Tim Robbins’ Prison Acting Project Takes on the California Penal System

December 9, 2016 5:00 am
Shawshank Redemption Actor Tim Robbins Works in Real Prison System
Tim Robbins (left) opposite Morgan Freeman in 1994's 'The Shawshank Redemption' (Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection)
Prison Project
Actor Tim Robbins, center, who serves as the artistic director of the Actors’ Gang Prison Project, laughs while watching inmates perform during a 2014 workshop at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, California. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)


Oscar-winning actor Tim Robbins knows his way around a prison. Well, a fictional one, that is. With acting credits in the 1994 classic Shawshank Redemption and directing duties for 1995’s Oscar-nominated Dead Man Walking, you could argue that Robbins owes his career to the U.S. prison system.

He must’ve felt the same way when he got involved with the Prison Project. Spawning from his artistic director role at the Actors’ Gang theater company, the Prison Project brings the arts inside prisons in California. It allows inmates to learn acting and improv on a weekly basis.

The type of improv the inmates practice is called commedia dell’arte. It dates back to the 16th century and involves masked or heavily made-up actors performing sketches, reports New York magazine. Over a 10-year period, the Prison Project has hosted intensive classes and workshops in both the California Institution for Men and the California Institution for Women.

Prison Project
(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)


The program is making a considerable difference, as it turns out. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. And the statistics in California alone are pretty staggering. Six out of 10 California inmates return to prison within three years. A 2015 study by Impact Justice showed an 89 percent drop in in-prison infractions for inmates participating in the Prison Project. And, as reported in the New York story, a recent study showed that for inmates who completed the Prison Project program, the recidivism rate dropped to 10.6 percent.

For more on the Prison Project, read New York magazine’s full report here. Below, watch a video from the California Arts Council on the program, featuring an interview with Robbins.

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