Drama in the Big House: Sing Sing inmates find hope through Rehabilitation Through the Arts program

Plays complete with costumes and musical numbers are not what one expects to find inside one of America's most notoriously dangerous prisons.

Sing Sing is the correctional facility where the terms "big house" and "up the river" were coined. Hope is hard to come by among the violent offenders and the toughened guards who keep watch over them. But a breakthrough theater program called Rehabilitation Through the Arts, or RTA, is doing more than just keeping convicts occupied.

Most of her actors are in prison for murder, rape and other violent crimes, but RTA creator Katherine Vockins says the arts have the ability to transform. "We use the arts as vehicles to teach critical life skills," she says. "When someone tells me they haven't cried in decades, and they did within my play, it means he's in touch with his own sense of humanity again."

Vockins adds, "They have made some serious bad choices, but they are still human beings."

The inmates recently put on a production of "The Wizard of Oz." For the first time in the program's 20-year history, the actors' family members were allowed inside to see the show.

Shaquan Duncan is the actor who played the Cowardly Lion. He's serving seven years in Sing Sing for raping his sister while he was high on drugs.

He says that it "actually hurts" now to think about what he did, but playing the role of the lion has given him the courage to face his demons. "I ran from a lot of my fears, my problems," Duncan says. "The lion finds the wisdom that caused him to run, and I learned to face my problems head-on."

Duncan's mother hadn't seen or spoken to her son in nearly a decade, since the rape. He was hopeful but uncertain if she would make the trip from the Bronx to see him in the play.

She did. The two connected for a tearful and emotional embrace before the show, and once again moments after the curtain closed.

But the moment was short-lived. The actors traded in their costumes for jumpsuits and returned to their cells.

Tune in tomorrow at 5 p.m. for Part II of this News 12 special report: Drama in the Big House.

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