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The Role of Theater and Literacy in Prison



What if we combine Prison Performing Arts and correctional literacy programs to improve the lives and futures of many inmates?

Prison Performing Arts

Prison Performing Arts (PPA) is a multi-disciplinary literacy and performing arts program dedicated to enriching the lives of youth and adults in Missouri’s criminal and juvenile justice systems. The program provides incarcerated adults, youth, and those reestablishing themselves in their communities outside of prison with an opportunity to improve their literacy and communication skills. 

PPA’s Alumni Theatre Company, one of the only prison alumni theater companies in the United States, is currently made up of former inmates now living in the St. Louis area who worked with PPA while incarcerated. These individuals devote their time and experience to fostering social change for incarcerated individuals by providing opportunities to learn creative and constructive ways of expressing emotions, building trust, and collaborating with one another. Playing a role in the theater program teaches inmates responsibility, encourages non-violent behavior, and improves literacy skills.

The program inspires intellectual curiosity and personal development. While literacy programs nationwide have been extremely valuable sources of literacy and workforce skill development for many individuals post-incarceration, many others need motivation to pursue education and an improved life. A part of the PPA mission statement states, “We nurture the discipline, teamwork, and communication skills necessary for successful re-entry into society.” These life skills are an essential stepping stone for adult learners who want to achieve a higher quality of living through literacy.

In the article Teaching Social Skills to Prison Inmates, one inmate who was scheduled to be released explains his experience during his mock job interviews. “I just froze. It wasn’t so much the questions as just the presence,” he said. “I was in shock, kind of. It was a little intimidating for me.” Even if inmates gain their basic literacy skills, or learn English as a second language, or work toward earning their high school equivalency diplomas in prison, they tend to lack the social skills necessary to utilize those basic education skills in their community and the workforce.

“I think that art has this kind of transformative power that a lot of other things don’t,” says Rachel Tibbetts, a program director at Prison Performing Arts. “A 30- or 45-minute performance can change you.” In Escape Behind Bars, Tibbetts describes her program as “process-driven,” allowing students to comprehend performances in various ways to simplify learning. The students watched The Outsiders and wrote about topics brought up in the film. They also read To Kill a Mockingbird and discussed how it could possibly be staged. They did their own improv and watched local actors perform scenes from Of Mice and Men. 

This form of learning and literacy education is known to some as “collaborative literacy.” Collaborative literacy addresses core reading, writing, and speaking and listening skills that people need while developing different social areas such emotion, cooperation, and ethics. These social aspects and skills are stepping stones for past inmates to build upon basic literacy skills and can be incorporated into reestablishing themselves in their communities. 

Programs like PPA would be tremendously valuable to those who step back out into the world from behind bars. They need a combination of collaborative and social skills, and literacy, to smoothly transition into the workplace and reestablish a place to live comfortably and happily.






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