Anniversary celebration marks success of nationally recognized rehabilitation program
By Bridgette M. Redman
Gangs are a way of life in most prisons. There is one gang spreading through 13 different California prisons that was born here in Culver City: The Actors’ Gang.
Founded by actor Tim Robbins, the theater company’s Prison Project recently celebrated its 15th anniversary. This gang does what no others do for the prison population. Statistics tell part of the tale:
• The statewide recidivism rate (the rate at which former inmates offend again and return to prison) is 62%. For Prison Project alumni, the rate is 10%.
• The employment rate for those who complete the Re-entry Project is 77%.
• In-prison infractions drop 87% for inmates participating in the program.
But the numbers aren’t the only story. The program transforms lives, empowering people to rebuild a life outside of prison. Several formerly incarcerated participants go back to prison not as inmates, but as alumni teaching artists whose lived experiences make the project even more authentic and powerful.
On June 7, The Actors’ Gang held an anniversary celebration over Zoom which included commedia del art performances by Prison Project alumni and ended with a virtual dance party. Scattered into the celebration were interviews with program artists and participants, and a panel discussion with criminal justice advocates and Robbins himself.
Included in the panel was anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, the woman whose book and story became the basis for the award-winning movie Robbins produced and directed, “Dead Man Walking.” Another participant was Rosemary Ndoh, the former warden of Avenal State Prison.
Teaching emotions changes lives
Why is the program so successful? In part, it is because of the focus on emotional management. Inmates learn to express a variety of emotions and how to shift in and out of them. For those whose impulsive emotions led them to commit the crimes for which they are incarcerated, this can be a powerful tool of change.
“We work in four basic emotions: happiness, sadness, anger and fear,” said Kathryn Carner, director of operations. “We are always in one of those four basic emotions which allows people to understand the emotions they are feeling, identify them and realize they can control their emotions and have choices and not let the emotions rule and take them over, which is generally what gets people into trouble.”
The fact that they are acting — and wearing masks of white makeup — creates a safe space for the participants. While they are feeling real emotions, they are doing it through a character.
Rich Loya is an alumni of the program who was serving a life sentence when he first became involved. Now he is a teaching artist and has led a weekly Zoom session for other alumni throughout the pandemic. The program taught him how to reconnect to his emotions.
“I went in when I was 16 years old and I had to put away any emotions,” Loya said. “You can’t show that you’re afraid or sad, and there is not a lot of happy, joyful moments in prison. Anger was my primary and secondary emotion. That’s all I knew. The Actors’ Gang allowed me to tap into other emotions.”
Carner said many program participants tell her that they haven’t laughed or cried in decades or since they were a child.
“People learn they can manage their emotions, then when they are in a situation, they can defuse it because they have other tools than what they thought they had,” Carner said. “They can make their choices so they don’t get into that fight and therefore don’t get an infraction which causes them to go into solitary confinement or to get more time on their sentence.”
Loya credited the program with helping him to change enough that when he went before the parole board, they granted him a release. Now he is a program manager and returns to the prisons to help lead the programs that helped him so much.
There are levels in the prison that sort inmates based on how close they are to release. Level 4 means you’re not going home. It’s where Loya first became a member of the Prison Project. It helps him know what to do when he goes back in.
“In the beginning, we just receive (prisoners) like normal people because I know how much that means,” Loya said. “We play with them and do the exercises, and as they day goes on, I tell them, where do you think I learned The Actors’ Gang? They look confused and then we get into sharing that just two years ago I was in their shoes. I was wearing blue. It just changes their light.”
Program structure focuses on rehabilitation
Carner explained that over the past 15 years, they’ve refined a template that has helped them establish 15 programs in 13 prisons throughout the state. They start by going into a new prison and doing a seven-day intensive for four hours a day with between 25 and 30 people.
After that, they turn the work over to the class participants. Once a week they meet with a sponsor and the sponsor sends reports back to The Actors’ Gang. They check in every six to eight weeks.
The first thing they do is to create a safe space for people to assemble. When the classes are being put together, they ask that the class be multiracial and that there is no discrimination on any basis — something rare in prison settings. The only preference that they request is that people be chosen who don’t typically get programming. People who are, as Loya described it, the “knuckleheads” or the “f-ups.”
“This is really about rehabilitation,” Carner said. “It doesn’t work if people aren’t in there that don’t see the value in it and really want and need it. It is super surprising — the people who are resistant or do hold some power are the ones that make the greatest leap and just change their lives and grow in this very beautiful, beautiful way and then become ambassadors of the program.”
They assemble and begin doing such things as theater games, exercises and writing. They create agreements that build trust. They tell people to honor the group and that everything that happens is confidential.
They introduce a commedia del arte form of theater — a 15th Century Italian art. They paint masks on their face with makeup and eventually choose one of 14 stock characters which will form the village in which they do improvisational theater.
During the panel, Ndoh said she never would have guessed that these men in makeup would change the very culture of the prison yard, but they did.
Loya talked about how an activity the first day had an immediate impact on him. The first time they sat in a circle, the instructors said they were going to go around the room and everyone was going to introduce themselves using their birth name and real name.
“Right there, I felt something,” Loya said. “There were guys who I considered my friends and I didn’t even know their real names. I just knew nicknames and prison names.”
A class typically begins with “red hot sharing” where they can get whatever is on their chest out and ready themselves to do the work. They do some meditation and skill-building games, then transition into stage work and improv. Some decide to create a play that they will eventually perform for family.
Loya recalled the family presentation his group did. They wrote a play and their family got to come visit in the prison. They did a presentation, an exercise, a game, and then ended it with a dance — because they always ended on a happy emotion.
“We did the ‘Soul Train’ line,’” Loya said. “My dad got up and started dancing along with the other visitors. My mom was in tears. She was crying and I couldn’t wait to finish doing my dance so I can go to her. I asked her in Spanish, ‘What’s wrong?’ And she said, with whatever strength she had, ‘Son…because for the first time, I’m seeing my son again.”
Alumni keep things going during pandemic
Loya hadn’t been going back into the prisons very long when the pandemic shut everything down. The Actors’ Gang quickly pivoted and started providing distance learning packets based on the 14 characters. The packet would explain all the philosophies and exercises and how to do them in their own cell — including how to invite a roommate if they had one.
Participants would keep a journal about what sort of work they were doing — did they do red hot sharing? Did they meditate? They could then mail their packets back to The Actors’ Gang. Members of the alumni teaching artists who were now on the outside were each given a prison yard or institution and they began writing the exercises and letters within the packet to the program participants.
The Actors’ Gang also set up support for the alumni, especially those who had just gotten out of prison and now found themselves unable to leave their house. They would get together every week on Zoom just to talk and on another day to continue training. They had to start with learning how to be on a computer and navigate technology, which Loya described as being a stressor at first.
One of the positive things that came out of the pandemic had to do with their youth program. Before COVID, alumni weren’t allowed to work with youth because they were on parole. During the pandemic, the prison authorities approved them to work with youth through Zoom since there was no person-to-person contact.
It went so well, Loya said, that the director of one of the camps is seeking approval from probation for them to come into his facility once it is again safe to do so.
“If I’m going to be with the youth for an hour and a half, I’m going to bring my energy,” Loya said, “I’m going to do whatever I need to do to get them to participate. I always show up, never forgetting where I was. I made a series of errors that led to my incarceration — that’s why we are here now, to give them a light of what is ahead. At the end of the day, there is no judgment of what they choose to do, but I can tell them that understanding your emotions has made the biggest difference in my life.”.