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800px-savinien_de_cyrano_de_bergeracArt: Zacharie Heince (1611-1669)
The 19th Century Edmond Rostand comedy
Cyrano de Bergerac was recently performed in a New York prison that has unusual rehabilitation programs.

Sometimes when an article I want to share with you has its photos under lock and key, I look for alternative images on Google. It was interesting to see that modern renditions of the outsize nose on Cyrano de Bergerac are much more extreme than the one above. Today’s productions really go overboard trying to make the silver-tongued hero look as ugly as possible. A recent production in a prison also exaggerated the nose, which you can see if you click on the original article.

Jesse Wegman wrote about the show at the New York Times, “Cyrano de Bergerac will be eligible for parole in 2022. For the time being, he is a vision in Gallic effrontery, pinballing around the stage in the gymnasium at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, N.Y.

“The production of Edmond Rostand’s canonical 19th-century comedy, which enjoyed a well-attended two-day run early [in June], was the work of Rehabilitation Through the Arts, a 20-year-old organization that operates in prisons across New York State. The program introduces inmates to theater, dance, writing and other creative arts in the hope of teaching them life skills and improving their chances at success upon release. …

“When [inmates] proposed ‘Cyrano de Bergerac,’ the show’s director, Charlie Scatamacchia, was skeptical. ‘I thought, yeah, that’s not gonna happen,’ he said. ‘It’s got multiple scene changes, costume changes. It’s got sword fighting. I doubted my ability to direct them, and their ability to pick up these skills in the time we had. I’ve never been happier to be proved so wrong.’

“Behind the title character’s plastered-on proboscis and feathered chapeau is Rodney Spivey-Jones, a 35-year-old from Syracuse. Mr. Spivey-Jones, who had never acted before, first auditioned for the role of Le Bret, the play’s narrator. But Mr. Scatamacchia quickly realized that he was a good fit to play the lead — one of the most verbose roles in theater.

“Mr. Spivey-Jones is no stranger to addressing a crowd — he helped form an inmate debate team at another prison that beat a team from Harvard in 2015. Still, he had not given any thought to playing Cyrano and didn’t understand how big the role was until he kept getting called back to read for it. …

“When the show went up, Mr. Spivey-Jones realized that he had memorized not only his own lines but every other character’s as well — a handy trick when a castmate ran into trouble, and he could provide a cue on the spot. …

“A bigger obstacle than memorization, it turned out, was getting swords inside the prison. Corrections officials nixed various materials, like a hard plastic foil. … The cast of 13 men took the setbacks in stride, as people in prison learn to do with most things. Along with a professional actress, Kate Kenney, who played the role of Cyrano’s love interest, Roxane, the crew worked every week through the winter and spring to get the show into shape. …

“The program, which has about 400 alumni who were released from prison, is popular among both inmates and New York’s prison administrators, who have seen its philosophy pay off. Studies of prison-arts programs around the country, including R.T.A., have found that their participants are better behaved than other inmates, earned educational degrees earlier and in some cases are less likely to wind up back behind bars after release.”

It would be wrong to minimize the crimes these guys have committed or the pain they have caused their victims, but if there’s a way for offenders to become engaged with the world in more positive ways, that’s a good thing in my book.

And I love that play.

More at the New York Times, here.

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Photo: Walker State Prison/Times Free Press
Holly Mulcahy, left, and Mary Corbett perform in front of 128 Walker State Prison’s Faith and Character Based inmates.

When I read about some of the crimes that send people to prison, I do have trouble experiencing empathy for the perpetrators. But then I remember that not everyone in prison is unreachable. That’s why I find stories like Barry Courter’s at the Associated Press hopeful.

He writes about a music program in a Georgia State prison: “Holly Mulcahy stands with her violin, her back to the wall of the gym at Walker State Prison in Rock Spring, Georgia. Next to her is Mary Corbett with her violin. Between them and 128 inmates serving time for a host of crimes big and small. …

“The men are seated in chairs fanned out in a semicircle facing the stage, quiet and staring at the two women, who are smiling and relaxed.

“The place is so quiet, Corbett steps to the microphone and says with a laugh, ‘Talk amongst yourselves. We have to tune up.’

“It’s a relatively simple moment, but it sets the tone for how the rest of the evening will go.

“Walker State Prison, home to about 400 inmates, is unique among Georgia prisons. In 2011, the facility became the testing ground for the Georgia Department of Corrections’ new Faith and Character Based program, which focuses on accountability, responsibility, integrity and faith.

“Inmates in the Faith and Character Based curriculum have all requested to be there and have gone through a vetting process before being allowed to participate in the two-year program. …

“ ‘Half of the men there are lifers, but to be there, they must be eligible for parole,’ says Alan Bonderud. He’s been volunteering there since 2010 and was involved in mentoring new mentors when the prison added the [program]. …

“The goal is to give the men skills that will help them increase their chances of reacclimating into society upon release and to reduce the chances of the men ever returning to prison.

