Photographers' Blog

Inside the prison actors studio

Norco, California
By Mario Anzuoni

Recently I was granted access inside a California state prison to photograph the Actors’ Gang Prison Project final presentation. The project is funded by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and aims to rehabilitate inmates through the arts.

Inmates participate in the workshop "Commedia Dell'Arte", part of the The Actors' Gang Prison Project program at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco

The California Rehabilitation Center is located in Norco, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, only a couple of blocks from a dense residential area, and houses more than 3,000 inmates.

Inmates watch the workshop "Commedia Dell'Arte", part of the The Actors' Gang Prison Project program at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, California

I cleared security around 9 a.m., and was escorted through a sliding gate and into a minivan, which inadvertently gave me a tour of the prison grounds before finally arriving at our destination atop the hill.

I was led into a room adapted into a small auditorium. It was quiet and as I looked around, I could see that the inmates participating in the project were on the floor, meditating, while the artistic director of the project, actor Tim Robbins, sat quietly in a corner.

Inmates meditate before the workshop "Commedia Dell'Arte", part of the The Actors' Gang Prison Project program at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco

Their acting coach guided them through the meditation routine and then it was makeup time. The workshop was called “Commedia dell’Arte,” a type of comedy theater developed in Italy in the 16th century. Given the genre, the makeup is very colorful, and very artfully applied by all of them. As they were finishing up, their small audience of about 30 inmates trickled into the room. Tim Robbins took the stage and welcomed everyone by asking us to turn off our cellphones. Everybody chuckles, including the inmates, because there are no cellphones in prison, of course.

A second chance for women facing prison

Los Angeles, California

By Lucy Nicholson

Victoria Rios, 49, stood up in front of the crowd gathered in the court’s public gallery for her graduation. She listened as Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan, 76, began her story. She had started drinking and smoking when she was eight-years-old. She began taking heroin when she was eleven. She was abused, and went through many abusive relationships. “Prisons become my permanent friend,” she said. “If it wasn’t for this program, I don’t know where I’d be. In prison for life or dead,” she said as tears rolled down her face.

GALLERY: SECOND CHANCE FOR JAILED WOMEN

Judge Tynan walked over to her and wrapped his arms around her in a bear hug. “I could have retired 11 or 12 years ago, but I keep coming back because of people like her,” he said. Tynan has been running the Second Chance Women’s Re-entry Court program since 2007, with Public Defender Nancy Chand, who represents most of the women.

As California struggles with its crowded prison population, the court has pioneered an approach that aims to treat the underlying causes of many women’s crimes – drug addiction, sexual and physical abuse, and mental illness — most commonly post traumatic stress disorder. Around 66% of California prisoners have serious substance abuse problems, but only 2% participate in treatment in prison.

Stepping into the endless abyss

By Jason Lee

According to official reports, there will be 780,000 HIV-positive people in China by the end of 2011. As drug injection is one of the main causes of AIDS infections, the Chinese government has to face the situation and come up with appropriate solutions to help those estimated 1.8 million drug users in China.

Yunnan, a province located in southwest China at the border of the Golden Triangle, is a hot zone for AIDS infections. It took great effort to apply to the Yunnan province judicial and public security offices to receive permission allowing me to photograph a compulsory drug rehabilitation center and a drug addicts recovery community in provincial capital Kunming.

Most people think that drug addicts are a group of people who are full of lies. This shows how drugs can change a person’s humanity. I have heard so many painful stories from drug addicts. What we need urgently is a good solution to help them get back to normal lives. Because of China’s large population, I believe it is the government’s duty to help. After I finished transmitting my pictures from Yunnan, a picture editor commented “They seem to be pretty good over there.” I replied, “Yes, and I think if ever my friend becomes addicted to drugs, I will personally suggest that he goes there.”

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