold presence. Michael has arrived; he is built like a mountain, weighing at least 300 pounds. The others don't seem happy to see him. He joins the circle and the exercise continues. Those who are trying to get into the circle give Michael a wide berth.

Now, the number threes are called to stand in the middle of the circle and try to get out. Michael is a number three. He first tries to get out by bellowing and lurching toward Isaiah, who cowers from him. There are murmurs of disapproval. Michael's second attempt is directed at me. He hurls his frame with a mighty roar. I shout and jump back, fast. Mark, standing next to me, says, "Are you okay? He was way out of line." This is the first time in many years of working in prisons that I have felt physically threatened. Mark and another inmate walk Michael out of the chapel.

We go on, but there is an undercurrent of unease. When we break for coffee, Michael returns, making a beeline for me. "I'm sorry. I had no intention of scaring you. I am a good Catholic," he says. He assures me that it was all in fun, then departs, saying: "I must leave now to pray the rosary."

Our workshop continues with Albert volunteering to look at his family and the lack of boundaries he experienced. He chooses others to act out his story, which he directs. The group begins to bond. Now I know why I come here. At the start of our session, we all felt like outsiders, trapped in our own cages. It took the incident with Michael to break down the bars and help us reconnect, not as insiders and outsiders, but as people working together. The next visit can only be better. I look forward to it with anticipation.

Joy Hunter lives in Brentwood Bay, B.C.

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