Bringing the Arts to Prison, Even During a Pandemic

Tapes and DVDs can't replace in-person classes, but they're something, incarcerated people say.

From the production Father Comes Home From the Wars by Suzan-Lori Parks, performed at Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, NY in January 2020. (Photo by Miranda Barnes, courtesy Rehabilitation Through The Arts)

This March, the nonprofit Rehabilitation Through The Arts (RTA) was in the middle of workshopping the play Midnight with the men incarcerated at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, New York. The team planned for a September production inside the facility to audiences both incarcerated there and invited guests from outside. But COVID-19 caused the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to suspend outside programming, everything from arts to college courses. RTA staff, teaching artists and the incarcerated members abruptly lost touch.

When it became clear that in-person collaboration was not likely to take place anytime soon, RTA got creative. The organization has spent the past four months developing paper lesson plans covering different art forms, which evolved into audio cassette lessons and will become DVD-led workshops this fall. While RTA staff admit it can’t replace in-person engagement, it’s become an effective model of maintaining prison programming as facilities across the country suspend outside visitation due to COVID-19.

“I was locked up for 9/11 and it’s very scary when you’re incarcerated and don’t know what’s going on,” explains Charles Moore, an RTA alum who is now director of operations. “Everything we’re doing [at RTA], it’s to feel like we’re still with the participants even if we’re not there in body.”

Though the organization moved quickly to pivot to remote programming at all six facilities where it works, it required time, effort and perseverance to meet the guidelines of the corrections department. Devices used by incarcerated people are strictly regulated (cassettes with metal screws, for example, are not allowed) and communication like phone calls are prohibited between RTA staff, teaching artists and incarcerated participants.

“In New York, it’s the status that we are not allowed to communicate with any of our participants,” says RTA founder Katherine Vockins. Instead, RTA relied on its history with the department developed over 24 years. “We’ve been in close communication with DOCCS … it is a partnership in the sense that they value what we do and we’ve worked very hard not to have an adversarial relationship,” Vockins says.

In 1996 Vockins attended a graduation of the New York Theological Seminary at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York, and casually asked if there was any theater in the prison. There wasn’t, and she helped form a theater group that would become RTA. The organization now leads creative arts programming and theater productions across New York State in four men’s facilities as well as Taconic and Bedford Hills, two of the state’s three prisons for women.

Beyond the close relationship with the state corrections department to produce theater inside prison — administration approves everything from the types of plays performed to the costumes and props used — RTA works with teaching artists who regularly visit the prisons to lead workshops and direct productions. The organization also relies on steering committees of incarcerated participants in each facility who help guide the program.

RTA tapped into all those networks after the corrections department suspended programming on March 16th. In less than two weeks, RTA gained permission to send paper lesson plans to its participants, which a group of teaching artists quickly developed. RTA sent out written step-by-step lessons, which included a guide to public speaking and character development assignments, by the end of May. At the same time, the organization was in conversation with the department about allowing some communication with key members of the steering committee.

RTA wanted to be sensitive to the fears and anxieties of incarcerated individuals during COVID-19. Fishkill Correctional Facility, where the production of Midnight is indefinitely postponed, had more positive virus cases than any New York prison in early May. But rehabilitative, arts and educational programs can also serve as a bridge to the outside world for those incarcerated; COVID-19 has halted them across the country.

With its paper lesson plans, RTA sent a notebook encouraging participants to document what was taking place. In addition, a journalist teaching artist developed a lesson plan on journaling. “The lesson has a focus on how you’re feeling and how you’re dealing with the stress,” Moore says. “There’s an importance in our participants being able to express how it feels to be going through this pandemic on the inside.”

Moore looked back at his own prison term as RTA brainstormed how to evolve its remote programming. DVDs aren’t allowed to be viewed individually by the incarcerated and reading might become tiresome, so he suggested utilizing the prison-approved cassettes that were common while he was inside. So he suggested using the prison-approved cassettes that were common while he was incarcerated. Seven teaching artists submitted a variety of proposals for cassette lessons and RTA decided to use them all.

RTA alumni Colin Absolam and Charles Moore, RTA director of operations, prepare cassette lesson plans at the RTA office. (Photo courtesy RTA)

Charlie Scatamacchia, a teaching artist who was leading a pre-rehearsal workshop for the production of Midnight when programming halted, suggested a lesson plan on “finding your own story.” The 63-minute tape includes Scatamacchia leading a physical and mental warm up followed by journaling prompts. “When you do a play and you’re assigned a role, you have to create a biography for that character,” he says. “I used this as an opportunity to create a biography — tell your own story, unrelated to the play itself.”

Throughout June, RTA recorded and duplicated lesson plans onto 600 cassette tapes, then labeled and distributed following corrections department regulations — a “long, tedious process,” as Moore puts it.

The delivery also included letters to members to check on their wellbeing. “I’ve lost my mother to COVID-19 … I thank RTA for reaching out. Sometimes all one wants to do is to be heard,” one member wrote from Fishkill. “I do miss the [in-person] workshops, especially since that’s where I believe I could show my true self,” another wrote from Woodbourne Correctional Facility.

RTA now awaits a response to a separate feedback form submitted with the tapes. The corrections department now allows two steering committee members from each facility to participate in supervised phone calls with RTA. “Communication is slowly coming back,” Moore says.

The cassettes are meant to fill in for an eight-week summer course. With a longer time frame to plan for the fall semester, RTA is working closely with the corrections department on the approval of DVD lesson plans they hope participants can view in small groups. The organization also hopes to incorporate feedback of members inside who have gone through prior lesson plans. “We’re in the process of writing lessons that can be done on DVD, which means sound and image, and a document that supports the sound and image,” Vockins says.

There are still unanswered questions, of how social distancing may work in prison classrooms and when in-person plays can resume at all. But the main accomplishment, for now, is to continue the programming in whatever form possible.

“From day one, when we started the paper lessons, participants were just so happy to hear from anyone on the outside,” Moore recalls. “And they’re so thankful that we didn’t give up on them.”

Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit. 

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Tags: arts and culturecovid-19prisons

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