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Prison Communities International, Inc., dba Rehabilitation Through The Arts (RTA)
Why are the arts transformative?
To explain this concept, we came up with the Skill Wheel, a graphic device which shows the specific skills gained from various RTA activities.
The inner part of the Skill Wheel shows, for instance, that theatre develops empathy, collaboration and managing authority issues; dance develops poise and body control; visual art develops observation skills and focus.
Turn the inside wheel to make the connection to family, employment and community life. For example, improvisation teaches us how to excel under pressure, a quality that is critical to doing well in a job interview. The ability to manage authority issues, developed in a full-scale theatrical production, is critical to succeeding in employment, as is problem-solving, collaboration and goal setting.
Everyone loves the Skill Wheel, even the executive staff of the Department of Corrections in Albany. It is also given to every new RTA member as part of their orientation to the program.
Where do you operate?
RTA operates in six maximum and medium-security New York State correctional facilities within a 100-mile radius of New York City.
Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, Bedford Hills, Westchester County
Fishkill Correctional Facility, Beacon, Dutchess County
Green Haven Correctional Facility, Stormville, Dutchess County
Sing Sing Correctional Facility, Ossining, Westchester County
Taconic Correctional Facility, Bedford Hills, Westchester County
Woodbourne Correctional Facility, Woodbourne, Sullivan County
How many prisoners do you serve?
RTA serves about 200 prisoners at any one time. More would join if they could; Sing Sing, for instance, has more than 50 men on a wait list that can stretch for years.
Can anyone join?
Membership in RTA is based on a commitment to change, not on disciplinary record, although prison administration can have its own disciplinary criteria for allowing prisoners to participate. All new members take an RTA 101 workshop, taught by RTA’s prisoner-member coordinating committee, that explains the objectives of the program and the requirements of membership.
How long do prisoners stay in the program?
RTA members can stay in the program for as long as they are incarcerated in one of the 6 prisons in which we operate. One of the positive effects of the program is that it motivates participants to pursue education while they are still in prison; we are delighted when members step away from RTA because they have enrolled in college.
How do you know if your program works?
We know the program works in two ways:
Published academic research studies, considered the gold standard of research in this area, have demonstrated the effectiveness of RTA participation. One study, by researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, measured the program's effect on infractions and anger management, finding a significant improvement in the number and severity of infractions among RTA participants compared to a control group.
A second study, by researchers at SUNY Purchase, showed that:
Compared to a matched group, RTA participants who entered prison with a high school diploma spent more time in the prison's college program after joining RTA, and more of them tended to complete their college degrees.
Compared to a matched group, RTA participants achieved their GEDS faster after they joined RTA.
More than 800 prisoners have participated in RTA since it began, and hundreds have been released. Of participants released over three years - the standard measure of recidivism - fewer than 5% have returned to prison. Compare this to New York State's average of 40% or the national average of over 60%.
Are there other programs like RTA?
There is a smattering of other arts-in-corrections programs around the world including a few bright spots, such as California and the UK, with strong government support. But RTA’s program stands out by its openness to new members regardless of crime or disciplinary record, its community model which includes gaining leadership experience through an active prisoner-member coordinating committee, the breadth of the arts it teaches and its emphasis on developing life skills critical inside and outside the walls.
Why support soft skills like the arts – aren't job training and education higher priorities?
RTA is often the first step towards development in other areas. Over 40% of men and women incarcerated in New York State prisons enter the system without a high school or equivalency education. RTA builds skills and confidence that motivate prisoners to give an academic education another try. And as important as job training is, the ability to communicate, set goals, solve problems and work collaboratively is just as critical.
The Obama White House hosted a Criminal Justice Reform, Innovation and the Arts meeting in 2015 at which Attorney General Loretta Lynch noted that "...while the importance of job training and educational opportunities for incarcerated people cannot be overstated, the arts also serve a fundamental need – as a creative outlet and form of self-expression providing opportunities for collaboration and emotional growth."