Grantee Spotlight: Rehabilitation Through The Arts

As Rehabilitation Through The Arts started building its programs focusing on prison populations and using the arts to help prisoners develop social and cognitive skills, it came up with a straightforward tagline: “Reducing Recidivism Creatively.”

The stats back up the sentiment: While the national recidivism rate exceeds 60%, fewer than 5% of RTA members return to prison.

“We know these programs work,” says Katherine Vockins, founder and executive director of RTA. Offerings at five maximum- and medium-security prisons across New York State range from theatre and dance productions to music performances, writing, and visual arts workshops. About 200 inmates are served by the programs at any one time, engaging directly with the very issues that landed them there in the first place—such as conflict resolution and individual power dynamics. The organization’s first musical, West Side Story, pointed the way by enabling performers to reach new levels of understanding of their own experience with gangs and turbulent family and romantic relationships.

RTA was founded in 1996 at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. It first connected with NYSCA in 2015. With grant support from NYSCA’s Special Arts Services Program, RTA has developed The Reentry Project. The initiative addresses the challenges faced by those released from prison, including struggles with housing, work, the parole system and family dynamics that may have shifted during their incarceration.

While performances of Shakespeare and other classical works are staples of RTA, the Reentry Project incubated an original play called Home is a Verb, which was created by program alumni reflecting on the experience of re-entering society after a prison term. Inspired by alumni stories and written by Melissa Cooper, the play was performed at a studio at New York’s Carnegie Hall and RTA plans to expand its performances of it inside prisons as a tool for preparing prisoners about to re-enter society.

A feature-length documentary, Dramatic Escape, follows RTA’s production at Sing Sing of A Few Good Men. It has aired on PBS stations and screened at festivals and in communities across the country.

In 2008, RTA expanded its work to a women’s prison in Bedford Hills, N.Y. Last June, 16 RTA members performed in Bedford Sings Broadway!

Vockins says that’s just one of several new initiatives planned for the months ahead. “In each of our facilities, we must keep workshops fresh and challenging because members stay in the program for years,” she says. Accordingly, RTA plans workshops that expand the scope of cultural diversity, including African and Native American drumming and Mexican mask folk-art.

For prisoners, the impact is multi-dimensional. “Not only do prisoners see the program as an opportunity to increase status in the prison,” wrote Lorraine Moller, a researcher at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in a study of RTA, “they acquire skills that are socially acceptable expressions of individuality, develop artistic talent and present positive messages to fellow prisoners.”

—Dade Hayes

Cover image: RTA Deputy Director Ricki Gold, Playwright Melissa Cooper, and RTA alumni involved with RTA’s reentry play Home is a Verb meet for a workshop. Photo Courtesy of Rehabilitation through the Arts.