Chris Bisbano was serving an 18-year prison sentence when a drama class changed his life.

"We’re not teaching inmates to be actors. We’re giving them the tools of creative expression, and more importantly, emotional awareness."

60 days after Chris Bisbano was released from prison, he found himself back again, this time by choice.

He was there to teach a drama class with The Actors' Gang Prison Project. As he walked in, he noticed the inmates eyeing his tattoos, all of which he got during his 18-year sentence at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, California, for attempted murder. He knew he stuck out from the other teachers but didn't realize how much of a difference that would make until he introduced himself to the inmates.

Chris Bisbano (center, arm outstretched) with a group of inmates participating in The Actors' Gang Prison Project at Norco. Photo by Peter Merts. All photos used with permission.


"I told them I was formerly incarcerated and had only been out 60 days," Bisbano says. "The whole room started tearing up. The inmates exclaimed, 'I can’t believe you’re back in prison after doing all that time. And you came back just for us?'"

Bisbano came back because he has firsthand experience with the life-changing potential of The Actors' Gang Prison Project.

Unlike other prison drama programs, the Actors' Gang utilizes a specific type of acting exercise — an improv style known as commedia dell’arte — to help inmates recognize and control their emotions.

Commedia dell'arte is essentially the basis for clowning. Participants develop characters that represent four emotional states: happy, sad, frightened, and angry, and they build scenes around them.

Chris Bisbano. Photo by the Associated Press.

"We’re not teaching inmates to be actors. We’re giving them the tools of creative expression, and more importantly, emotional awareness," explains Bob Turton, one of the project's teachers.

When Bisbano first came to The Actors' Gang workshop as an inmate in 2009, he was skeptical.

He expected it to be like all the other run-of-the-mill art programs that came and went at Norco. But once he started doing the work, his perception changed entirely.

Photo by Bob Turton.

"I thought it was amazing," he recalls, explaining that the commedia style is perfect for the prison environment. "In prison, you don’t normally show emotion. You revert to one emotion: anger. Or you don’t show any emotion at all — that’s a sign of weakness. This program provided a safe space where we could explore all our emotions."

Remarkably, the program also helps to quickly build a sense of community among the inmates that crosses racial boundaries, which can be much more rigid in prison.

The Actors' Gang Prison Project isn't just a cool idea — it's working really well.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), the recidivism rate statewide in California is 50%. For inmates who completed The Actors' Gang Prison Project, however, it's 10.6%, according to a preliminary analysis conducted by the CDCR in conjunction with The Actors' Gang.

Even more impressive? Behavioral infractions by students in the Actors' Gang dropped by 90%.

Photo by Peter Merts.

Today, Bisbano is six months out on parole and already a head teacher for the Actors' Gang.

He started teaching weekly commedia classes as an inmate, and now that he's out on parole, he teaches at The Actors' Gang Prison Project as well as the Re-Entry Project, which helps inmates at halfway houses (between prison and full release).

As a teacher, Bisbano says, he's noticed that once the emotional "safe space" is established, the inmates are able to go much deeper emotionally much faster. "It’s like they've been waiting for this moment to open up and share," he says.

Photo by Bob Turton.

It's at the halfway houses that Bisbano and Turton say their work is the most challenging but can also make the biggest difference. The people there are anxious because they're much closer to getting out. A program that helps channel that emotion productively can be incredibly beneficial.

In 2007, there were zero publicly funded art programs in California's state prisons. In 2017, there will be art programs in all 35 of them.

Studies show just how much of a positive influence art can have on inmates' emotional development and behavior. The Actors' Gang's success — not to mention other programs like San Quentin's Prison Art Program, Marin Shakespeare at Solano State Prison, and guitar classes at Salinas Valley State Prison — are proof of that.

Photo by Bob Turton.

For Bisbano, what makes The Actors' Gang Prison Project exceptional is the way it taps into the source of inmates' behavior.

The work inmates do with The Actors' Gang helps them recognize a triggering feeling, learn how to diffuse it, and turn it into something productive. Once they leave prison, those skills give them more control over what they do, both on stage and on the streets.  

"We call it 'riding the horse,'" Bisbano says. "If [the feeling] is good, I ride it out. If it’s bad, I ride it out. But it doesn’t mean I need to act on it."

