Behind “Behind These Walls”

Behind “Behind These Walls”

September 6, 2023 | Karin Young Shiel

An image of a prison fence with razor wire on top and the words "Behind These Walls."

We all have moments when something changes us, opens our eyes to something we’ve not yet seen, and puts us on a path to find out more. That happened to me, and so many others, the first time we heard people talk about their experiences mounting a play while incarcerated in a maximum-security prison. 

These people described how reading and performing plays helped them identify and understand emotions they had felt but never had a name for, which they certainly weren’t allowed to express inside prison. They talked about being able to “take off the mask” that they wore to keep an emotional distance from others and ward off trouble. Plus, they discussed the culture of respect, collaboration, and responsibility that exists when people work together on a production and how that translated to their lives.

My co-producers, Allison Chernow and Susan Margolin, and I vowed to record some of these voices so they could be shared more widely. That’s how our short film, Behind These Walls, came to be. We secured several grants and invited formerly incarcerated men and women to a soundstage in Bushwick, Brooklyn, on the coldest weekend in February 2019. Our cinematographer, Gabe Elder, rigged an Interrotron camera so the viewer would look straight into the eyes of each speaker. We came away with so much incredible material that, with the help of our masterful editor Amy Foote, we created two short videos.

Dino served 15 years for dealing drugs. When he first arrived at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, Dino described himself as angry, shut down, and numb. In Behind These Walls, he recounts in horrific detail the violence and dehumanizing prison environment as well as the freeing sense of community and respect inside the theater workshop. Dino explained how playing a character in a play gave him a chance to put himself in someone else’s shoes, which taught him empathy. We also get to see Dino post‑incarceration in his work with young people, helping them find alternatives to gangs and guiding them to make good decisions.

Dino is extraordinary, but so are all of the people that we profiled—and there are so many more talented and motivated people locked inside. That’s what is so profoundly moving. Few of us on the outside regularly think about the people behind bars—roughly 1.9 million people in the US. Many incarcerated individuals want to grow and absorb the life skills they never had the opportunity to learn outside of prison. These skills and insights would help them reintegrate into their families and communities when they come home. For so many, those opportunities simply don’t exist.

The program that these people participated in is called Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA), which has been operating inside New York State prisons for 27 years. What began as a theater program mounting plays as varied as Macbeth, The Wizard of Oz, 12 Angry Men,and Oedipus Rex is now an expansive arts program that includes dance, visual arts, music, and creative writing. These creative processes strengthen communication, problem solving, goal setting, collaboration, discipline, and other essential life skills. Unlike other important opportunities, like college programs, the arts has no barrier to entry; you don’t even need to be able to read to participate. Many of the people who participated in RTA are now home and can speak to the enormous impact these programs have had on their lives.

Word is finally spreading. The narrative feature film Sing Sing, which premieres this September at the Toronto International Film Festival, is based upon the RTA program and stars Colman Domingo alongside 13 formerly-incarcerated RTA members. In the film, Dino and the other prisoners all play themselves in the process of putting on an original production, which actually happened in 2005. 

Greg Kwedar, the writer/director of Sing Sing, and his writing partner Clint Bentley were deeply moved when they first discovered RTA and the people who participated. Clearly, those of us who made Behind These Walls are not alone in feeling compelled to share the stories of these people and this program with the world. This article doesn’t begin to capture their voices or the enormous benefit of offering arts programs inside prisons, but these films do.

Karin Young Shiel is an Emmy-winning producer living in New York. Her work spans Sesame Street to mass incarceration and includes television, documentary, and narrative feature film. Her short film, Behind These Walls, is a 2023 Media for a Just Society Award finalist in the TV/video category.