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When an arts-based, nonprofit organization claims to have developed a prisoner rehabilitation program that reduces recidivism to less than five percent, criminal justice experts may shake their heads in disbelief. Yet that is what Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) a non-profit organization based in New York State has done. Their program has improved prison morale and safety, caused the incarcerated population to act more respectfully and work more cooperatively, and helping people in prison build the life skills necessary to make it on the outside.
RTA has the results to prove it: a five-year contract awarded by NY State’s Department of Corrections; independently published research demonstrating fewer infractions; and greater pursuit of higher education among the program participants.
New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility was the birthplace of RTA twenty years ago, and benefits from its close proximity to New York City’s pool of creative talent. RTA has gradually expanded to four other state correctional facilities, including a women’s maximum security facility. RTA also has a sister program at Hong Kong’s maximum-security Stanley Prison.
RTA uses a simple graphic tool named the “Skill Wheel” to demonstrate how different art forms help develop specific life skills that can be used inside or outside of prison walls.
The Skill Wheel consists of two concentric circles: the inner circle, which describes eight of the art forms taught within the RTA program; and the outer circle, which lists skills for family and community involvement, and post-release employment.
So how can something like a workshop in improvisation help a person in prisoner search for a job once he or she is released? The answer is found through the game-like structure of the wheel.
One must simply rotate the circles so that “Improvisation” (on the inner circle) aligns with “Employment” (on the outer circle), and the rest is spelled out (see Skill Wheel). It’s easy to relate “Thinking on your feet” or “Excelling under pressure” to performing well in a job interview; suddenly it makes perfect sense to have inmates trained in improvisation.
In addition to classic, contemporary, original and musical productions, each of the prisons where RTA operates has a unique curriculum of workshops: such as Shakespeare study, modern dance, playwriting, visual arts, Broadway show tunes and poetry. About 30 professional artists and educators, most with advanced degrees in various fields, volunteer to run the workshops.
RTA’s Executive Director, Katherine Vockins is the driving mind of this program. She was recently awarded an honorary doctorate from the State University of New York for her work in prison. Vockins is not a typical “bleeding-heart do-gooder.” Having spent half her professional life in the business world, evaluating projects, impact assessment, cost efficiency and evidence-based research are part of her regular vocabulary.
“RTA is not run by artists,” says Vockins. “We aren’t advocates, we are ‘prison- neutral,’ and have enjoyed a long and respectful relationship with New York State’s Correctional System.”
Brian Fischer, former commissioner, New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, describes RTA’s beneficial impact on prisoners. “They feel good about themselves; they’ve accomplished something, now they’re going to move on in their lives.”
One incarcerated prisoner sums it up this way. “RTA helps you think differently, so you act differently, so you get different results. To me, that’s the definition of rehabilitation.”
Hans Hallundbaek is director of criminal justice at the Hudson River Presbytery, and serves as the NGO representative for the International Prison Chaplains Association (IPCA)to the Unite Nations’ New York City Headquarters.