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Truth

Don't test on animals. That's something we can all agree on, right? No one likes to think of defenseless cats, dogs, hamsters, and birds being exposed to a bunch of things that could make them sick (and the animals aren't happy about it, either). It's no wonder so many people and organizations have fought to stop it. But did you ever think that maybe brands are testing products on us too, they're just not telling us they're doing it?

I know, I know, it sounds like a conspiracy theory, but that's exactly what e-cigarette brands like JUUL (which corners the e-cigarette market) are doing in this country right now, and young people are on the frontlines of the fallout. Most people assume that the government would have looked at devices that allow people to inhale unknown chemicals into their lungs BEFORE they hit the market. You would think that someone in the government would have determined that they are safe. But nope, that hasn't happened. And vape companies are fighting to delay the government's ability to evaluate these products.

So no one really knows the long-term health effects of e-cigarette use, not even JUUL's CEO, nor are they informing the public about the potential risks. On top of that, according to the FDA, there's been a 78% increase in e-cigarette usage among high school and middle school-aged children in just the last two years, prompting the U.S. Surgeon General to officially recognize the trend as an epidemic and urge action against it.

These facts have elicited others to take action, as well.

Truth Initiative, the nonprofit best known for dropping the real facts about smoking and vaping since 2000 through its truth campaign. We don't do PSAs. We also need to update so to explain truth – the nonprofit behind the truth youth smoking prevention campaign – you could also say this in a funny way – best known for sharing the facts about smoking and vaping or pull from some old campaigns. Just layer in a description of truth and who the campaign is., is now on a mission to confront e-cigarette brands like JUUL about the lack of care they've taken to inform consumers of the potential adverse side effects of their products. And they're doing it with the help of animal protesters who are tired of seeing humans treated like test subjects.

The March Against JUUL | Tested On Humans | truth www.youtube.com

"No one knows the long-term effects of JUULing so any human who uses one is being used as a lab rat," says, appropriately, Mario the Sewer Rat.

"I will never stop fighting JUUL. Or the mailman," notes Doug the Pug, the Instagram-famous dog star.

Truth, the national counter-marketing campaign for youth smoking prevention, hopes this fuzzy, squeaky, snorty animal movement arms humans with the facts about vaping and inspires them to demand transparency from JUUL and other e-cigarette companies. You can get your own fur babies involved too by sharing photos of them wearing protest gear with the hashtag #DontTestOnHumans. Here's some adorable inspo for you:

The dangerous stuff is already out there, but with knowledge on their side, young people will hopefully make the right choices and fight companies making the wrong ones. If you need more convincing, here are the serious facts.

Over the last decade, 127 e-cigarette-related seizures were reported, which prompted the FDA to launch an official investigation in April 2019. Since then, over 215 cases of a new, severe lung illness have sprung up all over the country, with six deaths to date. While scientists aren't yet sure of the root cause, the majority of victims were young adults who regularly vaped and used e-cigarettes. As such, the CDC has launched an official investigation into the potential link.

Sixteen-year-old Luka Kinard, a former frequent e-cigarette-user, is one of the many teens who experienced severe side effects. "Vaping was my biggest addiction," he told NowThis. "It lasted for about 15 months of my high school career." In 2018, Kinard was hospitalized after having a seizure. He also had severe nausea, chest pains, and difficulty breathing.

After the harrowing experience, he quit vaping, and began speaking out about his experience to help inform others and hopefully inspire them to quit and/or take action. "It shouldn't take having a seizure as a result of nicotine addiction like I had for teens to realize that these companies are taking advantage of what we don't know," Kinard said.

Teens are 16 times more likely to use e-cigarettes than adults, and four times more likely to take up traditional smoking as a result, according to truth, and yet the e-cigarette market remains virtually unregulated and untested. In fact, companies like JUUL continue to block and prevent FDA regulations, investing more than $1 million in lawyers and lobbying efforts in the last quarter alone.

Photo by Lindsay Fox/Pixabay

Consumers have a right to know what they're putting in their bodies. If everyone (and their pets) speaks up, the e-cigarette industry will have to make a change. Young people are already taking action across the country. They're hosting rallies nationwide and on October 9 as part of a National Day of Action, young people are urging their friends and classmates to "Ditch JUUL." Will you join them?

For help with quitting e-cigarettes, visit thetruth.com/quit or text DITCHJUUL to 88709 for free, anonymous resources.

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