HUTCHINSON — Araeleigha Marcy anxiously peered around the corner at the crowd of some 250 inmates at Hutchinson Correctional Facility East Unit who began to chatter among themselves.
‘There’s girls,’” she remembers hearing. “You know they are looking at you because they haven’t necessarily seen women or younger women.”
“You feel the intentions of why they are looking at you.”
The audience that night in the visitation room would comprise the largest public performance the 19-year-old from Salina had since the second grade.
All eight of the students in the Prison Theatre Project class at Bethel College talked about the anxiety when they first toured the maximum-security Hutchinson Correctional Facility. Marcy said she remembers herself and the two other women in the class flocked to the center of the group.
“You want to stand next to the biggest guys,” she said.
But even the biggest guy in their group, six-foot 225-pound football player Joseph Winfield, felt nervous when that third gate screeched shut behind them.
“‘You don’t want to work here,”’ they remembered an inmate yelled.
The students worked with inmates at the medium-security East Unit throughout January. They all sensed the additional freedom inmates had at the East Unit compared to the maximum security facility. It mitigated some of their nerves.
Some of the students looked at the rap sheet on the 15 inmates they worked with for the Jan. 25 performance, consisting of four-short plays that all used dashes of comedy to deal with topics like hatred and death.
But not Marcy.
She still doesn’t know what the inmate who acted as her husband in one skit did to end up in prison.
“I had to put my hands on his and bump him because we played a married couple,” Marcy said, adding she never looked up his rap sheet because she didn’t want to go in with any preconceived judgment. “The reason they are in the East Unit and not max is because they somewhat atoned.”
The students performed the play again on Feb. 8 and 9 at Bethel College, this time without the inmates. In between skits, and as part of the performance at the East Unit and Bethel College, the performers read excerpts from their diary.
The diary is part of the performance and required to be kept by inmates and students.
“I’ve never had so much fun doing something so positive,” a student read from an inmate’s journal in front of roughly 60 people during the last performance.
After the performance, professor and director John McCabe-Juhnke sat with his students at center stage to field questions from the audience.
Brett Mathis, one of the students, recalled how McCabe-Juhnke always avoided calling them inmates and how excited they were to receive a certificate for completing the performance.
“The little things we take for granted … a little piece of paper was valuable to them,” Mathis said.
As for Marcy, she’s now a believer in second chances.
“I think if I could do it all over again, I would,” Marcy said. “And I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Actors Jennifer Harrison and Jaxie Gerk — shared similar feelings.
“Being able to see that human side of them was the best thing for me,” Gerk said.
Harrison said she would relive the experience: “110 percent.”