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Performing arts help people in Missouri reenter society after incarceration

"Doing this is fun because it's different. I love working with this group of women. We work hard together to make something amazing happen," said one participant in Prison Performing Arts (PPA) programming at the Women’s Eastern Reception Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia, Missouri.

The amazing things PPA helps make happen are public performances of works ranging from original poems to music to Shakespearean dramas by people who are interacting with Missouri’s criminal and juvenile justice systems. These build on workshops in acting, playwriting, literature analysis, and other performing arts skills with adults and young people who are incarcerated, are returning citizens, or are otherwise involved with justice institutions.

The goal is to offer an avenue for personal development in foundational skills, like communication and teamwork, that facilitate personal development, reentry into society, and long-term success. Together, in an inclusive and accepting environment, participants grow accustomed to trusting one another and expressing their emotions and identity.

"PPA has let me know that regardless of what makes us all different, with communication, commitment, and a sense of humor we all can create something beautiful… no matter where you are," said one participant at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center (MECC).

And it’s a two-way street. Not only is PPA programming an opportunity for people who are incarcerated to prepare for reentry into society; it’s also a chance for society to get to form personal, authentic connections with participants.

"PPA gives us a voice in society so we can show we're not worth giving up on or thrown away,” said another participant at MECC.

A recent grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) supported PPA’s work as the organization continues to adapt and evolve through the challenges posed by the pandemic. When health restrictions forced the suspension of in-person programming in prisons, PPA responded with new programs at two post-incarceration reentry facilities.

The organization’s Alumni Theater Program offers ongoing connection and stability to people who are newly released and finding their footing again in a very different environment, equipped, PPA hopes, with new skills and a positive outlook.

PPA programming, said a participant from the Northeast Correctional Center, “made me feel I could accomplish just about anything I put my mind to."

See more of PPA’s work in a documentary now available to stream on Peacock and Tubi