How Theater Is Helping These Incarcerated Teens Build A Better Life

A startling number of children in the United States are behind bars.

According to the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, there were more than 54,000 offenders under the age of 21 in juvenile facilities on any given day in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available. And that number doesn’t include minors in adult facilities — on any given day in 2014, more than 4,000 people under 18 were incarcerated in adult jails. More than 16,000 of those were age 15 or younger.

Josie Whittlesey knows how harsh jail can be on children. She’s the founder and executive director of Drama Club NYC, an organization that uses theater to mentor children incarcerated in these facilities.

“There’s a lot of prison programs for adults, but there are not that many for youth. They’re very difficult to work with," Whittlesey said. "They’re kids, so they’re hyper, and they’re hormonal. It’s a difficult population to work with, and it’s a really transient population to work with. But it’s incredibly rewarding and fun.”

Drama Club NYC currently operates in three facilities in and around New York City: Crossroads Detention Center in Brownsville, Brooklyn; Horizon Detention Center in the South Bronx; and the Robert N. Davoren Complex for Adolescents on Rikers Island. They’re planning on expanding to serve girls soon. This month, they’ll be starting a pilot program at the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island, the prison’s facility for juvenile girls.

Refinery29 visited Drama Club NYC at Horizon Detention Center, where we spoke to Josie Whittlesey about her work with the program, and what she takes away from helping incarcerated teens grow through drama.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Meredith Clark contributed additional reporting on this story.

Photo: Simone Luek
How does the program work?
"At Horizon, we’re there two days a week and each class is an hour and a half. At Rikers, currently we’re there one day a week, and at the school, we’re there one day a week. One of the really challenging things about working in these facilities is they’re really transitory, so you’ll have kids that you work with for a whole year and kids that you’ll work with just once, and everything in between.

"We’ve never had a class back to back with the same kids in it. There ends up being a core (group) of kids that we’ve worked with for an extended amount of time, and they know the games and they know the exercises. We actually encourage them to help teach the new kids because there is bound to be at least one new kid in every class. I think that brings in a little leadership to those kids that have been with us longer.

"We do several performances a year; we’re trying to do more because we think it’s really important for them and their families. We open those performances up to their families, the staff of the facilities, the other kids of the facilities. They’re really amazing events. It didn’t occur to me until we did it the first time, but it’s really important for the family members. It’s just so difficult for the families to come to these places that are so locked down. It’s nice for them to come and have it be a positive thing where the kids are getting validated."
Photo: Simone Luek
Tell me about the leadership element. What have you seen when you’ve watched children take over teaching some of these exercises and becoming coaches of a sort to newer classmates?
“There's a confidence that’s really nice to see, and it increases their engagement in the class. They have some ownership over what they’re teaching, so it's really fun to watch them step up to the plate. You get some kids that show up where, in our first interaction with them, they’re so introverted. I think they’re probably depressed, shy, scared. So many times we’ve seen kids just evolve to being engaged, confident, and wanting to teach the games — it’s a really cool thing.”
Photo: Simone Luek
What are some of the most popular games that you’ve found?
"At Rikers, we play a game called 'Screaming Ninjas,' and the kids love that game. The games are so stupid. The new kids will be like, 'This is whack, this is stupid' and we’re like, 'Yup, 100%.' I’m always surprised at how quickly they’ll just embrace that. Because these are jail settings, or detention — same difference — so there’s a lot of posturing and putting on masks. There was a new kid who said, 'What’s the point of drama?' and one of our older kids said, 'You can come here and you can behave in ways that you can’t in other places in the facility.' I thought that was a really fantastic thing to say."
Photo: Simone Luek
How do you get a kid into this? How does the process work to provide this service to specific students?
"We’ve been around long enough that there’s a reputation in the facility. There’s usually a waiting list of kids who want to come, and so we have to wait for slots to open up. The kids tell their friends. In the juvenile detention facilities, the guards are called juvenile counselors, or JCs. We work really closely with the JCs and we’ve developed relationships with certain ones. They’ll recommend kids, which is really the best. Because they spend so much time with them, they really know them."
Photo: Simone Luek
Have you seen any particularly special responses to the program?
"I’m not allowed to give too much specific information, but we’ve had a couple instances where I know that the kids were going through very traumatic events in their life.

