In The News

RTA and Other Creative Prison Programs

LitHub’s Daniel Gross described his experience watching a production of “Of Mice and Men”, performed in Sing Sing in partnership with the Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA), a New York State prison program and an Art for Justice Fund grantee.

Minutes after our arrival, a correctional officer announced the afternoon count: everyone wearing green had to line up against the window, while visitors, in their street clothes, could wait on the other side of the room. For a moment, the privilege of our freedom, of not being counted and confined, was stark. Then the actors and stagehands were released back to the set, and for the hours that followed, the differences between prisoners and guests seemed to recede…In prison, inmates are always carefully surveilled, but on this night, they were seen. At times, it seemed possible to forget where we were. “When you come in here, it’s not about what you’re locked up for,” Jonathan Andujar, a clean-cut actor who played a farm laborer named Carlson, told me. “When you get on this stage, you’re a completely different person.”

In Nationswell, Joseph Darius Jaafari takes a look at the success of RTA and asks why such programs are always first in line for budget cuts instead of being reproduced elsewhere:

[RTA] 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.

In California, a sweeping open-yard program—that is more akin to Norway’s prison model—has been called so trouble free it requires just a third of the staffing of a traditional yard:

[A]ll 780 inhabitants of this yard “program” are immersing themselves in courses designed to address a criminal past (anger management, victim awareness), law-abiding future (job hunting strategies, money management) and deep-seated pathologies (Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Criminals and Gang Members Anonymous).

Prisoners publish a monthly newspaper, perform in musical bands, raise service dogs for wounded veterans and autistic kids. There’s Saturday morning yoga, Thursday night art class, correspondence courses in geography, history and other subjects.

Entrepreneurship-in-training models (EITS) are also gaining ground in some prisons and one such program sponsored by Defy Ventures hosts a Shark-Tank-like competition, writes Cole Cazdin:

[T]he inmates/EITs pitch business ideas to panels of volunteer judges. They’re all realistic businesses: pool cleaning, taco trucks, construction. A man named Rico with a forearm tattoo that says, “There are 2 sides to every story,” pitches a van service for visiting incarcerated family members. The volunteers are heavy-hitters themselves — e.g., a VC who just started an aviation company and a fitness magnate. They rate the ideas on scalability and potential for profit as well as the presentation itself. Whatever the score, they’re encouraged not to sugarcoat…Leading up today, the inmates have taken months of classes, with coaching sessions on interview skills and resume building, as well as instructional videos taught by various experts (including shoe mogul Steve Madden, who did time in prison himself for stock fraud) on topics ranging from how to scale a business, to basic etiquette and the importance of writing thank you notes.

Defy’s president, Andrew Glazier says the program is less about making actual deals than about inspiring “confidence and community” in the participants.