Nationwide statistics have proven in-prison educational & rehabilitation programs to be extremely successful, yet many states across the country have cut large portions of the funding for these programs. National studies have shown that rehabilitation programs that focused on education, therapy, skills training and liberal arts have intrinsic psychological, social and practical impact on the prisoners, and have helped in preventing recidivism. Many of the prison-based programs are specifically aimed at reducing recidivism, and they have been very successful in achieving this goal.
A post-secondary education and vocational skills, for instance, equip the qualified offenders with a college degree and skills, to ensure increased levels of employability when they get released. But there is an important role for other forms of education and activities within the criminal justice system that aim to improve physical and mental health of the prisoners. And there’s where arts in criminal justice comes in. Arts, both expressive and creative forms, are uniquely powerful as a means of transforming lives.
This documentary takes a closer look specifically at the relationship between the intricate process of abstaining from crime and the influence of a dance based enrichment activity might have on offenders. The piece captures the evidence of the arts intervention in the transformative process that enables the participants to make significant behavioral changes, both in prison and out in the street.
Documentary: The Game Changer
Needless the say when a much more significant programs like the prison educations facing a huge budget crisis, other liberal art program might not see the daylight of the federal funding or the majority support to continue. The RTA dance program has been a huge success because the inmates have a need to express emotions through their bodies rather than words. There has been a way to prove that dance can be a catalyst for change, hence a powerful visual evidence like this documentary is vital. Prison’s postsecondary educational programs or the vocational training post certain restrictions to the incarcerated applicants. They have to be 35 years old or under, have a GED or high school diploma, are within seven years of release from prison, must not be convicted of murder, or a crime involving a victim who is a minor or sexual offence. Well, aren’t most of the offenders in the prison who serve 20 to 30 years imprisonment commits either one of these crimes? Aren’t they entitled to a second chance at all? Liberal art programs do not impose these restriction, when one has inner desire to learn and change. They are welcomed to be part of the RTA dance sessions. The program facilitate healing and transformative for all without any discrimination.
Portland Creative Arts Therapies Association uses art therapies to help sex offenders to effectively communicate their thoughts and emotions, visually. Susan Slotnick, Figures-In-flight dance trainer at Woodbourne uses little more sophisticated and philosophical method to train these men not only to do the modern dance with expressive movement, also to pay “attention”, because Susan believe – attention is equal to love. She studied the “Philosophy of attention”, one of the teaching of the late Armenian spiritual leader G.I. Gurdjieff at the Discovery Institute in New Paltz. The inmates learned the key to communicate in Susan’s ‘philosophy class’, where they sit down in a circle and just talk.
All the dancers who are out today, like I said earlier these men are rewriting their history. Their path to freedom has just begun. There’s already so much buzz in the media today about them and the remarkable work that they have been doing.
‘Desistance’ is the process of personal growth through which offenders become non-offenders. Desistance from crime is a lengthy meandering journey, says Tim Robertson, the chair of the Arts Alliance, a body that promotes the arts in criminal justice across England and Wales. Without a strong foundation and support, very often offenders struggle to reach the end of the road. Desistance researchers look for change on a more profound and permanent level in which offenders ultimately achieves a new identity – a selfhood free from crime. Programs aimed at reducing re-offending need to support and ideally accelerate this journey.
Effective and wholesome rehabilitation programs in prison can and should play a crucial role in helping prisoners see a new crime-free future for themselves.
According the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), 2.3 million adults, both male and female were incarcerated in US federal and state prisons, and county jails at the year-end 2011. In addition, there were 70,792 juveniles in juvenile detentions in 2010 (Uggen, Manza and Thompson 2006). This record makes United States, the world’s leading jailer, followed by China, Russia and South Africa in the rank. While the records show an alarming increase of prison populations in the United States, on November 11, 2013, The Guardian reported that Sweden has experiences a sharp fall in the number of prison admissions in the last two years, forcing the nation to close down four prisons and a remand center. Nils Oberg, the head of Sweden’s prison and probation services claims that the steep decline was partially due to the strong focus on rehabilitating prisoners and Sweden’s liberal prison approach.
