Inmates put on “Hamlet” with the help of mental health staff at CCI. The play was used to help offenders learn healthy outlets to express their feelings.

By Dian Grier, LCSW
California Correctional Institution

Inmates at California Correctional Institution (CCI) recently produced Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and while plays in prisons are nothing new, this play was unique. In most institutions, plays are brought in by outside volunteers with no mental health experience. Seeing a chance to make a difference, CCI’s Mental Health Department, under Chief William Walsh, has begun a pilot program integrating the life-skills benefits of drama with the expertise of a mental health clinician.

Based on recent research in the field, including a study published in the Justice Policy Journal, drama helps in significant ways regarding rehabilitation. Interdisciplinary research shows that there is a strong correlation between development of the right brain and arts education practice, which leads to higher-order thinking skills and greater emotional self-regulation. There is also compelling evidence that a well developed right brain correlates with focused attention, creativity, intellectual flexibility, patience, self discipline and the ability to work with others, which are all vital skills for success in society.

The inmates put significant time into this process, averaging nine hours a week. The advantage that this program offers is dealing with real-time issues that can be observed and intercepted by both the clinician and the other group members. Over the course of six to 12 months, inmates change significantly. Every issue arising is an opportunity for change and emotional growth. As the new group is forming for the upcoming play, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” clinicians ask that even participants’ body language changes within the time they are working, in other words, no “gangster” stances or anti-social behavior. When an inmate gets angry and attempts to walk away, it is often another inmate that will seek him out to talk. Usually, the inmate returns to the group with explanations of his feelings. The group encourages this expression and all grow from the conflict resolution. This behavior shows the level of commitment and respect the inmates have for the program. Emotions are not easily expressed in prison, but this program encourages it and teaches how to channel emotions in a healthy manner.

With all the positive attributes this program offers, another is good old-fashioned “play.” Current research by author and psychiatrist Stuart Brown, MD, compares play to oxygen for all adults. One of his research studies for instance, found that lack of play was just as important as other factors in predicting criminal behavior among murderers in Texas prisons. Many inmates have had difficult upbringings in which they had too much responsibility too young and play may have even been withheld. This program offers a mix of practicing discipline, learning emotions and ultimately creating a play.

When I see an inmate who typically carries his “game face” on the yard, and then see him laughing and engaged in non-competitive play, it feels like a little triumph.

In the three years I have been developing this program, I have consistently seen improvement, gratitude and kindness by the inmates toward each other, regardless of race or other issues. They tell me “It changed my life.” They learn to bond to people they may have judged in the past and how to communicate effectively. They have memorized lines, shown up for others, and taken the risk to be vulnerable. Most of us would be hard pressed to commit to a play; possibly making a “fool” of ourselves, but every day I am more encouraged by the strength and growth of the people who show up in the room.

It is important to remember that aside from all the empirical evidence supporting the rehabilitative benefits of drama therapy, once person sees an inmate emitting actual emotions, empathy, and humanistic qualities in a semi-professional manner, common sense set in that this program is working on many levels.