Prison Arts Programs Expand; CO Play Goes on Tour

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Thirty medium-security inmates in Colorado’s Sterling prison have gone on tour with a production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the New York Times reports. The cast was strip-searched before boarding the bus to their show. The leading man was shackled so tightly that he performed with abrasions on his wrists. Over a week in September, the cast and crew took the play to a men’s prison in Limon, Co., and to a women’s prison in Denver, a 130-mile bus ride from Sterling. Many in the audience had never read Ken Kesey’s novel nor seen the Oscar-winning film version starring Jack Nicholson, which tells the story of men inside a 1960s-era Oregon mental ward.

The logistics of transporting a complicated set and 30 prisoners were daunting. For the cast and crew, the six-month process of rehearsals, character studies and improv games, and then out beyond the prison walls, was transformative. It was the first time in years some had been outside Sterling’s 20-foot walls and razor fences. The show, produced by the University of Denver’s Prison Arts Initiative, is part of an expansion of arts programs inside prisons and jails. Wendy Jason of the Justice Arts Coalition has counted nearly 350 arts programs behind bars nationwide, double the number from eight years ago. California spends $8 million each year on creative-writing workshops, Shakespeare classes and choral music in all 35 of its adult prisons. “Ear Hustle,” a public-radio podcast about life inside San Quentin State Prison, is a blockbuster with 30 million downloads. Advocates for prison arts say that learning to paint or performing a monologue can bring humanity and purpose into the bleakness of life behind bars. Some studies have suggested that prison arts may reduce prison disciplinary problems; it is unclear whether they reduce recidivism.

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