Colombian prisons set up theater ‘drama-therapy’ program to help inmates

World Today

One Colombian actress is stepping out of the spotlight and into the country’s stigmatized prison systems in an effort to rehabilitate incarcerated women and men. CCTV America’s Michelle Begue reported from Bogota.

Colombian prisons set up acting program to help inmates

One Colombian actress is stepping out of the spotlight and into the country's stigmatized prison systems in an effort to rehabilitate incarcerated women and men. CCTV America's Michelle Begue reported from Bogota.

Two years ago, a Colombian actress, Johana Bahamon, visited a prison for the first time to be a judge in a beauty pageant for inmates. The experience changed her life.

“Normally, when you leave a prison you never want to go back, because of the negative and strong energy. But when I left there, I knew I needed to be there,” Bahamon said.

She canceled a trip to study acting in New York and spent the next three months building a theater program in El Buen Pastor, a prison for women.

“The objective in the beginning was for the inmates to have contact with the outside world. That was my first motivation. Then, we started to do drama therapy, so through the characters they could drive out their problems, and that’s a real therapy,” Bahamon said.

Despite the challenges of maneuvering through Colombian prison bureaucracies, the program caught on. It’s now known as the “Internal Theater Foundation,” serving 15 different prisons across the country. Inmates like Luis Francisco Guarin vouch for the life-changing therapies they received by performing the great works of Shakespeare and Federico Garcia Lorca.

“Many people suffer from depression, so in the theater we are able to let out all that negative energy that we have,” said Guarin.

For Leonardo Ortegon Rojas, who is serving a 10-year sentence for being a drug mule, performing and teaching music lessons in prison was a way to forget the permanent concrete walls that surrounded him.

“You are transported and feel free. You get to do what you love and what you were born to do. It is a gift that God gives so you can defend yourself,” Rojas said.

“It’s very important that people outside see these plays, because inmates are stigmatized by the outside world. But when you get to see them face to face, see what they can do, applaud them and admire them, everything changes,” said Bahamon.

Dreams to reach a larger audience became reality this year, when Colombia held the first ever National Prison Theater Festival. The winning group of the six performances, had the opportunity to travel to Bogota and perform in the internationally acclaimed Ibero-American Theater Festival.