What Value The Arts In Prison?

I was surprised to see my home town newspaper mentioned on the Americans for the Arts blog recently. Americans for the Arts’ Arts Education Manager, John Abodeely, was responding to a story about how inmates from the Woodbourne Correctional Facility were being blocked from performing at Eastern Correctional Facility by the corrections guard union. (Eastern Correctional Facility apparently inspires a lot of art. I once wrote a short story based *cough* on my time spent there.)

Abodeely responds to the union’s central argument that there is no value in the experience. “How many of these medium-security convicts do you think will go to Broadway and get a job?” One answer is Miguel Pinero’s Short Eyes–six Tony nominations, New York Drama Critics Circle Award and an Obie Award. Another is Charles Dutton. These are just off the top of my head. I am sure there are other examples.

Abodeely discusses the economic value of the arts in terms of jobs, revenue and taxes generated. I think Abodeely misses the mark on two counts. First, regardless of the economic impact statistics, it is difficult for people with arts backgrounds to gain employment in their field, whether it be on Broadway or not. An ex-con probably has just as good a chance of being employed as anyone. (So on second thought, I guess Abodeely’s numbers are valid when applied to the convicts.)

But the second point is the real issue. The subtext of the question the corrections officer posed was all about low regard for the convicts’ personal value and had little to do with economics at all. Perhaps it is clearer to me because I have been in NY prisons, but the guards’ power to deny positive experiences for inmates is a big factor here. Given the union spokesman’s assertion that “prison farms, annexes and print shops have been useful because they teach skills that can be applied toward a job on the outside,” a more compelling argument would be based on evidence of how engaging in any sort of disciplined program is beneficial to future employment and behavior in the present. There is also public speaking skills, writing skills (since the inmates wrote the play) and development of empathy that can be gained. (Construction and other organizational skills if they are building sets and costumes.)

Abodeely wouldn’t likely have the research or numbers on hand to cite, but there may be some evidence that it reduces recidivism, especially given that is the sponsoring organization, Rehabilitation Through the Arts, goal. The San Quentin Drama Workshop has been active since 1958 so even if there is no clear evidence arts in prison does not reduce recidivism, there must be some value to sustaining the program for 51 years. There is also group, Theatre in Prisons which runs similar programs internationally.

What really makes me believe that the union’s objections on the grounds theatre involvement doesn’t cultivate valuable skills is the fact that Rehabilitation Through the Arts not only does shows at the maximum security NY State run prison, Sing-Sing, but has been based out of there since 1996 and apparently has proven valuable enough to satisfy the corrections officers who I am pretty sure belong to the same union. Pinero wrote Short Eyes while incarcerated in Sing-Sing in 1972 and there was apparently a drama program of some sort there at the time.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not really a big advocate for convict rights. I didn’t particularly enjoy being dragged on visits as part of my mother’s effort to redeem these guys. (Though I does allow me to truthfully say I was in and out of prison for 9 years.) Like most of us, I am not about to allow someone to dismiss the value of participation in the arts out of hand without some rebuttal.

I suppose no discussion of performing arts in prison can be complete without citing the 1500 Filipino prisoners in Cebu doing Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Time To Review

I am feeling a bit under the weather so I am not of a mind to blog very long today. However, while I was having trouble sleeping last night, it occurred to me it has been awhile since I revisited and revised our front of house procedures manuals for house managers and ushers and more importantly, our emergency procedures. The latter is especially important since we just had an Automated External Defibrillator installed on the lobby wall.

While I ask the house managers to refresh their memories every year and we review procedures with our ushers at the beginning of every season, we are actually operating on instructions I wrote when I first assume my current position. Those instructions in turn were adapted from a manual I used at another place of employment. There is nothing unsafe about the procedures I initially generated, they just may not be the most appropriate for interacting with our community in our specific physical plant.

My suspicion is that practice has diverted from the letter of my instructions. The next step is likely to be bringing the instructions more inline with reality while injecting bits of structure where it might be lacking so our service to audiences is a little sharper.

I have given the task of revising the instructions to our assistant theatre manager. He deals with front of house staff and their activities much more frequently than do I. He also hasn’t had a hand in writing any of the procedures where the rest of the staff has so he has no investment in any of the work. I have suggested he might want to call meetings to discuss revisions.

So I figured I would encourage everyone to consider reviewing and rewriting your procedures both for safety sake but also to ensure you are meeting your audience’s current expectations for their experience with your organization.

Interesting Thoughts From Other Places

Read some good stuff today on two blogs that really can’t be improved upon by any commentary I can offer so read on—

The Nonprofiteer had some sage advice in a recent entry regarding recruiting people to fill volunteer roles be it a board member or ticket taker — recruit in pairs.

The two-by-two recommendation is most often made about Board members, and specifically about minority Board members: don’t ask someone to be the only African-American or the only woman in the room. But it’s equally true of any Board recruit, or in fact of any volunteer: bring in 1 person, and you’ve got a 50% shot at keeping him/her. Bring in 2, and you’ve got an 80% shot at keeping them both.

Why? Because misery loves company, and being a newcomer/outsider is always misery. And because unless your Board or volunteer program is truly astonishing, anyone observing it from the outside will think it could use a lot of improvement. The prospect of trying to improve something unaided is usually daunting to the point of not bothering.

Seems easier to do with board members who tend to be actively recruited as opposed to volunteers for other areas which are often self-selected. You don’t want to turn someone away simply because no one else offered their services this week. It is possible though to orient people in pairs or small groups to facilitate bonding among them. If the 80% retention stat is correct, it seems prudent to arrange the situation so people’s initial volunteer encounters are in multiples.

Over at Producer’s Perspective, Ken Davenport relates an answer Sandy Block of Sernio Coyne gave to the question about why producers attempt to mount Broadway productions given the enormous challenges. Block stops the class in which the question was asked and queries those attending how many remember the first movie they saw and then how many can name the first Broadway show they saw. Few people raised their hands at the first question but everyone raised their hands at the second.

Says Davenport:

There’s a highly emotional experience connected with Broadway; a passion that can be turned into profit . . . Now the real question is, how can we capitalize on that?

Davenport then asks his readers to take Sandy Block’s survey and record the first movie and first Broadway show they saw in the comments section of the entry. If you remember, go on over and write it in.