Re-enter, Stage Right: Out of Prison and Into the Arts

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On a recent Thursday, Guy Woodard teaching a client single perspective drawing during an art class at the Fortune Society's Long Island City location. Woodard got out of prison in July 2015. He began teaching art a month later.

Adi Talwar

On a recent Thursday, Guy Woodard teaching a client single perspective drawing during an art class at the Fortune Society's Long Island City location. Woodard got out of prison in July 2015. He began teaching art a month later.

For this theatrical performance, there are no props. No costumes. No elaborately adorned stage. There are only voices. Voices that tell powerful stories and that evoke the raw emotion that can only come from baring one’s soul.

This is “The Castle”, the play that The Fortune Society’s founder, David Rothenberg, first conceived nearly a decade ago. Clients of the non-profit organization, which is focused on helping the formerly incarcerated, are the stars of the show.

Arts programming for the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated has been shown to have therapeutic benefits. A 2014 Justice Policy article found that arts education in prisons led to increased participation in academic and vocational programs as well as a decrease in disciplinary reports.

Other benefits include an enhanced willingness to learn, particularly for those who struggle in formal education courses, as well as increased self-discipline and better emotional self-regulation.

“The Castle” play has also become a way the organization uses the arts to influence public perception of the incarcerated. Rothenberg hopes performances of “The Castle”, like a recent one at Vera Institute of Justice, will spark ongoing discussion about the need for criminal justice reform. Another hope is that the public will learn to view former offenders as individuals and see the person they have become, not the crime they once committed.

“People tend to have a stereotyped notion of who’s incarcerated and I think when they see people presenting their lives or being creative, they have to reconsider their preconceived notion. It’s an education,” says Rothenberg, before also noting that, “it’s a slow process.”

The play centers on the real-life accounts of four Fortune participants and contains autobiographical details of their childhoods, their experiences with incarceration, and their journeys to the Castle, Fortune’s housing facility. From stage left to stage right, the performers take turns sharing their life histories and journeys to redemption.

The stories have some underlying similarities, such as drug use, while other aspects are uniquely their own. Most come from troubled backgrounds, but Vilma Ortiz Donovan, the play’s only remaining original cast member, says she was raised in a suburban home with loving parents.

“I’m the one who shouldn’t have ended up in prison, but we make choices,” Ortiz Donovan tells the audience. Ortiz Donovan is joined onstage by Rory Anderson, who dressed in a light purple shirt and button down vest looks more businessman than former inmate who spent 25 years in prison for murder. Along with them are Ervin “Easy” Hunt, who has more than 50 arrests and now pursues an acting career, and Victor Rojas, whose childhood included living in foster homes and being sexually molested by the teenage brother of a babysitter. Rojas was arrested several times before the age of 21 and eventually served two years for gun possession.

During a talkback session following the staged reading at the Vera Institute, an audience member asks the cast what they get out of the experience of performing.

For Ortiz Donovan, it is the opportunity to give back. Her favorite performances are the ones that she performs inside the prisons because she is able to show those that are still incarcerated that she has been able to make positive life changes. This past summer, she celebrated nine years of being free.

“With this, I know that I’m helping. If one thing I say to somebody can help, then it’s all worth it,” says Ortiz Donovan.

For Victor Rojas, it’s more about introspection. There’s always a therapeutic part to this and you go through some growth with this,” says Rojas.

Hunt puts it most succinctly. “Pain shared is pain lessened.”

Arts beyond theatre

While theatre has been at the core of The Fortune Society since its inception, the organization has expanded to include a wide variety of arts disciplines.

Guy Woodard, who served time in prison for counterfeiting, was staying at a men’s shelter when he sought out Rothenberg to show him his ballpoint pen drawings. Rothenberg was impressed by Woodard’s talent and brought him back to Fortune where Woodard now teaches drawing classes to youth who are part of Fortune’s Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) programming.

