Purchase, NY
Grant Cycle:
Type of Grant:
General Operating Support
Social Practice

Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) helps incarcerated people develop life skills through the arts, modeling an approach to the justice system based on human dignity, rather than punishment. We emphasize creativity, commitment and collaboration — core values that build self-respect and create a sense of community – a safe space in which incarcerated individuals find their voice, practice mutual respect and reconnect with their own humanity.

RTA started at Sing Sing in 1996 with a small group of men who wanted to write a play about their lives. They focused on what they knew — drugs, gangs, bad decisions — but also the possibility of change and redemption. In the process of turning their life experience into art within a collaborative community, they observed changes in their own behavior and attitudes and renamed the group Rehabilitation Through the Arts.

Since then, RTA has produced more than 50 in-prison performances of classic, contemporary, original and musical plays, including Macbeth, Of Mice and Men, West Side Story, The Odd Couple, Twelve Angry Men, The Wiz, Wizard of Oz and August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle.

RTA now offers workshops in theater, dance, writing, visual arts and music to 225 incarcerated members in 6 NYS maximum and medium security, men’s and women’s prisons in the Hudson Valley.

In addition to RTA’s core arts program, we offer Reimagining Myself, a pre-release reentry program that uses the arts to explore the social and emotional challenges an incarcerated individual may encounter when reconnecting with family, seeking employment, adjusting to a changed world and leaving behind counterproductive prison habits. Launched this year in NYS, this beautifully produced package includes a 20 session arts-based curriculum, narrative and interview films, a participant workbook and facilitator guide.

RTA participants mirror the demographics of NYS’s incarcerated population. Most come from marginalized communities. Comprising 75% of the prison population, people of color are disproportionately represented. Although men make up 95% of the incarcerated population, the proportion of women has been increasing steadily. In NYS, 40% of incarcerated people enter the system without a high school diploma – not surprisingly, many have had negative experiences in the traditional classroom setting.

RTA has no academic, “good behavior” or other requirements, making the program accessible to all. In fact, researchers at Purchase College demonstrated that RTA is a catalyst for learning, with members pursuing and completing more educational programs than non-participants. Note also that participants can attend RTA workshops for as long as they are incarcerated in a prison where we operate. Some have been in the program for over a decade, mentoring new members.

RTA’s arts programs are taught by arts professionals, most with advanced degrees, Each facility is led by a steering committee of incarcerated members who represent the group’s interests and make decisions on disciplinary matters, providing an opportunity for empowerment that is rare in prison. Prospective participants attend RTA 101, an orientation that introduces the concept of membership as a commitment that values collaboration, accountability, discipline and interpersonal engagement, skills that serve them well both inside prison and beyond.
Indeed, the recidivism rate for RTA participants is less than 5%, compared to the national average of 60%. While the recidivism rate of RTA members is excellent, not returning to prison is our minimum expectation. The goal of our program is to help people live productive lives inside prison while preparing to engage fully as responsible, productive community members once they return home. Success is evidenced by the many RTA alumni who have built careers in academics, advocacy, law, construction, philanthropy, social service, as entrepreneurs and even, occasionally, as artists.