There’s a reason every story about a prison includes the sound of a slamming door. It may be clichéd, but it’s pretty good at getting across the point: when you go to jail you are locked in. Those doors are loud, hard, and cold. On one side is freedom and on the other side?
"We live in a constant laugh."
Say what? Tess Devino is an inmate at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, the women’s prison in South Burlington.
"It’s a great opportunity for an ice breaker," she says. "Especially when people are really really down and we’re behind these walls. It’s really good to just step out of that seriousness and create bonds through laughter."
Friend and fellow inmate Dallas Sears agrees.
"We use humor to uplift other people and it works well for us, we forget where we’re at and just laugh for a moment."
Local comedian Josie Leavitt teaches these and other prisoners how to channel that energy into a polished set.
"Humor is how they survive in here. And to be able to give them tools to write about it in a tighter way is a lovely thing."
Leavitt teaches stand-up comedy through the Community High School of Vermont, which runs classes in Vermont correctional facilities.
This fall, she introduced herself to a new crop of students with a description of the different types of stand-up, and a few helpful tips.
"What a lot of you are going to wind up doing is called observational comedy. Which is basically talking about your life and things, literally, that you’re observing. Some people talk about how they wound up in prison, ex-boyfriends, husbands, drug problems, whatever. Anything’s up for grabs. The only thing you’re not allowed to talk about: don’t talk smack about the guards, because they’re coming. And you’re not allowed to talk about anything that would basically encourage someone to commit a crime. If I feel like you’re close to that I will tell you to redirect."
In the prison library on Halloween night, about a dozen nervous students furiously scribbled in the prison-approved notebooks Leavitt had brought with her. She gives them broad latitude to find what’s funny in their lives but "if you’ve had a great day, I don’t care," she tells them. "If you’ve had a day from hell, that’s the day I want to hear about. Because that’s the day that’s funny. And what works about that is that’s you struggling. And struggle creates tension, which automatically is going to rivet the audience and then tension gets relieved by laughter. And that’s how you approach a joke. It’s really-it’s simple!"
Anxiety was apparent on the faces of some of the women as they began scripting their first routines. Others played at nonchalance, or chatted. But after the writing exercise, each one of them had to perform.
Louise Desnoyers got laughs using her mispronunciation of English words to poke fun at herself. "I’m Louise!! Denoyers. Not des-noy-er, not destroyers, not den-wah-yurs. DEN-WAH-YAY."
Abby Shocik told a story about sharing a bunk with a particularly undesirable roommate.
"A few weeks ago I got moved to a new unit in the prison. I went from a 2-man cell to a 4-man cell. First thing I notice when I walk in is there’s only two other people. So I was like, sweet, I get this whole extra bed to myself. This is going to be awesome. I get a bottom bunk. Well then this lady from my old unit comes and moves in. The one with the incontinence problem. She moves in to the bed above mine."
You can probably guess where that one’s going. A lot of the humor was a little bit raunchy or involved toilet humor. But Josie Leavitt says if that’s what is happening in their lives, it’s fair game. And it certainly resonated with the small audience of fellow classmates.
By the end of the class, everyone had performed. Some sets were tighter than others, but they had a couple more classes to work through the material and polish it for the big performance.
"The class went great!" Leavitt beamed. "Usually, in a class like this not everyone performs. Everyone was performing. I thought everyone did phenomenally well for their first time. And this seems like a good supportive group. And I’m very curious to see what they wind up with as a finished set."
Students taking this class can get credit towards a high school diploma. Leavitt says stand-up comedy is a good exercise in creative writing, editing, and critical thinking.
And her supervisor agrees. John Long has worked with the Community High School of Vermont for the past sixteen years and he supervises classes at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility.
"The way that Josie runs the class lends itself to the credit piece. If she didn’t follow a set curriculum and meet the standards that we aspire to at the community High School, we wouldn’t offer it for credit."
Long says people who are incarcerated should have the same educational opportunities as anyone else.
"You know, our folks are kind of in transition between their younger years and kind of making the transition into adulthood. Many of them have kids of their own. So by coming back and gaining the diploma they’re able to work with their own children and they say that’s very rewarding and a very positive experience for them."
For Leavitt, the fact that these women are prisoners is almost an afterthought. She purposefully avoids finding out what her students are in jail for, until after the class is over, so that it doesn’t color her opinions of them and make teaching more difficult.
"Just because they did something wrong doesn’t mean they don’t get to be creative. And they don’t get to access part of their brain. And stand-up comedy, for a lot of people, gives you a chance to reframe an event. And just because you’re in jail doesn’t mean you don’t deserve anything. I mean, they’re in jail! It’s not like they’re going to a comedy club with me. They’re in jail."
The prison gym, with its bright lights and terrible acoustics, definitely didn’t give off the atmosphere of a comedy club the night before Thanksgiving, when the students gathered to perform their routines in front of a rowdy audience of fellow inmates.
As the crowd filed in to sit in rows of stiff-backed chairs, their voices bounced off the cold hard walls and high ceilings. And some of the performers started to get the jitters.
"Relax," Leavitt said soothingly to a particularly nervous first-timer. "You’re going to be great. I’m going to tell you a story. I have a friend; she started doing stand-up. The first time she did stand up threw up three times. The second time she did standup she threw up twice. Last time she did standup she just hiccupped. And now she’s fine. You’ll be fine, ‘cause you’ve done it in class and each time you’ve done it in class counts and you haven’t thrown up yet!!"
It was a chaotic scene, and it was unclear who was actually going to arrive to perform. Student attendance is unpredictable. Sometimes students get transferred out of the prison during the semester. Or get released. Or get put in solitary confinement, the hole.
Kayla Cowdrey did go to the hole a few days earlier. "I was really really bummed. When I went to my hearing this was one of the things I presented as like, why I shouldn’t go to the hole."
Cowdrey was released just in time to make the performance, arriving last minute, in her slippers, to take her turn.
The performances went off without a hitch. The audience was receptive, hooting and hollering at inside-prison jokes like Dallas Sears’s set.
"Have you ever tried to follow the advice we’re given around here?" Sears said, playing up to the audience. "It sounds good until you try to practice it. ‘Remove yourself from the situation.’ We beg ‘em to let us go and they won’t open the doors."
To cap the evening off, Sears and Tess Devino included the audience in a rousing, but slightly unusual version of the 12 Days of Christmas.
"Around here the holidays are pretty depressing, Sears explained after the performance. "So this was a great time to lift everybody’s spirits. We had a great turnout; these women really support us so it was just a great night all around."
A little bit of levity and holiday cheer in a world where laughter is a precious commodity.