Writes reporter Mickey Rapkin, “You can imagine how this idea was received 10 years ago, but here’s the pitch: A tenacious British actress teams up with Oscar winner Tim Robbins to bring acting classes to maximum-security prisons.
“And not just any acting classes, but improv workshops that ask Crips and Bloods and convicted murderers and white supremacists to sit together, wear makeup and masks, and maybe even pretend to be women sometimes. The eight-week intensive is meant to help the incarcerated better handle their emotions. …
“People said, ‘Yeah, yeah, you want to give them crayons. You’ve got acting classes?’” recalls Robbins of the launch of the Actors Gang Prison Project. ‘We’re like, “No, … it’s about changing behavior.” ‘
“Fundraising was a slog. Correctional officers pushed back. And these actor-facilitators were dismissed as another merry band of liberals pushing what’s known in the Prison Industrial Complex as ‘hug-a-thug’ programming.
“Sabra Williams, the co-founder and executive director of the Prison Project — who also had a small part in Kristen Wiig’s Welcome to Me last year — remembers those early days. ‘There was so much opposition … A few haters thought we were giving inmates too much power. One spread rumors that I was having an inappropriate relationship with a student.’
“Yet, despite the haters, the Prison Project celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, and will expand to 10 California prisons in February 2017, just as some hard data has finally come in to prove the program’s merits.
“The recidivism rate in the state is more than 50 percent. But a recent preliminary study by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation showed that, for inmates who completed the Prison Project, that number dropped to 10.6 percent. Critics will point to a sample size that’s too small to draw broad conclusions, and it’s a valid concern. But the provisional findings are encouraging.” More here.
I want so much to believe in this approach, but having recently read poet Jimmy Santiago Baca’s memoir of life in a maximum security prison in the late 1990s, I can’t help but wonder. I look forward to more data. My review of Baca’s A Place to Stand is at GoodReads.
Photo: Peter Merts
Sabra Williams, Tim Robbins, and inmates in an Actor’s Gang Prison Project class at the California Rehabilitation Center.