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Prison no bar to self-expression

13 May 11 10:20
By Rajesh Mirchandani
BBC News, Los Angeles

The BBC's Rajesh Mirchandani reports from a Los Angeles prison where inmates are learning the art of acting under the tutelage of Shawshank Redemption star Tim Robbins.

At Norco Prison east of Los Angeles, around 20 inmates are wearing stage make-up and blue boiler suits.

On their backs reads "CDCR Prisoner" - the initials standing for California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

In the middle of the room, a tall figure with unruly white hair holds court.

He is Tim Robbins, an Oscar-winning actor who enjoys cult status among inmates after appearing in 1994 prison drama The Shawshank Redemption.

The 52-year-old is a founder of The Actors' Gang, an acting troupe that runs a prison theatre workshop here.

This Hollywood masterclass is on Commedia dell'arte, a style that originated in 16th-Century Italy and involves actors in masks playing basic character types.

Here, inmates learn to portray four different emotions: happiness, sadness, fear and anger.

If anger is what got them into prison in the first place, Robbins argues, his class might just help them stay out of prison in future.

California's prisons are crammed with re-offenders. Here, 160,000 - around twice the total number of inmates in the UK - are locked up in prisons built for half that number.

According to CDCR and the California Governors office, the rate for repeat offending is around 70% - the highest in the US.

As a result, prison management devours a huge chunk of state expenditure. Yet California faces a budget deficit of some $25bn.

Republicans in the State Legislature have refused to allow Democratic governor Jerry Brown to extend existing tax rises, preferring instead to balance the books with swingeing service cuts.

No area of state spending - welfare programmes, education, parks or infrastructure - is immune to the red pen. Thus California has axed all state-funded prison arts programmes.

"We have cut back not only on arts programs, but educational programmes, vocational programmes [and structured substance abuse programmes," says Norco's deputy chief warden Kevin Peters says.

"That all has an effect. However, the fact is money is going to be spent in the community - schools, children - many times before inmates."

The few classes that continue - like Robbins' prison workshop - depend on charity. At Norco, though, many inmates consider it a lifeline.

"I believe this programme has helped me be honest with myself," says Robert, who is serving six years for domestic violence.

"I'm going to do everything within my power to stay out of here."

Back in class, the prisoners improvise around lines of Shakespeare. An audience of prison officials and other inmates laugh and clap as the "actors" clown around.

They perform an extract from A Midsummer Night's Dream in which the character Bottom is magically given the head of an ass.

It is a scene of transformation in more ways than one. But these days in California, it's an increasingly rare one.

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