For many, the answer is to distract themselves with dominoes and television. Others turn to education or exercise. Then there are a few like Rafiel Torre, who take up a more creative avocation.
Torre, 55, has been serving a sentence of life without parole in California since 2003, during which time he developed a passion for magic. He has had to fashion his own props, including decks of cards made from milk cartons and other items cobbled together from sponges and thread taken out of his boxer shorts. Torre has relied largely on books to learn tricks and techniques, though he also has been aided by corresponding with other magicians who understand the therapeutic power of the craft.
“Everybody wants to feel like they matter. And in prison, most of us don’t,” Torre told The New York Times in an August 14, 2020 story.
Magic, however, has served as an escape for the mind as well as a vehicle for building self-esteem and worth for some prisoners all across the country.
One of the biggest influences on this incarcerated community has been Joshua Jay, who encouraged people to contact him with questions when he was a columnist for Magic magazine in the early 2000s. He was surprised when so many letters came in from lockups around the globe, but he responded to each of them. Jay even adapted some of his tricks to work with the materials available at different prisons and included detailed instructions.
“If there is anything missing from a maximum-security prison,” he said, “it’s wonder.”
David Garza proved to be one of Jay’s most dedicated students while serving a sentence in Ohio. Garza had to design many of his props, such as poker chips and balls, out of toilet paper and glue. The weeks-long process involved wetting the paper, molding it, and drying it before applying multiple coats of glue. Because his creations were regularly taken or trashed by guards; starting over became another challenge for him to overcome in honing his craft.
By the time Garza regained his freedom, his magical skills enabled him to perform professionally. Appearing at restaurants and bars around Cleveland, he was amazed at how much more receptive people were to his conjuring outside an oppressive incarcerated environment. “They were already open to it,” he said. “And that blew my mind.”
Behind bars or not, magicians live for the incredulous reactions they get from audiences after executing a trick. For Torre, who has no chance of parole, the wonder of magic is its own reward. “You make them for a few seconds believe you’re doing the impossible. And for me, for a magician, you see that look on their face—I can’t equate it to anything else.”
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