The Prison Project celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, and will expand to 10 California prisons in February 2017, just as some hard data has finally come in to prove the program’s merits. The recidivism rate in the state is more than 50 percent. But a recent preliminary study by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation showed that, for inmates who completed the Prison Project, that number dropped to 10.6 percent. Critics will point to a sample size that’s too small to draw broad conclusions, and it’s a valid concern. But the provisional findings are encouraging, to say the least.
There is now immense support from inside the prison system, and public opinion is shifting, thanks in part to Robbins and Williams’s up-from-the-bootstraps lobbying efforts. Governor Jerry Brown approved a $6 million line item in California’s 2016–2017 budget earmarked specifically for Arts in Correction, a partnership between the CDRC and the California Arts Council, up from $2 million the previous year. And in 2017, all 35 prisons in California will have at least some kind of publicly funded arts program — up from exactly zero a decade ago.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder is a vocal supporter of the Prison Project; after meeting with Williams and Robbins in Washington in 2014 to discuss criminal justice reform, he traveled to the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, CA to observe their work firsthand. “This is the kind of innovative initiative that legislatures on all levels should support,” Holder told me. “The effort led by Sabra and Tim points the way to a more successful rehabilitation and re-entry process.”
In an interesting twist, Ronald L. Davis — whom President Obama appointed as the executive director of his Task Force on 21st Century Policing — recently expressed interest in having the Actors Gang create similar classes to train police officers in emotional intelligence and de-escalation techniques. In the spring, Williams says she’ll apply for a grant with the hopes of doing just that.
Teaching inmates to diffuse their emotions through 16-century commedia dell’arte improv exercises may seem like an unlikely cost-cutting measure, but that’s exactly what it could turn out to be.
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.)
Christopher Bisbano, who spent 18 years in prison on attempted murder charges, participated in one of those early classes. “It was three women and one guy and they all had on, like, jogging suits and running shoes. I thought we were going to do cartwheels or something,” Bisbano recalls. “We discussed what the work was about, then what was expected of us. Sabra talked about this early-16th-century form of theater. How this type of style works is you work from a state, one of the four core emotions: happy, sad, frightened, or angry.”
The work was challenging for many reasons, but also maybe one: because it requires inmates to look directly into each other’s eyes, which is rare in prison. “You’re not supposed to show happy or sad or being frightened,” says Bisbano. “It’s a sign of weakness.”
Beyond recidivism, the Actors Gang Prison Project work has 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.” “To be able to share personal stories in character, without judgment,” he adds, “basically it’s providing a safe place, a sacred place, where we could go and get into these characters and see what relationships developed.”
“The arts are really embraced in the space now,” continues Robbins. “We’re part of creating legislation. We’re part of changing the system here in California. It’s no longer this crazy idea that it seemed like it was ten years ago.”