In 1996, Katherine Vockins was curious about her husband’s volunteer work teaching a master’s degree program to prison inmates, so she followed him beyond the walls of New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility. An international businesswoman with a history of participating in community theater, she spontaneously asked some of her husband’s students if the prison offered a theater program. Their response was enthusiastic. There was no program yet! And Rehabilitation Through The Arts (RTA) was born.
Today, RTA runs programs in five New York State prisons, including Sing Sing and Green Haven maximum-security men’s prisons; Fishkill and Woodbourne medium-security men’s prisons; and Bedford Hills, the only women’s maximum-security facility in New York State. RTA programs include workshops in visual arts, music, voice, modern dance, creative writing, comedy and dramatic literature, as well as productions of original, classic and contemporary plays.
Each year in Sing Sing, RTA produces one full-scale performance for the prison population and one for over 250 carefully vetted community guests. After lobbying the Department of Corrections for years, RTA finally received permission to invite prisoners’ families to attend the community guest performance in 2015.
Class titles reflect the breadth and depth of RTA programming. Along with “Modern Dance” and “Visual Arts,” RTA offers “Building Blocks of Communication Through Theater” and “Life Skills Through Personal Storytelling.” At Bedford Hills, women participated in “Amazing Grace,” a long-term project with three facilitators, including a choreographer, that put women’s personal experiences to music. And each prison routinely offers “RTA 101,” an introductory program run in part by senior prisoner members of the program. This is not art for entertainment, but art for transformation.
“RTA is about art giving people tools to change their lives, skills that they can take over the wall,” says Vockins, who is the Executive Director, occasional facilitator and sometimes actor. “Through the arts, prisoners develop self-expression, self-esteem, self-discipline, problem-solving and a host of social skills, including collaboration, negotiation, tolerance and empathy. There is a strong cognitive component as well, as prisoners analyze characters and scenes, expand vocabulary, discover poetic meter and learn new forms of writing.”
RTA programs are “making our communities safer,” says Vockins. “They’re making an actual, quantifiable, life-altering difference in the lives of these men and women. This is art that will enable prisoners to think differently, behave differently and get different results. That’s our definition of rehabilitation.”
RTA’s definition of rehabilitation is also the state of New York’s definition. RTA participants “don’t come back,” says Brian Fischer, former Commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. “They’ve found that they can do more than they probably thought they could, and they certainly can do more than people ever gave them credit to do.”
By any standards, RTA is a success. The national recidivism rate is higher than 40%—meaning that within three years, almost half of the nearly 700,000 individuals released from prisons and jails each year will be back in the system.1 The recidivism rate for those who participate in Rehabilitation Through The Arts is less than 5%.2 And RTA’s effectiveness is well-documented through extensive research, which shows that rates and severity of disciplinary infractions within prison were significantly improved in RTA participants, and that RTA participants had better social and coping skills.3 Another study showed that RTA participants achieved their GEDs earlier in their incarceration and significantly more RTA participants pursued post-GED programs than a matched control sample.4
What’s the key to this success? How does modern dance, performing Shakespeare or singing together in a group lower recidivism rates, lead to higher education, and support success beyond the walls? Vockins sums up the power of her program: “Essentially, we help our members get in touch with their own humanity, and this is what opens them up to the possibility of change.” And while a definition of “humanity” might be elusive, stories of RTA’s classes and the principles behind them clearly point to opportunities for self-awareness, awareness of others and personal responsibility.
Trust and Self-Discovery
One of the great gifts of the creative process is its capacity to help individuals expand their sense of self and their sense of what is possible. And for many incarcerated men and women, backgrounds of neglect and abuse have interfered with these aspects of human development. “At some level we’re talking about mental states,” explains Vockins. “The mental states of many of these prisoners were formed through a history of neglect, abuse and the modeling of violence. Abandonment is a big issue in this population.
"Most participants have a deep lack of self-esteem, and the women particularly come to class saying, over and over, ‘I can’t do this.’"
