'Shawshank' star teaches prison inmates the art of acting

CBS L.A., 10/4/12

Actor Tim Robbins is probably best known for his role playing an innocent man convicted of murder in "The Shawshank Redemption." Now, the Academy Award-winning actor is helping prisoners try their hand at acting. Each Tuesday, Robbins is among 15 rotating acting coaches at Norco's medium-security prison. It's part of a program organized by The Actors' Gang, a non-profit theater Robbins helped found nearly 30 years ago. "They're asked to do things they never been asked to do in their life: open up emotionally, and put makeup on and costumes on, and pretend to be people. It's weird stuff," Robbins said. "You can erase your old self and paint up a whole new one," an inmate, Joshua, told CBS2's Pat Harvey. Another inmate named Zach was one of the first to try The Prison Project. "In here you get to experiment with it and you kinda find out who you really are," Zach said. "What makes you keep coming back?" Harvey asked him. "A sense of freedom. Every time we walk into this room it's an escape. We're no longer in prison. And, actually, we feel free," Zach said. The Prison Project is one of the last standing arts rehabilitation programs in California prisons. "We live in the same society with these guys," said Sabra Williams, the program's director of outreach. "It's in all of our interest to make sure people are rehabilitated and do better when they come out." The workshops are made possible through private donations and teachers covering expenses out of their own pockets. "I feel we're doing the work of the state. We've never had any public money," Williams said. "Right now, we have a 75% recidivism rate and that's not good for anyone." "And you think you can help that?" Harvey said. "I know that we can help that," Williams said.


A campaign to restart a 'Shakespeare Behind Bars' program is rejected

Gilman Halsted, Wisconsin Public Radio, 9/25/12

The [Wisconsin] Department of Corrections has rejected a proposal to restart a Shakespeare Behind Bars program that operated successfully in a Racine prison for four years. 44 men took part in producing and performing plays in the prison gym for both inmates and the public. The prison warden cancelled the program in 2009, citing security problems with the performance process. This week, prison officials rejected a proposal to restart it. DOC representative Tim LeMonds says it does not fit the definition of an evidenced-based practice. "There's no research or no evidence that tells us that this program is contributing to the success of inmates when they reintegrated in to society." Project director Jonathon Shailor disagrees. He cites a similar prison Shakespeare program in Kentucky that, over 17 years, dramatically reduced recidivism for inmates who took part. He also listed off half a dozen offenders who performed in the Racine prison who are now in college, or are back at the job they lost when they committed their crime. Last week Shailor launched an online petition drive to restart the program. That led to a deluge of emails to the DOC in support of Shakespeare in Prison. Shailor later apologized for the email glut, but prison officials are sticking with their decision to keep the program out of the state prisons.


In Minnesota, the first art show from a correctional facility for women

Andrea Parrott, Shakopee [MN] Patch, 10/19/12

The Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee is sponsoring its first art show featuring 40 pieces of offender artwork. The art will be on display at the Scott County Historical Society Oct. 18 through Nov. 17, 2012. The art in this exhibition has been created by women at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee. Art education in a correctional facility plays a significant role in the lives of offenders and the effectiveness of programming in a correctional environment. As new artistic techniques are taught, each woman is given the opportunity to prove to herself her personal worth through the creation of beautiful and meaningful art. The development and practice of artistic skills also offers an alternative to boredom, anger, depression, and personal stress. The art program at Shakopee offers different classes each quarter. The artwork featured in this exhibit is from the cartooning, batik, block printing, and oil pastel collage classes that finished in September.


Report: The effect of music in juvenile justice settings 

From Carnegie Hall's website

A newly released exploratory paper sets out to [address] the potential of music in the lives of court-involved youth. Written by WolfBrown, in partnership with Carnegie Hall's Weill Music Institute, the paper is a major investigation of the potential of music to make contributions to the lives of young people in juvenile justice settings. Carnegie Hall's commitment to this area stems from the Musical Connections Program, which offers diverse live music experiences for people in healthcare settings, correctional facilities, senior-service organizations, and homeless shelters across New York City. This season marks the fourth year of creative workshops for teenagers in detention settings, as well as new projects in non-secure placement and probation settings. The publication, "May the Songs I Have Written Speak for Me," contains these sections:

  • A history of juvenile justice in the United States with an emphasis on the long-standing tension between incarceration and rehabilitation
  • An overview of the current movement for reform
  • A summary of basic research on adolescent development, with an emphasis on the new brain science that explains why adolescents are prone to risk-taking, thrill-seeking, and emotionally-driven choices, coupled with a discussion of the potential of music to reach and affect adolescents
  • A review of research and evaluations from an international set of music programs in both adult and juvenile corrections facilities, with an emphasis on what such programs accomplish and the specific effects they have
  • A reflection on the design principles emerging from effective programs
  • An examination of the current work in juvenile justice supported by Carnegie Hall and the Administration for Children's Services in New York, with an emphasis on the issues and choices arising as this work enters a second, deeper, and more challenging phase.  

Drumming, as a way to teach reading to jailed youth, may lower recidivism

Gabriel Kahn, Pacific Standard magazine, 10/24/12

Jose Xuncax first landed in jail at 13 for armed robbery. Since then, he's been in and out of the system six times. He lives at Camp Mendenhall, a juvenile-detention facility [in] L.A. County. When he arrived, he was functionally illiterate. Most of [his] fellow campers were in the same boat. The social ills of illiteracy and crime in America are bound together so tightly that it's difficult to consider one without the other. In study after study, the reading ability of incarcerated youth has been shown to be abysmal. For decades, reformers have argued that teaching reading skills is one of the most powerful methods of crime prevention. It's also one of the most difficult. Yet Josť's reading has taken off. Behind the turnaround is a program called Reading & Rhythm. Its founder is Steven Angel, a 59-year-old former drumming prodigy [with] no college degree or teaching background. Most of his instructors are professional percussionists. Twice a week, an instructor visits the camp to work with Josť and other inmates, [getting] the kids to concentrate on a steady drumbeat. Once they are relaxed and focused, they begin to read to the beat. As the beat quickens, so does the pace of reading. Reading & Rhythm is now being used throughout the county's juvenile-justice system and in special-ed classes. More than 3,000 kids have passed through the program since it was established a decade ago. Many have shown improvements as dramatic as Josť's, raising their reading levels by two or more grade levels in a matter of a few months. Though critics are quick to point out that the program's results have never been verified by independent research, teachers who use it report how students for whom they had given up hope suddenly blossom in self-esteem and mood. Most everyone who has come across the program can share an inspirational moment about a student who suddenly blossomed. The Teaching Channel recently produced a 15-minute documentary about the program.


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FROM TC: For more about art in the US prison system, visit The Prison Arts Coalition's website. For programs in Europe, visit the Art and Culture in Prison project's website.
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