San Diego State University’s Independent Student Newspaper Since 1913

The Daily Aztec

San Diego State University’s Independent Student Newspaper Since 1913

The Daily Aztec

San Diego State University’s Independent Student Newspaper Since 1913

The Daily Aztec

Breaking the Chain: From prison to higher education and theater

Project Rebound and Playwright’s Project unite to bring awareness
Design by Gabrielle Houser

For Stephanie Majsterski, life inside of prison was bleak— until she set her eyes upon a photo of a former inmate in a cap and gown. 

“While I was in prison at the California Institution for Women, I saw a picture taped on the wall of a girl in a cap and gown at SDSU. I was asking everybody, ‘Why is there a picture of a girl at SDSU?’” Majsterski said. “Someone told me, ‘Oh that’s ‘Bankrobber,’ that’s Laura, she did 20 years, and she got out. She became a master’s student at SDSU with Project Rebound. Now she’s a professor.’ I never forgot that picture of her in her cap and gown. I knew that that was my dream.”

Many who are incarcerated struggle to imagine a future after prison. For students of Project Rebound, that future is education. 

Project Rebound first began in the California State University system in 1967 as a program for admitting students who had served time, assisting them in reintegration into society. With each generation, Project Rebound continues to make profound impacts on formerly incarcerated students. 

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly 70% of people released from prison will be arrested again within three years. Most people, upon leaving prison, may have no support system or lack the coping skills to reintegrate into society, leaving them to return to crime. By giving formerly incarcerated people the chance to receive higher education and find support, Project Rebound breaks this cycle. 

Majsterski was one of several students of Project Rebound who participated in a recent play production titled “Beyond Prison Walls.” 

“Beyond Prison Walls” started with plays written by inmates at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. The play was brought to life by students at San Diego State’s theater program. Hosted by the local non-profit Playwright’s Project, it’s a one-of-a-kind program that many say resonates with them and exceeds expectations. 

“I was blown away by the script,” said Flagg Guo, senior and actor in “Beyond Prison Walls.” “It was only about 10 pages, but there was such a dramatic twist at the end. I was really excited to get to work on it.”

For those who are incarcerated, “Beyond Prison Walls” is an outlet of creativity, joy and hope in a place that often feels hopeless. For those who participate, it’s transformative.

“Both plays I was in were really meaningful. One in particular, called ‘Second Chance,’ really struck a heartstring in me,” Majsterski said. “I’ve been four years sober, and that play had everything to do with sobriety and overcoming alcoholism. It helped me to see that I was not alone, and that there are other people that struggle with what I struggle with. I was so grateful for it.”

In prisons, incarcerated men and women report feeling dehumanized and treated as if they were not deserving of basic human kindness. With “Beyond Prison Walls,” incarcerated individuals are recognized for their humanity rather than their mistakes. The program’s impacts go far beyond writing a play: it is being seen as a person again. 

“It’s the look on people’s faces. It’s the joy that you sense coming from them when they see an audience responding to their play, and they see that they’ve been understood,” said Cecelia Kouma, executive director of the Playwright’s Project. “We all want to be heard. We all want to know someone who gets us. Inside prison, you don’t have those opportunities. You get called by your last name, or some nickname, or your CDCR number. It’s dehumanizing.”

Carlos Vasquez was formerly incarcerated at Centinela State Prison and began the program as an inmate himself. Today, he is a leader of the program and returns to Centinela State Prison to give back to the program he describes as “powerful.”

“Growing up in an underserved community, growing up as a gang member (and) growing up in a household where you’re constantly told not to voice your opinions, you hold things in for so long. Finally being able to release that — it’s powerful,”  Vasquez said. “We were amazed by some of the stuff that the men write. Me having been one of those men, I recognize the importance of that. You finally feel that you’re in a safe space to express something that you kept in for so long.”

Through the arts comes support and growth that goes far deeper than writing plays — it is the first step to destigmatizing people who have been incarcerated and gives them an opportunity to grow and eventually reenter society. 

“To be able to speak freely and openly, and to know we’re being heard, is an amazing gift for anyone. But especially, for people who don’t feel that their voices are recognized, it becomes so important,”  Kouma said.  

Theater gives incarcerated individuals the chance to share their voices. And in a system that is often negative, having the chance to be recognized in a new light can change someone’s perspective.

“To be able to hear your work being performed by actors, that is life-changing. Because for me, and I know for a lot of the other men inside (prison), that’s the first time we really accomplished anything positive in our entire life,” Vasquez said. “To be able to know that we accomplished something positive in our life that empowers us to do that positive work continuously in other areas of our life. It’s part of why and how I was able to transform my life.”

“Beyond Prison Walls,” Project Rebound and countless transformative programs for former inmates give people like Stephanie and Carlos the tools to break the chains of their past and turn their lives around. Their experiences are of humanity, change and most of all, love.

“When I ask, what’s one word you feel for this program, they all say (love),” Kouma said. “In the broadest sense, love is the basis of all community, but it’s contraband in prison. Loving the story you create translates into loving yourself into finding positive solutions to problems and alternatives to violence. To make a better world.”

Editor’s Note: The first published version of this article had a different headline which has now been adjusted with the proper and respectful vocabulary to fit the courtesy of those in the story. The article also had stated that Carlos Vasquez was formerly incarcerated at Donovan State Prison, that was an error. Vasquez was formerly incarcerated at Centinela State Prison and the article has been updated with this information. The Daily Aztec regrets these errors that were made inadvertently.

About the Contributor
Katerina Portela
Katerina Portela, Staff Writer
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San Diego State University’s Independent Student Newspaper Since 1913
Breaking the Chain: From prison to higher education and theater