It is not about being a star or finding fame and fortune. It is not even about job training for when prison is over. So, then, why are these Sing Sing prisoners, some incarcerated for violent crimes, staging productions of On the Waterfront, The Wizard of Oz, and Of Mice and Men?
“We use the arts to teach critical life skills. It is an experiential way to help prisoners to get to know themselves and others,” says Katherine Vockins, executive director and founder of Rehabilitation Through The Arts. RTA works with five New York State prisons, including Sing Sing in Ossining and Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. “By going through the process of what it means to put on a performance, we build self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-knowledge but also problem-solving, decision-making, conflict resolution, community-building, and respect for others.”
The theater group prepares for months before premiering a performance. As you might expect, opening night brings with it an excitement and anticipation that only live theater offers. Even in this unconventional setting, Vockins admits to a palpable exhilaration, though probably not for the reason one might expect.
“One of the most satisfying things you can do is to see the growth and development of an individual you’ve known from inside the walls,” Vockins says.
RTA serves about 200 prisoners at any one time. There are 124 on the waitlist to join the program at Sing Sing alone. Though there are many who bristle at the idea of financial resources being routed to violent felons, there are nonetheless some valid reasons to support prison-arts programs.
“It costs $69,355 to keep each one of the 53,000 people incarcerated in New York,” Vockins says. According to RTA, those who participate in their program have a recidivism rate of fewer than five percent while the national average is more than 60 percent.