Bringing the Arts Home: Laurie Brooks of the William James Association fights to reinstate the arts into California corrections.
Breaking Down Walls
Arts programs in prisons give inmates access to the outside world--and give the outside a look in
By Laura Mattingly
Last month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared the California prison system to be in a state of "crisis" that calls for "swift and dramatic action." His election-year proclamation came just one week after a federal investigator's report bashed the Schwarzenegger administration for ignoring prison reform in the face of extreme overcrowding and rising recidivism rates. The governor's solution?
Belated declarations and, possibly, more prisons.
Any other ideas out there?
Curt Tofteland recommends Shakespeare.
California's corrections system could learn some lessons from the Kentucky dramatist, who's working on his 11th year bringing Shakespeare to the inmates, excuse me, actors of Luther Luckett Correctional Complex. Tofteland's "tiny little program," Shakespeare Behind Bars, receives no funding from the state and has only hosted 150 inmates in over a decade; only 75 inmates have completed the program, and only 30 inmates of those have been released from prison.
But of those 30, the recidivism rate is zero.
Contrast that with the 50 percent overall recidivism rate in California, and that tiny little program in Kentucky begins to look like a tiny little miracle. The experience of Tofteland and his mod-squad of actors rehearsing and performing Shakespeare's The Tempest, was captured in the documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars by Philomath Films.
Since then, Tofteland, and some of the actors who have since been released, tour the country, bringing their film to the public through university showings and other venues.
On July 13 the documentary arrives in Santa Cruz, sponsored by Shakespeare Santa Cruz and the Santa Cruz Film Festival, and featured as a benefit showing for Santa Cruz's own warriors-for-social-justice, the William James Association (WJA).
The WJA has similarly been slipping the arts, like glimpses of sunshine, through the bars since 1977, with a program within the organization called Prison Arts.
Unmasking the Man: Inmate actor Boris suits up to tell the truth onstage.
Laurie Brooks, executive director of the William James Association, believes the importance of bringing arts into the institutional setting is not so much to make artists out of inmates, but to instill a sense of empowerment through developed creativity.
"Generally, the men and especially women who are incarcerated have pretty low self-images, and somehow engaging in art--be it writing poetry, drawing, painting, playing music or acting--they start to see themselves in a different light, they start to see that they have different choices for creating their lives, even while incarcerated," says Brooks. "They start to see the world around them with greater potential and wider possibilities."
In 1980, California adopted the Prison Arts program on a statewide scale (referred to as Arts in Corrections), worked the program into the state budget and created a position called the "Institutional Artist Facilitator" to man each California prison. The facilitators were in charge of managing contracted professional artists to visit their locations.
Through Arts in Corrections inmates were exposed to visual art, painting and drawing, pottery, book art and guitar making, taught by visiting professionals such as writers Derrick Jensen and Lucille Clifton, musicians John Lee Hooker, Norton Buffalo and John Handy, and local sculptor Barrington McLean.
"Inmates are thirsty in an environment void of creation, where everyone is wearing the same clothes and eating the same food," says Brooks. "The Arts in Corrections studio at each prison is like a beating heart of humanity in a monochromatic and dehumanizing environment."
And inmates participating in the program had a significantly lower recidivism rate.
But a budget cut in 2003 withdrew all state funding and collapsed the program entirely, leaving only two institutions in California--San Quentin, and the women's unit of California Rehabilitation Center in Norco--with any Prison Arts programming. The WJA now hires the artists working at these two institutions using private funds.
Brooks hopes that showing the Shakespeare Behind Bars documentary will help give the outside world an informative glance inside, raising awareness as well as some money. Funds would be used not only for programming, but also to support efforts to get the Arts in Corrections program reinstated.
Last month the WJA met with California Assemblyman John Laird to discuss the possibility of reviving the program through state funding, and received a very positive response.
"In a way, we're at a point where we have this year's budget completely to bed," says Laird. "So we were already talking about the strategy for next year."
Getting Pretty: Red tries on a grassy number to play the female role of Miranda.
According to Laird, to reinstate the program, "we'd have to attempt to put a line item into the prison budget that we either negotiated or felt wouldn't be vetoed. And they're not asking for a lot of money. They're asking for $15,000 per prison for art supplies."
Laird believes the governor's recent commitment to building two new prisons is not enough to solve the problem, and has expressed disappointment with Schwarzenegger's lack of focus on the matter.
"I've always thought it was a complex issue that requires many different approaches, and California has one of the highest recidivism rates in the country," says Laird. "The governor, when he first took office, was in the right direction when he talked about rehabilitation and a mix of solutions. But he seems to have gotten off-track since then."
As for Schwarzenegger's recently renewed attention to California corrections, Laird chalks it up to an effort to clean up his image before the election.
