There are many films and TV shows portraying what happens behind prison walls. In 1996, Katherine Vockins had a different approach. Rather than have prisoners watch actors, she wanted them to become actors, teaching them “to use the transformative power of the arts to develop social and cognitive skills prisoners need for a more productive life inside the walls and in the community when released.”
Rehabilitation Through the Arts was launched at Sing Sing Correctional Facility and continues to lead both RTA and Prison Communities International Inc., the 501c3 non-profit organization under which RTA operates. While the national recidivism rate is nearly 60 percent, less than 7 percent of RTA members return to prison. The effectiveness of RTA participation has also been shown in two recently published research studies conducted in collaboration with the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. Researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice showed that RTA participants demonstrated improved behavior and anger management and better disciplinary records compared to a control group, and another study by researchers at SUNY/Purchase College showed that participation in RTA led to achieving a high school equivalency diploma earlier in the sentence and a three-fold increase in post high school academics, compared to a carefully matched sample.
Anyone interested in learning more about RTA may attend a reading on Monday, February 5, of Home Is a Verb, a new play by Melissa Cooper based on true stories about the challenges faced when returning home after prison. Directed by Richard Hamburger, this one-night-only presentation will benefit RTA. The cast will feature professional actors, alongside RTA alumni, and actor Michael K. Williams, best known for his portrayal of Omar on HBO’s The Wire, is scheduled to appear that evening as a special guest.
As founder and executive director, Katherine’s involvement and enthusiasm for the program has never waned and she continues to lead the organization she founded. She has been awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters by SUNY Purchase for her prison work, was named Huffington Post Person of the Day, Westchester County Thought Leader and Chavez Day Hero, and is a frequent speaker on arts-in-correction. Katherine took time out to answer out My Career Choice questionnaire.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
This is actually my third career – and in retrospect, I now recognize this “career” not as a career but a calling. The event that triggered my interest in this third chapter of my life was my partner/husband’s mid-life “correction.” He chose to leave our $2 million international marketing/management business to work with the homeless on the streets of NYC, get his graduate degree in Theology, and teach in Sing Sing prison. I followed him inside the walls to try and understand what he found so compelling. That blew away the myths and stereotypes I, along with millions of Americans, hold about incarcerated men and women.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
It is extraordinarily satisfying to know you are making a dramatic change in someone’s life; that you are helping individuals transform their lives for the better. Our program members when released from prison return to society and become law-biding, tax-paying and contributing members of their communities.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?<
There was no formal training for what I am doing, because I am not trained as a lawyer, artist or social worker – as many of whom work in this field are. I am trained as a business specialist and that has proven to be the most important skills to take into starting a running a successful non-profit organization.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
Wow! Most people, including my family thought I was crazy to choose to work behind the frightening walls of maximum-security prisons. They were very discouraging and challenged me often about why I wanted to work with convicted felons. After receiving an honorary doctorate for founding and running RTA, some of those views have changed.
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
Of course I have doubted this career change. The pay is terrible, there is little or no way for your ego to be stroked, you work with a bureaucracy (Department of Corrections and Community Supervision) that is incredibly difficult to deal with, and any work in the social services field has long hours and little vacation.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
The tipping point for this organization has been the ability to attract sufficient funding to prove the agency can and will continue to grow and be sustained. That happened about year 12 in our 21 year history.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
Probably the biggest challenge has been learning how to deal successfully with a huge bureaucracy, overcoming its issues and becoming its partner rather than its adversary.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
My strong intra-personal skills and ability to successfully negotiate and sustain relationships.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
The honorary doctorate I received from SUNY in 2016.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
Be sure you understand that the social service field is not for everyone – even if you know you want to help people. You will need empathy and compassion for marginalized populations, coupled with a strong desire to help, little ego stroking needs and acceptance that your salary may not fit a perceived lifestyle. In return, you gain the amazing ability to effectively change the lives of the individuals you serve and their families.
Home Is a Verb will take place on Monday, February 5, 2018 beginning at 6:30 p.m. (7:00 p.m. curtain) Off-Broadway at The Mainstage Theater (416 West 42nd Street). Click for more information and to purchase tickets.