Prisons Outreach

Vision Statement: Prisons Outreach

Arts therapy in correctional facilities (in this case, specifically drama therapy) is a growing field which, unfortunately, has a considerable way to go in the USA compared to many European nations. The New York area is inconsistently served in this area also, as compared to strong progress made in Kentucky, Massachusetts, Los Angeles and Louisiana, according to recent research undertaken by Midlantic Theatre Co. Rehabilitation Through the Arts, however (head: Katherine Vockins), though often struggling through government funding cuts, now serves six prisons in upstate New York. At R.T.A.’s Oct. 2008 fundraiser, their first given in New York City, impressive testimonials were given by 7 formerly incarcerated men who had participated in R.T.A.’s work and large dramatic productions presented to fellow Sing Sing inmates and to the public. The self-knowledge, positive teamwork and emotional processing these men had undergone clearly had changed their lives more strongly than any other rehabilitation undertaken while in prison.

There is overwhelming evidence that arts therapy (undertaken only voluntarily by certain incarcerated individuals) permanently and profoundly changes lives for the better. The award-winning documentary“Shakespeare Behind Bars,” which illustrates the 10th year in the now 15-year-old Kentucky Shakespeare Festival correctional facility program (Curt Tofteland, head until 2008) is ample proof that not only can prisoners often perform Shakespeare more compellingly than professional actors! – but enable enormous leaps in inmates’ self-awareness, social outlook and simply, hope for a better future life.

As an actress and a teacher, Ms. Hammer has often observed fellow theatre professionals’ unstoppable enthusiasm for prison work over the past 10 years with skepticism. Now, however, having observed firsthand the effect that drama therapy has on incarcerated individuals, the prospect of working with such people dedicated to changing their lives is almost more compelling than working for “civilians.” The American prison system can often act as a “Revolving Door,” a business which thrives on keeping offenders coming back, forever serving time. Graduates of Rehabilitation Through the Arts∗∗ (Sing Sing and 5 other upstate NY prisons) and the Fortune Society (New York City) exhibit former inmates confidently, quietly proud of their often impressive accomplishments back in society, once they’ve truly taken years to “face their [huge] demons” and licked their anti-social habits. (Formerly incarcerated, “gone-straight” individuals tend to pursue careers in counseling and are usually extremely persuasive in this field.)

Dorms, Luther Luckett Correctional Facility, La Grange, Kentucky

Professionally working with inmates in correctional facilities doesn’t happen overnight. It obviously requires considerable experience. Such experience, as stated above, can be frustratingly difficult to obtain in the under-funded New York metro area! It is Midlantic Theatre Company’s intention to volunteer as a theatre professional intern for several years either in Middlesex or Essex County, New Jersey or (when funding finally permits) with Rehabilitation through the Arts in upstate New York. It is our goal to seek government grants to begin work ourselves (at present, it is hoped in Union, Essex or Monmouth County, NJ), working with inmates, by 2012.

On a purely practical level, also, prison work can gain a theatre company considerable notice and prestige, since it is still such an under-explored, under-exploited area of American theatre work. Done well and done thoroughly, theatre work in prisons can not only bring MTC professionals the most satisfying work they may ever do, but can eventually gain respect for the Company in the competitive 21st-century arts environment.

Fence, Luther Luckett Correctional Facility, La Grange, Kentucky

MIDLANTIC PRISONS UPDATE AS OF 9/21/09:

Artistic Director Virginia Hammer began work in August with Hudson County Correction Facility, volunteering weekly with a group of 25 to 30 women who are incarcerated 365 days and less, under the aegis of Marsha Hill, who created the “Keeping It Real” program to foster self-awareness and expression through arts, journal-writing, crafts, and group therapy. Politics often affect American prison administration, and at present, these efforts have temporarily stalled… Ms. Hammer will likely be working with battered women in Newark and Kearney, NJ with Ms. Hill until such time as more cooperative environment can be found within an institution. ­ The New York area is relatively under-developed in theater arts therapy, to say the least. Rehab. Through the Arts (R.T.A.; Katherine Vockins, Head — Sing-Sing, NY) was explored for Midlantic to obtain experience; however, recent governmental budget cuts have put a freeze on more volunteers.

Ms. Hammer travelled to LaGrange, Kentucky in May, 2009 to see “Macbeth” performed by inmates of the Luther Lockett Correctional Facility, under the renowned Shakespeare Behind Bars program, created in 1995 by Curt Tofteland and the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival. Shakespeare Behind Bars is one of the best American prison theater programs, and this “Macbeth” proved why. In many ways, it was the most powerful Shakespeare Ms. H. has ever seen. Ample reason never to give up for Newark. We have not yet BEGUN to fight.

 

∗ Shakespeare Behind Bars, Philomath Films, 2006

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