“RTA’s commitment to show up every week has a huge impact,” Vockins continues. “It means a lot that volunteers are free people who don’t have to be in prison but choose to go even though it often means a long trip and a loss of personal time. And that volunteers think that prisoners are worthy of this attention, and treat them as peers, provides a big boost in self-esteem and makes the prisoners want to live up to our hopes for them.”
Attention from RTA facilitators would likely boost anyone’s self-esteem. They are an elite and highly committed group, sometimes teaching once or twice a week for a fourteen-week workshop, and often three times a week for the four months necessary to put on a full-length theater production. Dance and music workshops in Woodbourne and visual arts in Sing Sing are ongoing; those facilitators have made the weekly trip to prison for years.
Of 27 facilitators from the last few years, seven have Ph.D.’s, five have M.F.A.’s (three from Yale Drama School) and seven have other advanced degrees (in Social Work, Counseling and Education, for example). Some direct their own theater companies, others are professional actors, and some teach—the roster includes professors at NYU and Yale.
This committed team helps prisoners overcome significant challenges and begin a long process of self-discovery. “So many of the people we work with inside are underserved, undereducated, and come from dysfunctional families,” says Vockins. “Just reading itself is a big challenge for many of these men and women. To read out loud, which we do in the writing and theater classes, exposes this lack of ability. Trust comes from knowing that you will be supported, not put down or made to feel foolish—and because of that you can take risks.
“Trust is also about not judging,” she continues. “If we were judgmental, we could not work in this environment, since many of the men and women in New York State maximum- and medium-security prisons will have committed a violent crime. We model this non-judgmental attitude and insist that RTA members are respectful of each other.”
Trust between facilitators and inmates and amongst inmates is developed and strengthened through a “processing” component of each RTA class, which includes time for sharing personal experience. This is often when the men and women start to conceptualize or understand what they are learning. “During one processing evening in Sing Sing, a man who had been in the program for two years said, ‘You know my father told me never to trust anyone. Only trust myself,’” recounts Vockins. “When you realize that’s not true—when you realize that you can trust others, and not only that, but you can accomplish more in a team—well, that’s a revelation.”
Trust and interpersonal support is critical to self-development.
But participating in the arts continually calls for vulnerability and exposure, offering ongoing opportunities for greater expression, feedback and the development of confidence. The arts help prisoners “take off the mask, feel vulnerable and allow repressed feelings to surface,” says Vockins. “In RTA classes, inmates can do things considered ‘soft,’ like write poetry, or even go so far as to challenge gender stereotypes through a modern dance program in a men’s facility. For the first time in RTA’s 20-year history, a male inmate had the courage and support to take on a powerful female role—that of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey.
“At RTA we are interested in process,” says Vockins. “Finishing a drawing or performing a role in a production gives these men and women a new sense of what is possible. Discovering this feeling of fulfillment can be profound and trajectory-altering: having experienced genuine achievement, participants begin looking to see what else can be accomplished—through academics, job training, exploring alternatives to violence or striving for greater understanding of human behavior.
“In essence what we are saying is once you can read aloud, once you can read and understand a storyline, you have moved yourself to another level in your own self-knowledge.”
“In essence what we are saying is once you can read aloud, once you can read and understand a storyline, you have moved yourself to another level in your own self-knowledge. That’s how they begin and build toward getting their GED and their college degree, because they realize, Hey, I can do it. It’s a light bulb going off. It’s an epiphany.
“One Sing Sing prisoner in RTA’s production of Of Mice and Men told us that he cried for the first time in ten years after the performance. Now, that’s getting in touch with your humanity.”
The Power of Empathy
“How can you commit a crime when you can feel the pain it will cause someone?”
With a firm foundation of trust and support, RTA participants can explore their world, learn about themselves and learn about others. “Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and feel for them,” explains Vockins. “Theater creates a very effective way to do this. One can learn empathy through the effort of performing a play, because one must ask, ‘What is it like to be this character? What is it like to walk in his shoes?’ How can you commit a crime when you can feel the pain it will cause someone? Empathy seems like such a natural thing, you wonder how a person cannot experience it, but often prisoners have to learn empathy, through character development in theater or literature, for instance.”
