Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

John Jay College of Criminal Justice

My Career Choice: Katherine Vockins – Rehabilitation Through The Arts


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.

For more information, visit the website for Rehabilitation Through The Arts (RTA). Contact RTA via email at info@rta-arts.org.

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.

Bas Dreisinger’s Incarceration Nations – Re-Imagining Criminal Justice Reform


In an October 2014 edition of The New Yorker, Jennifer Gonnerman wrote about sixteen-year-old Bronx resident, Kaleif Browder, who, in the spring of 2010, was sent to Rikers for allegedly stealing a backpack. After three years – two of them in solitary confinement – his case was dropped due to lack of evidence. Kaleif returned home a shattered nineteen-year-old. Two years later he committed suicide. Sadly, Kaleif’s story is not unique.

As the human tragedy that America’s courts have inflicted upon so many of our citizens comes into ugly focus, the call to reform the criminal justice system may be reaching a tipping point. President Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan recently went on record vowing to work together on a reform plan during the President’s last year in office. Let’s hope they can.

The United States has five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the prison population, most of them poor, vulnerable and minorities. Shockingly, not even China, with a population four times larger, comes close to our percentages. In fact, according to a recent National Research Council report, the one country whose prison rates are estimated to equal or exceed ours is North Korea.

Arriving at this propitious moment is Baz Dreisinger’s new book, Incarceration Nations. An Associate Professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and founder of the innovative Prison-to-College Pipeline program, Dreisinger knows first hand the human faces, and family heartbreak behind the statistics.

In an effort to re-think America’s punitive model of justice, Dreisinger turned a recent sabbatical into a bold quest. She visited prisons in nine countries – Uganda, Rawanda, South Africa, Jamaica, Brazil, Austraila, Thailand, Singapore and Norway – engaging whenever possible with inmates through drama workshops, art and writing classes, and restorative justice programs. She hoped her experience would deliver a shock to her system and help her imagine what true reform might look like. How were other countries managing their prisons? What was working? What was not?

Dreisinger_IncarcerationNationsIn Thailand she directed women prisoners as they acted out the scenarios that landed many of them in prison: serving as drug mules for their boyfriends. Deep in the Rwanda hillside, she worked with genocide survivors who forgave then welcomed back into the community the perpetrators who, nineteen years ago, slaughtered their neighbors. In Uganda’s notoriously over crowded prison system, where there are no toilets and human beings are crammed together like sardines, she led a writing workshop where inmates wrote about childhoods filled with poverty and abuse. And in Brazil’s Penitenciária Federal de Catanduvas, the country’s first supermax, she met Carlos who compared his solitary confinement (an American export started by Quakers) to the feeling of being buried alive.

Dreisinger’s first person narrative reads, to great effect, like a series of ominous set-ups to a variety of hellish nightmares. In South Africa “the air is el dente” and her hotel room feels like a “royal carriage house” albeit within walking distance of Pollsmoor Prison, one of the most dangerous places on earth. At other times, she disrupts the flow of her thought-provoking narrative with observational platitudes. “Punishment” she writes “is backword looking. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is forward looking.”

Such idealism may make us feel good but the challenges necessary to bring about real change mean confronting messy, complex truths like our history with slavery, prejudice, economic inequality, and the hopelessness all that entails. More instructive is Dreisinger’s Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: “Compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that the edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Society must find a way to guard the safety of its citizens within a justice system that guarantees respect and compassion for the victim while offering perpetrators a realistic path to redemption, not the inhuman treatment that shames all of us who imagine we live in a civilized society.

Dreisinger’s last stop, Norway, is the only true relief to what is, in the end, a very dark journey through deep pockets of abandoned humanity.  Norway boasts of its “penal exceptionalism,” where short sentences are the norm, prisons have flat screen televisions, all kinds of classes, wrap around sofas, well-educated correction officers, and very low rates of recidivism. Yet Norway’s inmates caution Dreisinger not to be fooled; despite their surroundings, they are prisoners all the same.

Incarceration Nations is an important book, one that pulls back the curtain on a global human tragedy that, for most of us, is hidden from view. The author’s unique ability to draw out the humanity in even the most troubled of souls reflects the passion and understanding she brings to her work. Her Prison-to-College Pipeline program, like her writing class in Uganda and drama workshop in Thailand, is a beacon of light that illuminates a steping stone on a path to change. One can only hope that if President Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan stay true to their vows to begin the long-awaited criminal justice reform, activists like Baz Dreisinger will be invited to take a seat at the table.

Top photo: Colin Williams

Incarceration Nations
Baz Dreisinger