Theatre Becomes Freedom for Incarcerated People: rehabilitation through arts programs
Americans in Prison
Thousands of men and women in the United States are currently imprisoned, some serving life sentences, some serving several years, but there is a commonality with all of them; for those with a chance to leave prison, on average, most of those individuals will return, stacking up a history of crime-related incidents for their record.
According to Gwynne Watkins in her paper about arts programs in the prison systems, a large 49 percent of those individuals without previous participation in any rehabilitation program will be arrested again within two years of release. And according to Judith Tannenbaum’s essay called Arts, Prisons, & Rehabilitation, she states that $60 billion a year is spent to keep people in prison with a small amount of resources for prisoners to come out “balanced, healthy, and crime free” (109).
In an essay called Beyond the Prison Bubble from the National Institute of Justice’s website, written by Joan Petersilia, she says that while mass imprisonment has reduced crime rates, it might “well be reversed” if nothing is done to help prisoners enter society as better human beings (Petersilia).
Can frequent participation in arts programs be the rehabilitation prisoners need?
Even with the formation of American prisons in the 18th Century, the notion of “rehabilitation” was indeed sought; however, “rehabilitation” at the time had a different meaning, as Tannenbaum says. It was “close to torture”. Rehabilitation had always been something “done to [prisoners]”, and it was considered a process the individual had to achieve themselves (Tannenbaum, 114). With this old notion deeply instilled in America’s prison systems, it seems impossible to challenge this thought. Spoon Jackson, who served a 36 year life sentence, said that “Rehabilitation was always self-rehabilitation… I had to choose to change…. I had to become anew, despite being in prison.” (Tannenbaum 114). It seems that even with arts programs inside prisons, inmates are still challanged to seek change for themselves. Even so, there could be a larger push or encouragement for prisoners to seek help in the form of these arts programs.
Is the Solution Shakespeare?
Why does there seem to be a lack of rehabilitation for people in prison? It seems a viscous cycle. According to Gwynne Watkins in her paper Creative Freedom, she notes that prisoners who participate in programs like the Actors’ Gang Prison Project, Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA), or Shakespeare Behind Bars (SBB), have improved mental health, are more able and willing to complete an education, and they are “less likely to commit another offense after release” (4). The men who participate in Shakespeare Behind Bars relay how meaningful and life-changing the theatre program has been for their lives, even if most of them are serving life-sentences for heinous crimes.
What’s the solution? Arts programs, specifically theatre programs inside prisons help inmates “see past their immediate experience of incarceration and reimagine themselves as something more than criminals” (Watkins, 11). Theatre becomes freedom for many men and women inside America’s prisons. It allows them to understand their emotions and past trauma; to understand themselves as human beings who are more than the crimes they’ve previously committed (Watkins, 3). It’s been proven that prisoners who seek to better themselves through arts programs become better, healthier, more empathetic people.
“Prison should make a difference,” says Larry Chandler, the warden at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, being interviewed for a film called Shakespeare Behind Bars, a documentary piece following inmates as they put on William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Larry says, “I believe in education…to change people’s lives…. we should be preparing them for when they leave.”
And with a laugh, Chandler says, “I’m a warden who hates prisons.” (Shakespeare Behind Bars).
Even if we look globally, the arts still proves to change people for the better. In a study completed through surveys and interviews of prisoners performing in Shakespeare’s Richard III in Chile, it is noted that there was, overall, a positive effect on the prisoner’s mental, physical, and emotional health; even the “possibility that there may be improvements of depression and substance use” (Mundt, 2). An inmate taking part in the study, who was participating in the prison’s theatre program in Chile, states that;
“Now [this theatre program] changed me. Before, I wouldn’t even sit down at the this table because I was busy doing other things.” Another noted, “And with the theatre I could move on forward. They can never take away my pain, but I see things more calmly now” (Mundt, 9).
With many studies proving the positive and life-changing effects that arts programs in prisons can have on prisoners, it seems obvious to continue adding different kinds of arts programs. So, what kind of positive changes can these arts rehabilitation programs have on prisoners? Many prisonsers see a change in:
- Antisocial Behavior
- Antisocial Personality
- Criminal Thinking
- Antisocial Relationships
- Family and Marital Status
- School and Work Status
- Leisure and Recreational Activities
- Substance Use
I believe that art can change people for the better, and while many of these programs talk about theatre and its influence on individuals and their state of mind, all art can have this effect because art is a way to express oneself. More specifically, art can allow for emotional exploration that can be beneficial for processing trauma or an inmates current view of themselves. According to Watkins, there was an art therapy study conducted in a Florida women’s prison, which concluded that 75% of participants said the classes helped them deal with “upsetting memories” (6). Theatre itself can be a therapeutic form of art that is able to transform individuals and promote healing. Theatre is a great way to gain empathy for other people by stepping into other people’s shoes and to experience something from someone’s point of view.
Shakespeare Behind Bars. Directed by Hank Rogerson, Produced by Jilann Spitzmiller, 2006.
Mundt P., Adrian. Initiating Change of People with Criminal Justice Involvement through Participation in a Drama Project: An Exploratory Study. Front Psychiatry. October 3rd, 2019
Watkins, Gwynne. Creative Freedom. Reasonstobecheerful.world/creative-freedom. November 18th, 2019
Tannenbaum, Judith. Arts, Prisons, & Rehabilitation. Americans for the Arts.