“On The Row”: Stories from Arkansas’ Death Row

Founded in 2012 as a ministry of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas by storyteller Kathy McGregor, the Prison Story Project benefits incarcerated women and men. Inmates explore their truths through poetry, creative writing, literature, songwriting, and visual art.

Their work is then curated into a staged reading performed by actors. The goal of the Prison Story Project is to enable those whose voices have been locked away to tell their stories, allowing communities to witness the humanity and redemption of the incarcerated through their own words.

From May – October 2016, the project was given unprecedented access to the men on Arkansas’ death row. Eleven of the thirty-four men on the row at that time volunteered to participate. The stories and poems the death row inmates wrote were guided by our creative writing director, Matt Henriksen, and then edited into a script by our theatre director, Troy Schremmer. Their work was presented back to them on October 8, 2016 by professional actors in a cramped aisle between cages that held the men.

We didn’t know how they would react to our presentation of their writing. When the performance started, we fell to silence and listened deeply. As one of the men wrote us afterwards in a thank you letter, we were all transformed by the writing we heard that day: inmates, teachers, and actors. The writing, they said, culminated in something that’s bigger than all of us. We are the broken ones, another said, that with your help were patched up to shine like new.

The men we served on Arkansas’ death row didn’t dwell on their pasts or blame others for their crimes. Some of them had found an immense peace that eludes many of us in the free world, and they wanted to share it purely out of gratitude for having found it. By facing their crimes, enduring their sentences, and accepting their impending deaths, they each found ways to survive, seek self-forgiveness, experience God’s redemption and retain their humanity.

Four of the men we served were on the list of eight to be executed. Don Davis and Stacey Johnson received last minute stays of execution. Jack Jones was executed on April 24 at 7:06pm, pronounced dead at 7:20pm. Minister Kenneth Williams was executed on April 27 at 10:52pm, pronounced dead at 11:05pm. Kenneth was proud to know that while he was on death watch the night before his execution, we were holding a community poetry reading of his work at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville (video on our website). He also requested that we read some of his poetry at his funeral in Pine Bluff after his execution.

The Prison Story Project has toured On The Row to audiences in Northwest Arkansas and college campuses across the country since 2016. The project has recently received grants from Mid-America Arts Alliance; The Whiting Foundation for the Humanities (through the University of Arkansas); and Episcopal Evangelism Society, with additional support from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Fayetteville.

With this generous funding the Prison Story Project has toured several high schools and juvenile detention centers in Arkansas with an abridged version of the script appropriate for students.

The funding will also allow us to tour to high schools in six additional counties in Arkansas in the fall of 2019 and will allow us tour On The Row to Episcopal Churches in four states this summer:

  • St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, MO: Thursday, June 13 at 7:30pm
  • St. James Episcopal Church, Wichita, KS: Friday, June 14 at 7:30pm
  • Christ Church Episcopal, Tulsa, OK: Saturday, June 15 at 7:30pm
  • Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, Dallas, TX, Sunday, June 16 at 2:30pm

For more information, please visit our website: www.prisonstoryproject.com or contact Kathy McGregor, project director, at prisonstoryproject@gmail.com, or 479-871-4875