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HuffPost's Greatest Person Of The Day: Katherine Vockins, Founder And Director Of Rehabilitation Through The Arts

The Huffington Post    
First Posted: 11/01/10 06:52 PM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:10 PM ET

Every day on HuffPost, we're highlighting one 'Greatest Person' -- an exceptional individual who is confronting the country's economic and political crises with creativity, generosity and passion. Today's featured person is Katherine Vockins, Founder and Director of Rehabilitation Through the Arts. RTA is a nonprofit organization that works in five New York state prisons, using the creative arts to positively effect a social and cognitive change within its participants. We caught up with Katherine recently, and she shared with us her passion for reforming our broken prison system and showing those desperate enough to turn to crime that a better, brighter future can be theirs too.

The Huffington Post: Describe the work you did before founding Rehabilitation Through the Arts. Did you have a background in the arts before RTA? In prisoner rehabilitation? I guess what we all want to know is how did a woman like you end up working with inmates in a maximum security prison? How did RTA get started?
Katherine Vockins: I dabbled in community theater, but my background was not in arts or social services -- it was in business. My husband and I ran a successful international consulting firm until he had a full-blown "midlife correction" and got a degree in theology. He began teaching in Sing Sing and I went in with him just to see why he was spending so much time there. I was sitting around a table with a group of prisoners and I still don't know why, but the question "Do you have any theater here?" popped into my head.

This was just after the Pell and Tap grants were cut for colleges teaching in prisons and those college programs stopped; prisoners were eager to get involved in something new. Some of the men at Sing Sing had written a play and wanted help in producing it. A few months later, we had finalized that first play -- and six months after that -- it became a production.

We started by calling ourselves the Theatre Workshop, but as the men saw how transformative the process of drama can be, they suggested changing our name to Rehabilitation Through The Arts.

HP: What are your programs? Give specific examples.
KV: Our programs cover drama, theater, dance, creative writing, visual art and music. We've had workshops in everything from clowning to Dante's Inferno, a capella singing, devised theater, great speeches, Shakespeare's sonnets and the only modern dance program in a men's prison in the United States! Volunteers bring their amazing creative energy to a curriculum that is always changing and different in each facility.

In Bedford Hills, the maximum security women's prison we've been working in for two years, the group has studied Shakespearean female archetypes; performed original pieces based on Shakespeare's The Tempest and presented monologues based on characters in great paintings. Now they are working on mythology, creating their own myths. These were women completely intimidated by Shakespeare when we started, who could barely speak in front of a group, let alone get on a stage.

We do one big production in Sing Sing every year -- classics, original plays, even a musical -- West Side Story, and we have started doing full-scale productions in the other facilities as well. In Sing Sing, we have two performances for the prison population and one for 250+ carefully-vetted community guests. These are always wonderful events -- it's the first time in prison for many of the guests and that in itself is a profound experience, and it's a moment of tremendous pride in accomplishment for RTA participants.

HP: How many prisons are you working in today?
KV: We work in five prisons: three maximum security and two mediums, in three counties in New York state.

HP: Describe for us the philosophy behind RTA and why you think it's so important in fixing a broken prison system.
KV: The most important point to start with is that prisoners are part of humanity. They should not be forgotten in moral terms, but even if you look at it practically, over 95 percent of prisoners are released at some point. Even if you don't think prisoners are deserving of respect, dignity and compassion, as people capable of change, it's in our own self-interest to release people from prison better than when they went in. Releasing prisoners who are not educated, not employable and vengeful is just asking for trouble. The one good thing I can say about our current economic crisis is that it's forced us to think about why the recidivism rate is so high, despite the billions of dollars spent in the "correctional" system.

RTA works on transforming poor communication skills, a rigid belief system and a lack of self-control and discipline, using creative arts as an inclusive tool to engage prisoners across cultural, age and language barriers. Social and communication skills build through group work. Cognitive skills develop through reading, analyzing and problem-solving. Tolerance, empathy and trust grow through self-expression, character development and mutual support. Performance emphasizes group interdependence, community building, personal responsibility and a sense of achievement. RTA's prisoner steering committees build goal-setting, leadership and conflict-resolution skills.

HP: Working in prisons is tough work. What has motivated you and kept you going for the past 14 years? What do you get out of it?
KV: Working in prison is tough for so many reasons. Everything takes tremendous planning and patience -- every book, play, paint brush -- must be cleared in advance. Every prison has its own culture, which doesn't always coincide with the level of security. I could go on... But I go on because it is incredibly satisfying to see one's efforts truly make a difference -- and I have seen RTA's work make a difference in so many peoples' lives.

We had a "homecoming" celebration a few months ago, a gathering of former prisoners, volunteers and families. So many of the prisoners credited our work with helping them be in touch with their own humanity, reconnect with their families and become better human beings inside and outside prison. Volunteers talked about how this was the most meaningful work they've ever done. This is how I feel almost every day.

HP: Trace RTA's growth over time. Where are you now and where do you hope to be in the next few years, in terms of prisoners served?
KV: We started in Sing Sing Correctional Facility in 1996, when Sing Sing housed both maximum and medium security inmates. When the medium security section was closed and our guys got transferred to other facilities, many of them lobbied to set up an RTA program in their new prison, so it expanded organically.