“Education is a key component as the men take a variety of classes — a few have earned Master of Divinity degrees, for example — but so is character development.

“Mulcahy first visited Walker State about three years ago after a chance meeting with Bonderud at a Chattanooga Symphony & Opera-sponsored gala. When Mulcahy, the CSO concertmaster, learned that Bonderud mentored at Walker State, she expressed an interest in performing there.

“ ‘I didn’t want to just go there and perform,’ she says. ‘I wanted to do more.’

“Bonderud says the recitals ‘have been very effective. They continue to increase the numbers of men who attend, and reports from the men are that they now share their programs with family members, and it gives them something new to talk about. It encourages them with their families. Some even have had family members take up the violin.’ …

“The program begins with ‘How Majestic the Expanse’ by Shawna Wolf, then Mulcahy opens the floor for discussion. Two inmates move around the room delivering hand-held microphones to prisoners who have raised their hands to speak.

“No one speaks except for the inmate with the microphone.

“ ‘I pictured it reminded me of icicles,’ he begins. ‘I could hear the sound of light coming through the trees and birds chirping. I heard the pulse in the music.’ …

“Mulcahy doesn’t try to lead, correct, judge or in any way influence the discussion, except to encourage the men to say what they think.

“ ‘There are no wrong answers,’ she says. …

“[Inmate Scott] Reed says he did not attend the early recitals, but he couldn’t help but be surprised at what he heard in the dormitories (the men live in bunk beds in large open rooms rather than cells) after the performances.

“ ‘I heard grown men talking about their feelings and their emotions that they felt hearing the music,’ he says.

“ ‘These are pretty hard guys from the streets.’

“Says inmate Garrett Anderson, ‘I’ve never heard this kind of music before. Never. And I never thought about how something made me feel. I never talked about it.’ ”

More.

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Photo: John Walker
Melvin Smith, who completed the Transition from Jail to Community (TJC) program at Fresno County Jail, is now clean and running his family’s well-drilling business.

Here’s another example of a program that has been helping ex-offenders reintegrate into society.

Brianna Calix reports at the Fresno Bee, “The last time Melvin Smith was arrested, he was so hungry and tired that he prayed to God the authorities would keep him in Fresno County Jail instead of releasing him.

“Smith was arrested 14 times in 2013 for drug use, auto theft and vandalism. In Fresno County, law enforcement arrested him 41 times since 1999. ‘I was wild,’ he said. In jail, his ‘celly’ asked him where he saw himself in five years. Smith’s goal was to reunite with his family.

“He’s been out of jail for four years, sober for five years and his probation ends in June. He runs his grandfather’s well and pump company, goes to church with Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer and is about to buy a home with a pool for his family. For birthdays, he takes his family on trips to places such as Universal Studios, Magic Mountain and Disneyland.

“During that last stint in jail, Smith went through the Transition from Jail to Community program. It helps inmates who are more likely to re-offend prepare for life after incarceration.

“The TJC program, as it’s known, was started in 2013. The men who complete the program have a dramatically lower recidivism rate than the rest of the jail population, in part due to the support system the program builds for them.

“ ‘We’ve had programs for many years in the jail,’ Sheriff Margaret Mims said. ‘This one was very different.’ …

“Inmates have to opt into the program voluntarily, and not just any inmate can qualify. Forty or fewer people participate in the program at a time. The jail houses between 2,600 and 2,900 inmates.

“Jail staff evaluate each inmate based on how many times they’ve been arrested in Fresno County, their age and how old they were when they first were arrested. Based on that score, staff evaluate the inmate’s risk to re-offend. Only medium-to-high-risk inmates qualify.

“If the inmate agrees to participate in the program, he signs a contract pledging to participate, follow the rules and stay engaged with supervision upon release.

“In a typical housing unit, the inmates tend to group by race, said Michelle LeFors, Fresno County Jail’s inmate services director.

“ ‘Not in the TJC,’ she said. ‘You’ll see mixed races sitting together, sharing a meal with each other. … They work with each other as opposed to against each other. If you ask the inmates, they’ll tell you they leave their politics at the door.’ …

“As a gang dropout in jail, [inmate Clinton S. ] constantly worried about his safety. But that’s not the case in the TJC program. …

” ‘Everyone in here is pretty much in here for the same reason. There is perks that they come over here for, but everyone obviously wants to change because being in jail is not cool. It gets old. You grow up quick.’

“The program has helped transform his mindset and taught him to persevere and that his consequences have actions.

“So far, his biggest takeaway in the program is to ‘not give up.’ ”

More here. See also the recent post on my cousin’s work to rehabilitate 18- to 24-year-old prisoners. So encouraging.

