Inmates & Ivy Leaguers Create a Play Together

It's Criminal: Prison Inmates and Ivy League Students Create a Play Together


Pati Hernandez is the founder, facilitator and executive director of Telling My Story Inc.  She started developing the program in 1995, at the University Settlement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, teaching literacy to Latin-American women through theater.  In 1999, Hernández began using the Telling My Story approach to create a platform for self-empowerment through listening and speaking with populations in crisis, which has included inmates, people on parole, and victims of domestic violence.

 Since 2005, students from Dartmouth College joined Telling My Story effort as volunteers, and since 2007, the program was developed as a course called Telling Stories for Social Change.  Starting in 2013 the program took yet another venue: Telling My Story On Campus where students from unlike communities from the college come together in the effort to listen, speak and work together to create a platform for communication, understanding, trust, and dialogue. 

When Pati just arrived to North America in 1983, she met the Bread and Puppet Theater with whom she worked on and off for over 20 years.  In addition to directing a range of Telling My Story productions Pati has directed Dance-Theater productions since 1988 at the University of Puerto Rico as well as productions with FOMMA (Strength of the Mayan Women) in Chiapas, Mexico, and University Settlement in New York City.  

Pati is an adjunct professor at the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, and the Director of Telling My Story on Campus at Dartmouth College. Before that she was an adjunct professor at Barnard College and NYU teaching movement for actors.

“Almost a decade ago I participated in a residency at BMC where I shared my experience with other prison and social activist,” she says.  “I had no idea what it was going to be- I had never been part of anything like it.  It was a time full of inspiration, honest sharing, profound learning, growth, improvisation, laughter, companionship.”


Focusing on the Dartmouth College class Women, Prison and Performance, taught by Ivy Schweitzer and Pati Hernandez, the feature documentary It’s Criminal by Signe Taylor is a critique of the economic and social inequities that divide the United States. Shot in an intimate verite style, the film shares the life-changing journeys of incarcerated women and Dartmouth College students working together to write and perform an original play about the lives of the imprisoned women.

It’s Criminal delves into privilege, poverty, and injustice and asks viewers to think about who is in prison and why. It’s been shown at a number of film festivals and won the Impact Doc award for feature documentary.

Here is the trailer for It’s Criminal


Inmates & Ivy Leaguers Create a Play Together

Malika shares a family photo

Review of It’s Criminal by Susan B. Apel

It’s Criminal is filmmaker Signe Taylor’s moving and arresting portrait of incarcerated women, privileged Dartmouth students, and what happens when they come together to write and stage a play. “It will change you,” says Professor Ivy Schweitzer to her students, speaking of the journey upon which her Women and Gender Studies class is about to embark. Watching It’s Criminal might change the viewer as well.

It’s a documentary that is gorgeously shot, in cinema verité style. It tells many stories—stark economic inequality that bleeds over into the current criminal justice system is but one. Imagine the reaction of women inmates spending a year or more in prison for drug-related crimes when, in the middle of the making of this film, a few Dartmouth students are arrested for cocaine possession and the charges all but disappear. Huh?

It's Criminal: Prison Inmates and Ivy League Students Create a Play

Charlotte tells her story

The film touches on other themes: the pain and powerlessness of women trying to parent while incarcerated, the ubiquity of abuse of women and its lasting scars, the gaze of those on the outside who reduce prisoners to barely two-dimensional cardboard cutouts rather than human beings with thoughts and history. In her dialogues with her students, Schweitzer poses questions that challenge our understanding of personal responsibility as the only narrative that explains incarceration. She comments also about what happens in jail and asks: what if we used incarceration as a means of helping human beings, returning them to the outside as healed and better people?

Since I write about the arts, one of the themes that resonated deeply with me was the power of making theater. Pati Hernandez (performer with the renowned Bread and Puppet theater company), who co-teaches this course with Schweitzer, leads the enterprise’s artistic vision, and she is a force to behold. Drummer, dancer, director, listener, cajoler, her interactions are deeply human and authentic as she somehow produces magic. One woman credits Pati and the class with saving her life. Another is more minimalist but no less heartfelt when she says, “Now I’m a little bit hopeful.” That is no faint praise.The film is not sentimental or easy. The conversations between the students and the incarcerated women are presented in sometimes stilted fashion as the two groups try to understand each other. “Hated her,” says one of the women about a Dartmouth student who was wearing a pair of pearl earrings. Another questions whether “we are just an experiment.” The students present their own pain—trying to succeed on a campus where expression of vulnerability is frowned upon. Toward the end of the film, someone in the play’s audience claims she couldn’t tell the students from the inmates. “You’re all the same,” she says. But they’re not. “I’m damaged,” mourns Malika, in jail for drug possession. “We are so damn lucky,” says one of the Dartmouth students, out loud.

Susan B. Apel is a second-career freelance writer whose articles about the arts have appeared in publications such as Boston’s The Arts Fuse, Art New England, and The Woven Tale Press. She writes a column, LawSpeak, for Vermont Woman, and engages in creative writing when she has the time and inspiration. This first appeared in her blog, ArtfulEdge, is hosted on the, where she makes it her mission to seek out, and introduce her local community to, the arts that flourish in the Upper Connecticut River Valley.

Inmates & Ivy Leaguers Create a Play Together 1

Dartmouth student Nell reads up on prisons

About filmmaker Signe Taylor

Signe Taylor is an award-winning filmmaker. She produced and directed Circus Dreams, a feature documentary about one of the best youth circuses in the United States. In addition, she has covered political candidates for C-Span, produced for the children’s show ZOOM on PBS and received her MA from the Documentary Film Program at Stanford University and BA from Barnard College at Columbia University.

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