Americans for the Arts’ “Arts and Social Impact Explorer” shows the benefits that the arts can have on the lives of those who have access:

  • Youth who engage in arts education are more likely to have better test scores and more civic engagement than their counterparts who don’t.
  • Arts are one of the main drivers of tourism in the United States, which positively increases economic and social growth of communities.
  • Arts interventions in healthcare have an impact in healing and prevention efforts, both within younger and older populations.

A population that we often leave out of the conversation about the arts and social impact are those individuals who are incarcerated. Gary, an artist whose work was uplifted through the Justice Arts Coalition, which is a “national network and resource for those creating art in and around the criminal legal system,” noted

After nearly 30 years of incarceration, the feelings of being forgotten weigh heavily. We are the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the cast-aways. True, as I often tell others, I did this to myself. I blame no one but me. Yet I long for a second chance, the opportunity to be re-interwoven back into the fabric of America from which my crime ripped me.

While stigmas about those who are incarcerated, such as what Gary discusses above, may keep us from including them in the conversation, arts programs that have been implemented in prisons across the United States have shown to have positive outcomes in many aspects of the lives of the incarcerated, both pre- and post-release.  

In a 2020 research article, Danielle Maude Littman and Shannon M. Silva published a review of 25 research studies regarding the effectiveness of the arts to those who are incarcerated, finding “statistically significant improvements in self-confidence, self-esteem, task completion, social competence, emotional stability and control and well-being, and decreased hopelessness and anger.”

Across the country, there are programs that are working to provide arts education and arts resources to those who are incarcerated. Many of these programs can be found through the Justice Arts Coalition (JAC) program directory.

Below are two examples, both present in the JAC’s program directory, of the incredible work that organizations are doing to help provide access to the arts.

1)    Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA)

Two students with Rehabilitation Through the Arts perform in a theatre production wearing red costumes.
Rehabilitation Through the Arts Students Performing a Theatre Production. Source:

Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA), a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, was founded in 1996 at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. This organization, which started as a group of men writing and performing a play about their lives, has turned into so much more. RTA now includes multiple programs that give incarcerated members of society an outlet to work through grief and trauma both inside and outside of prison.

Through an approach based their values of dignity, creativity, commitment, and collaboration, the incarcerated are building life skills that help them both while incarcerated and after their release. Incarcerated members showed significantly reduced violence and infractions within the prison compared to nonmembers. RTA has an incredible success rate, noting that compared to the national recidivism rate of 60%, members of RTA have less than a 3% recidivism rate.

As of 2023, Rehabilitation Through the Arts has three programs that they provide to their students: Core Programs, ReImagining Myself, and Alumni Activities. Their Core Programs include theatre, dance, music and voice, visual art, and writing. With a variety of ways for students to get involved in the arts, RTA is able to reach a wider audience and have a larger impact. Students who may not feel comfortable performing in physical ways such as dance, theatre, and music and voice still have the hands-on ability to not only learn important life skills, work through trauma, and also still be a part of this larger collaborative project. Similarly, those who may not work as well expressing themselves through hands-on art or writing are able to express themselves vocally and physically through dance or the retelling of stories through theatre and music and voice.  Regardless of which avenue students choose to work with, they are still collaborating with others, as many of these avenues work together when creating and performing shows.

ReImagining Myself is a program that uses the arts to explore challenges that those who are incarcerated are likely to face after release from prison. Upon creation, this program was informed by formerly incarcerated people who had experienced the difficulties of reentry into society and knew what skills are necessary for successful reentry. Using the voices of those who have directly experienced this process is important in understanding what incarcerated students need in this time because not only do they know the social and emotional troubles that this process entails, but they also can be a guiding voice of success to those who are going through reentry. In Spring 2023, a participant reported that with this program, “I’ve been given a roadmap for how to succeed in society.”

As part of the ReImagining Myself program, RTA alumnus film Lived Experience videos discussing their experiences and issues with reentry. Clarence, an alumnus of RTA, discusses his experience of how the play Oedipus Rex, which follows of a man running away from a prophecy, and how the experience with this play showed him “that my fate wasn’t sealed, that I didn’t have to be a gangster for the rest of my life… I had options, I could choose something else.” Judah, another alumnus from RTA, discusses how the experiences of performing in RTA gave color to a dull life, saying “I’m a person that could have been shunned from society, but I was welcomed back by this program. I’m thankful for that.” These are just two examples of the positive experiences that this organization provided, with both Clarence and Judah learning important lessons through hands-on work in theatre.