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Photo: Paula Keller
Actor Luverne Seifert demonstrates techniques of Ten Thousand Things, which brings free, low-budget, high-quality theater to people who are not rich.

A new theater company trains actors to do high-quality, free performances for new, nontraditional audiences. Somehow I knew it would be based in Minneapolis, a hotbed of theatrical innovation in the late 1990s when I lived there.

Theresa J. Beckhusen reported the story at American Theatre.

” ‘If I was going to spend my life making theatre, I didn’t want to make art for rich people.’ This is how Michelle Hensley, artistic director of Ten Thousand Things (TTT), a theatre company in Minneapolis, kicked off a recent conference. …

“The gathering drew around 100 theatre makers from across the country to compare notes about working with the grass-roots theatrical model championed by Hensley’s company. Its motto could be fairly summed up as … art for not-rich people.

“For 30 years Ten Thousand Things has been touring productions to prisons, transitional housing, rehab centers, immigrant centers, shelters for survivors of domestic violence, and more — and all for free. …

“TTT productions are performed in the round, in whatever space their tour sites have available. … Actors mingle with audience members, interacting before, during, and after performances.

“The productions are spare: no lavish costumes, no fancy sets, no lights. Hensley puts a premium on story and language. …

“Many conference attendees shared stories … One incarcerated woman in particular was moved by a wedding scene in The Tempest because she’d missed all the weddings in her family. [Another told] how audience members drove from Tijuana to San Diego just to see a bilingual Twelfth Night. …

“Playwright Kira Obolensky led a session on choosing material that would work in the intimate settings pioneered by TTT. She began by posing a question … : What story would you tell if everyone was in the audience? … ‘I don’t think a lot of American playwrights and directors ask themselves this question.’ …

“Brad Delzer reported that he recently began employing TTT’s model with True North Theatre, his new theatre company in Carlisle, Pa. Sensing an opportunity to bring theatre to places that don’t typically see it, and to connect with the strong military community in the Carlisle area, Dezler toured Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s An Iliad to a soup kitchen, a men’s shelter, and the town’s Army Heritage Center, before holding two public performances. …

“He had been generally apprehensive about the whole thing, but had particularly fretted about how a six-minute list of wars from the last few centuries would go over. ‘It played really well, he said, noting the power that came from the moment. ‘It surprised us.’ ”

There’s more at American Theatre, here, where you can see how different TTT groups manage to fund free performances.

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bn-vu227_nyches_m_20171025125530Photo: Bess Adler for The Wall Street Journal
Rikers Island inmate Camilo Arcelay faced off against chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley at the Rikers Island jail complex.

I like articles about better ways to prepare prison inmates for a return to society. In this 2015 post, for example, I wrote about a jailhouse debate club that beat Harvard, raising the spirits and aspirations of prisoners at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility.

Today’s story concerns a serious chess competition in a notorious New York City prison.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs at the Wall Street Journal writes, “On a rainy afternoon at the Rikers Island Jail Complex [in October] five men and one woman wearing tan uniforms sat in front of chess boards surrounded by an audience of correction officers and fellow inmates.

“Maurice Ashley, a 2003 U.S. Chess Federation grandmaster of the year walked from one board to the next, simultaneously playing six games. One by one, he eliminated the inmates — except for Camilo Arcelay, 37 years old, who used his king to take Mr. Ashley’s last pawn. That left Mr. Arcelay and Mr. Ashley with a king as their last piece.

“The result was a draw — enough for Mr. Ashley, who also judged the event, to name Mr. Arcelay the winner of the first chess tournament, which is slated to become an annual event at Rikers Island.

“ ‘To be in a situation that I’m in right now in jail, it leaves me speechless,’ Mr. Arcelay said, referring to his chess victory. ‘Because I’ve made so many bad decisions to be here.’

“The final round of the 2-month tournament is part of a series of programming designed to educate and reduce idleness funded by a $38.9 million New York City initiative.

” ‘It teaches them how to think, how to strategize, in an environment that is conducive to those things,’ said James Walsh, department of corrections deputy commissioner of adult programming & community partnerships.

“While this was the first official tournament at Rikers, chess has long been popular behind bars. Carl Portman, 53, the author of Chess Behind Bars, and the manager of prisons chess for the English Chess Federation, said the game’s history in prisons dates to World War II, when inmates would create chess pieces from scrap materials, and differentiate the two sides by using coffee powder to dye some pieces. …

“At Rikers, the seed for the tournament was planted two years ago when corrections officer Gregory Lamb bought a chess set so he could play with 16- and 17-year-old inmates. Prison officials soon asked him to organize sessions with adult inmates twice a week. That evolved into the tournament organized by the corrections’ Adult Programs Unit that began two months ago with 800 inmates participating.

