'They're Teaching Me How to Be Human Again': Inside the Program That Brings Acting to California Prison Inmates

"Every time I come here I forget where I am," inmate Donald Hooker tells PEOPLE of acting rehearsal

Photo: Chris Godley

On a bright morning in Lancaster, California, 20 inmates at a maximum-security prison gather together in a sunlit gymnasium and are instructed by a soothing voice to “feel yourselves falling into shiny, black velvet.”

The men, many of whom are serving life sentences, sit together in a circle with their eyes closed and their limbs relaxed – an uncommon pose in this particular yard, which has been classified as a level four facility, meaning it is reserved for the most dangerous prisoners or inmates who need protection from other prisoners, according to a UCLA report.

“It sounds like a simple thing, but for them to close their eyes in here is a really big deal,” Leah Joki, an actor, director and longtime prison educator, tells PEOPLE. “You don’t do that in here. You don’t just close your eyes and leave your back open.”

The exercise continues. “You don’t have to do anything, you don’t have to be anybody, you can just let go and be you,” acting teacher Meri Pakarinen tells the group. “And that’s what we want you to do: Be you. We want you to be more you in your scenes.”

Pakarinen leads the men through active relaxation exercises to prepare them for four hours of rehearsal. She and her husband, Michael Bierman, spent 16 weeks holding rehearsals at California State Prison, Los Angeles County for a play called “Redemption in Our State of Blues” that the men put on in early December.

After the exercise ends, the men gather in small groups to rehearse scenes of the play they have written themselves. The scenes cover a wide array of experiences – a man imagines his brother’s time at war in Afghanistan, a former boxer relives his training days, another man acts out his greatest fear – getting released and being unable to find a job to support his family.

Bierman interruptes one of the inmates, James Frierson: “It’s you! This is your life,” he tells the man, imploring him to relive the day before his arrest 18 years ago (Bierman and Pakarinen do not know what their actors have been charged with or what crimes they have committed).

A Second Chance

Directors Bierman and Pakarinen founded their non-profit – the Strindberg Laboratory – in 2013 after being invited to teach acting in the LA County jail system. Participants in the group’s first production, Romeo and Juliet, were so taken with the experience that they asked the couple to hold classes outside the prison, so they could keep acting after being released.

From there, the pair began to notice that their actors were forced to drop out of productions after being unable to find gainful employment, so they created the jails/prisons to jobs program to hire them as acting teachers.

A grant from the California Arts Council‘s Arts in Corrections (AIC) program brought the Strindberg Laboratory into California state prisons in August 2015. Arts in Corrections had seen 30 years of successful fine arts programming in California state prisons until a state budget crisis led to its closure in 2010, despite studies showing inmates released from prison were less likely to return if they had participated in arts programming.

The rate of recidivism – the number of individuals released from prison to return in three years – in California is among the highest in the nation. A 2013 report by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found the three-year recidivism rate for all felons released during 2008-2009 to be 61 percent. Studies have shown that inmates who participate in arts programming experience increased self-discipline, self-confidence and decreased incidents of violence.

Aside from the grant, almost all of Strindberg’s programming is paid for out of Bierman and Pakarinen’s pockets. “We didn’t buy a house, we run this program [instead],” Bierman explains.

The couple knows they’ll never be able to hire every graduate of the program, but they believe firmly that the skills they re teaching can lead to other opportunities.

“To be an actor, you have to communicate, you have to work with others, you have to create and imagine – all that stuff,” Bierman says. “They’re learning skills for any job.”

And since their program is based in Los Angeles, preparing these individuals for jobs in entertainment is a safe bet.

“There’s 133,000 jobs in entertainment,” he says. “That’s a lot of jobs. And another great thing about the arts is that a lot of people have records who are still really famous and successful.”

A New Purpose

The Strindberg Laboratory currently employs three acting teachers who are graduates of its programs in jails and homeless shelters – a number the directors say will grow to at least 10 within the year.

Teacher Tony Cedeno was serving a three-year sentence in Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles when he met Bierman and Pakarinen, who he calls “my angels from God.”

“When I met them, I was fully involved in the gangs,” Cedeno, 52, tells PEOPLE. “I came out one morning of their drama class to give notes to somebody and I wound up staying.”

Cedeno, formerly known as “Teardop,” was coping with HIV positive status and substance abuse issues when he became involved with the program. He says he “never in a million years” could have imagined acting would change the course of his life.

“I just gave it a chance,” he recalls. “I played my mother in our first show and it helped me to process a lot of feelings I was harboring and gave me a chance to look at the part I played as a son rather than what my mother had done to me.”

Most of the plays the program puts on are written or adapted by the actors themselves. This allows for a greater creative expression and helps with two practical concerns.

“It’s easier because if you do a play you have to learn lines,” Bierman says. “A lot of the guys, especially if they’re dealing with addiction, can’t remember anything.”

Cedeno contacted the couple one day after being released from jail. After participating in productions on the outside, Cedeno became a Strindberg Laboratory teacher. He now leads acting workshops at Project Alofa, a Long Beach, California, organization that assists formerly incarcerated individuals and the LGBTQ community – a role he takes extremely seriously.

“I released my tension in the theater and that’s what I do today,” he says. “I’m still clean and sober going on three years thanks to them.”

“I work extra hours because it’s like therapy for me,” he continues. “After getting shot, getting stabbed, getting thrown off of bridges, getting tied up in handcuffs, being the victim of home invasions, these people make me feel safe. I feel a safety, I feel like they’re teaching me. They’re teaching me how to be human again.”

A Reason to Hope

This is a sentiment shared by the other actors in rehearsals. Many inmates say the program has given them a rare chance to embrace an identity beyond that of “prisoner.”

“Every time I come here, I forget where I am,” Donald Hooker explains. “I’m surprised by how the time goes by. I don t even know where I am because I’m so invested in the work.”

“I do this because it gives me something more than just this,” Jimmy McMillan adds. “It’s a change of pace, it gives me a reason to get up in the morning, like, ‘Okay, I gotta go to art class,’ instead of ‘Okay, I gotta get up and go to the yard.’ ”

The men in the workshop aren’t separated by their races during rehearsals – as they are in the yards. They speak freely to one another, help each other with lines, talk through blocking and bond.

As Joki explained, the privacy of this room gives the men their only opportunity to cross racial lines. “When they walk out of here, they can’t sit and have lunch together,” she says.

“Inside here there’s a different code that people live by,” Terryance Smith explains. “But when we come into acting class, we’re able to release from that and get goofy and serious and have camaraderie.”

Many participants saw this as just one of many ways this program is helping to prepare them for life on the outside.

“Out there you don’t have different groups of races, everybody’s together,” James Frierson tells PEOPLE. “I don’t want to be closed in with prison life. When I get out, my co-workers might be white or Mexican and we’re gonna end up working next to each other – we can start that in here.”

“This is a hostile environment,” he continues, “so we’re trying to do something positive so we can all see it’s alright to change. It’s alright to interact with other races; we’re showing it’s okay. Be yourself, make friends, change your life so that when you go back to society, you’ll be better at dealing with yourself.”

The program has also shown the prison staff another side to the inmates.

“It’s definitely a new perspective,” Manny Nunez, captain of facility B, tells PEOPLE of his view of the program. “This facility is a high security mission with guys that come mostly from gang backgrounds, so to see them interact in this setting is new and refreshing.”

More than anything, the program offers hope. “When you have programs like this and people getting to learn and do stuff and interact, that’s rehabilitation to me,” adds DeShun Bray. “You never know – you might see one of us on TV one day.”

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