Bridging the Opportunity Divide

In These Prisons, Former Offenders Find Healing in Theatre Arts

May 14, 2018
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In These Prisons, Former Offenders Find Healing in Theatre Arts
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Rehabilitation Through the Arts provides workshops in theater, painting, dance and other art forms to inmates throughout New York. Photo by Igor Golovniov/Getty Images
Teaching the fine arts to inmates improves behavior and recidivism rates. So why are they at risk of being cut?

Omar Williams is an actor — a deadly one, he jokes. Having spent 21 years in prison for kidnapping and attempted murder, the Fishkill Correctional Facility inmate says he’s been acting his whole life to get what he wants.

“I know exactly how to play you,” he tells me from one of the counseling offices at the prison, which is located about 60 miles north of New York City. “I could tell you anything to bullshit you, to rob you, to kill you. I’ve been acting my whole life.”

Minutes later, Williams — known as “Sweets” to his fellow inmates — stands in a classroom and recites lines to the 19th-century French play Cyrano de Bergerac.

In the scene, de Bergerac joins his friend Le Bret — played by Williams — among sleeping soldiers and talks about how he just cheated death, again. The director, Charlie Scatamacchia, stops the scene halfway through to give Williams a basic lesson in being a thespian: You gotta emote.

“You’re just reading the words,” Scatamacchia tells him. “Actually say what they’re saying.”

As the scene starts up again, Williams is animated and expressive; his whole body is in movement. It’s not exactly a Tony Award-winning performance, but Scatamacchia approves. He nods emphatically. Williams is nailing it.

The rehearsal is part of a program run by volunteers with Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA), a New York nonprofit that provides workshops and classes in a myriad of disciplines, from theater and music to creative writing, painting and dance, in men’s and women’s prisons around the state. The goal: to facilitate the social, emotional and cognitive skills needed to succeed on the outside.

Similar art-as-therapy programs are found only in a handful of states, despite the fact that they’ve been proven to be effective in reducing disciplinary infractions and improving anger management. One 2012 study found a nearly three-fold increase in inmates pursuing college-level academics after participating in RTA. Inmates have also shown enhanced speaking skills and self-esteem. But perhaps most impressive: RTA boasts a nearly 5 percent recidivism rate, meaning almost 95 percent of people who go through the program don’t reoffend after their release. That’s a genuinely remarkable percentage, as the national recidivism rate is close to 77 percent after five years.

Unfortunately, arts programs are also usually the first to be cast aside when a prison has a need for more beds or security. And not everyone is a fan, either: Critics, including corrections officers and victims, claim that “cold-blooded” killers and hardened criminals don’t deserve prison-arts programs. But the flip side, argue prison-reform advocates, is that, eventually, most will be released back into their communities, and so it’s to everyone’s benefit that they be rehabilitated in whatever way works before that happens.

“Do we want them to be better criminals when they get out, or to make better choices,” asks Craig Cullinane, director of programming for RTA. “These people who commit crimes, they should have the ability to go back to the world better than when they come in. Isn’t that what we want?”

OUT OF THE DARKNESS

Fishkill’s prison is a visual tease. The all-male medium-security prison boasts a prepossessing Gothic façade set against the bucolic backdrop of the Hudson Valley’s lush greenery. In early spring, a mist envelops the grounds, making it impossible to see that the prison is surrounded by over 20-foot-high chain-link fences wrapped by barbed wire.

Every day at 6 p.m. the men weave their way through the complex, walking down paved streets in between fences and buildings for their allotted nightly recreation time. Twice a week the dozen or so men that participate in RTA meet to go over lines, stagecraft and scene construction.

For those who have bad days — and there’s no denying there are a lot of those in prison — RTA is a welcome escape.

“The first thing we do is we go around and share one word about how we feel that day. I want them to share honestly, but in reality they’re dealing with a lot of crap,” says Scatamacchia, who has been directing plays with RTA for two years as a volunteer.

Williams had one of those bad days about two and half years ago. His twin children were stillborn. Out of rage and sorrow, he threatened to stab another inmate in the neck.

“I could’ve killed someone that day. Thank God for RTA at that moment,” he says. “They really helped me through it.”

Inmates at Fishkill Correctional Facility practice their performance as part of Rehabilitation Through the Arts.Photo by Joseph Darius Jaafari

The program is not intended to remake prisoners into professional actors. It’s not designed to help them find a career in the arts after release. Rather, says executive director Katherine Vockins, who founded RTA in 1996, it provides inmates the opportunity to tap into emotions and develop the soft skills that can help them deal with tough situations.

