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Activist Performers “Pussy Riot” Bring Human Rights Campaign to John Jay

Freed barely a month ago after spending two years in the Russian penal system, two of that country’s foremost political dissidents – Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova and Maria (Masha) Alyokhina of the punk ensemble Pussy Riot – brought their campaign for human rights and prison reform to John Jay College of Criminal Justice on February 6.

The campaign known as “Zona Prava” (Justice Zone) had made its first stop at the Bring Human Rights Home concert sponsored by Amnesty International and held at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. The exclusive closed-door session at John Jay was organized by Professor Lorraine Moller of the Department of Communication and Theatre Arts and Kevin Barnes-Ceeney, Director of Research for the Prisoner Reentry Institute, and focused on the efficacy of prison-based arts programs.

The meeting was arranged with the help of The Voice Project, a non-governmental organization that seeks to use the power of music to promote social change.

Barnes-Ceeney discussed the use of art and design to change institutional culture, providing examples drawn from his ongoing study with Professor Jeff Mellow of the Department of Probation’s work to improve the environment in probation waiting rooms. He also presented examples of prison-based art programs, drawn from his audit of 177 art programs currently operating in U.S. correctional facilities. These commonly include creative writing classes, art classes, poetry writing and performance, drama productions, expressive performance workshops and exhibitions of inmate artwork.

He outlined the potential positive benefits of prison-based art programs, along with the potential for such programs to reduce recidivism when integrated within a broader educational curriculum.

New York City Probation Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi and his Chief of Staff, Michael Ognibene, who have been instrumental in creating or expanding arts programs within the New York City probation system, discussed the challenges of changing staff culture, and identified strategies for utilizing leverage points to embed rehabilitative programming in correctional contexts.

 

Moller drew on her years of experience teaching theater in prisons in New York and Thailand to discuss the healing powers of art. Language barriers and the need for translation notwithstanding, Nadya and Masha were quick to grasp Moller’s description of how theater heals prison culture.

Nadya and Masha, who were imprisoned for their vocal opposition to the policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, are still evolving their prison reform and human rights agenda, and view the implementation of art programs as a long-term goal. They informed the session’s participants that there are comparatively few relevant correctional programs in Russia, which in turn means there are many more bases to cover.

The New York and John Jay participants, for their part, cautioned the Russian activists that the road ahead will be difficult, requiring strength, patience and diplomacy, but they said they would provide Zona Prava with scholarly support and partnership recommendations.