“In January 2013, we finished hosting a five-day workshop at Woodbourne Correctional Facility on Shakespeare. We watched a film of a performance of Othello done in American hip-hop and then discussed some of the themes. One Latino man who is new to the program admitted, ‘I used to be a scumbag like Iago. Look what he did to Desdemona. Look what he did to Othello. I was like that on the street. I was a scumbag.’”
This man could see himself through a fictional character, and he could come to see the impact he has had on others in his own life through seeing the impact this character had on other fictional characters. This mirroring—so much a part of theater and literature—is a profound tool for self-awareness and awareness of others.
“Through theater and literature, RTA helps show you cause and effect,” explains Vockins. “Following a character through a narrative from beginning to end makes a person think, ‘If I do this … then this is what happens.’”
RTA programs intentionally encourage inmates to follow a storyline and to imagine different ways a story can play out. “Men and women stuck in a destructive behavior pattern have a hard time imagining other choices,” says Vockins. “One way we work on this is through Forum Theatre, in which a dramatic piece is performed up to a decisive moment, and then the audience tells the characters what to do. For instance, a boy is being pressured to join a gang by threats against his sister and mother. What should he do? Join the gang? Go to an authority? Leave town? The actors improvise each possible scenario. Invariably, another solution—one that no one had immediately thought up—emerges.”
As prisoners expand this mental capacity of imagination, the world opens up. One woman from Bedford Hills described this sense of possibility: “For three hours a week, I am not in prison, I am not a product of a dysfunctional family, I am not from the projects. I’m anything I want to be.”
RTA aims to harness this expansion and focus it on productive changes in how prisoners think about themselves and others and ultimately toward an increased sense of empowerment and autonomy. When RTA members performed August Wilson’s Jitney at Sing Sing, Vockins recounts, “The play included a scene in which a father expressed tremendous guilt about how his son, in prison, had turned out in life.
“The inmate playing the father had a sudden realization that his own father might also feel such guilt. His father had not come to prison to visit, and this inmate had wondered why. He said to me, ‘Now, I understand what my father went through, I understand why my father didn’t visit me.’ Through playing this character, he’d gained this other perspective.”
Taking responsibility for one’s actions is a critical component of transformation. But responsibility is not easy to come by in the prison population, says Vockins. “Many of the people I meet in prison have spent a long time blaming the system,” she explains. “For years they blame the police, blame ‘the man,’ blame the jurors, they even blame a victim for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"Once you understand yourself, you can start to take responsibility for what you’ve done in your life."
“Taking responsibility is a long process, and it’s a cumulative process. But over a period of time you begin to say, ‘Hey I did that, I am responsible for that.’ Most men take anywhere from seven to twelve years, if they are doing a long prison sentence, to make a decision to change, to stop bullshitting everyone and accept they did the crime. It takes longer for them to ask, ‘What am I doing about that?’ And even longer to say, ‘I’m responsible; I can’t blame my family, the victim …’”
Without self-awareness and without the capacity to think things through, imagine different outcomes and come to see that one’s choices were only one of a variety of possibilities, responsibility is hard to come by. This is why the arts and the way they support both creative thinking and self-empowerment can be so effective.
One prisoner at Sing Sing refers to his involvement with RTA as a process of “waking up,” a term he first heard while reading Dante’s Inferno. He explains: “Dante writes, ‘Halfway through the course of my pathetic life, I woke up and I found myself in a stupor.’ When he says ‘woke up’ I didn’t take that in a literal sense, I took that in the sense of him becoming conscious.
“I wrote a poem that was inspired by that, called ‘Once, I Awoke’: It’s me coming to the realization that I’m better than this. I don’t belong here. I’m coming out of that darkness, that sleeping state, that mental death.”