Sabra Williams & Tim Robbins

Sabra Williams & Tim Robbins

Every week in Maria’s newsletter publication The Sunday Paper, we honor individuals who use their voices, their hearts, and their minds to Move Humanity Forward.

This week, we honor Tim Robbins as our Architect of Change of the Week. You may best know Tim as a film director and Academy Award-winning actor, but he is also the artistic director of The Actors’ Gang Prison Project, a program that teaches theater and improv techniques to incarcerated persons so that they can explore their emotions without violence. Started in 2006, the California-based program fosters tolerance and nonviolent expression while significantly reducing in-prison violence, increasing self-esteem and tolerance, and reducing recidivism.

At a time when the United States’ incarceration rate is the highest in the world, Tim is using his incredible talents to help prisoners “reset” the way they view themselves and transform the way they approach the world.

The arts are a great outlet for expressive therapy. How do you feel that acting and improv in particular benefit incarcerated persons?

The arts are essential. They should be considered a mandatory part of our educational system; instead, they are considered a luxury and a bonus you get if you have enough money to pay for arts education.

Too many public schools in the United States have either no arts education or a bare minimum of what is necessary to truly educate a child in a complete way. There is a direct connection between the absence of arts education in public schools in the ’80s and ’90s and the steadily increasing prison population in that time period. I estimate 80% to 90% of the men and women that we work with in the California penal system had little to no arts education in their elementary and high schools.

When we bring our work to incarcerated men and women, we are offering a safe environment for them to discover or rediscover parts of themselves that had been dormant, hidden for reasons of survival in a prison environment. In all of our work with the children and with the incarcerated, we stress the importance of ensemble, of team building. We stress that great achievements can only happen with a collective energy — that a group of people that support each other and that are generous with each other can achieve so much more than the individual. Every individual must be responsible for themselves — every individual must do their own work —  but the impossible and the improbable can be achieved with generosity and humility in service of a goal outside yourself and oriented toward the other. Teamwork.

One inmate who participated in the program told the BBC that it helped him “feel human” for the first time after 12 years in prison. How do testimonials like that one make you feel about your impact?

I don’t think there is anything more moving than to have a mother come up to you with tears in her eyes thanking you, because for the first time in 20 years, she has seen the child she knew. We give our students a road back to themselves.

Prison and whatever led them to prison is not and never is the whole of the person. The work we do reminds them that there is more to them than the single act that has defined them for the past years. There is humanity in everyone and the prison system is simply not built to remind the incarcerated of their humanity.

How has your work with the Actors’ Gang Prison Project transformed your own life?

Well it certainly has given me a new perspective on life. I am constantly inspired by the incarcerated men and women that are doing this work. It takes tremendous courage to get in touch with emotions that are suppressed or hidden and come to understand how those emotions are connected to our actions. Only then can we take personal responsibility for our own emotions and work towards transforming ourselves into sentient human beings. If an incarcerated man or women can make those discoveries in a prison environment, then what is preventing me from making those discoveries about myself? If the incarcerated can transcend the restrictions on their freedom to find a way to express themselves freely then what is my excuse as I live free outside their walls? All of us construct prisons in our lives.

How do you feel what you’re doing is helping to move humanity forward?

I think it was Fyodor Dostoevsky that said, “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” If we give any credence to this quote the way we treat people in our prison systems is not a good reflection of our culture.

We have for years been over-sentencing nonviolent criminals in a draconian way, separating these men and women from their families with long sentences often times for 30-40 years for possession or sale of drugs. So much human potential has been locked away and disregarded, and at the same time, we have moved further and further away from any commitment to rehabilitation.

Our system has lost the belief that incarceration should lead to the reformation for the incarcerated. In 1994 on the set of The Shawshank Redemption, salt-of-the-Earth conservative prison guards from rural Ohio told me that incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders with hardened felons was transforming prisons into “crime schools” which create hardened souls and better criminals. It’s irresponsible public policy. These men and women are going to be released at some point without addressing the issues that led them to the crime. Eliminating rehabilitation programs pretty much assures that released offenders will reoffend. Seems to me that given that 95% of those that we incarcerate will be released and will be living in our neighborhoods when they get out, that the most sensible policy for creating safety in our communities is a comprehensive and effective rehabilitation system.

More importantly, we have to come to a new way of thinking about the fallen. We have been programmed to think of the incarcerated as animals, as human waste, as undeserving of any kindness or compassion. We do not have to witness the despair, the hopelessness, the degradation that happens to our incarcerated. We do not have to stand in the shoes of the recently released, who suffer further degradation and humiliation as they face seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the pursuit of the simplest necessities like who will rent to them or who will offer them a job. Quite frankly, we do not treat them as human beings. I think this is degrading to our culture. This marginalization and contempt for the fallen hurts us all. At its heart is a debased cruelty and we all are responsible for this cruelty until we change the way we view those that are incarcerated and actively work to reform a broken system.

What is your hope for the future of the program, and how can people help?

We hope to continue to expand in the California correctional system. We are currently in 10 prisons and we have the will and the manpower to go beyond that. This will take time and resources so certainly any donations to The Actors’ Gang will help us with our work. Beyond that, I think it is essential that all of us open our eyes to the injustices in sentencing and incarceration. We all want dangerous people put away, removed from society if they pose a threat to us. At the same time, we must view those inside prison as part of us; brothers and sisters that have fallen. The more we expand our understanding of this, the more our compassion and empathy will lead us. It seems like we are driven by anger and retribution and that we forget that mistakes aren’t what define a man or a woman, that everyone is capable of reform, and that to give up on the least amongst us is to give up on what could be the best within ourselves.


Learn more about The Actors’ Gang Prison Project and find out how you can help.