Article, podcast and photo by Seth Cerrate
While serving five years in prison, Takia “Judah” Parham, now 34, filled four journals with 600 pages of poetry, her only outlet to express herself. Then she attended a theater performance organized by Rehabilitation Through the Arts, a nonprofit program, joined a movement workshop and turned a corner in her life.
“To go directly from war to prison is a very difficult, mentally draining thing, it’s a horrendous situation that you will need healing from. Most of my healing came from volunteering and R.T.A., that’s all I needed,” she said. “It became my therapy.”
Although Parham, who was imprisoned for stabbing another soldier, was homeless for five months after her release in 2016, R.T.A. continued to provide her with a network of individuals and skills that smoothed her return to civilian life. Today she has a part-time job teaching theater to children in Arts 10566, an arts program in Peekskill, N.Y.
Rehabilitation Through the Arts, one of several arts-based programs that work with New York’s incarcerated population, was founded in 1996 by Katherine Vockins in Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y., and now operates in five men’s and women’s prisons. The organization’s volunteer facilitators lead workshops in theater, dance, writing and more.
After 21 years, the program has 134 alumni, of whom Charles Moore, R.T.A.’s program and alumni coordinator, is one.
“I’m coming up on being a year home,” said Moore, who joined up with R.T.A. in 2004 and did production and stage management while in prison. Moore said Vockins offered him a job when he was released, keeping a promise she made back in 2009.
R.T.A. has an annual operating budget of about $300,000, with five people on staff and a roster of 60 volunteers, with 30 active at any given time, Moore said.
Two RTA volunteers helped form a theater company in Harlem, the (RE)Emergent Theatre Company, whose debut production was “Getting Close,” directed by Clare Hamoor and Ashley Hamilton.
Set in El Barrio’s Artspace PS109, it features four men retelling stories of experiences they had in prison. The ensemble features Juan Carlos “Johnny” Hincapie, Robert Pollock, Juan “Broadway” Rodriguez, Akeel Adil and Robert Lindsay.
Podcast: (Re)Emergent Theatre Company: “A Collaboration with Those Emerging from Prison”
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Hamoor and Hamilton reached out to friends and family for donations on a gofundme page created for the company and raised about $2,500 to cover dinner, transportation and production costs for the ensemble. Besides the goal of producing a play, the focus of the company is to form a community for those recently released.
After the performance, the cast took questions from the audience.
“What do you see moving forward?,” asked a man in his 40’s. Hincapie answered, “There are people who don’t want to change and others that do everything in their power to rehabilitate.” Such is the case of these men and Guy Woodard, a teacher for a program that gives youth an alternative to jail time through schooling.
Woodard teaches his students, ages 18 to 30, how to draw using a method called stipple, or pointillism — using dots to form a larger, complex image. Woodard’s preferred subjects are women and children; he said he mastered the technique, which he calls maxi-minimalism, in a private studio in prison he was given access to by the warden.
“In every prison I was in they called me Picasso,” said Woodard, with a slight grin, his gold necklace shining. His own story starts in the ’70s and follows a trail of fraud over decades, being in and out of prison four times before he met David Rothenburg, founder of the Fortune Society, another organization that helps people navigate the transition after prison.
Woodard said he grew up impoverished in Harlem. He didn’t want to sell drugs, he said, so he forged documents, IDs and checks with a master’s touch. After his release, he sought out Rothenburg, who saw his work displayed on a closed shop window. Asked where he was staying, Woodard said he was in a shelter.
The next week, he showed up at the Fortune Society’s office and secured a spot at the Castle, one of the organization’s residential areas for the released. Eventually he got a job teaching art and selling prints.
“I’m not a criminal for the first time in 40 years,” said Woodard. Most of his students are wary about art and don’t have the confidence to pick up the pen, so Woodard meets with them one on one sessions and always relates the message, “It’s not magic, it’s art.”
By the end of their time with him, many are proud of what they accomplished that they thought they couldn’t. Some even use their self-portraits as their Facebook profile photos.