The editorial board of the Herald-Leader is right. Our governor and legislators can no longer ignore the rising costs of running prisons, which, at 11 percent of state spending, nearly equals the 12 percent we pay to run our public colleges and universities.
One way to reduce such costs may be to encourage arts programming behind bars.
Kentucky is a leader in prison arts programming. The prison outreach program of Danville’s Pioneer Playhouse, Voices Inside, is a writing and theater program now eight years old. Its inmate playwrights have had readings at Actors Theatre of Louisville; their works have been produced in Kentucky prisons and in New York City. And this month, Lexington’s Antagonist Productions is producing the first-ever festival of new plays written by prisoners.
The granddaddy of all prison arts programs is Shakespeare Behind Bars, now 22 years old. Founded by Curt Tofteland when he was a faculty member at Louisville’s Bellarmine University, this program brings Shakespeare and hope to prisoners.
Larry Brewster, professor of public administration and former dean at the University of San Francisco, wrote in the Fall 2014 issue of Justice Policy Journal: “Prison arts program evaluations show that, beyond encouraging and facilitating creativity, communication, and reflection, art teaches inmates how to work with focused discipline. Finding the right word when writing poetry or prose, capturing an image when drawing or painting, finding the right note when playing a musical instrument, or memorizing lines in a play is hard work. It is through hard work that we learn the value and satisfaction of completing projects.”
The author says one reason for the success of such programs is that “it seems that art programs offer the opportunity for inmate-artists to form positive relationships with instructors that are based on mutual respect as artists rather than on authority.”
Agnes Wilcox, artistic director of Prison Performing Arts in St. Louis, in a 2012 New York Times article, wrote, “If you want to prepare inmates to rejoin society, create a prison theater program.”
In that article, Gary Kempker, former Missouri director of corrections, said about prison theater: “It teaches offenders that there is something bigger than their individual wants and needs. It reminds them that they are part of a community that requires them to be responsible and accountable for their behavior and acts. It is teaching the lessons of life to those who have failed those lessons in the past.”
The number of Kentucky inmates involved in prison theater programs is small. Robby Henson, artistic director of Pioneer Playhouse and program director for Voices Inside, told me that his program typically involves 11 or 12 participants at a time.
Like everything, arts programs cost money. According to the Voices Inside website, funding has come from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Nathan Cummings Foundation. A June article in the Danville Advocate Messenger reported that Voices Inside had received a $15,000 grant for “the eighth year in a row.”
From Sept. 21 to 24, Antagonists Productions, headed by Ian Scott, will present the last nine short plays — all written by current or former prisoners at Northpoint Training Center in Burgin. The performances are at the Moondance Amphitheatre in Lexington; gates open at 6:30 p.m. with the plays starting at 8 p.m. Admission is $10.
Go see the plays. I think you will be impressed. And if you are a legislator or public official, you may realize that arts programming is another tool to help transform the lives of inmates, making them less likely to reoffend, thereby helping to permanently reduce our state’s prison population.
William H. McCann Jr. of Corinth is editor of “I Come From: A Voices Inside Anthology” and teaches at Bluegrass Community and Technical College. Reach him at Wmccann273@gmail.com.