That’s not to say it’s easy.

“We are all looking for the ‘fix’ that will take people — often badly damaged by life experience — and put them through some magical program that washes, dries and folds, ending with neatly functioning citizens,” says Vockins, adding that progress is hard to measure in terms of before and after. “Deep, lasting change in cognition and behavior does not work that way.”

California was one of the first states to bring the arts to correctional facilities. In 1977, the Prison Arts Project, a program run by the nonprofit William James Association, was introduced at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. A few years later, its success led to a new administrative office, Arts-in-Corrections, within the California Department of Corrections.

The University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), launched in 1990, started out by teaching painting to less than 50 female inmates. Today the program is available at every prison in the state, and PCAP hosts one of the largest prisoner-art exhibitions in the world.

“For the incarcerated, the fact that somebody on the outside is reaching out to make connections and to see people beyond their prison numbers, in itself, has value,” says Elaine Chen, PCAP’s events and exhibits coordinator. “Even just to connect with people without a reason or a shield of social justice — just to do art together — brings a lot of therapeutic value.”

Research into Michigan’s program has shown that inmates who take part in the arts report an 86 percent higher quality of life while in prison than before they joined PCAP, and 93 percent self-reported learning new and better ways to express themselves, according to Chen.

“We can transform our lives, even in here,” says Ronald “Bach” Jarvis, a Fishkill inmate and RTA participant who has been serving 17 years for manslaughter. “[RTA] helped me find myself. It’s easy to get lost in here in the mist and darkness. But to find that light? That’s what this program is for me.”

A FUNDING FAILURE

Despite numerous studies showing that arts education works inside of prison — as well as outside, in terms of reoffending once released — programs continue to be cut from state budgets across the country, with more expected in the next few months.

California’s Arts-in-Corrections, for example, was almost eliminated in 2003 when the state was in the depths of a financial crisis. The program was saved by private investors, including members of California Lawyers for the Arts, who donated heavily to the program.

Other state-run arts-rehabilitation programs might not be so lucky. In the Trump Administration’s latest budget proposal, funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, which only makes up less than 1 percent of the national budget, would be cut from $150 million to $29 million. The NEA funds, in part, almost every prison-arts program in the country.

Though RTA does not receive direct funding from NEA grants, it does get money from the New York State Council on the Arts, which has received over $3.5 million from the NEA since 2013, according to the endowment’s archives. Money from the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) is also at risk.

“The shakiness of the economy has affected the NYS budget,” Vockins says. “[We have been told] that while the DOCCS budget is huge, the allocation to programs is quite small. Even vocational programs have been severely cut.”

Outside of funding, there is also a problem with capacity. RTA, for example, operates in five prisons throughout New York but relies almost wholly on volunteers.

“Until a year ago, we [had been] four people for 20 years,” says Cullinane, the director of programming. “It comes down to leadership and what [our state leaders] care about. We get very little from the state; we raise almost all our money ourselves.”

THE MEN BEHIND THE BARS

Cyrano is an interesting choice of a play,” Scatamacchia says. He’s sipping coffee at the NoMad Library Bar in Manhattan, telling me about his background in theater and how he came to volunteer with RTA.

The task of teaching the art of acting to prisoners wasn’t something that he expected to be so fulfilling, he says, adding that, initially, he was afraid of what he would encounter. Instead, he was pleasantly surprised at how easygoing and intelligent the men were.

“It’s totally different from television,” he says of his experience.

The participants in the program get to decide which play to put on — for his first RTA gig, Scatamacchia directed them in The Odd Couple — and the choice of Cyrano de Bergerac set him aback. “It’s not like we teach theory or anything like that, but there is an interesting lesson to be taken from this play. You can’t look at [the character of] Cyrano and know everything about him,” he says.

The feeling of constantly being judged is something that many of the men at Fishkill experience. They say that those on “the outside” just don’t care to know about the lives of people on the inside. It’s easy to feel forgotten.

But RTA has helped them feel remembered and recognized, even in a small way.

“This makes me feel special,” says Jarvis. “Attention is positive. If I can strike people positively in this form, it makes me feel human again.”

October 8, 2018 3:20 p.m.: This story’s headline has been changed.

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