"The governor appears to have started to change some of his positions on prisons to engender support for his election," says Laird. "And his declaration of a state of emergency was something that I believe was designed to change the subject from the recent criticism of his performance by the federal court."
UCSC professor Craig Haney, who specializes in the study of prisons, also believes the governor has given little more than lip service to improving California corrections.
"There's been a lot of talk and very little action," says Haney, who was especially disappointed to see the Arts in Corrections program go. "The Arts in Corrections program was one of the bright spots in an otherwise bleak California corrections system. What with poor conditions caused by overcrowding, programs like that give inmates something meaningful to do while incarcerated."
According to Haney, it's been more than 20 years since the California prison system really emphasized rehabilitation, but the value of the small differences made by the Arts in Corrections program, he feels, should not be dismissed.
"The more positive experiences you give someone when they're in prison, the better their chances are of making it once they're released. It's a basic proposition, but it's an accurate one," says Haney.
"There's a terrible recidivism rate in California and across the country and an enormous number of incarcerated people, so it really matters in this state how many people come out better than they go in." says Haney. "Doing away with the Arts in Corrections was a real blow."
There are over 170,000 incarcerated people in California alone, and according to Haney, "That's a number on the rise."
As a long-term national trend, incarceration rates have been growing exponentially. According to Haney, before the 1970s the number of people incarcerated was a steady 100 per 100,000. In the mid-'70s, the rate began to rise dramatically. Now over 700 people per 100,000 are incarcerated.
"The U.S. increased its rate of incarceration six or sevenfold in the last 50 years," says Haney. "And California keeps up with the rest of the country."
Contrary to common belief, Haney says California's rate of incarceration is not significantly higher than other states. "The one area where we are different from the rest of the country is the rate of recidivism for parole violations. In that sense we are very out of wack with the rest of the country."
Piecing It Together: Twenty inmates formed an actors' community to bring 'The Tempest' to life.
For many Californians, and people across the nation, the first entry into prison becomes the beginning of a Sisyphean struggle leading to more and more time locked up.
But for Ryan Graham, following his participation in Shakespeare Behind Bars and his release from LLCC in October of 2004, things are definitely looking up.
Graham now has a new wife, a new house, a baby on the way and co-owner-ship of a business.
For Graham, participating in SBB helped him learn to communicate, and, as WJA director Brooks emphasizes, access to the arts gave him confidence.
"Acting was something I didn't think I could ever do, you know?" says Graham. "It gave me the ability to open up and speak in front of people and come out of a solitary state of mind like I was in before I was incarcerated. It was a life-changing experience for me."
Graham says the ability to communicate has been important to his new relation-ship, and will continue to be as he starts his new family.
He now co-owns a construction company, specializing in interior finishing and trim, with a fellow Shakespeare appreciator. Though he knew nothing about construction, he developed the skills he needed within a year and a half of his release from prison.
Graham says he left Luther Lucket Correctional Complex behind but took his confidence with him, "letting myself not be so timid and afraid of approaching things and taking on things I didn't think I could ever do. Like when I started this construction, this trim, I had no idea what I was doing. Brand new. So, I said, 'Well, I could give it a shot.' Before I would've said, 'Naw, I'm not going to do something I've never tried.'"
A year after his release, Graham applied to the warden of LLCC to be able to visit the institution. He now returns there every Tuesday with the Prison Ministry program.
For Greg Rayborn--released from LLCC on New Year's Eve of 2004 but still struggling to convince prospective employers that he will not repeat his crimes--his criminal past is no distant memory. But fortunately for Rayborn, neither is the community he developed with Shakespeare Behind Bars.
"Once you're a member of SBB you're a member for life. You can't quit," says Rayborn.
He continues to correspond with his old instructor Tofteland by email weekly, and with other program members, including Ryan Graham.
During his five years at LLCC, Rayborn was loosely involved with the program for four years, and participated in two productions.
"The SBB program was a chance to almost own something that was separate from the prison itself. We could take this and we could do with it as we pleased."
He attests to the importance of Tofteland providing the actors of LLCC with a creative outlet, encouraging them to adopt their new Shakespearean roles in unique ways.
Each production also adapts in an organic way, as some inmates are forced to leave a production early.
"What happens in these things is guys drop out for one reason or another, they go to the hole [solitary confinement], they get shipped [transferred] ... ," says Rayborn. "I don't know if anyone just quits."
Rayborn recalls how he fell into the part of Ceres in The Tempest.
"Originally there were three fairly young, African American black men that were doing those roles [of the three fairies]. You don't get to see it in the film but they were supposed to sing. Actually, there's a part where they're singing to Miranda, everybody was under a spell, it's leading up to the big dance scene.
