(NEW YORK)—At 8 p.m. on Monday, June 13 at Lincoln Center Atrium, PEN America and Essie Justice Group will premier a filmed production of the new anti-carceral choreopoem Quilted Steel by Mahogany L. Browne, which presents the harrowing, yet hopeful stories of real formerly incarcerated Black women. Following the 25-minute film screening, a panel discussion will be presented with formerly incarcerated writers, advocates, and a former New York state parole leader. The event is open to the public at no charge and will include a call to action against mass incarceration and its harm to communities of color.

Attendees are asked to RSVP.

NOTE: The Lincoln Center Covid 19 protocol requires mask-wearing during the program and proof of a completed primary series vaccination for admiission. 

Quilted Steel is a powerful choral performance poem that centers on the resilience, lives and dreams of formerly incarcerated women. Browne is Lincoln Center’s first-ever poet in residence. In addition to her writing, she is an educator, organizer and executive director of JustMedia, a media literacy initiative supporting the groundwork of criminal justice leaders and community members. In her latest poetry collection, I Remember Death By Its Proximity to What I Love (Haymarket Books), she responds to the impact of mass incarceration on women and children.

Browne, who directed the film, describes her choice of a choreopoem to tell the stories of formerly incarcerated women as “the becoming of a body and of a voice on that stage, where you are intersecting, weaving together music, movement, poetry, and you don’t know where the voice begins or ends—that’s the crux of the choreopoem. I thought that was the perfect vehicle for these stories because we’re intrinsically tied to each other.”

Watch a preview of the film. 

Caits Meissner, director of PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program, who produced the project, said: “This collaboration is a call to bear unflinching witness. The project demands that we interrogate the impact of mass incarceration and explore how we can honor those still entrapped by an unjust system while working on large scale systemic change.”

Meissner has focused on bringing writing resources to prisons and incarcerated people for nearly a decade as a creator and educator and is the editor of The Sentences that Create Us (Haymarket Books), a road map for incarcerated people and their allies to have a thriving writing life behind bars. She said while the narrative of Quilted Steel is told through the voices of three actresses—Dominique Toney, Yazmin Monet Watkins and Jasmine Williams— the words they speak “are not fictional, they are not invented, They are true stories of Black women under community supervision. Not only are the stories real, but so are direct quotes from actual women, repurposed and woven together to create both an intimate and expansive depiction of living under state watch.”

Meissner said some of their stories focus on survival of domestic abuse and lived experience in the foster care system. The intent of Quilted Steel is to lift up the critical voices of Black women to humanize survivors of the criminal legal system by documenting and confronting how they have been harmed.

Following the screening, PEN America will present a discussion among writers and advocates on the impact of the justice system on Black women. The panelists will include: Heather Stokes, a writer and doula, whose experiences as both a Black woman and a convicted felon have fueled her passion to bring healing and health into communities of color; Vanda Seward, director of the Criminal Justice Program and professor at Kingsborough Community College; Vivian D. Nixon, writer-in-residence at The Square One Project, and Donna Hylton, an advocate for women and girls impacted by trauma, sexual violence, police brutality and incarceration. Her memoir, A Little Piece of Light, recounts her past as a survivor of trafficking, violence and incarceration. The panel will be moderated by Nicole Shawan Junior, deputy director of PEN’s Prison and Justice Writing Program. Read the panelists’ full bios.

The stories of real women are raised in the context of a rapidly expanding population of women behind bars. According to the Pew Center, the number of women under supervision has nearly doubled from 520,000 in 1990 to more than 1 million at the end of 2016. As a result, women accounted for one-quarter of the probation population and 1 in 8 parolees by 2016.

Though the event is free, the audience in person and online is encouraged to donate to Essie Justice Group’s critical work in lieu of the cost of a ticket. The David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center is located at 61 West 62nd Street between Columbus Avenue and Broadway in New York City.. 

Caits Meissner recently interviewed Mahogany Browne for PEN America’s Works of Justice podcast. Listen here. Read Meissner’s recent blog about the project. 

Background on the Project

The project itself was born from the Art For Justice network, a fund created by art collector and social justice philanthropist Agnes Gund, which supports artists and advocates working to reform the criminal justice system. Mahogany, who was a fellow in the network, approached ally Meissner to collaborate. The two came up with the idea to create an original series of performance-based, advocacy-oriented writing projects that utilizes PEN America Writing For Justice Fellow Priscilla Ocen’s vision, framework, and research as primary source material. Ocen received the fellowship for a journalistic series seeking to expose cash-strapped state and local government reliance on probation and parole as promising antidotes to the crisis of mass incarceration.  

Ocen’s work highlights the ways in which the turn toward community supervision extends, rather than limits, state regulation over the lives of women of color in the justice system. In December of 2019 Ocen’s first essay of the project, Awakening to a Mass Supervision Crisis, was published in The Atlantic. Her interviews served as the touchstone for the collaboration. Dr. Self Tapes was the film’s videographer. 

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

About Essie Justice Group

Essie Justice Group is an Oakland, CA-based nonprofit organization of women with incarcerated loved ones taking on the rampant injustices created by mass incarceration. Its Healing to Advocacy Model brings women together to heal, build collective power, and drive social change. The organization and partners, including the National Bail Out Collective, raise money to support black women who cannot afford bail. essiejusticegroup.org/

Journalists interested in covering the premier of the film should contact Suzanne Trimel: STrimel@PEN.org, 201-247-5057