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A formerly incarcerated artist’s Brief But Spectacular take on rehabilitation through art

John Zoccoli is a visual artist who spent 25 years in prison until his release in June, 2020. During his incarceration, he became involved in a program called Rehabilitation Through The Arts (RTA) — which he says transformed his life. Tonight, he gives us his Brief But Spectacular take on art and healing. It's part of our arts and culture series, CANVAS.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    John Zocolli is a visual artist who spent 25 years in prison, up until his release in June 2020.

    During his incarceration, he became involved in a program called Rehabilitation Through the Arts, which he says transformed his life.

    Tonight, he gives his Brief But Spectacular take on art and healing.

    It's part of our arts and culture series, canvas.

  • John Zocolli:

    When I was 19, I was rather lost. I lacked direction and a solid moral compass. I was involved with a robbery, where a man's life was lost. And that's something that I can't take that back.

    And it's something I regret every day. It haunts me for the rest of my life. I wish I could be the voice of reason that would have stopped things, but I was a coward and I wasn't able to speak up. And I — even more than that, I participated. It's a good thing that incarceration happened to me.

    I went to trial facing 50-to-life, and ended up receiving a 25-to-life sentence, which was more time than I had lived. My initial adjustment in prison was very difficult. It's an upside-down kingdom in there, where the rules you know just don't apply. And there's all these new sets of rules and standards and things you have to do or not do and consequences.

    I was young, scared. I didn't want to let any of those things show. I had this realization, I don't want to be this cold-hearted, violent individual who can't feel and just shuts off all my emotions, like a fuse box, in order to get through it.

    If you can't express yourself or cry or feel or love, who are you really? So I found ways to do that in there.

    RTA is rehabilitation through the arts, from theater to dance, to visual arts, to poetry, to public speaking. The prisoners are in charge of it. I was trusted to teach a visual arts class. To be given that responsibility is an honor, because I didn't know if people would ever trust me again.

    Learning how to deal with conflict, learning how to talk with someone who's doing something that you don't like and get through that without resorting to an argument or violence, and that becomes a springboard for success in all kinds of other areas, because, if you can do that, it bleeds through into every area of life.

    To be seen not as a prisoner or not as the worst thing I ever did, but to be seen as an artist, it transformed who I am. I can't undo what I did, but what I can do is make a choice to be better.

    My name is John Zocolli, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on rehabilitation through the arts.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Pretty powerful story.

    And you can watch all our Brief But Spectacular episodes at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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