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Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin is standing in the Sing Sing Correctional Facility for the first time since his incarceration 12 years ago. He remembers selling drugs in this very chapel – a plan B for when the facility was closed.

Not many men long to return to the prisons where they spent years tormented. Maclin, 58, lived in Sing Sing for 15 years. But today he is full of zest for life.

“I have a goal now,” Maclin said.

Maclin was at Sing Sing, the 198-year-old maximum security prison on a hill overlooking the Hudson, 30 miles upriver from New York, last Thursday for the premiere of the upcoming film “Sing Sing.” In the film, which opens in theaters on July 12,

Colman Domingo plays an incarcerated man who helps run a theater program for others at Sing Sing. Together they find community and catharsis through theater.

The program really does exist: Rehabilitation Through the Arts, or RTA, is a nonprofit organization founded by Katherine Vockins at Sing Sing in 1996. Many of the former participants make up the cast of “Sing Sing,” along with professional actors like Domingo and Paul Raci. Maclin plays himself – a tough, muscle-bound character whose talent for court blackmail, it turns out, translates remarkably well to Shakespeare.

“On stage,” Maclin said, “I have permission to do anything.”

As far as movie premieres go, the premiere of Sing Sing at Sing Sing was probably the most moving.

The film was shown above the stage where RTA performed its first show to an audience made up of half civilians and half incarcerated men in navy green jumpsuits.

For the film’s former prisoner actors, returning to Sing Sing was an emotional homecoming, bringing with them a message of hope and healing that they themselves are still trying to live up to.

On a sweltering day, with the sun still high over the Hudson, two former RTA members – Lorenzo Chambers, 33, and Jose Robles, 64 – stood outside the prison walls handing out water bottles. During his more than 35 years in prison, Robles first started building sets for RTA productions and then became an actor himself.

“You learn more about yourself than about the piece, you know?” Robles said.

Behind the first gate, Sean Dino Johnson, founding member of the RTA and co-star in “Sing Sing,” sits in the shadows and winces a little each time the gate opens and closes.

Johnson, 59, served 22 years in prison. When he was first approached about RTA nearly two decades ago, he was somewhat skeptical.

“I said, ‘You want me to go up there in tights and sing ‘To Be or Not to Be?'” Johnson recalls with a grin. “What’s the punch line?”

But Johnson tried it despite his doubts and soon realized that he was “caught by the virus.”

Looking inward as an actor brought him an inner peace that had previously eluded him.

“That was my first understanding of what a community is,” Johnson says as he walks up the hill to the theater.

As the cast and others mill around the chapel, the film’s director and co-writer, Greg Kwedar, nervously eyes the movie theater next door.

“Sing Sing” was largely filmed in a disused prison in the north of the state, so this was a moment he had been waiting for a long time.

“I’ve been imagining what this theater would look like for eight years,” Kwedar said. “For us, this is the most important audience in the world. I just hope it’s honest.”

“When we leave here, I hope the air feels a little different for those of us going home,” Kwedar adds. “And I’m well aware that half the audience will be going back to their cells.”

Since its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, Sing Sing has been widely acclaimed. A24 acquired the film shortly after its premiere. In March, it won the festival’s Audience Award at SXSW.

The emotional response that Sing Sing evokes is two-sided, erasing some of the existing differences between the members and the outsiders. It is a rare platform for the RTA alumni to show what they are capable of.

For civilians less familiar with the often ignored lives of prisoners, it is a window into humanity.

“You don’t feel so isolated from the world,” says Shaytuan Breazil, a 32-year-old serving a 12-year prison sentence who helps serve snacks to visitors.

At the beginning of the RTA movement, performances were only for incarcerated inmates. The group’s leaders, such as director Brent Buell (played by Raci in the film), made video recordings for their families to see. What began with modest expectations grew and grew.

“I thought I was coming here and directing – I love directing,” Buell said. “I had no idea I was going to make the friends of a lifetime here.”

More than 1,000 people have since gone through the RTA, which is currently operating in eight prisons, with plans to expand to two more in September. The US

The Ministry of Justice has found that 43% of former prisoners are rearrested within a year of their release. Among former RTA prisoners, this figure is less than 3%.

Jon-Adrian “JJ” Velazquez served more than 23 years in Sing Sing before being pardoned for his wrongful conviction by former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. He has worked closely with RTA and appears in “Sing Sing.”

“The most effective way to change someone,” said Velazquez, “is to believe in them.”

Inside the non-air-conditioned theater, the old stained-glass windows were darkened. Guards sat on raised chairs along the walls. The former inmates greeted the men currently on duty across the aisle.

It was the third screening that day at the Sing Sing Theater, whose director Marlyn Kopp said she wanted the entire population to see the film.

(The first two screenings were for incarcerated people only.)

After taking a seat in the back row, Maclin was asked to take a seat in the front row.

“I’m getting on,” he said as he stormed to the front. There were old friends Maclin wanted to see at Sing Sing, but, he said before the screening, it was more important that the inmates see him so they could see what life after prison holds.

When the film ended, the incarcerated audience members were visibly moved and gave a standing ovation. They stood once again to applaud A24. Their biggest cheer was not for Domingo, but for those who were incarcerated with them. After the film, Maclin and Johnson spoke on stage with two currently incarcerated men who shared their emotional reaction.

“I’m home,” said Maclin. “At home on my stage.”

Maclin and Johnson sat facing the inmates and addressed most of their comments directly to them. Whatever one normally discusses within prison walls, one might be surprised by the tone of the conversation.

Acting, Maclin said, taught him that vulnerability and empathy were not weaknesses but strengths. Johnson spoke of listening, the importance of crying and of love. Keep working, he implored. “Men can change,” he said.

Soon curfew would be declared and the men of Block B would be the first to go out. But for now, many nodded in agreement at Johnson’s words. They didn’t have much, Johnson said, but they had each other.

And the graduates provide the RTA members with advice and support after they leave.

“This was Sing Sing’s best kept secret,” Johnson said. “Now the whole world will know.”