With an acclaimed starring role in “The Shawshank Redemption” and an Oscar nomination for directing “Dead Man Walking,” Tim Robbins owes many of his career highlights to the prison system.
But the 59-year-old Hollywood star’s interest in criminal justice and the incarcerated extends far beyond his efforts to win critical approval or awards.
Over a decade, Robbins has made a dramatic dent in reoffending rates among Californian prisoners taking part in a drama program that encourages hardened criminals to put on make-up and get in touch with their emotions.
“We’re not in there to make theater with them, we’re not there to do plays with them, and we’re certainly not there to turn them into actors,” he says at a presentation on The Prison Project in downtown Los Angeles.
“We don’t want them coming out and competing with us — particularly if they are good,” he jokes. “But it does provide them with a path, a path that leads toward transformation.”
Crime rates in the US are at historic lows, yet incarcerations have soared since the 1970s, with 2.3 million American prisoners making up almost a quarter of the world’s prison population.
California has among the highest recidivism rates nationwide, yet in 2008 all public funding to prison arts programs was cut, despite evidence of their positive impact.
The Prison Project brings together rival gang members, convicted murderers and white supremacists in workshops where it is not taboo to express emotions, as it is elsewhere in prison.
Groups of inmates sit in white make-up and masks, improvising scenes as stock characters from the 16th Century Italian Commedia dell’Arte movement that represent happiness, sadness, fear or anger.
– ‘Rough crowd’ –
“In prison, there’s one appropriate emotion: anger. To survive you have your angry face on, you have to project an aura of invincibility and toughness,” says Robbins.
“You do not express fear or sadness, and the only happiness you express usually has to do with mocking someone, not true joy.”
Robbins says the workshops have a transformative effect on inmates, allowing them “a safe zone” to express feelings that had been buried, in some cases for decades.
Before long, participants begin to realize that they can be the master of their emotions in real life as well as in drama workshops.
Born near Los Angeles to a devoutly Roman Catholic folk singer father, Robbins moved with his family to New York’s Greenwich Village, where he began performing at the age of 12.
The actor, who won an Oscar for 2003’s “Mystic River,” often muses that he might have ended up behind bars like several of his friends, but for the good fortune of having discovered theater.
“The kids I ran with were a rough crowd. In order to prove yourself on the streets of New York you had to be tough, or fast,” Robbins says. “I learned how to be both.”
He moved to Los Angeles in his 20s and founded experimental collective The Actors’ Gang in 1981 along with young artists from his college, including John Cusack.
British actress Sabra Williams joined up and, in 2006, came up with the idea for The Prison Project, having been inspired by the benefits of work she had done in jails back home as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
– ‘Hug a thug’ liberals –
Dismissed initially as another band of well-meaning but essentially useless “hug a thug” liberals, Robbins and Williams have proved that their approach works.
The return-to-prison rate in California has been as high as 67.5 percent in recent years, according to a recent study by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Encouraging preliminary data for inmates who completed The Prison Project, according to the department, showed that number dropped to 10.6 percent.
And a 2015 study by Impact Justice showed an 89 percent drop in in-custody offenses for inmates participating in the Prison Project.
The program has expanded into 12 California prisons, two community re-entry programs and two juvenile detention centers and, thanks to relentless lobbying by Williams, funding for arts in prison has been reinstated.
Last year, Governor Jerry Brown made $6 million available for California’s Arts in Corrections program and all 35 of the state’s prisons now have some kind of publicly funded arts — up from exactly zero a decade ago.
“If I were to tell you I had developed a pharmaceutical that could reduce recidivism to 10 percent and reduce in-prison infractions by 89 percent, you’d fast-track that drug and have it in every inmates’ mouth,” Robbins said.
“This is a public safety issue. You can’t keep people in prison forever, they’re going to get out at some point. Wouldn’t you want them coming out with better skills to deal with their emotions?”