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Tim Robbins’ improv classes in California prisons are yielding impressive results


Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images North America/ AFP

Zoe Romanowsky - published on 02/16/17

The Prison Project has massively cut recidivism and reduced behavioral violations for participating inmates.

“Why are you wasting your time with these losers?” people asked British actress Sabra Williams when she launched the Actors Gang Prison Project in 2006 — improv classes for maximum security prisoners in California. But she and her co-founder, Oscar winner Tim Robbins, were not deterred.

New York Magazinereports that Williams came up with the idea when she joined Robbins’ L.A.-based theater company called the Actors Gang:

She’d moved to Los Angeles from London where, as part of the English Shakespeare Company, she’d gone into prisons to perform the Bard’s Roman plays. She saw first-hand the effect these visits and workshops had on the incarcerated. She’d just assumed that the Actors Gang already had a similar program in place. Robbins responded: “We don’t. Make something happen.”

Williams got busy. The Prison Project began with a once-a-week 4-hour class for eight weeks at the California Institution for Men. The next year they added the California Institution for Women, and then the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, where they’ve remained for nine years.

The program was never an easy sell and in the early days there was no money. The bare bones cost of running the class was $5,000, which covered transportation and materials. Williams would raise the money, run the class, then go back out and find more money so they could do it again.

But now a decade later, hard data is beginning to tell the real story: For inmates who complete the Prison Project, the rate of recidivism is 10.6 percent, as compared to the regular rate of 50 percent. And the cost effectiveness of the program is impressive:

In 2010, it cost about $80 billion per year to house people in our prisons and jails. Or between $45,000 and $60,000 dollars per adult. “Our class costs $1,500 per year for that person,” [Williams] says. “When the majority of them don’t come back to prison, they’re saving California a lot of money.”

So exactly what’s causing this shift in behavior for the inmates? What do they actually do in these classes?

The inmates sit on the floor in a circle and wear white makeup and masks… improvising scenes as characters from the commedia dell’arte tradition. We’re talking about stock characters like Pantalone (a cheap merchant), Arlechinno (a mischievous servant), and Capitano (a pompous military captain known for inflating his status). In a way, this all makes complete sense. The 16th-century style of theater from Italy and France started as a way for peasants to satirize the upper class. (The roving troupes of actors wore white makeup so they could be seen in twilight.)

A former inmate, Christopher Bisbano, who was in prison for 18 years on attempted murder charges, says the classes are challenging because they require inmates to look into each other’s eyes, which rarely happens in prison.

“You’re not supposed to show happy or sad or being frightened,” says Bisbano. “It’s a sign of weakness.”

The classes break down walls, bringing inmates together. The program has not only led to lowered rates of recidivism, it’s “led to a nearly 90 percent reduction in behavioral infractions for participants, one of the unexpected effects the program has had outside of class”:

“What it did was it started to change the culture on the yard,” Bisbano says. “There were no racial boundaries in class. The African-Americans, the whites, Mexicans, Hispanics, we were all playing together. It’s very rare in prisons, especially in California. When we had our presentations, we would invite other inmates to come watch. Then they would see that their homeboy was up there dressed up like some character, acting like a fool. It started to break some boundaries. We had something special in common.”

The Prison Project has captured the attention of politicians and many concerned about criminal justice reform. Governor Jerry Brown approved a $6 million line item in California’s 2016–2017 budget for Arts in Correction (a partnership between the CDRC and the California Arts Council). According to the New York Post article, all 35 prisons in California in 2017 will have at least some kind of publicly funded arts program — up from exactly zero a decade ago. There is also interest in having the Actors Gang create similar classes to “train police officers in emotional intelligence and de-escalation techniques.” Williams plans to apply for a grant to do that.

Two years ago, in February 2015, President Obama invited Republican senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Rand Paul of Kentucky and Democratic senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Cory Booker of New Jersey to the White House to discuss criminal-justice reform. Now two separate bills are making their way through the Senate and the House, both of which provide funding for Arts in Corrections.

Williams and Robbins recently launched a re-entry program run by a former inmate who was released from prison in July. “I would never have imagined it when we started, but it feels like a mission now,” [Robbins] says.

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