Drama in the Big House: Part 3- 'The Good Witch'
Theater has a way of bringing out the humanity in people -- murderers, rapists and drug dealers included -- according to the former Katonah businesswoman who has made it her life's mission to help inmates turn their lives around.
In 1996, Katherine Vockins gave up her own international marketing company to start the privately funded, first-of-its-kind program, "Rehabilitation Through the Arts," at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining.
Her husband was teaching prison theology classes at the time, and she came to visit him at work.
"I sat next to a prisoner and asked if they had a theater," Vockins says. "I had no idea where it came from."
Other than a brief stint as a stage manager in college, Vockins says she had very little experience with theater when she started RTA.
Within a matter of weeks of her visit, Vockins had founded the program, she says. Shortly after that, she gave up her business in order to oversee RTA full time.
"We talk about the theater being a magic mystery," Vockins says. "That's exactly how this program has grown."
The program has grown to include about 900 prisoners in five prisons statewide.
And as Sing Sing officials allowed friends and family of inmates to attend a performance of "The Wizard of Oz" for the first time in the program's 20-year history, many of the inmates involved called Vockins the real world "Good Witch of Sing Sing."
Jermaine Hall, 41, entered Sing Sing at 24 years old. He says he came from a family with a history of violence, a cycle that landed him in the same prison his father had been sent to 20 years prior.
The cycle broke when Hall rediscovered his humanity through RTA, he says.
"It allowed me to portray characters and release emotions that I've withheld for years," Hall says. "In prison, you don't cry. You're not supposed to."
As a rule of thumb, Vockins says she never delves deeply into the emotions the inmates share. She says she prefers to remain blind to the crimes that landed her actors in prison.
"I think the greatest satisfaction anyone can feel has nothing to do with earning money," Vockins says. "It has to do with changing lives."
The national recidivism rate -- or the rate at which released convicts relapse into criminal behavior -- is more than 50 percent. Studies show that RTA participants have a recidivism rate of just 10 percent.