The Prison Project

I would sit in the yard in the pouring rain all night to hear you do that play again.

Diane, Women's Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center (WERDCC), Vandalia, Missouri, US

The discussion led by Susan afterwards was exceptional in that everyone contributed; staff and prisoner alike… and, for a few hours it felt like we were in a different place talking and sharing with each other personally, at a level of maturity and disclosure way beyond the normal confines of jail-speak. In a sense it is not correct to call it a one-woman-show since the audience were so involved in the overall delivery (in both parts: the play itself and the discussion afterwards). All credit to Susan and those responsible for bringing this to HMP Perth. I’m sure Etty herself would be pleased.

Kenny, Chaplain, Her Majesty's Prison (HMP) Perth, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

Susan Stein began bringing Etty to prisons in 2012. What started in a couple of women's prisons in Maine and Boston spread to women's and men's prisons throughout the United States and the United Kingdom. Inmates have opened their hearts to Etty Hillesum's words and found hope in her courage.

As doors close in around Etty and her freedoms are taken away, she opens doors and finds a larger universe within herself. Etty finds her true voice while she is an inmate at Westerbork prison camp.

Many of the inmates have not seen a piece of live theater before. They are surprised to find themselves engaged in Etty's questions about life, death, ethical dilemmas, love and justice. The discussion facilitates a community where inmates help each other to think about freedom, mortality and one's relationship to God.

A male inmate at HM Prison Perth in Scotland responds to Etty's line if an SS man were to kick me to death, I should nevertheless look into his face and wonder, my God, you poor fellow, what terrible things must have happened in your life to bring you to this pass? This leads to a long discussion about murder, empathy and Nazism.

Immediately following a performance of Etty in a women's prison in Maine, an inmate said directly to Stein, when you said that line, To have enough love inside oneself to be able to forgive God I never thought about that before. How much love is that? How much love does it take to forgive God? That night's discussion explored forgiving God, forgiving our family, forgiving the justice system and forgiving ourselves.

Inmates talk about Etty's internal struggle. One woman, after a performance at HMP Bronzefield outside of London, said that the play changed her life. That she had never heard someone voice her flaws, her depression, sexuality and moral conundrums.

Etty understood that she could not control the external forces, but she could control her response to them. Inmates find her commitment to not demonize or hate her perpetrators, not to respond to violence with violence and to nurture her inner self, inspiring and hopeful. We explore Etty's thinking when she writes, Nazi barbarism evokes the same kind of barbarism in ourselves, one that would involve the same methods if we could do as we wanted here and now. We have to root out that barbarism within us, root out the hatred within us.

One donor in North Carolina, was so moved by the prison project, that committed to providing copies of of the diaries to each prison Susan visited for a full year.

ettyplay inc offers month long workshops were inmates read Etty's diaries while keeping a diary of their own. Contact us for more information.

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