With panache, reforming prisoners perform for U.S. attorney general

Thu Oct 23, 2014 9:33pm EDT
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By Mary Milliken

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."   Continued...

Inmates participate in the workshop "Commedia Dell'Arte", part of the The Actors' Gang Prison Project program at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, California in this September 30, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/Files