The Unofficial House Band of Sing Sing Prison

In 1996, Rehabilitation Through The Arts (RTA) was the dream of a few men in Sing Sing Correctional Facility who wanted to write and produce a play and needed help putting it all together. It was a play about subjects they knew only too well: gangs, violence, drugs, and HIV/AIDS, but it was also about remorse, redemption, and hope. It celebrated the human spirit and the goodness that is in each and every one of us.

From this small theater group in Sing Sing, RTA has evolved into a full-scale creative arts program operating in five men’s and women’s New York State Correctional Facilities: Bedford Hills, Fishkill, Green Haven, Sing Sing, and Woodbourne. RTA offers programs in theater, dance, creative writing, film, visual art, dramatic literature, and voice.

As RTA grew, we observed profound personal transformations among the participants. Improved social and communications skills, self-discipline, and self-confidence have led to completion of GEDs, college and even master’s degrees. Prisoners involved in RTA released into the community have been making successful lives outside.

The arts have a unique and powerful effect on behaviors and attitudes, both for the incarcerated and for the public. RTA provides the public with a glimpse of the humanity, talent, and intelligence behind prison walls. Since 1996, thousands of outside community guests have watched riveting theatrical and dance performances. A yearly art exhibit in Sing Sing allows artists in RTA’s visual art class to proudly display and discuss their work with outside guests.

Theater is central to RTA’s program. It allows us to put ourselves in another’s shoes, try out new emotions, choices, and ways of communicating. It develops empathy and deepens understanding. In 2006, formerly incarcerated RTA alumni performed works written by the formerly and currently incarcerated, and told their stories at the stage of Playwrights Horizon Theater on 42nd Street in the production, “From Sing Sing to Broadway: An Evening Without Walls”.

Performances focus on collaborative projects in which each person shares responsibility for the group’s success. RTA’s theater program includes full-scale and workshop productions, improvisation, Shakespeare, play reading, script analysis, character study, devised theater, and offstage training.

Through art, social services, and chocolate, RTA alumni give back to the community. Here are just a few of their stories:

Dewey Bozella, a founding member of RTA, was an innocent man, falsely accused of a horrific crime. Dewey was an amateur boxer before his incarceration, and he continued to find strength and purpose through boxing while in prison, becoming the light heavyweight champion of Sing Sing, where he earned his GED, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees. Dewey was finally exonerated in 2009 after 26 years in prison. In 2011, he was honored with ESPN’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award, putting him in the ranks of Nelson Mandela and Mohammed Ali. Find out more about his current work with at-risk kids.

Another innocent man, Jabbar Collins, spent most of his 16 years in Green Haven Correctional Facility fighting his wrongful conviction, but he made time to participate in RTA, appearing as Becker in Jitney and as the charismatic Randle Patrick McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Today, Jabbar works as a legal analyst at Joel B. Rudin, the Manhattan civil rights and criminal defense law firm that secured his exoneration. His legal work includes challenging convictions for fellow inmates still behind bars. Jabbar has recented joined RTA’s Board of Directors.

RTAManny Borras is an Emerging Writer at the Public Theater, a program that creates an “artistic home for a diverse and exceptionally talented group of up-and-coming playwrights.” Manny also works as a housing advocate for the Community Solutions Homelessness Intervention Program.

Soon after another RTA co-founder, Sean Dino Johnson, was released from Sing Sing in 2004, he joined Council for Unity, an organization that seeks to reduce violence in schools and communities. Today—six promotions later—he is Executive Director of Program Marketing, returning to Sing Sing two evenings a week to facilitate the Council’s in-prison program. Dino has also joined RTA’s Board.

David Montalvo volunteers with the Orange County Department of Social Services, where he is developing a play with at-risk youth on the subject of bullying. And Andre Noel, David Girardy, and David Vasquez work for Lindt Chocolates.

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Get involved or contact RTA to discuss creating a similar
program in your community


Banner Photograph by Jens Schott Knudsen.
Copyright © 2011 Rehabilitation Through the Arts, All rights reserved.
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