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The Prison Project: How Can You Restore Humanity In an Inhumane System?

In the last 35 years, California has built approximately 22 new prisons, and the state has one of the highest recidivism rates in the country. The US’s prison industrial complex has been called America’s human rights crisis. So is it possible for prisoners have hope for their future? How do you retain your humanity in an inhumane system? Ten years ago, actor Sabra Williams had an experimental idea: she wanted to bring The Actor’s Gang Theatre Company into prisons to work with non-actors, and offer them the emotional tools needed to heal from the trauma of being incarcerated, and all the events of their lives before that. That was the start of the Prison Project, and a decade later it is operating in 10 prisons across California. How well has it worked? It has transformed prison yards. It has built bridges between gangs. Participants have just a 10% recidivism rate and in-prison infractions have dropped by 89%. Engaging in the safe and playful space of theatre is a way for incarcerated people to engage with their emotions, often for the very first time. The entire prison community is deeply interwoven and affected by each other, so the Prison Project is developing a program for correctional officers too, who are often highly traumatized by their experiences, and have highest suicide rate of any job. Sabra Williams runs us through the Prison Project, and introduces former-inmate and student Chris Bingley to share his personal story of reconnecting with his humanity while in prison. This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism. The Actors’ Gang conducts weekly and seven-day intensive programs inside the California prison system, a weekly re-entry program in the community, as well as a program in juvenile facilities, and soon to be a program designed for correctional officers. Head here for more information on The Actors’ Gang Prison Project: http://www.theactorsgang.com/prison-project/

Read more at BigThink.com: http://bigthink.com/videos/sabra-williams-prison-dehumanizes-the-incarcerated-the-prison-project-brings-them-back

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So, probably the last place that you think about hope and optimism existing is in prison, but in the last ten years of working there I’ve come to realize that all humans possess these things—they just need a little coaxing sometimes.

In June 2006 The Actors’ Gang Theater Company started an experiment: we decided to take the Sunday night workshop we do with our whole company into prison to work with non-actors, to see what kind of effect our style of theater would have on them.

So the style of theater we work in is a really bastardized version of the Italian tradition of Commedia Dell’Arte. It’s masks, white-face, high emotional, physical work, so we call it the “style.”

We took that workshop program into prison and were absolutely astounded by the effect it had on these non-actors and how it started to help them be able to heal their trauma. We’ve seen this approach transform prison yards, we’ve seen it break down barriers of race and separation, and that has happened through the courage of these people, picking up the tools that we’ve offered them and using those tools to transform their emotional lives, and they found a safe space in our work to be able to do that.

And as a result we have a ten percent recidivism rate and an 89 percent drop in in-prison infractions because these people now know how to deal with their emotions. So amazingly, this little engine that could, after ten years is now in ten prisons across California, and for me the thing that makes me so proud is that any day of the week there will be a student-led program happening in a prison. Like right now, there’s a program happening in the prison that’s led by our students, and we go and check in and support them every six weeks.

Apart from the reentry programs that we have, which is now run by one of our former students—we employed him the day he paroled, to run that reentry program—we are also creating a program for correctional officers, who are often as traumatized as the people that they are overseeing. It’s the highest suicide rate of any job.

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