Blue Lines, Steel, and the Hour of Myth

Women in prison transcend violence, tedium, and the past

When the dancers walk to class on Sunday afternoons, they are careful to follow the bright blue lines painted on the ground. In prison, walking outside boundaries can net a warning, a writeup, or even land an inmate in lock -- close confinement for as many as 30 days. Maggie Carr gets off easy when she cuts across the sidewalk toward the old Visiting Park, a big empty room set aside for family time but now used for inmate dance class. "Excuse me," the glowering guard growls, and sends Carr back the way she came.

This time Carr stays between the contours. Her shapeless shirt and pants don't conceal the 40-year-old Colombian American's graceful carriage. She circles the long way around the wooden gazebo, where women in dull blue cotton shifts soak up the last rays of sun before being recalled to the dorms for the night. She passes the pill line where inmates slouch, waiting for Zyprexa or Prozac. Finally she sees her brilliant black hair, smoothed into two thick braids anchored behind her ears, reflected in the glass double doors to the old VP. When she smiles, the decade she has served of her life sentence barely creases her freckled face.

Around the perimeter of the Homestead Correctional Institution there are double rows of tall electric fences festooned with jagged loops of razor wire. Inside the state prison the blue lines lead some 700 women inmates through an elaborate routine from cell to cafeteria to work duty to chapel and canteen. Perhaps the ritual repetition of these steps, the Byzantine, isolated culture of jailhouse life, suggested to Carr the Greek myth of the labyrinth as a theme for the class she leads along with an instructor from Inside Out, a prison arts program run by Florida-based nonprofit Artspring. It is not much of a stretch for Carr, or anyone else inside, to identify with the doomed Minotaur. Like that monster born of the unholy union of woman and beast, then imprisoned inside an insoluble maze, each inmate has traveled her own tragic path into wires and lines.

Jonathan Postal
From the top: Yaneth Gomez takes wing; Gloria Baez 
reflects on her life; prison poet Evelyn Chapman; 
Maggie Carr with her mentor, Artspring founder Leslie 
Jonathan Postal
From the top: Yaneth Gomez takes wing; Gloria Baez reflects on her life; prison poet Evelyn Chapman; Maggie Carr with her mentor, Artspring founder Leslie Neal

"We all have a story," says Carr. She's been hearing those stories from other inmates in Inside Out classes for the past six years, ever since she joined the program founded by choreographer and Florida International University dance professor Leslie Neal in 1994. With Neal's help, Carr translated the curriculum last year for Spanish-speaking inmates. Now a dozen or so Latinas, whose crimes range from money laundering and drug dealing to murder, come together for two hours every week to dance, sing, act, and draw out feelings locked away long ago. "Whether we're abused or our mother drank or we're alcoholic or drug addicts," Carr explains, "whatever the reason for the physical crime, each woman is in prison because of a story."

The god Poseidon gave King Minos a White Bull for the king to sacrifice as an offering to the god. As the outside world tunes out Muzak carols in December, Yessenia Suarez, ensconced in a six-by-nine-foot cell with blackout windows, tries to hear the chorus telling the tale of the Minotaur in her head. "Your mind rushes 1000 miles an hour [in confinement]," she says. "You can imagine real far." Suarez knows that this Sunday afternoon the Inside Out presentation is going on without her. She can imagine the rows of folding chairs in the old VP filling up with her fellow inmates. The dancers take their places.

The 23-year-old Cuban American was supposed to play the White Bull, but two weeks before the presentation she wandered out of bounds and ended up in lock. Broad-shouldered and nearly five feet nine, Suarez giggled like a little girl during rehearsals. She jabbed at the red cape flashed before her, holding crooked fingers at her temples like horns. She would linger after class, eager to talk more about the mythic themes of betrayal and sacrifice mirrored in her own life.

Class reminded Suarez of the fun she had with her cousins, practicing elaborate dance numbers for her big family's endless quinceañeras. Suarez was raised by her grandparents after her parents were killed in a car crash on her fourth birthday. She was doted on by uncles and aunts. "But that was never enough," the orphan admits. As a teenager she would run away from home to spend time with friends of whom her strict grandparents did not approve.

One night sixteen-year-old Suarez snuck a hungry fourteen-year-old homeless girl into the house. The girl told her they had to "go on a mission" to pick up a boyfriend. Suarez didn't know that the couple had a criminal routine: The teen would seduce older men and then let the boyfriend and his buddy in to rob. This time the victim resisted; he was killed. The "mission" made Suarez an accessory to murder.

Sitting in lock Suarez remembers her sacrificial role. By refusing to testify against her, Suarez spared the younger girl a life sentence, but in doing so lost a plea deal that would have reduced her own time by a third. Suarez learned that there are no friends in jail. When her co-defendant ended up in the same state prison, Suarez's loyalty meant nothing. "She's nice when she needs something from me," Suarez says. "[Otherwise] the girl backstabs me." What a relief it had been to turn her unappreciated gift into a dance. "My part was perfect for me," she sighs after getting out of lock. "All my life, my friends messed me over."

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