For seven years, inmates at a Southern California state prison have learned to express themselves through acting, acquiring skills that actor Tim Robbins says can change their lives.
The program will now expand as the California Arts Council and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced Thursday that the state will spend $2.5 million over the next two years to bring the arts to 14 state prisons.
Robbins has starred in movies including “The Shawshank Redemption,” ''Bull Durham” and “Mystic River.” He is also artistic director of the Actors' Gang Prison Project, which has offered theater arts programs in California prisons since 2006, including the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco for the last seven years.
“We find that it fundamentally changes the inmates that participate. It also helps the prison at large because it can change the culture of the prison,” Robbins said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “They tell us they can talk to their children for the first time when they're visiting and can express emotion to them.”
His group had been providing services without charge but will now be able to expand into other prisons with the grant money. It is one of one of seven groups that will offer Arts-in-Corrections programs. Besides theater, the programs will include music, dance, creative writing, poetry, storytelling, painting, drawing and sculpture.
Though prisons are usually rigorously self-segregated by race and gang affiliation, Robbins said his organization insisted that the acting program include inmates of all stripes.
“We've had sessions where we've had white supremacists and Crips and Asians, and what happens in that room is so profound that the guys tell us, to a man, that the bonds that they made in that room are far more important than they've had previously,” he said.
He related that two inmates were able to attend only three acting sessions before the program moved to another part of the prison. But the inmates started their own theater company last year and trained 40 other inmates using methods they had learned in the acting classes.
“They wrote a play and they figured out how to make costumes out of paper and tied bed sheets for a curtain,” he said.
Unlike those participating in other prison rehabilitation, vocational and education programs, inmates aren't likely to become actors upon their release — in part because pay and job security in the acting field isn't all that great, Robbins joked. But he said the programs pay long-term benefits to society.
“As much as we want to abstract the issue and be tough on crime, most of the guys who are in jail right now are going to get out,” he said, “and they're going to be moving back to neighborhoods near you, near all of us.”