“ ‘Inmates are probably the best chess players because they play all day,’ Mr. Lamb noted. …

“During the games, inmates stood on bleachers cheering, critiquing and moving their arms on imaginary boards as if they, too, were participating.

“ ‘Society wastes so much when we don’t channel the energy and capabilities of those who have been incarcerated,’ Mr. Ashley said.”

More at the WSJ, here.

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The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Some reasons: required minimum sentences, for-profit prisons that lobby officials to get more business, lack of programs to treat addictions. Most US prisons don’t help people who commit crimes to learn better behaviors, and it’s hard for ex-offenders to find jobs when they get out.

According to the Sentencing Project, “In the last forty years, incarceration has increased with rates upwards of 500% despite crime rates decreasing nationally.”

The good news is that here and there, local sheriffs are experimenting with techniques to reduce recidivism, as are individual states. Whether the new programs are motivated by the wish to save public money, by compassion, or for any other reason, the trend is promising.

Mikaela Porter writes at the Hartford Courant about an initiative in Connecticut.

“For years John Pittman was known as a lifer in the state prison here. But now, he’s taken on a new identity: mentor. …

” ‘My philosophy is this: no one is going to save us but us,’ Pittman said in an interview. ‘I’m older than these guys – grandfather age – and if they can learn something from me without being in my situation with a life sentence then I felt I did my job.’

“The pilot program, called T.R.U.E. (Truthfulness to oneself and others, Respect toward the community, Understanding ourselves and what brought us here, Elevating into success) was set up [early this year] for about 70 18- to 25-year-old offenders at the prison. …

“The pilot program started with a visit to Germany, when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Correction Commissioner Scott Semple, Vera Institute of Justice President Nicholas Turner toured prisons there.

” ‘We saw people behind bars who had keys to their own cells, cells [they] decorated themselves,’ Turner said. ‘They wore their own street clothes and they cooked their own meals and they worked in the community. People who were there left better off than they had come in.’ …

” ‘This population of 18- to 25-year-olds is responsible for 25 percent of the incidents that we respond to within our correctional institutions,’ Cheshire Warden Scott Erfe said.

“Erfe said approximately 100 correction staff over three shifts will work in the unit, and that workers have taken three weeks of training on human development and behavioral impact, motivational interviewing, mediation and conflict resolution for young offenders, trauma-informed interventions for young adult offenders and family engagement.

“The program includes work on life skills, educational assistance, team-building exercises and family assistance.

” ‘Although this unit is still in its infancy, it is clear that this has a chance to be something truly special,’ Erfe said.” More here.

I particularly like the “U” of T.R.U.E. I believe a lack of self-knowledge probably underlies most of the world’s problems, not just incarceration rates.

Photo: Lauren Schneiderman / Hartford Courant
Inmates talk to Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy about a rehabilitation program at the Cheshire Correctional Institution. Mentors work with offenders between the ages 18-25 to both make facilities safer and prevent young adults from returning to prison.

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A recent post at Asakiyume’s blog reminded me of Young at Heart, the senior-citizen chorus that inspired a movie I recommended to readers in 2011.

Asakiyume wrote, “One of the women I work with at the jail is in the choir there. I got permission to go in for the performance. The jail choir group is called the Majestics, and they’ve been mentored by a senior-citizen choir called Young at Heart, all of whom were wearing T-shirts that said ‘We put the “zen” in “senior citizen.'”

“Young at Heart performed as the opening act … Then the Majestics took the stage. There were six women, and they covered a great age range (three in their twenties, two in their thirties-forties, and one who was even older than me) and ethnically diverse (two Black, one Hispanic, three White). They sang well-known songs with lots of different flavors (hip-hop, pop, blues, soul), and all the choir members were featured at least once … The entire thing was a huge success; the audience was **so** supportive. …

“At the end the programs director called for an encore, and there hadn’t been a song laid by for that, but the Young At Heart choir sang “Forever Young” … Each time someone sang a solo, he or she linked arms with one of the members of the Majestics and brought them forward, and I could see tears in my student’s eyes and I had tears in mine, because–as the chaplain who was present pointed out–that song is a benediction, and it was so great to hear those words of blessing and hope and expectation directed at the audience in the jail:

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
And may you stay
Forever young”

-@-

So lovely. Such songs take on extra meaning when sung by seniors or by people who feel hopeless.

The Young at Heart movie, which I still hope you’ll see, was also full of resonance. And it exposed me to popular music like Coldplay’s “I will try to fix you.” Whenever that song comes on the radio, I see in my mind’s eye the old guy with the oxygen tank who drew tears from his audiences. He is surely gone now, but not that memory.

That the chorus has gone beyond inspiring seniors and their families to inspiring prisoners who have little to make them feel positive or hopeful — well, it’s just too amazing.

More at Asakiyume’s blog, here.

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