We have been invited to set up programs in other prisons and would love to grow. We just don't have the capacity now, but eventually, we hope to be the model for a national arts-based prison program.

We have the evidence to prove that it works. In 2003, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York (CUNY) and the New York State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) found that rates and severity of infractions within prison were significantly improved in RTA participants, compared to a control group, and RTA participants had better social and coping skills, which improved with increased time in the program. A groundbreaking study conducted by Purchase College and NYS DOCS was just completed, showing that RTA sets the stage for learning, with significantly more RTA participants pursuing post-GED programs than a carefully matched control sample.

Our biggest push is a certificate program we've been developing for over a year with the City University of New York. Prisoners will earn 18 college credits and a certificate in Community Outreach Facilitation, so that when they get out, they can work in social service agencies, which is an area many released prisoners are naturally drawn to. The curriculum is fully developed and the proposal is going through formal review by various CUNY committees. We hope to start classes next September.

Another initiative is creating a series of peer training videos for use within prison. We did our first video "Lasting Impressions," about the role prison tattoos play in hepatitis C. We hope to start filming an adaptation of a prisoner written play about the difficulty of dealing with family from the inside. These videos are very effective because the message comes from peers, and ultimately, we would like to develop a series on relevant prison issues and form a different source of revenue.

HP: Compare working in a men's maximum security prison with a women's.
KV: Maybe the biggest difference is how emotionally insecure many incarcerated women are. So many of the women have been abused -- physically and emotionally -- so they are "conditioned to fail", and are often unwilling to take the risk that even an art program will ask (memorizing lines, writing creatively, standing in front of people, etc.). The men may also have been abused, but because of machismo will often work through the fear of failure quicker -- rather than be seen as weak. Women's emotions are on the surface and it requires more "emotional handholding" during classes, while men are more like artichokes; you have to peel off the layers to find the emotions.

HP: Who funds RTA's activities? What would you tell someone who says people in prison don't deserve a luxury like creative arts?
KV: RTA is a very lean operation, all of our facilitators are volunteers and we know how to stretch a dollar, but we need support for our basic operations.

RTA gets some of its funding through the New York State Department of Correctional Services, but mostly from foundations and individuals. The EILEEN FISHER company funds the women's program, but we are in a kind of "Bermuda Triangle" of funding. Money is more available for people "at-risk" or those reentering society, but during prison you're behind closed doors and no one can see you. Add art to the equation, already seen as a luxury, and people think we are coddling the prisoner, preparing them for a profession in the theater, or at worst, making them better con men. None of this is true -- we focus on the process -- the socialization, teamwork, confidence building that gets them to take college or pre-college classes (where available). RTA is not about making artists or even making great art -- it's about learning to work together, listen to each other, settle arguments without violence, build community and learn that each person shares responsibility for the success of the group. Many of our participants did not do well in school and arts are a way of learning that's engaging -- that crosses all kinds of barriers -- language, age, culture. Art allows you to look at situations from an emotional distance and explore new ways of looking at things. It makes us honest with ourselves, and forces us to risk vulnerability -- not easy in prison.

HP: How can somebody get involved?
KV: We want everyone to come to our benefit in New York City on November 15 at the Five Angels Theater. The theme is "The Inside Story," with published and original readings by Broadway actors and RTA alumni -- men and women released from prison, some of whom have been out for years, others just a few months. There will be an exhibit and silent auction of prisoner art, and Brian Fischer, Commissioner of the New York State Department of Correctional Services, will be honored for his enlightened support of the arts in prison. This will be a great event -- a reception before and after the performance will give the audience an opportunity to interact with former prisoners and their families. To learn more about volunteering, please visit our website.

HP: How has RTA affected recidivism rates in the prisons you work in?
KV: The national recidivism rate is 67 percent in the first three years. Of the approximately 25 RTA participants released from various prisons over the last decade, only two went back. While we don't know the recidivism rate of each prison, we can tell you that our people make role models that lift the morale of the entire facility.

HP: Do you have any specific success stories you can share with us?
KV: How much time do you have? The best stories are the ones where someone has come the furthest, from "thugs in the yard" to mature, sensitive men.

There's the prisoner who was part of the writing group for "Starting Over," a play about dealing with family from the inside, who, through the process of writing about his estranged relationship with his son, finally reconnected with him. There are tough macho guys who were surprisingly shy, who now make a living back in the community doing presentations to young people, and there are stable relationships -- five alumni marriages in the past six months!

HP: Who inspires you? Who are your heroes?
KV: I am inspired by anyone willing to live the peace message -- meaning to "walk the walk", not just "talk the talk." My heroes are those who work to change our systemic problems, e.g. Al Gore and the environment movement he catalyzed and the clear message that we are ruining our environment through greed and apathy. Barack Obama gave me my first hero in a very long time; someone who could lead this country; a man of color whose message galvanized Americans of all ages, genders and colors that we could make a difference if we all pulled together.


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