Two years ago, a variety show was held in Indiana that featured comedians, spoken-word performances and singers described as “every bit as good as the performers on American Idol.” The twist? All of the performers were inmates at the state’s Putnamville Correctional Facility.
The show—The Redemption Project: Inmates Got Talent—was the brainchild of Johnny Collins, a comedian and documentary filmmaker who was interested in helping prisoners discover their inner talents and, in the process, gain the confidence necessary for finding gainful employment upon their release.
“I’m not trying to justify what these guys did to get put in prison, but most of them feel like they’ve been forgotten, that they’ve been discarded, and it stays with them when they get out,” says Collins, who says he was inspired to start the project in part through his interaction with “Big Mike” Mitchell, an ex-convict who’d gone on to forge a successful career as a comedian and comedy producer.
Approximately 100 inmates auditioned for the show, with 15 ultimately selected to perform a series of shows before an audience of inmates and prison employees, says Collins.
“Some of the inmate comedians were so good, I could easily see them having their own shows on Comedy Central,” he says.
The shows were taped as part of a documentary film that Collins is currently seeking a distributor for. He hopes to expand the talent-show concept to other prisons throughout the country, and is in discussion with other state corrections departments about it.
Ultimately, however, he wants the nation’s employers to take notice.
“Let’s face it, in this economy it’s tough to get jobs and it’s really tough when you’ve got a prison record—many ex-cons end up feeling beat down and discouraged and wind up back in prison,” he says. “It’s important for companies to see that they deserve a second chance—if we can recycle paper bags, why can’t we recycle people?”