The third program, Alumni Activities, encompasses a wide variety of projects that RTA alumnus participate in that involve community, current incarcerated RTA students, and elected public officials on the role of the arts in prison. Through both in-person and virtual avenues, RTA alumni are still able to engage in the program long after they have been released. This continued collaboration shows how effective RTA is, having continued support and involvement once the students have graduated. The three programs are evidence of the continued support that RTA has through the timeline of the students during and outside of prison.

Ten alumnus of Rehabilitation Through the Arts  stand together with outstretched arms
Rehabilitation Through the Arts Alumnus. Source:

As of 2023, RTA is working in one maximum-security women’s prison (Bedford Hills in Bedford Hills, NY), two maximum-security men’s prisons (Green Haven in Stormville, NY; Sing Sing in Ossining, NY), one medium-security women’s prison (Taconic in Bedford Hills, NY), and two medium-security men’s prisons (Fishkill in Beacon, NY; Woodbourne in Woodbourne, NY).

In September 2023, Sing Sing, a movie based on the experiences of actors within RTA, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. This movie gives an insight into the incredible creativity that the incarcerated folks in the organization and the real-world benefits. 

RTA is active on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. For more information about Rehabilitation Through the Arts and ways to get involved, visit

2)  Prison Arts Collective

Two members of the Prison Arts Collective show their artwork
Prison Arts Collective Participant Art. Source:

The Prison Arts Collective (PAC) is a project of the San Diego State University Research Foundation that was founded in 2013 by Visual Arts professor Annie Buckley. Through partnership with California State universities (CSU), PAC offers incarcerated members of California state prisons with arts facilitator training for incarcerated peer-leaders, guest artist workshops, and multidisciplinary arts classes. With the goal of providing arts education to everyone, this program allows for those who are often left out of the conversation of arts funding to be placed back into the narrative. This program reaches 5,437 incarcerated students through a variety of programs.    

As of 2023, PAC offers 6 programs: Multidisciplinary Programs, Guest Artists & Scholars Program, Arts Facilitator Training, Outside: Inside Productions, Collaborative Workshops, and Project Alice. Teaching artists, university students and faculty, and peer facilitators lead weekly multidisciplinary classes, created specifically to serve the needs of the prison. Each of the thirteen prisons that PAC provides education to have different students with different needs, so reflecting those needs in the offered courses is an important aspect of the success of the program. The courses, while different, all focus on three elements: art history/culture, reflection, and creative practice.

The Guest Artists & Scholar Program provides incarcerated students with weekly programs that include art showcases of current professional artists and experienced scholars. Connecting incarcerated students with professionals not only is inspiring for those who may be newly honing in on their craft, but also allows the students to begin to understand and build networks with artists and themselves. Some of the professionals that have previously donated time to the program include experts in guitar, poetry, yoga, glass, design, writing, and activism. This wide variety of interests is important in showcasing to students the wide array of arts processes, some of which they may not have considered before.

With Collaborative Workshops, incarcerated participants use multidisciplinary art performances to reflect on social issues, brainstorm how to address these issues through art, and create a project using at least three art disciplines. These workshops ran in two prisons: The California Institution for Men and the California Institution for Women. The men’s final project was titled “Redemption” and the women’s was titled “City Without a Name.” After the final projects, students provided their reflections on the experience. Lyle, a participant for “Redemption” noted that

Personally, I learned to be more humble and open-minded. There were definitely times that I felt my pride put in the way of my ability to contribute or collaborate. I learned to value the input of other people, to treat it as valuable as my own. As an artist I learned more about the creative process. I learned not to be discouraged by an intimidating idea/concept and instead tackle it one at a time. I learned that it is ok for the original vision to evolve and change.

PAC is active on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn. For more information and ways to support PAC and get involved, visit

As we can see from these programs, the arts have incredible results on recidivism rates, cutting them by over half by those who participated in the arts. The arts also have the ability to help those involved learn life skills, build their resumes in preparation for reentry, work through feelings including trauma and grief, build networks, and allow them to build confidence within a prison setting that is meant to be demeaning.

Another important takeaway from these programs is the role of universities in prison arts programs. The California State University system is just one example of how arts programs can help serve all members of a community as well as reduce recidivism and crime within a community. Programs such as the Prison Arts Collective are building a repertoire of materials to lead other universities through the process of including incarcerated students in their student body. 

Written by Justice Greene, a graduate student in the Ph.D. in Sociology program at Virginia Tech.