Every year, a program called Rehabilitation through the Arts (RTA) stages a theatrical production at Sing Sing prison. This year's effort, A Few Good Men, which is open to the public, will be performed almost entirely by inmates at the maximum security facility. The event is almost always one of the hottest tickets in town, mostly due to the quality of the productions (which, by all accounts, are stellar). But RTA's success depends less on the merit of its plays than on their rehabilitative effect on the players. The research suggests that their performance in that area is pretty stellar also.
Putting together any kind of theatrical production is never easy, but RTA's deputy director Ricki Gold compared the challenge of putting on a play in prison (as opposed to in the free world) to the way Ginger Rogers was famously compared to Fred Astaire: "We do everything they do, but we do it backwards and in high heels." Basic issues like coordinating rehearsal times, getting security clearance for volunteers, finding suitable costumes and props are unimaginably difficult.
Choosing the right play is also a challenge. It has to feature a lot of male roles (prisoners are, for the most part, not ready to embrace the Shakespearian tradition of having men play the women's parts) and, more importantly, has to have resonance and meaning. West Side Story, with its tale of gang rivalry is a favorite, as are plays by August Wilson, and, of course, everything by the Bard.
It's worth the effort, however, as illustrated in this interview with one prisoner participant, Sharize Terrell, who described the impact Shakespeare's Macbeth had on him. He was able to relate Macbeth's struggles to his own "upside-down kingdom", where he and his brothers on the streets tried too hard to justify their actions, even though they knew they were doing wrong.
"That's what Lady Macbeth did, she started justifying. And Macbeth himself started justifying his own actions! Well, if I don't do this, this won't happen ? it's back to the cause-and-effect thing. I need to do this to make this person happy, to make me happy, to get to where I think I belong in life.
"That's what we was doing in the streets. I have to do crime because I can't get a job. Well, who says you can't get a job? Well, that's what everyone around me says. Ah, well, a lot of people say a lot of things and we don't believe in ourselves to put in the hard work, to walk on the right path, to use a little muscle, to use a little brains, put a little dedication in to do right. I think there's an extreme parallel between us and Macbeth!"
I don't know what Sharize's particular circumstances were before he entered prison, but as an inmate in a state prison, there's about a 75% chance he does not have a high-school diploma (pdf) and about an equal or greater chance that he comes from an impoverished background and grew up having to deal with all the chaos that poverty creates. More significantly, at least for the general public, there is a 95% chance he will be released from prison one day and (prior to his involvement in RTA) at least a 40% chance he will re-offend upon release.
His Macbeth awakening did a lot more than ensure him some peace of mind; it will have reduced his chance of committing a new crime and returning to prison after his release to about 3%.
According to Gold and Katherine Vockins (RTA's founder), hearing transformative anecdotes like Sharize's are commonplace. But two recent studies, which found that RTA participants are locked down less often, and for less serious infractions, have better social and communication skills, are more likely to go on to pursue higher education, and are less likely to re-offend, provide empirical evidence of the program's worth. This proof, that "RTA creates better citizens on the inside, as well as on the outside," as Vockins put it, is the main reason it enjoys the full support of New York's enlightened prison commissioner, Brian Fischer, who never misses a performance.
Still, fundraising continues to be a problem (pdf), largely due to the lack of sympathy for prisoners and the ongoing (and misguided) notion that prisons must be all about punishment. As things stand, RTA has a long waiting list of prisoners and prisons wanting to avail themselves of its services, but it is without adequate means to accommodate them.
It's unfortunate, to say the least, that this kind of backward thinking is denying a second chance to so many people who never had a first one. But come 18 May, no matter what, the show will go on at Sing Sing prison. Several lucky prisoners will get to perform to a packed auditorium. For most of them, the experience will be less about the momentary applause than about being viewed as human beings for the first time. RTA cannot reach as many people as it would like to, but those it does can expect to experience a change in their own life's narrative ? one to rival that of the most challenging characters they get to perform.
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