From the perch of a marketing career in international business – like the one Katherine Vockins once occupied – or the freedom of descending the incline on Katonah Avenue, the daily difficulties of prison inmates really have no need to rise to a level that peaks our concerns. In accordance of the typical stereotypes most of us have of prison inmates, that perception abruptly changed for Vockins.
“I went into a prison,” she says. The myths dispelled, Vockins left her old life behind.
The Katonah resident founded and has been operating an arts program in five medium and maximum security prisons in New York State since 1998. “We started with theater – branched out to creative writing, poetry, modern dance and vocal training,” she says of Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA).
But she definitely can’t take credit for making this ascent. Her husband, also a successful business person at an earlier time, was working on his theology degree at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining. The experience began him onto a road as an activist for prison reform and educator for inmates on the inside and out. Nonetheless, says Vockins, “I wanted to go in and find out what was so interesting.”
Then as she began volunteering at Sing Sing alongside her husband Hans Hallundbaek, Vockins rather spontaneously inquired whether a theater program might work, and soon enough, she was writing a proposal to the Department of Corrections in Albany. Vockins got approval and the first group of theater students at Sing Sing had a play produced within a year. “They usually write about the hood – violence, drugs, HIV/AIDS, etc.” she says.
The drama or comedy aside, she says, “Participation is about hope and transformation.”
In accordance, the program provides a vehicle for inmates to move forward and accept responsibility. “Inmates have to choose to change their life and stop blaming the system,” said Vockins.
And that attitude has a definite effect inside. “A study done by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice proves that people who are in our programs have less disciplinary problems and better coping skills,” says Vockins.
A second study by SUNY Purchase shows that RTA students are more likely to finish their GED and enter college while still in prison. Providing a leg up upon finally getting a foot out the door, RTA’s recidivism rates for alumni far outclass peers. “Our approximate average is 10% and the national rate is above 50%,” says Vockins.
The inmates prefer not to see the results so mathematically. “They say the workshops give the opportunity to see themselves in a different light and build self-awareness,” she conveys.
Even so, there must be times when the walls don’t seem so safe for an outsider. “The first time I went into a women’s prison, a correctional officer put me in a room with twenty women I had never met, walked out and closed the door behind her. That was the only time I was ever scared,” she says.
Otherwise, the program provides a security all its own. “The trust and relationship that is built is mutually exclusive, and people in our program will always cover your back,” she says.
Hopefully, more of us can return the favor on the outside. It’s simply a matter of allowing the myths to fall in favor of reality and possibility.
This article originally appeared on rmonetti
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