Lend them your ear

Nonprofit helps state officials work on inmate rehabilitation through theater lights

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the June 14, 2018, issue.

A story of loyalty, honor and betrayal recently unfolded behind the granite walls at Folsom State Prison. Yet, the tragedy was met with applause rather than discipline as a cast of 22 male inmates recreated William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for an audience of nearly 100 people.

The performance was part of the state’s Arts in Corrections program. Billed as a partnership between the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the California Arts Council, the program aims to introduce prisoners to a range of positive experiences through art disciplines such as theater, music and dance.

For the past eight months, Folsom play director Lynn Baker, of the Marin Shakespeare Company, held rehearsals and broke down the poetic words of Shakespeare line-by-line with inmate actors, helping each understand the weight of his character.

“I chose the play since all of the men know what it’s like to make difficult decisions and some they may regret,” Baker said. “Most importantly, the group worked on teamwork and trust, essential elements that are needed among cast mates to create a play.”

She added, “They stepped out of their comfort zone and proved to themselves and society that they are creative individuals and worked hard to get to know themselves in a deeper way.”

Marin Shakespeare’s program, known as Shakespeare for Social Justice, is currently in eight different prisons throughout Northern California. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, art rehabilitation programs were prevalent in many prisons throughout state, according to CDCR public information supervisor Krissi Khokhobashvili. The program ultimately lost its funding due to prisons becoming increasingly overcrowded. The arts were the first to get the axe. By the early 2000s, all of the department-funded art programs were gone.

“In 2014, the department reduced prison population and increased focus on rehabilitation and we decided to bring back Arts in Corrections as a pilot program at a handful of our prisons,” Khokhobashvili said. “And Marin Shakespeare was one of our first contractors in that round. In 2017, we were able to expand it to every adult institution in California. So we have 35 prisons that offer a variety of arts programs.”

For inmates who aren’t into onstage expression, Arts in Corrections also enlists the talents of local arts councils, painters, musicians and storytellers.

“The most basic part of Arts in Corrections is the men and women who are enrolled in these programs are spending their time in a positive way,” Khokhobashvili told SN&R. “That makes it worth it; just that alone. Looking at the themes from hundreds of years ago and how they’re still relevant today and to probably all of the people who are doing Shakespeare while they’re incarcerated, it’s relevant to them.”