Incarceration And The Liberating Effects Of The Arts

07/20/2017 10:59 am ET Updated Jul 20, 2017
Courtesy of Strindberg Laboratory

I’m learning more about the work people are doing to mitigate some of the negative effects of our criminal justice and social systems. Meet Sabra Williams of The Actors’ Gang and Michael Bierman, the Co-Founder of The Strindberg Laboratory.

Robert: First, will you each tell me what your organization does?

Sabra: The Actors' Gang is a Los Angeles-based theatre company founded in 1981 by Oscar-winning Actor/Director, Tim Robbins. It is one of the most respected and revered theatre companies in the country with one of the foremost Arts in Corrections programs. I created the Actors’ Gang Prison Project in 2006 as a response to the high recidivism rates in California. We work in Men's and Women's prisons, with at-greater-risk kids, in Juvenile Facilities and with Parolees and we are also creating a program for Correctional Officers and we have a reentry program in which our ex-students mentor others. The results of an Impact Justice study on our work show an 89% drop in in-prison infractions for people who do the class. Since 2014, we have been working with former Attorney General Eric Holder, former Attorney General Lynch, the Department of Justice and The Obama White House to try to have an impact on our Criminal Justice system and to ensure people are reentering society prepared and transformed. Former Attorney General Holder visited our program and together with Governor Brown and Former Secretary Beard of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) encouraged us to create a template of our work that could be used across California and the country. We are currently in the process of this work.

We have programs running at eleven State prisons as well as a Juvenile Program and two reentry programs in LA County. We have also had an on/off program at Homeboy Industries and had programs for at-greater-risk kids at Inner City Arts and Los Angeles Unified School District schools. As Director of Engagement and The Prison Project, I was made a 'Champion of Change' by President Obama in recognition of my work.

Courtesy of Sabra Williams

Michael: The Strindberg Laboratory is focused on bringing hope to segments of society affected by the increasing gap between rich and poor. We are a theater company that creates original productions in California State Prisons and with community partners in Los Angeles and also provide theater workshops in Los Angeles County Jails.

The Strindberg Laboratory helped to create the “Break it to Make it” reentry program which provides job training and rehabilitation services including housing through Los Angeles Mission and higher educational opportunities through Los Angeles City College allowing our members to succeed upon release from a correctional institution. The workshops that we provide for local community organizations and original theater productions allows us to build a creative dialogue and relationship with diverse communities and bring communities together.

Robert: Who are some of your partners?

Michael: Fact Family, Five Keys Charter School, The Los Angeles Mission, Los Angeles City College, CDCR, Los Angeles jails, California foundations and government entities, Assemblyman Mike Gipson and other legislators and the Vortex.

Sabra: Our partners are many but at the center are our students both inside and returned. We also work closely with The Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Homeboy Industries, Revolve Impact, Sankofa, The LA Mayor’s Office, California Correctional Peace Officers Association, The California Arts Council, LACO Probation Department, Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network, CDCR, many Foundations and Legislators across the country.

Robert: Tell me something about the people who are engaged in your programs.

Sabra: Our programs in prison are usually for people serving long periods of time, often Life, sometimes Life Without Parole. We work in Medium and Maximum facilities, usually where they are having violence and behavioral issues and with little access to programming. In Youth prisons (also known as Juvenile Camp), we have committed to working exclusively with girls 14-18 who are often overlooked even when they are incarcerated. In our reentry programs we work with men and women in the last year of their sentence who are in “half-way houses”. This program was developed as a direct request from our inside students who stated that they needed an off-ramp to help them manage their emotions as they reentered our communities. Soon we will start a pilot for Correctional Officers (COs) - they have been asking us for many years for the work. COs have one of the highest suicide rates of any job. They are “doing time” too.

Michael: We work with autistic young adults, people that are incarcerated and people returning back home from correctional facilities. We did a show called “Daroca’s Curious Journey” through our Jails to Jobs Program which was a rare example, due to hiring laws, of people with criminal records actually being allowed to work with people who have autism. The show wasn’t about overcoming disabilities or returning back from society and making themselves better, it was about comic books, superheroes and Billy the Kid. The simple reason ... those subjects are what the cast really liked and could identify with. This show was an example of what we believe: that labels about who people are—because of their background or because of so-called disabilities—are simply false. “Daroca’s Curious Journey” showed that people who are generally stigmatized because of their backgrounds—like with the returning citizen population or people with so-called disabilities such as autism spectrum—when given an opportunity to be heard, their message resonates with each other and with the audience that watched the show. One of this country’s founding documents states that all men (and women) are created equal. The people that we work with are not seen as equal in the eyes of society, but this show, and pretty much all of the work we do, demonstrates that they actually are.

Courtesy of Michael Bierman

Robert: How do your programs affect recidivism?

Michael: It doesn’t. No one program reduces recidivism. You can’t eat an education and we are a college accredited class in the prison program we do. A job isn’t going to cut it if you have an addiction, etc. We started our jails to jobs program a couple years ago simply because we liked doing these cool shows and the people in the program said, “Hey we want to continue, but we need money!” So we hired them. But the people that continued with us, and didn’t go back to prison, had jobs, were enrolled in college, housing and rehabilitation programming. We looked around and said, “Where is there a program that has all this in one?” We couldn’t find one, so, we helped to create, Break it to Make it. Break It to Make It has all of these things in one program so the person leaving corrections doesn’t have to go anywhere else and can entirely focus on reaching their higher education goals. Where does Strindberg Laboratory fit into that partnership? People who go through our theater program have to be willing to make a change or at least be open to saying yes and taking action. Acting is taking action so it fits in quite well with the first step for them taking advantage of the opportunities through this program or any other opportunity upon release.

Sabra: Our work is not a conventional theatre program; we don’t put on plays. The work is process-oriented and workshop based. At our theatre in LA, all the actors gather each Sunday to play for four hours in the characters of the Commedia Dell’Arte, improvising and creating ensemble. We took this template into prison and added some theatre games, writing and exercises to foster emotional honesty in a safe space. This work puts people of all backgrounds, race and gang-affiliations in the room together. It helps them to become vulnerable and to master their emotions leading to a drop in violence and a growth in empathy. Students view this program in a similar way to Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous; as an ongoing class they can do for many years. It also reaches a new level when they take on the leadership role and run their own classes weekly with our Teaching Artists visiting every 6-8 weeks as support. Although we are not trying to make actors, they take the tools theatre has given them and continue to use them in their daily lives both inside and outside prison walls resulting in a huge drop in reoffending. CDCR has given a preliminary figure of 10.6%.

Robert: Why should the community care about the work you’re both doing?

Sabra: The community should care because we are wasting HUGE amounts of money and human capital when we incarcerate people for crimes we could deal with in the community or over-incarcerate people of color and people who are poor. Tax-payers are now paying $75,000 a year per person - MORE THAN IT COSTS TO SEND SOMEONE TO HARVARD! And it doesn’t work. People go back to prison about 60% of the time in California. When we incarcerate children it costs about $233,000 a year!!! Most of the girls we work with are traumatized, raped, trafficked or their parents are in prison. They are often mothers which means the next generation are already in the system.

Really, to change this, we need the Arts back in the core of the school day because kids who are traumatized “act up” and get excluded because our education system is not set up to help them. The Arts reach a part of the human condition that nothing else can and can reach these kids and help heal them. We want quick answers but they don’t exist. We have to look at the roots; poverty, racism and inadequate education. Our work can’t solve all that alone, but it does help to transform people’s emotional lives and help them make different, less violent choices. The question for the community is who do you want living next door: Someone who has developed a terrible addiction to deal with their trauma? Someone who has learned how to refine manipulation and has a warped idea of masculinity? Someone that has closed themselves off and hardened their view of society? Or, do we want neighbors who have faced themselves and had a chance to learn new tools to be empathetic and a decent father/mother for the first time? This work can do that. I’ve seen it for eleven years. It cost a fraction of the price we pay in money and broken lives and it works.

Michael: To my understanding, a healthy ecosystem is one that has diversity of life working together to create an equilibrium so that all the species can thrive and be healthy and live in harmony. I can’t think of anything more important for our society to function. Our work focuses on trying to show and imagine a world where we don’t look at people as either below us or above us but that we all are in this together which is, in fact, reality.

Robert: How do you define redemption and is that one of the products of your programs?

Michael: Our first play in the prisons was called, “Redemption in Our State of Blues.” It was in the General population yard in California State prison in Los Angeles County which is a level 4. Most of the guys we worked with hadn’t had any or very little programming in a very long time. Redemption was about being allowed to change; being given the opportunity for that second chance. People Magazine did an article about the show titled, “They’re teaching us how to be human again.” That’s what one of our actors said he was getting out of our program. The chance to express yourself fully and be heard is always an act of redemption, so I guess that is our entire product.

Sabra: We talk about transformation. I think redemption is something that has historically been linked to religion – we call our space, “sacred, but not precious.” It’s a place where people say they become human again, where they are free and not bound by gang, race, segregation, a warped idea of masculinity, inside vs. outside, staff vs. “inmate.” The work takes courage and a willingness to face yourself and take responsibility for your actions. We come in as partners not experts and we have extremely high expectations of our students (often for the first time in their lives). These things all lead to an opportunity to transform previously held beliefs and prejudices and a chance to heal and make a new start for our students and for us.

Robert: Sabra and Michael, thank you for the work you’re doing. For more detailed information on both organizations, just click the links to their websites above.

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