Photo via New York Public Library
In the late 1960s, theater producer and press agent David Rothenberg was living a glamorous lifestyle that most people only dream of--lunches with Bette Davis, traveling the world with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Then he read a script by Canadian playwright John Herbert about his traumatic incarceration experience that would change his life. The play he subsequently produced, "Fortune and Men's Eyes," not only had a successful Broadway run, but unleashed a tragic trove of stories from other ex-prisoners with similar experiences.
The reaction inspired Rothenberg to start The Fortune Society in 1967, a New York-based not for-profit that assists the formerly incarcerated and is currently a nationally recognized and lauded re-entry model. Rothenberg, now 79, spoke with The Crime Report’s Managing Editor Cara Tabachnick about the unusual journey recounted in his memoir, “Fortune in My Eyes: A Memoir of Broadway Glamour, Social Justice, and Political Passion,” the state of the correction system today, and why art can be a creative tool for coping with the prison experience.
The Crime Report: When you started the Fortune Society there was a lot of shame and silence surrounding incarceration. Do you think there is more of an understanding today?
David Rothenberg: No. There are pockets of civility, but our need to punish is greater than our need to solve our problems. The prison experience is so damaging. And it makes no sense. I’ve met thousands of (juveniles who have been imprisoned). They are alienated right from the beginning. You really can’t separate the criminal justice system from all the other inadequacies in society.
When people go to prison for committing a crime, they’re never confronted with what their behavior was that led them there. In fact, to survive in prison, you have to assume the kind of behavior that got you there. It’s an exercise of institutional brutality.
I’ve been in enough states to realize that the reentry process is woefully inadequate. And the prisons are never held accountable. If there’s a crime, a serious crime, the papers all want to know how he ever got paroled or released. Never about what happened to him while he was inside.
TCR: So how do you think the prisons could or should be held accountable?
DR: You need to have fewer people locked up. We long ago realized that white kids on drugs would be maintained in the community. So, why do we put black kids and Hispanic kids into prisons? You could have more creative programming in prisons if you had smaller numbers, but its warehousing, we warehouse angry, alienated, mostly young, men. Almost everything is guaranteed for recidivism. It’s almost as if we’ve designed the system for people who have committed crimes and have been captured to come back.
TCR: The Fortune Society is one of the longest running nonprofit programs involved with the incarcerated. What accounts for its success?
DR: Fortune succeeded because it was one of the first programs, and still one of the few programs, in which formally incarcerated people had a major role in its development. We still get visits from people running reentry programs who tell us that they’re not allowed to hire formally incarcerated people.
TCR: Can art still instigate a movement for change in the criminal justice system?
DR: I knew nothing about prison before I read the play, “Fortune and Men’s Eyes”. But the play is startling because it talked about things that had been hidden under the rug. I was angry that I was so ignorant. I was politically sophisticated, involved in a lot of social protest, and here was the segment of the population that was totally ignored, truly invisible in 1967.
But most of the guys had not dealt with the rage that they felt from their prison experience. In the 1960s there was a certain amount of social consciousness and curiosity. (We responded to) the need for the public to know, and also the rage that I heard. I met guys who were trying to do constructive things and establishing families, (but) they had not dealt with the real anger about what prison did to them. It was the guys themselves that inspired me more than anything else.
There are sprinkles of artistic things going on today, there are a couple of people doing writing programs. We used to have an art show in New York but they canceled it. We put on a play “The Castle.” But art and expression are rarely encouraged by the correction system.
TCR: Why do you think it’s not encouraged by the system?
DR: I think they feel threatened. At the end of the play, “The Castle, “ there is a point where the audience is allowed to ask questions. But, when we arrived at certain prisons to perform the play earlier we were not allowed to talk to the inmates; and the whole point is communication. I don’t understand that mentality. You would think that the goal would be to give them (offenders) tools to come back and function. But that is not the goal of the prison system in our country. We have solitary confinement in almost every institution. It is so damaging and the reasons why people go into solitary confinement are sometimes for not knowing or obeying rules, and they come out mad. They come out damaged, greatly damaged. And society picks up the tab for it.
TCR: Fortune Society has a yoga program and a job program and other numerous outlets for prisoners. Have these and similar programs worked?
DR: All of those things should be done inside so the people leaving the prison have something to work with. That should be done before they come out because those are crucial days. You’re sending somebody who has proven that they’re able to commit crimes, who is already alienated. (You can’t) put them back out on the street with no support. Prisons need to provide good, comprehensive programs, information and support for people heading back to society so they don’t just commit more crimes and return to prison. But that rarely happens. Officials would rather have the recidivism instead because they are so scared to help the so-called “criminals.” It doesn’t make sense.
TCR: Your mood seems pretty bleak about something you’ve been fighting for all your life.
DR: Well you saveone person at a time you know? The system doesn’t get better, but more people are making it out here. It’s tough to create a constituency for sanity when the people involved have committed crimes. My friend Sam Rivera says in the book, “The crime is what I did, not who I am.” It’s very tough for people to overcome the stigma of prison, the damage of it. When they come to Fortune, they come into a support system.
TCR: What does the future hold for the correction system?
DR: People always ask me that. The answer always has to be an enlightened constituency. Advocacy is so important. There is very little political support for sanity in the criminal justice system because, because they can pull out the horrors of the crime of that someone in has done and say “this is who we’re dealing with.” What we have tried to do is put a face on the formerly incarcerated to say it’s much more complicated than that.
We’ve been tough on crime for as long as I can remember, but we just haven’t been smart. Tough is a stance; it’s a posture. It’s not a solution. The solution is much more complex, much more difficult. It takes time and work and understanding of people. And so many of the people who end up in the prison system are on drugs. And the drugs are retreat from a reality that they couldn’t stand because, they grew up in e abject poverty, or were declined and abused as children, or ignored, or abandoned. Yet, some survive. They’re miracle people to me.
I’m not pessimistic. I’ve been watching people at Fortune for nearly 45 years now and I see people changing. So that’s encouraging. The system itself continues to grind on. But if you see people changing, then you increase the constituency for sanity and change. If you spend too much time being frustrated by the failures of the system, you become so discouraged and you do nothing. The motivating factor to keep going is the next guy who walks in the door.
EDITORS NOTE: 'Guys' uses the informal meaning and refers to both men and women. Fortune Society provides services for both.
Cara Tabachnick is managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.