Reality check - Students at Allegheny County Jail create play about real life experiences

Act 33 Wide

After three years, dozens of students and numerous attempts to bring to the stage, a first-of-its-kind play on the criminal justice system written by juvenile inmates at Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) will be read aloud this weekend.

“ACT 33: Echoes from Pod 7E Maximum Security” will be performed virtually on Saturday, January 16 at 7 p.m. The reading will be broadcast live on Facebook by Alumni Theater Company in partnership with Words Without Walls, a creative alliance with Chatham University’s MFA in Creative Writing program and the ACJ.  The Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s Alternative Education Program operates the Academic Institute, the school for juveniles at the jail.

“Act 33” touches on the on-and-off street experiences of children criminally charged as adults under the eponymous amendment. The 1996 legislative piece to the Pennsylvania Juvenile Act stipulates children may be charged as adults for serious crimes meeting a certain criterion.

"I think the play raises awareness about juvenile justice and how many of the laws should be reviewed or looked at” said Language Arts teacher Kristine Autenreith, who teaches at the Academic Institute. “We’re hoping to stoke conversation.”

Following the read, a live question-and-answer session will be held.

The performance is more than three years in the making and developed with the help of then-Chatham University graduate student Michael Bennett. In all, the play was written and developed by 45 juveniles who melded their experiences into the final script.

The juvenile students “got an opportunity to have their voices heard,” said Jay Moser, principal of the Academic Institute. “Because of their situation, they’re not always viewed as a typical high school student, but that’s exactly what they are.” He added, “while they have other serious issues they’re dealing with, they still just want to be 16-and-17-year-olds.”

Dr. Licia Lentz, director of the AIU’s Alternative Education Program, was moved after reading the final play.

“I think it shows that we have to do things more preventatively,” she said. “You are not born bad. These are learned behaviors.”

Bennett, the Chatham graduate student, has since graduated and teaches at Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) School at his alma mater, Pittsburgh Public Schools. Following his graduate participation at Words Without Walls, he continued to visit the ACJ on a weekly, voluntary basis for three years to see the play’s development through.

“From drafting characters, to planning the plot, to writing scenes and raps and monologues, this play was never just one writer's voice or story,” Bennett said. “It required a mutual respect for the project as a whole.”

Each time a new student joined the group, Bennett said, the entire play was read through to get fresh perspectives. “Some students were better at revising, or rapping, or writing dialogue,” Bennett said, “but each of them found their own way to contribute.”

He hopes the story will influence the public to think about the intersection of race, class and mental health in our criminal justice system.

“The play is a testament to the cyclical traumas of incarceration: solitary confinement, trials, pleas, conflicts with other juveniles and C.O.'s (corrections officers), separation from their families,” Bennett said. “But it's also about the power of resolution—of setting aside differences to work towards a common goal: freedom.”