NORCO Calif. (Reuters) - In a prison on a hill in California, 18 inmates came face to face with the nation's top law enforcement official. And they came in full makeup.
What the prisoners wanted to show U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday was how two months of acting workshops allowed them to gain control of their emotions, develop self-esteem and prepare themselves for re-entry in society. Many have been behind bars for decades.
Holder's host was Oscar-winning actor Tim Robbins, whose Actors' Gang theater company started the Prison Project in 2006 and has worked with over 500 inmates to help cut recidivism in California's overcrowded prison system.
Recalling his time as a judge in Washington D.C. some 25 years ago, Holder told guests at the California Rehabilitation Center he had sent young men to prison when there were no tools to help them change during long incarceration.
"This is such a tool, something that I want to look at and help replicate to the extent that is possible," said Holder who resigned as President Obama's attorney general in September after six years, but will stay until his replacement is found.
With the attorney general in the front row just a few feet from the performers, the inmates engaged in an intense physical, verbal and emotional drill with their acting coaches.
Wearing blue prison uniforms stamped with "CDCR Prisoner" and dramatic face paint, the men were asked to make a machine with noises and movements, represent Washington D.C., pose as potatoes, connect with the audience - employing the four emotions of happy, sad, afraid and angry, that last one being the only one many use in prison.
"Look at each other," Robbins coached the inmates. "There is no one who isn't afraid."
Robbins is a bit of a legend in prison circles for his role as a convicted murderer serving life in the 1994 film "The Shawshank Redemption." He won his best supporting actor Oscar in 2004 for "Mystic River."
Robbins started the Prison Project with Sabra Williams and the two have lobbied for support to grow, receiving this year the first injection of state funds which will allow them to expand from three prisons to five. Holder approached the two around 18 months ago, wanting to know more about the project.
Thursday's performers came from the "sensitive needs yard" for inmates who can't mix with the general population. Many there are former gang members.
"This is going across racial and gang barriers, this is pretty deep stuff," Robbins told Reuters. "When you get 20 guys on stage sharing a state of sadness, they look in each other's eyes ... that's not something you do in prison, you don't share that kind of emotion."
Robbins said they have not heard about any re-offenders among the workshop participants, but they lack official figures on recidivism, which runs at around 60 percent among California inmates.
Holder talked directly to the prisoners after the presentation, encouraging them for making the active choice to change.
For inmate Chris Bisbano, 47, having Holder in the audience was a milestone, his eyes tearing up as he recalled the moment.
"It is confirmation we are headed on the right path, it's huge," said Bisbano, an ex-heroin addict who has been in prison 17 years, and has three and a half left in his sentence. He's done 10 workshops and organizes the prison's Convicted Theater House.
"One minute you are an inmate getting stripped out and the next minute you are shaking Eric Holder's hand," Bisbano said. "It was just cool."
Editing by Bernard Orr