How are these statistics related to this documentary? David Gussak, a very well known researcher in field arts in psychotherapy and a professor at the Florida State University, have written several papers on art therapy and its relation to prison inmates. He found that there is an undeniable impact and positive effects of art therapy with prison inmates. And in one of his studies done “to determine if art therapy influenced participants’ mood, behavior and locus of control” the overall results demonstrated significant and positive change with the prisoners (Gussak, 2009). Gussak ‘s study also indicated that art therapy enabled prisoners to increase their sense of control, problem solving and socializing skills. Despite all these studies, many believe the relationship between creative and expressive art therapy and the criminal justice system has been relatively under researched and under evaluated.
The rehabilitation project, that I have chosen to use as a case study in this documentary, is a modern dance therapy program at the Woodbourne Men’s Correctional Facility. Susan Slotnick, choreographer and founder of the Figures in Flight Dance Company, formed Figures in Flight 5 with the support from Rehabilitation through the Arts (RTA), a nonprofit organization that brings theater, dance and poetry to prisons in New York. The modern dance program is currently the only one of its kind in a men’s prison nationwide, and possibly around the globe.
For the last seven years, Susan and her assistant Bethany Wootan have been volunteering six hours every Sunday to teach modern dance to the prisoners at the Woodbourne facility. Only six dancers, that participated in the program, have been released and they are still dancing.
Andre Noel, was the in-house assistant choreographer and director of the prison company. On April 1, 2001, he achieved his freedom after being incarcerated for 13 years. Since then, he has continued to dance and formed his own dance school, renamed Figures in Flight Released (FiFR) together with five other former prison dancers.
Except for Andre who has been out since 2001, the rest of the five men need parole permission to perform and find the time when they are all free from mandated rehabilitation programs and jobs to practice. Despite this, the men have performed at very impressive venues, including the National Museum of Dance, Vassar College, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Fordham University and Columbia University. In May 2013, they performed in New York City for an auditorium full of homeless and at-risk children. On December 13, 2013 the group appeared on the fourth season of Edmund Henkel’s Movement Talks series at the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center in New York City. Susan Slotnick, the women behind the success of these men claims that all the men whom she trained in the prison, have been functioning beautifully at the outside now and “no one has gone back”.
The majority of the dance students in the prison are convicts in their 30s and 40s and who committed crimes ranging from theft to homicide when they were teenagers. Most of them are school dropouts, came from broken families and low-income neighborhoods with limited access to jobs or good education. A notable factor here is that many of these inmates in the prison come from an environment where dance is a major part of their culture and the use of movement as an expression. Therefore, amidst much skepticism, the dance program was very well received and well attended from the start.
The effectiveness and the transformational power of dance as a freedom practice recently became an important research topic for many scholars in the restorative justice are and psychotherapy studies. Most of the prisoners and ex-offenders who participated in the dance program claim that dance helped them to gain courage, confidence, a high self-esteem and a feeling of being secure. Studies and research also has reveals that the sense of freedom through dance that the prisoners experience not only helps them to escape from chaotic, harsh, authoritative and suppressing prison environment, but also helps them to connect to their personal emotions and build ties with the world outside.
My preliminary interviews with the released dancers reveal that these men were armed with confidence and positive self-image when they got released. The importance of these gains in confidence should not be underestimated. These were men who spent most of their early adulthood in the prison for almost thirteen to twenty years with no contact or whatsoever with the world outside. The dance practice and the public performances inside the prison is all about building their self-esteem and helping them to remember what it’s like to succeed again. They are using their own body to create something new; something beautiful, dancing has helped them to feel momentarily free from the harsh realities of both prison life and the world outside. The RTA dancers who gained freedom and got out, it was the talent and confidence that they have gained inside, has made their reintegration journey less daunting.
