NORCO (AP) — Christopher Bisbano leaps onto the stage and his body transforms: He cries out for his true love, and then contorts his face into a droopy pout as the audience bellows with laughter.
“I loooooove yooou, Is-aaaa-bell-aaaa!” he cries, drawing out each syllable for extra laughs as his hat slips jauntily to the side.
Bisbano, 47, is one of the most talented actors on this stage, with years of experience — but he is also a convicted felon doing 23 years and 4 months in a California state prison for attempted murder.
Now, the nonprofit acting program that trained Bisbano behind bars is expanding thanks to its slice of a $2.5 million arts pilot project from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The funding will bring state-funded arts of all kinds to inmates at more than a dozen prisons for the first time since California’s once-renowned prison arts network withered during tough budget times more than a decade ago.
The arts investment comes as California enters the third year of a dramatic prisons overhaul. With support from Gov. Jerry Brown, the budget for prison rehabilitation programs jumped by more than $20 million last year, with funding for arts guaranteed until 2016.
Those backing the arts hope the new funding will help prove a link between participation and success upon parole to help combat a recidivism rate that at one point approached 70 percent.
The investment is “basically saying that there’s many angles to take for rehabilitation and the arts is one of them — it’s very powerful,” said Caitlin Fitzwater of the California Arts Council, which is working closely with corrections to administer the funding.
Critics say they are wary of pouring so much money into the arts when the state is still struggling to implement parts of its prison reform.
Three years ago, the state shifted responsibility for lower-level felons to county jails, leaving only the most serious offenders in state prison.
“You need to teach them how to get a job. You need to teach them how to keep from going back to that environment in the first place,” said Harriet Salarno, founder and chairwoman of Crime Victims United of California.
A small study done by state prison officials in the 1980s — when California’s earlier arts program was robust — followed parolees for two years and found that those who had participated were 27 percent less likely to reoffend.
But arts advocates acknowledge there aren’t any current studies that show similar results. They point instead to anecdotal evidence, including interviews with inmates, that suggests those who participate in the arts have fewer behavioral problems and better self-esteem than those who don’t.
“It’s not just painting your face and putting on a costume. They’re really examining what they’re thinking and feeling and why they react the way they do in certain situations,” said Kristina Khokhobashvili, a prison spokeswoman. “We were looking for programs that go deep.”
Jack Bowers worked for the state as an artist facilitator for 25 years at a Soledad prison, where he taught music theory and jazz and nurtured a marching band program of 20 bands.
“I know in my heart that it works,” said Bowers, who is now chairman of the William James Association, which advocates for arts inside prisons. “One of the things about prison is the rigid social structure and things like the arts break that down, not just in prison but back out in society.”
At a recent performance at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, 16 inmates of all races riffed off each other as they showed off their improvisational skills. The performance capped an eight-week class run by The Prison Project, an outreach of actor Tim Robbins’ company, The Actors’ Gang.
The nonprofit has been working with inmates since 2006 and has a 200-inmate waiting list; now, it will expand to two more prisons this year and more next year.
“It gives them a way to focus their energies and to get in touch with emotional states that they’ve never felt in their life,” said Robbins, who works with inmates regularly.
Bisbano, who was convicted for beating a man with a prop gun at a party in Hollywood, has taken the course multiple times.
He loved it so much that he started a prison acting club and trains other inmates. His group has performed three original plays and will perform a fourth this winter, called “Cutting the Strings.”
“If I had a religion or something to believe in ... this would be my faith,” Bisbano said. “What this program has done is allow me to find that my self-worth still is intact and I can come in here and be what I used to be before I got into this mess.”