“Transformation through Communication.”

That’s the name of the class at Stateville Correction Facility in Joliet, Ill., taught by attorney James Chapman, founder of the Illinois Institute for Community Law & Affairs.

Chapman volunteers his time to teach this class every Wednesday, which he has done for many years. The class comprises men serving long-term prison sentences, many life without the possibility of parole, which means they’ll spend the rest of their natural lives behind bars. Yet these men maintain hope for a better future for themselves and humanity. Determined to matter and make a difference, the men in Chapman’s class collectively wrote a play, aptly and simply titled A Day at Stateville.

It’s a short play – with four characters, five scenes and a narrator – about a newcomer’s first day at Stateville. A recent reading at Kennedy King College demonstrated the power of the play. The performance was intended to be a private run-through – an opportunity for friends and colleagues to provide feedback – but word got around and nearly 100 people came to see this staged reading, which starred men who had actually been incarcerated at Stateville.

Without skipping a beat, the four survivors of Stateville read the script aloud, drawing the audience in with every word. The exchanges between the characters of Rob, his new “cellie” Earl and the other veterans of Stateville showed the day-to-day realities of life behind bars for these men, and the play offers its audience a glimpse into this harsh world.

For Chapman, the play represents “an effort by incarcerated persons to demonstrate their inherent power by interacting with the community on issues that are important to them. Men and women in prison can’t talk to everybody, but this play is their way of conveying their message to the world.”

The interactive discussion that followed the reading illustrated how the play can serve as a catalyst for collectively thinking about societal issues. A larger conversation emerged, and together we grappled with the pressing and difficult question: How can we save ourselves from this epidemic of incarceration that is plaguing our communities?

For one woman attending the reading, the play was an eye-opening experience. “Until now,” she said, “I never really believed what I heard about how bad it was [in prison]. On TV, they make it seem like it’s not so bad.” Others, including several who had been formerly incarcerated, asked how they could get involved in efforts to reach out to others, especially youths, to interrupt this pipeline from the communities to the prisons.

As the economy continues to plummet and communities face increasing hardships, creating political spaces for transformation, and finding ways to creatively engage one another, are not luxuries, but necessities for reshaping the world in which we live.

The men of Stateville point the way – from the dark, cavernous walls of the prisons – as they dare to inspire, create and seek “transformation through communication.”

Alice Kim is a writer and columnist whose work appears in AREA Chicago publications.