Offenders who are assigned to ATI are able to avoid jail time by completing specialized program requirements. The alternative sentencing is less costly than incarceration, less punitive and a measure used to reduce prison overcrowding.

Woodard teaches students one-point and two-point perspective by drawing a sample and then having the class replicate the illustration through the use of instruments, such as rulers. Though they work from the same sample, the individuality of each student comes through in the finished artwork, which is displayed on classroom walls.

“None of these people are artists,” says Woodard. “And they swear they aren’t even after they’ve created art.”

But Woodard, who has celebrity clientele, sometimes gets confused as to which drawing is his and which belongs to the student. “This one might be mine,” he says, settling on one of the drawings. “No, this isn’t mine either,” he concludes a few seconds later.

Woodard, who is 64 years old and likes to listen to talk radio, changes the station to mainstream music as his students filter in for one of his weekly sessions.

Noticing the drawings on the walls, one student tells Woodard, “I’m only ok with you putting up the cars. I don’t want you putting up anything else.”

While Woodard teaches his drawing class, John Runowicz, Fortune’s manager of creative arts, teaches piano to another group of students. Runowicz, who served time for grand larceny, points out that one of the young boys is a good poet. The boy shakes his head no.

As Runowicz teaches the keyboard basics of playing tunes like “Jingle Bells”, “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”, another student hits a wrong note.

“I can’t do it,” the young man says.

“Yes, you can,” Runowicz tells him, before encouraging him to try again.

Arts’ restorative impact

Runowicz, acknowledges that most of Fortune’s participants who are exposed to the arts are unlikely to pursue a career in the field full-time. But he hopes that the arts will help Fortune clients build confidence and the social skills necessary to lead productive lives.

The 2014 Justice Policy article notes “arts education can help those struggling with issues of self-worth, confidence and empowerment.”

The arts also provide a creative outlet in which individuals can openly express emotions and therefore experience increased emotional awareness and subsequently, enhanced self-control.

This latter benefit could explain the evidence that suggests participation in arts programs reduces recidivism rates as well. A study conducted by the California Department of Corrections showed that of inmates paroled over a seven-year period in the 1980s, nearly 70percent of those who participated in arts programming while incarcerated had favorable outcomes two years after their release compared to only 42percent of the general population.

“One thing we hear a lot is that in prison you have to have a mask all the time, you can’t be yourself,” says Ann Mitchell, director of development for Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA), an organization that provides arts programming in five medium- and maximum-security correctional institutions throughout New York. “Through acting, writing, and reading they can learn to identify with someone different from them. It helps them become much more empathetic,” explains Mitchell.

Castle cast member Anderson was one of RTA’s original participants at Sing Sing Correctional Facility when the program began in 1996. Anderson credits the program with helping him purge his inner demons and says that Shakespearean tragedies are among his favorite plays.

“I now realize that some of the things I’m going through or have gone through aren’t so unique to just me in the world so it makes me handle some of my difficulties differently than I might have before,” says Anderson.

While RTA has expanded in its 20 years of operation, there are some limitations to what facilities the organization can serve. RTA, which is based in Westchester County, would like to implement its programming at an upstate correctional facility that could likely benefit from its work, but the distance presents a geographical barrier.

“It’s so far. How do you manage it?” asks Mitchell. “It’s really the geographics that has kept us from going to more prisons.”

Many of those who are able to participate in arts programming inside or outside prison walls speak to its transformative impact.

Ortiz Donovan says she loves the person she has become today. “For me to be able to do this, it’s a gift. It really is,” she says.

Hunt also views his ability to entertain as a gift-a gift he was blessed to receive and a gift he can give back to others.

Because of the personal changes he has made, Hunt sometimes imagines his mother’s spirit is smiling down on him, saying, “That’s my son. That’s who I knew he could be.”


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Listen:

Guy Woodard talks about his work with artists recently released from prison

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City Limits coverage of the intersection of art and policy is supported by the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund.