Comedian Sam Miller has recently become one of those ubiquitous Olympia entertainers who always seem to be hosting something — including the weekly comedy open mic Vomity Wednesdays at Le Voyeur — or performing somewhere.
Years before he began hanging out on stages all over town, Miller spent some time hanging out in jail on charges related to drugs and underage drinking. That experience inspired “The Jail Letters Project,” happening Thursday.
The project, a collaboration between Miller and his mother, Mary Soehnlen, is based on letters the two exchanged back in 2003, when Miller spent 100 days in jail in Yakima and Olympia.
“It’s pretty raw,” Miller said. “In these letters, I’m saying, ‘I’m not going to get high anymore,’ but I wasn’t done. I know now how much pain there was to come.”
The comedian — who’s been sober for nearly nine years — started drinking and using drugs early. “There’s photographic evidence of me drinking a beer at 3,” he said.
By his early teens, he was using consistently, drinking till he blacked out.
“I was scared of my dad, and he died when I was 12, and then I was scared of everything else until drugs,” he said. “That was the only thing that made me feel OK.”
He had numerous run-ins with the law, with charges including theft, resisting arrest, underage drinking and possession of marijuana. He was jailed briefly a few times, with the longer sentence coming after a court-mandated urine test revealed he’d been using methamphetamines.
There are the letters we’ll read, but a lot of it is going to be in the moment. We’ll have discussions. Sometimes, it can be a bit contentious, and that’s OK.
Comic Sam Miller
Miller doesn’t hide his past in his comedy, and he says “Jail Letters” has its funny moments, including some of the greeting cards (one shows an annoyed-looking gorilla) his mom sent in an attempt to get his spirits up. But this show is something different — it’s an honest look at the realities of incarceration and addiction.
“There are the letters we’ll read, but a lot of it is going to be in the moment,” he said. “We’ll have discussions. Sometimes, it can be a bit contentious, and that’s OK.”
Though they have different stories to tell about the pain they lived through, mother and son are clearly close. Interviewed together last week, they were affectionate and playful, and they share a Tumwater duplex, with Miller and family living upstairs and Soehnlen below.
Soehnlen, a retired psychiatric nurse practitioner, admits she felt relief when her son was sent to jail. “Over the years, I would get phone calls from Sam in the middle of the night,” she said. “They were coming from hospitals or police stations, or it was, ‘I went to a party, and I don’t know how I’m going to get home.’
“I thought, ‘If he’s in jail, I’ll know where he is.’ ”
Being open about all that was going on is new, she said. “There were only a few of my friends and very few of my family members who knew what was going on,” she said. “It was a big secret.”
“She told people I was on vacation,” Miller broke in, laughing.
He felt anything but safe in jail, and incarceration didn’t inspire him to change his ways. “I got high because I was afraid, and jail made me afraid,” he said.
But he changed in jail, he said. It was a violent place, and he found himself taking part in violence, something he’d never done before. “Part of that is on me,” he said, “and I take responsibility for that, but some of it is on the system itself.”
One thing that didn’t change was his sense of humor. “When I got locked up, they took everything,” he said. “I didn’t have anything — except I still had jokes.”
The seeds of the show were sown last spring, when Miller took a class called “Prison Writing,” taught by Elizabeth Williamson at The Evergreen State College, from which he’ll graduate in June.
“I was the only one in the class who had been incarcerated, which was strange,” he said.
For his final project, he asked if he could use his own writing and his mother’s. He’d brought her letters to him back to her house after his release, and she’d saved them, along with his letters to her and many other documents related to his interactions with the law.
After they shared the letters with the Evergreen class, Miller and Soehnlen read them at a theater class Soehnlen took at the Olympia Senior Center, taught by playwright Bryan Willis and educator Margo Benedetto.
They were surprised by how much people resonated with their stories and decided to do a public performance, with proceeds going to the Women of Color in Leadership Movement, a program of the nonprofit Media Island that aims to support women of color through monthly workshops and other programs. Miller chose that program in part because Shawna Hawk, who leads it, is a longtime friend. But there is a larger reason, too.
He experienced firsthand how many African Americans are in prison. African Americans are nearly six times more likely to be incarcerated than white Americans, according to The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. (Find out more at naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet.)
Miller was jailed only after years of charges, he said, but he talked to many black inmates who’d committed only one or two offenses.
“Black folks are impacted by incarceration more than other folks,” he said. “When I was in the Yakima County Jail, there weren’t a lot of white people. It was the first and only time in my life where being white didn’t work out for me.
“Then I realized the reason there weren’t a lot of whites in there was that it’s harder to go to jail if you’re white.”
The Jail Letters Project
What: Comedian Sam Miller and his mother, Mary Soehnlen, have created a show based on the letters they exchanged when Miller was in jail in 2003.
When: 6:30 p.m. April 27.
Where: Obsidian, 414 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia.
Tickets: $10; proceeds will benefit Media Island’s Women of Color in Leadership Movement.