Led by Tim Robbins, the Actors’ Gang, through its Prison Project, has been working with inmates in the California inmate system since 2006, teaching acting workshops. At least three times a year, the theater company brings classes directly into prisons, working to foster tolerance, nonviolent expression and, ultimately, to reduce recidivism rates.

After being approached by Sabra Williams, now the director of the Prison Project, about beginning an arts rehabilitation program, Robbins said he immediately realized the idea had the potential to change lives.

“My first thought was that it was exactly the kind of work we should be doing,” Robbins said. “I’ve worked for years with many different causes … but to actually be on the ground and doing the work is really fulfilling.”

Through classes that combine open discussion, theater education and performance, the project brings together inmates from different races — and different gangs — in a setting where it’s safe to explore and express emotions otherwise discouraged in prison. “It creates a bond that is quite profound and lasting. And it cuts deeper than previous lines that have been drawn.”

Recently, the Prison Project was awarded state funding by the California Arts Council, a first for the program. Since the project has been run through volunteer work, the new funding will allow the Actors Gang to expand the program.

Robbins credited members of the Actors’ Gang for helping the program to succeed. “We have a group of talented actors who are committed not only to their craft, but to their community.”

Robbins said the group began to take action after noting cuts made to arts in education and cuts in rehabilitation funding. Now, with state funding, it’s looking to expand the project.

“Our hope is that within five years we’ll be able to train different groups throughout the state in this method,” he said, “and hopefully empower other organizations, too, to go in and do this work.”