"So these three black guys decided they couldn't sing, and they talked Curt into allowing them to rap ... which fortunately, this is a part of the play where Shakespeare, well, it's always in meter, but he gets very poetic with this part and it was done in some rhyming form."
"So they had worked this up as a rap. And then one of 'em gets in trouble. I can't remember why, I think it was drugs or something like that. So he goes in the hole and he gets shipped. And all these guys were my best friends, so they came to me and asked if I would take on the role he was leaving, which was Ceres, and I said yes. It wasn't a big role, fortunately, but I had to learn to rap! And I'm a 47-year-old white guy with gray hair!"
In his life before serving his sentence Rayborn worked in the field of engineering. "I'm a civil designer. But it's been very difficult to get back into that, mainly because, I'm a convicted sex-offender, so that has a stigma that's hard to get by."
After his release from the institution, Rayborn used the carpentry skills he developed in one of LLCC's vocational programs to find employment fixing roofs, and building sheds and decks.
"Actually it took me two years to get back into an engineering company and I worked there for six months and I was actually fired two weeks ago. They found out that I was in prison and that I was an S.O."
According to Raymond he'd been up-front about his past in other interviews and had been rejected, but in the interview for that particular job, "no questions came up at all that would have led me to disclose, so I just went with it," says Raymond.
After being let go from the first engineering job he'd held since his release from prison, Rayborn has leaned on his SBB connections for support.
He's also been touring the country with the SBB documentary, along with Tofteland, Graham and some of the other participants who've since been released. Following the showing of the documentary, Rayborn assists in a Q and A with the audience.
"I take it very seriously that I represent the guys that are still locked up, that are still there," says Rayborn.
Rayborn's motivation stems from "a deep conviction to put a different face on convicted felons than what the public would generally ... 'cause there's a lot of guys locked up that are seeing parole boards and being retried every few years, and receive deferment again and again, and I know these men, and they'd be productive, fine members of society if they could just get out."
Before joining SBB, Rayborn characterizes his life as one of hiding.
"I felt like I'd been a performance-based person my entire life. I portrayed the perfect son to my parents, and the perfect gentleman to associates, and all the time I had a lot of turmoil going on in my life, mentally, but when you're 'perfect' you can't ask for help. You can't allow anyone to know that you're not perfect."
Ironically, for Rayborn, performing Shakespeare became a way for him to finally stop acting.
"I felt very self-conscious about the way people saw me. [But] when you're portraying a character, you can't hide everything like you normally would. It's helped me tremendously, because I was able to go up there and give my first soliloquy to the group, knowing how bad I was and how much I'd screw up, and finding their love and their acceptance at the end of it."
"It taught me to be more real, and more open and honest, and it taught me to have some expectations of others to accept me for who I am."
Puttin' on a Show: The actors serve as inspirtion, entertainment and role models to inmates of the audience.
Hank Rogerson of Philomath Films, the makers of the Shakespeare Behind Bars documentary, took advantage of Shakespeare's method of soliloquy in his own production, conducting personal interviews with the inmates to explore their thoughts and their pasts, bridging the gap between outsiders and inmates, the viewers and the actors, with the common thread of emotion.
"We used an observational approach, if you will," says Rogerson. "I never use a narrator in my films. I try to tell the story as naturally as possible."
In the documentary, Rogerson purposefully and effectively foregrounds the inmate actors.
"I make character-driven docs," says Rogerson. "I think what captivates an audience is personal stories. That's part of the magic of books or movies. It's the individual connections we make with the people."
The inmates divulge themselves completely and honestly for the camera concerning their experiences while incarcerated, but also concerning their childhoods and their crimes.
Rogerson himself learned a few things about interviewing during the project.
According to Rogerson, "There are different approaches to interviewing, but ultimately, a person is going to tell you what they want when they want."
He admits he definitely went into LLCC with an agenda, feeling that the inmates' specific crimes needed to hold a place within the documentary.
"When Leonard [Ford, who plays Antonio in the film's Tempest production] was in the hole, I could tell he was worn down, and ready to tell his crime. And it's not something he ever admitted before. He hadn't talked about it in rehearsal or with other reporters."
After being in the hole for 30 days Leonard told Rogerson he had molested seven girls.
Rogerson's goal was to bridge the distance between prisoners and nonprisoners.
"I tried to break from the stereotype of a prisoner as someone we dismiss, a nonperson, a number or a statistic. With the film we tried to communicate that there is humanity in all people," says Rogerson.
"We all make mistakes in our lives, bad choices and good choices. And some of us make really big mistakes, like murder or molestation, but that doesn't take away from our humanity, our emotion."
Shakespeare Behind Bars screens Thursday, July 13, at 7pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz, to benefit William James Association's Prison Arts Project. Tickets $15/$20, available at Ticketweb, Bookshop Santa Cruz and Rio Theatre; www.sbb-santacruz.org.
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