A group of inmates in face paint performing in an actor's workshop.
Prison Education Programs

Using the Arts to Set the Stage for Rehabilitation in America’s Prisons

Performing arts are an invaluable tool for rehabilitating the lives of inmates. Arts promote creativity and healthy engagement, improving inmates’ chances of reintegration into society.

When thinking of therapy and rehabilitation, the last thing on a person’s mind is walking out on a stage. The idea of stepping into the proverbial spotlight is an anxiety-inducing prospect. How can this help the incarcerated?

A group of inmates in face paint performing in an actor's workshop.
Acting workshops act as a healthy outlet for inmates to find solace to improve their rehabilitation. Image Source: Huffington Post

A New Way of Rehabilitation for Inmates

Dr. Larry Brewster is a professor of Public and Nonprofit Administration at the University of San Francisco. According to him, performing arts are an invaluable tool for improving the lives of inmates. Also, it improves their chances of reintegration.

Dr. Brewster shared in an interview:

“Prison arts programs improve inmate behavior, help connect inmates with their families and provide them with a way to give back by donating their art.”

Odd as this might seem at first glance, the facts back up these claims. An analysis was conducted by Dr. Lorraine Moller. She evaluated Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA), a prison program in five New York correctional facilities. Dr. Moller saw the longer an inmate participated in RTA, the fewer violations he or she committed.

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Study of the Arts Programs on Rehabilitation

A separate study was conducted by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations. CDCR noted the parolees who participated in arts programs had a higher chance of positive outcomes. Those who did not participate did not have the same chance.

Additionally, inmates who participate in arts programs are shown more likely to pursue an education.

An inmate receiving an acting diploma for his time in an acting workshop from actor Tim Robbins.
Tim Robbins (right) is no stranger to the fields of acting and prison, not only being a founder of The Actor’s Gang Prison Workshop, but also starring in the 1994 classic, The Shawshank Redemption. Image Source: The Press Enterprise

How an Art Program Benefits Rehabilitation

These programs work for decreasing violations within prisons. They also help in the reintegration process. The reasoning for this will make a little more sense if we break theater into its abstract parts:

The theater is an exercise in teamwork and commitment. In competitive activities like sports, no one benefits from one person pushing ahead of everyone. A show only suffers from showboating. Only when people act in tandem can a strong performance be had.

Theater provides inmates with an exercise in creating something artistic. It is a chance to share themselves and their work with others.

Without an audience, a show is not a show. The performing arts require a community. They require people. For individuals who have been shut off from society, the theater offers a way to reconnect.

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The most significant benefit of the arts is the boost it can have to a person’s empathy. Acting is about putting on a mask. It asks performers to step into the position of another person. To feel how it feels to move around in their shoes.

Acting is about mastering this skill. Those that do, benefit from the ability to ask why another person might do something the way they do.

The Arts in Prisons Today

There is a wealth of research surrounding the benefits of artistic endeavors. Jails and prisons across the country have started to take note. How can such practices be used for their inmates?

State governments (like California) have funneled economic resources to such endeavors. After being largely defunded in 2003, the Arts in Corrections program was refunded in 2011. It has expanded to provide arts programs in prisons throughout California.

The RTA, which originated in 1996, continues to provide resources to New York Correctional Facilities.

National attention has focused on this method of rehabilitation. The Prison Arts Coalition (PAC) is a non-profit organization. PAC is dedicated to providing support for prison arts programs around the country.

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If you’ve caught the theater bug or are looking to get involved in one of these programs, check out their website for a program in your area.

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N. L. Sweeney
N. L. Sweeney is an English Creative Writing graduate from Western Washington University. His work has been published by Flash Fiction Magazine, Niteblade, Defenestration Magazine, Jeopardy Magazine and Inroads: Writers in the Community. He currently writes editorials and feature news pieces for Prison Rideshare Network. When Sweeney's not writing, he busies himself with petting furry animals, learning Chinese and making friends in local tea shops.