● Gussak, D., The effects of art therapy on male, female inmates: Advancing the research base, The Arts in Psychotherapy (2008), doi:10.1016/j.aip.2008.10.002
● Uggen, Christopher, Jeff Manza, and Melissa Thompson. 2006. "Citizenship, Democracy, and the Civic Reintegration of Criminal Offenders." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 605(1): pg 285
Laws are passed to enforce a change in behavior.
Art exists to inspire a change in the heart
- Susan Slotnick
Susan Slotnick, 68, Figures-In-flight dance trainer at Woodbourne uses little more sophisticated and philosophical method to trains these men not only to do the modern dance with expressive movement, also to pay “attention”, because Susan believe – attention is equal to love.
Figures in Flight Released are the brain-child of local teacher, choreographer, painter and writer, Susan Slotnick. Susan was featured in Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher Magazine, and was named a “Woman of Honor” in the Huffington Post.
Susan Slotnick began her study of dance as a child with ballet instruction from Madame Yuskavitch of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in New York City. After graduating from SUNY College at New Paltz with a B. A. in Fine Arts, Slotnick taught painting and drawing in White Plains, New York school district’s art education program. In 1988, serving as artistic director, principal instructor, and choreographer, Slotnick founded the Figures in Flight Junior Dance Company, a regional dance company headquartered in New Paltz, New York, comprising twelve students ranging in age from twelve to eighteen. In 1995, the company attained professional status, launching a paid tour of New York State schools with their dance drama aimed to prevent bullying. Slotnick founded her second Figures in Flight Dance Company, and has now expanded their repertoire to include acting.
She and her daughter, Rebekah (who holds an M. F. A. in Theatre), have collaborated on a musical theatre piece that teaches children to combat hate and fear with tolerance and kindness. The piece, entitled And That Was What I Dreamt, opened on March 7, 1998 in New York, and has begun touring in schools ever since. This endeavor began a long period of using dance to foster social justice. Ms Slotnick then began to work with all populations of children at risk emotionally and academically. Ms. Slotnick has worked in boys and men’s maximum security prisons for the last seven years launching the only men’s dance company inside prison walls in the world program.
Susan Slotnick is employed by dozens of school where she teaches hundreds of student in a five-day artist in residence program. In addition to dance and rhythm skills, her programs focus on the method eveloped by Slotnick to train attention through movement. This philosophy of teaching discipline and attention skills is completely unique and came as a result of Slotnick’s various artistic disciplines, interests, and vast life experiences. Because of the proliferation of children with Attention problems, the method and practice developed by Slotnick has increased in demand. Recently Slotnick has also expanded her own repertoire. She received an award from Networth Public Health in 1997 for using dance to help people living with AIDS. In 1999 The Figures in Flight Dance Company received a Dutchess County Council grant award to develop a new play for high school students aimed to teach tolerance and compassion.
She created and began teacher training seminars at Ulster County Boces in the same year; she instructs teachers in how to teach attention in the classroom, using dance. In addition to her work in dance, Slotnick continues her career as a painter and humanitarian. For ten years her piece, Compassionate Baby was on display in the Sloan-Kettering Hospital’s pediatric oncology waiting room.
Susan Slotnick is also a writer (self-described, a “philosophical humorist”). From 1988 to the present, she has been a featured columnist for the New York State newspapers New Paltz Times.
Flanagan, Sharyn. "Freedom of Movement." Hudson Valley Almanac Weekly. N.p., 4 June 2013. Web. 20 July 2013.
Kavner, Lucas. "Teaching The Power of Dance Behind Bars." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 29 Mar. 2011. Web. 20 July 2013.
Riservato, Rochelle. "The Power of Dance." The Daily Freeman. The Daily Freeman, 20 Nov. 2011. Web. 20 July 2013.