Prison Dehumanizes the Incarcerated—The Prison Project Brings Them Back

California prisons are about as off-off-off-off Broadway as it gets—but that's where the emotional tools of theatre can make the biggest difference to people's lives.\r\n

Sabra Williams: So, probably the last place that you think about hope and optimism existing is in prison, but in the last ten years of working there I've come to realize that all humans possess these things—they just need a little coaxing sometimes.

In June 2006 The Actors' Gang Theater Company started an experiment: we decided to take the Sunday night workshop we do with our whole company into prison to work with non-actors, to see what kind of effect our style of theater would have on them.

So the style of theater we work in is a really bastardized version of the Italian tradition of Commedia Dell’Arte. It's masks, white-face, high emotional, physical work, so we call it the “style.”

We took that workshop program into prison and were absolutely astounded by the effect it had on these non-actors and how it started to help them be able to heal their trauma. We've seen this approach transform prison yards, we've seen it break down barriers of race and separation, and that has happened through the courage of these people, picking up the tools that we've offered them and using those tools to transform their emotional lives, and they found a safe space in our work to be able to do that.

And as a result we have a ten percent recidivism rate and an 89 percent drop in in-prison infractions because these people now know how to deal with their emotions. So amazingly, this little engine that could, after ten years is now in ten prisons across California, and for me the thing that makes me so proud is that any day of the week there will be a student-led program happening in a prison. Like right now, there's a program happening in the prison that's led by our students, and we go and check in and support them every six weeks.

Apart from the reentry programs that we have, which is now run by one of our former students—we employed him the day he paroled, to run that reentry program—we are also creating a program for correctional officers, who are often as traumatized as the people that they are overseeing. It's the highest suicide rate of any job.

The real secret of this work, for those of us who are lucky enough to do it, is that we get as much, if not more, from the experience. One of our juvie girls told me the other day, when people come and work with us she always thinks to herself, “Take off your cape,” and this has become out motto now. Take off your cape, because we're not in the business of saving people. We're going in and offering them tools that we know work and as a result changing our own lives.

I've definitely become a better person and a better actor, and these people have literally changed my life. So I'm really honored to introduce the stars of this work: the people. I mean it was an idea, right? I had an idea ten years ago; a lot of people have ideas. It doesn't really mean anything unless people make it happen, and these are the people that made that happen. So I'd like to start off by introducing Chris Bingley.

Chris Bingley: Hello. Good afternoon everyone. I'm Chris Bingley. As Sabra said I returned to the community last Friday from a 12-year prison sentence. Most of my time—honestly there's not a whole lot of programs inside of California prisons—so I just kind of sat around and kind of read books and tried to better myself on my own.

But towards the end of my sentence—I think I've been doing The Actors' Gang for about five years—the Prison Project came in and it gave me a lot of tools. It gave me a lot of tools to deal with prison, to deal with myself, and now that I'm out here it's given me a lot of tools that I'm using out here as well.

I'm using those tools with my family, at my job, just everywhere I go. So just to explain what got me into prison is pretty much not knowing how to manage my own emotions. I was angry growing up and I kept a lot of that stuff inside of me, and I found people that were angry just like I was, and we did angry things and that's what led me to prison.

Getting involved in this work, it helped me to be able to express my emotions, something that I was never taught to do. I just, like I said, kept everything inside of me, so what this work did is it created a safe place for me to be able to express myself no matter what, without judgment, whether it be happy, sad, angry or fear, because are the four emotions that we deal with. And it gave me a chance to exorcise those emotions that were inside of me that I was so used to just constantly pushing down and that I was used to just acting out. So this work gave me a lot of tools to learn how to manage my emotions. Not only that but all kinds of stuff, from becoming a team player to supporting—we always say in The Actors' Gang, “Support your brother, or support the other actor that's onstage with you.”

Before being involved in this kind of work I was kind of like a selfish person, just all by myself, so it just taught me to be more human, to be able to look in another person's eyes and express an emotion, you know, and be able to identify with the next person.

So this work is great and I know it's doing a lot for people inside. As Sabra said it's breaking down a lot of barriers. People that would normally want to fight each other and want to stab each other, they're friends in there because this work, it builds a bridge between different races, between different gangs, all that stuff, and we can relate to each other because of this work.

In the last 35 years, California has built approximately 22 new prisons, and the state has one of the highest recidivism rates in the country. The US's prison industrial complex has been called America's human rights crisis. So is it possible for prisoners have hope for their future? How do you retain your humanity in an inhumane system? Ten years ago, actor Sabra Williams had an experimental idea: she wanted to bring The Actor's Gang Theatre Company into prisons to work with non-actors, and offer them the emotional tools needed to heal from the trauma of being incarcerated, and all the events of their lives before that. That was the start of the Prison Project, and a decade later it is operating in 10 prisons across California. How well has it worked? It has transformed prison yards. It has built bridges between gangs. Participants have just a 10% recidivism rate and in-prison infractions have dropped by 89%. Engaging in the safe and playful space of theatre is a way for incarcerated people to engage with their emotions, often for the very first time. The entire prison community is deeply interwoven and affected by each other, so the Prison Project is developing a program for correctional officers too, who are often highly traumatized by their experiences, and have highest suicide rate of any job. Sabra Williams runs us through the Prison Project, and introduces former-inmate and student Chris Bingley to share his personal story of reconnecting with his humanity while in prison. This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism. The Actors’ Gang conducts weekly and seven-day intensive programs inside the California prison system, a weekly re-entry program in the community, as well as a program in juvenile facilities, and soon to be a program designed for correctional officers. Head here for more information on The Actors' Gang Prison Project.

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