Text by K. Cecchini/Production Stills and Series Image Courtesy of Think Ten Media Group
After spending a total of 18 months in solitary confinement during multiple prison stays, William Brown – who has been a free man for five years – willingly reentered the ‘hole’ last summer.
This time, though, he went in with cameras.
Brown plays the fictional role of prisoner Marcus Williams in the scripted web series “The wHOLE.” Think Ten Media Group filmed the first episode in the inactive Wapato Jail in Portland, Oregon during August 2014 and released it in March. The 15-minute pilot episode focuses entirely on Brown’s character contendng with solitary confinement.
In order to provoke the intense emotions of being trapped in solitary, Brown said Director Ramon Hamilton asked him to “go to a dark place.” Brown went there; he said he recalled the day he was last released for parole on June 24, 2010 and his aunt told him his good friend had been murdered a couple of weeks prior on June 9 when he was sitting in solitary.
“It really tore” at him when he originally heard the news, Brown said. And when he recounted the story to Hamilton, he said he cried.
For Brown it was healing. For Hamilton, the effect was authentic. Hamilton said from that exercise, Brown improvised something “nobody can write.”
Hamilton, co-founder of Think Ten Media Group with partner Jennifer Fischer, was on tour for their 2012 film “Smuggled” when he heard about the 2013 Pelican Bay Prison hunger strikes in California. He wanted to understand the conditions that the inmates were protesting.
However, Hamilton’s research on prisons quickly led him down a “proverbial rabbit hole,” he said. Therefore he said he and Fischer felt that a single movie could not adequately address the issues. Hamilton said they decided to create a web series and pattern it after HBO’s “The Wire” (2002-8) by dividing it into “parts of the machine” or focusing on different aspects of the prison setting.
Brown inadvertently started to prepare for his role in “The wHOLE” less than two months after his 18th birthday when he was sent to a federal penitentiary for bank robbery in 1995.
For the next 15 years, Brown was in and out of prison -and the Solitary Housing Unit (SHU).
“You’re in jail, but you’re in jail again,” Brown said about his time in solitary. With only one hour a day outside of the cell to shower and exercise, “You lose your mind; it’s like a 23-hour-hell-hold.”
Brown said, “you got to stay real sharp” because with little other stimulation, the soundtrack of the SHU can get to you. The guards’ keys jingling and prisoners screaming and banging are part of the incessant noise.
Sometimes, Brown said, the library would come around with a book. But once you returned it, he said, “you were left alone.”
To stay sane in the SHU, Brown said he would play songs in his head and mentally write beats. The other thing that kept him lucid he said is “knowing that someone on the other side of that wall loves you.”
His time in the real SHU informed Brown’s performance in “The wHOLE.” As Marcus Williams, Brown contends with social isolation within the space. For example, he improvises ‘playing’ piano at the edge of the bed. But he eventually starts to bang on the walls and the commode in response to the guard ignoring his plea and sounds like a persistent faucet drip and buzzing lights.
“How perverse is it that we put people deeper into prison?” Glenn Martin, founder of the justice advocacy organization JustLeadershipUSA, asked.
Martin reflected on his own experiences in the SHU with Tonight at Dawn; he said, “The first day you start reading every scratch on the wall, and by the second day you start talking to yourself” because you are so isolated.
And by the third day? Martin said you can’t tell the difference between ”which voice is yours and which is the one in your head.”
Martin, who will be a co-producer on the second episode of “The wHOLE,” feels like the series compliments his organization’s model because it “amplifies (the) voices” of people who have been in the criminal justice system.
ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE BARS
From Brown’s perspective, “The guards don’t look at (prison) as rehab, they look at it as ‘fuck you,’” because, to them, “you’re just a number on the door”.
Brown said, it’s “eight (hours) and the gate” for the officers.
Dasha Lisitsina wrote about the experiences of correctional officers for The Guardian. The article, published on May 20, has a telling title; “‘Prison guards can never be weak’: the hidden PTSD crisis in America’s jails”.
In the article, Lisitsina writes about how Correctional Officers handle the stress of their job, “Corrections wisdom dictates that you deal with trauma by not dealing with it at all.” According to Lisitsina’s reporting, “‘Eight and the gate’ is the unofficial motto.”
Lisitsina also wrote about the results of an anonymous 2011 survey of correctional officers conducted by Caterina Spinaris founder of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, a nonprofit based in Colorado, “Corrections officers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder at more than double the rate of military veterans in the US.”
Reflecting on this study, Hamilton told Tonight at Dawn, “Our prison systems are no good to anyone involved.” He said future episodes of “The wHOLE” will explore perspectives of other people involved in prisons such as the guards.
‘I GET TO BE WILLIAM’
Sometimes, though, there is something positive to be found in prison.
During Brown’s last prison sentence at the California’s Men’s Colony San Luis Obispo, he learned of the Arts in Correction program and approached the prison’s facilitator Deborah Tobola in 2007 about creating music.
At the time, Tobola needed to replace one of the actors and she had Brown read for the role in a play written by inmates, “Yesterday’s New Arrival.”
Brown was not an actor, but Tobola said she insisted that he had significant talent.
Happy he took the role, Brown still works with Tobola who has since resigned from her government job in 2007 and developed “Poetic Justice Project” in 2008 in Santa Maria for formerly incarcerated youth and adults.
If it weren’t for Tobola, Brown said, “I would not be acting, she saw something in me I did not see.” In fact, it was also Tobola that recommended Hamilton audition him for “The wHOLE” in 2014.
And now, thanks to acting and fatherhood, Brown said he is focused on doing the right thing. He said, “I won’t even jaywalk.”
Since his early teens, William Brown has been called by a lot of names: he was nicknamed Day Day on the street in his early teens and in prison he was called by just his last name or his inmate number. But as an actor today, he is called to stage by his full name.
“The difference for me now,” Brown said, “is I get to be William.”