It's been more than ten years since Tim Robbins first began The Actors' Gang Prison Project with the intent to help rehabilitate incarcerated men and women.

By Mia McNiece
April 06, 2017 11:02 PM
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It’s been more than ten years since Tim Robbins first began The Actors’ Gang Prison Project with the intent to help rehabilitate incarcerated men and women.

Today, the Oscar winner, 58, is proud that the program continues to thrive in over ten California prisons and has significantly reduced the recidivism rate for people who have gone through the program.

“What the program essentially does is get people who are incarnated in touch with their feelings,” Robbins tells PEOPLE. “If there’s a predominant emotion in prison, it would be anger. It’s the way to survive. Everyone puts on an angry persona in order to be left alone. But when someone does that for years, it tends to deaden them from the other emotions. So we, in the course of theater workshops, encourage them through a character, to express sadness, happiness, and fear.”

The actor, who famously played a prisoner in The Shawshank Redemption, says by being able to express themselves, prisoners become more empathetic to others. He adds he’s seen amazing transformations in people over the eight-week workshops.

“I’ve seen a person go from an angry shut-off individual to an open, empathetic one,” he says.

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Robbins feels the work being done through the program is also a matter of public safety.

“98% of incarcerated people are going to get out at some point,” he says. “Wouldn’t you want the person coming out of prison and living in your neighborhood to have the tools to deal with his emotions?”

Besides his work with the Prison Project, the actor has written and directs the musical Harlequino: On to Freedom currently at the Ivy Substation in Los Angeles until May 20. He will also be heading to Washington D.C. on April 7 to receive the prestigious Benjamin Franklin Creativity Laureate Award at a Smithsonian Associates event.

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It’s not lost on Robbins how fortunate he is and he admits when he was younger, he too could have ended up in jail.

“I grew up in New York City in the late 60s, early 70s. It wasn’t the safest place to be. In order to survive, you had to be fast or tough. You had to learn how to fight,” he says. “A lot of people that I grew up with wound up incarcerated. I got lucky.”