"There was one that really broke my heart. There was a pretty awful death in the family, and the facility told me. We were about to go into a performance unit, which means we meet every day for seven days, and the seventh day is the performance. The staff were like, ‘There’s no way this kid is going to be able to do this.’

"He never missed a rehearsal and completely knocked it out of the park in the performance. I felt really, really proud of that. He was able to have a place where he could have fun and maybe forget about what was going on in his life.”
Photo: Simone Luek
What are some of the stumbling blocks to expanding programming like this?
"One of the things that I’m really grappling with now is that I’m feeling really, really strongly that we need to be in some of the communities that these kids are coming home to. Drama isn’t for everybody, but some of the kids respond so strongly to it. They’ve brought it up to us, and said, ‘We want to continue. How are we going to continue when we go home?’

"The thing that’s heartbreaking about this work is that these kids get into whatever trouble they get into, and they get in the system. And actually in NYC — at least in the juvenile system — there’s a lot of improvements being made as we speak. It’s becoming a much more rehabilitative system. They’re getting a lot of help, and then because they’re still in detention, they’re still going to trial — so a lot of kids just go home, because the charges got dropped or whatever. They go home, and they’re going right back into the environment that they were responding to in the first place. That’s why you see this kind of revolving door with these kids."
Photo: Simone Luek
What are the challenges you face in working with these children, given that there are all these restrictions on working with these facilities?
"One of the things that I didn’t think about that became really apparent to me is that these kids really lack consistency in their lives. They’ve been chronically abandoned and neglected.

"I had this really amazing kid in the first program I ever did. I was there twice a week, every week, and we worked together for two and a half months. We were preparing a show, and he said to me every day, ‘I thought you weren’t going to come back.’ And I was like, ‘Dude, I’m here twice a week, I never miss!’ We worked together and he did the show. He was a total star — he got a standing ovation after one of his scenes, he was amazing.

"Then, because of bureaucracy, I couldn’t get back into the facility for almost a month. I was completely panicked because I knew he had gotten convicted and I knew he was going to be going upstate. I was thinking, ‘Oh my god. I’m doing the thing that he was afraid of.’ And I can’t communicate with them, so there was no way for me to let him know that I wanted to get back in.

"When I finally did, thank god he was still there. He saw me and he said, ‘I was wondering when you were going to come back.’ That was a tiny shift, but it was so significant to me because he had learned that he could trust me and that I could be consistent. That felt huge to me."
Photo: Simone Luek
What is really important for people to know about the program and the kids that you work with that might not be readily apparent?
“I think the most startling thing for me is that the kids are overwhelmingly kids of color coming from poverty. And by overwhelmingly, I mean almost 100%. [Ed. note: Statistics from New York State's Division of Criminal Justice Services found that 93% of juvenile detention admissions in New York City in 2014 were Black or Hispanic.] It’s overwhelming. I think I just met the first white kid at Rikers, and I like almost fell down. It was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ It’s so unusual. I think that will never cease to surprise me.

“In New York City, you can be arrested as young as 7 years old. I don’t think it happens that often, and I’ve never met a kid that young, but I do work with kids sometimes as young as 11, 12; they really are children. I don’t know how many people know this, but in New York State, as soon as you turn 16, you’re automatically arrested and convicted and incarcerated as an adult, no matter what the charge.

"We get into the room with these adolescents, we introduce the games, and I’m surprised by how quickly they tend to go with it. It’s a very violent environment, an environment where you have to keep your guard up at all times…When you start to play and get them [to] start laughing and goofing around, you’re like, 'Oh my god, these are not men. They’re not adults, they should not be here.'"