S.F. County Jail inmates participate in global dance movement

S.F. County Jail inmate Bridget Cervelli will participate in the One Billion Rising dance performance from inside the jail.
Photo by Rebecca Bowe

To enter San Francisco County Jail No. 2 yesterday, I first had to gain clearance from a uniformed guard positioned behind a pane of glass, with an array of surveillance monitoring screens looming beside him. After being buzzed through a heavy metal door and being escorted two floors up by a different guard, I was struck by the contrast between the featureless institutional environment and the vivacious inmate I soon encountered.

Bridget Cervelli, a 29-year-old brunette with smiling brown eyes, practically bounded into the interview room. She’d landed in jail on drug-related offenses and probation violations multiple times over the past three years, and was nearing the end of a term that began in October.

“I’ve never left jail and not used immediately,” Cervelli told me. But this time, after spending months in a pod designated for female inmates enrolled in the Sisters in Sober Treatment Empowered in Recovery (SISTER) project, an in-custody substance-abuse treatment program, she says things are different. “I can’t give up any more of my identity to drugs and abuse,” she said.

An hour or so earlier, Cervelli had participated in a choreographed group dance rehearsal in preparation for a Feb. 14 performance that will be staged inside a jail gymnasium. “All of the tension and irritation fell away,” she said when asked to describe the rehearsal. “We were just a bunch of women who were dancing together.”

The Sheriff’s Department extended the invitation to Magalie Bonneau-Marcil, founder and producer of Dancing Without Borders, to engage the inmates and department staff in One Billion Rising San Francisco, part of a global campaign calling for an end to violence against women. About 30 inmates are expected to participate, and the performance will be captured by a professional film crew and aired on YouTube as part of a series of similar events launched by women’s rights organization VDay. 

Hundreds are expected to gather at City Hall on Feb. 14, where public officials from the Department on the Status of Women, the Office of the District Attorney, and the Board of Supervisors will speak in support of One Billion Rising. Dance producers will lead a mass “flash mob” that’s been in preparation for months. The day’s events will even feature a “people’s power rising” contingent led by GABRIELA-USA, a Filipino women’s organization that will perform a Philippine version of the One Billion Rising Dance at Union Square at 3 p.m., just before the main performance at City Hall at 4 p.m.

The events are timely: On Feb. 12, the U.S. Senate approved the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), legislation that has been credited with reducing domestic violence rates by 58 percent since its initial passage in 1994. So far, it remains unclear what will happen when the House of Representatives takes up the legislation, and well-financed right-wing activist groups have been lobbying against it. Controversy surrounding the reauthorization of VAWA hinges on a new provision allowing tribal courts to prosecute non-Native American men accused of abusing Native American women on tribal lands, as well as expanded protections for undocumented immigrants and LGBT survivors.

Meanwhile, on Feb. 13 -- the eve of One Billion Rising’s mass celebration of women’s rights -- Credo Action will stage a protest nearby Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg’s home because the tech powerhouse is holding a fundraiser for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Women’s rights organizers are still stinging from Christie’s move to defund Planned Parenthood, and protesters are attacking him as “anti-woman.”

The global One Billion Rising campaign began as a call to action based on the staggering statistic that one in three women on the planet will be beaten or raped during her lifetime. Cervelli said she initially wished she could be a part of the giant flash mob at City Hall, but it later dawned on her that participating in One Billion Rising from inside the jail actually held a special kind of significance.

Amongst the jail population, she said, it’s common to find women who have been subjected to violence or rape. “An integral part of my recovery is ending a relationship that was abusive,” she told me. She believes that abusive experience fueled her cycle of addiction, and “you just get arrested and re-arrested because you’re a drug addict.”

Just before entering the jail, she said, she was living in rundown San Francisco hotels and constantly fighting with her now ex-partner. “We would be yelling at each other in the street.” Upon being taken into custody last fall, she got into a fight and went straight to 30 days of lock-up – a punitive measure in which prisoners are kept in a cell 24 hours a day.

Cervelli emphasized that her months spent in the SISTER pod is unlike the typical experience of incarceration, and expressed a great deal of gratitude for this fact. Once a prisoner, she said, “you totally internalize this message that, ‘I’m a criminal, I’m bad, and when I’m out I’ll have to become a better criminal so I don’t end up back here again.’” But in a supportive environment where her days are scheduled around group talks, workouts, and classes on overcoming substance abuse, the message is: “No, you’re better than that,” she said.

Cervelli said she's been accepted into a substance-abuse treatment program offering housing and services for addicts, and she hopes to stay for several months following her jail term. While she says she’s witnessed many female inmates self-destruct in the final weeks of their stays in jail as they prepare to return to “that same lifestyle that’s dangerous, but it’s what you know,” she hopes to use the One Billion Rising flash mob to propel her toward a healthier existence. “Hopefully,” she told me, “this is going to be my last experience here.”