Sara Fonseca spends roughly 23 hours a day confined to a small concrete prison cell. The inmate, who is in her early thirties and goes by the nickname "Mariposa," has been behind bars for nearly thirteen years, and since 2012 has been locked in a so-called "Security Housing Unit" — a highly restrictive setup commonly described as solitary confinement. That means she has extremely limited communication with anyone inside the prison — the California Institution for Women, located in Corona, forty miles east of Los Angeles — and virtually no contact with the outside world.
But this week, audiences across the Bay Area will get a chance to hear Mariposa's story — in her own words. Mariposa and the Saint, a play Mariposa co-wrote with longtime friend Julia Steele Allen, gives viewers an intimate look at the impact of incarceration from the direct perspective of an inmate housed in what advocates describe as one of the cruelest features of the prison system. The 45-minute play, which Allen will perform at La Peña Cultural Center (3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley) on May 10, is the culmination of two years of letters between Mariposa and Allen.
Allen, a playwright and performer who first met Mariposa in 2005 as a volunteer for the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), plays Mariposa in the production, which is adapted directly from their correspondences. The two women have stayed in contact since they first met, and when the prison transferred Mariposa to solitary confinement, they decided to collaborate on a creative project to help her cope with the psychological strains of her isolation.
Mariposa had never even seen a play before, according to Allen, who previously lived in the Bay Area but is now based in New York City. Allen sent Mariposa plays to read and questions to answer, and Mariposa wrote about her life outside of prison, her memories, and her struggles behind bars. Although their communication was slow — Allen often had to wait a month or more to get a reply from Mariposa — they drafted and revised the play over a series of letters, which increasingly became focused on the impact of solitary confinement. They discussed Mariposa's separation from her children, the suffering of other inmates, and suicides that have occurred behind bars.
"She's in a room the size of an elevator and never gets to go out," said Allen, who performs alongside a silent masked man representing a correctional officer in the play. "It took a really big toll on her mental health and her physical health. That's what it's designed for. It's just a huge injustice."
Allen said she doesn't know the details of Mariposa's original conviction — CCWP advocates deliberately focus on an inmate's present situation and don't question women about their past run-ins with the law. Regardless of the circumstances, the use of prolonged isolation for Mariposa and inmates across the country is clearly inhumane, Allen argued.
As of last summer, the state reported that there were more than ninety inmates in the California Institution for Women's Security Housing Unit, also known as the SHU, though many are apparently housed two to a cell and thus not technically in "solitary" units. Still, women confined to this type of isolation have few privileges, and their mental health can quickly deteriorate, activists have argued. For Mariposa, the process of writing the play — which incorporates elements of magical realism, including a sequence in which Mariposa takes apart one of her cell walls — has served as a "life raft," Allen said.
"There are so many layers of isolation. It's liberating to imagine your words are somehow making it to an audience," Allen said. "Through her imagination, she can be somewhere else, talking to a room of people she's never met who are thousands of miles away."
The play, which is also a benefit for CCWP, will transition into a 45-minute workshop and question-and-answer section in which advocates will discuss local possibilities for prison reform. Allen previously performed Mariposa and the Saint in New York in support of progressive legislation seeking to limit the use of solitary confinement.