CHANGHUA, Taiwan – Twenty inmates pound barrel-sized drums in a Taiwanese prison courtyard until they are so drenched with sweat that colorful tattoos show through their thin cotton T-shirts.
The convicts range in age from 18 to 25 and most of their records include violence or serious drug abuse. They beat out their energetic rhythms under a blazing summer sun during their midday session at the Changhua Prison.
The prison, 150 miles (250 kilometers) south of the capital Taipei, is one of the latest proving grounds for rehabilitation programs involving dance or other performing arts. Prisons in Japan, the U.S. and several other countries have experimented with them in recent years. A Philippines prison wowed the world when a YouTube video went viral in 2009 with 1,600 of its inmates dancing to Michael Jackson.
None of the programs are quite like the one led by Taiwan's U-Theater Ensemble of drummers and Chinese operatic dancers. It leverages the spirituality of Zen Buddhism and Tai Chi Chuan exercises to try to instill a new sense of equanimity among the convicts.
Ensemble dancer I Bau spends one day a week working in the prison, and is convinced she's making headway with the troupe's "mind to body" approach.
"At first the inmates were easily distracted," she said. "But I taught them to bring their minds back and focus on the rhythm. They show a different temperament now. Everyone sits still like the Buddha meditating."
One of her students is a sturdy 24-year-old man surnamed Chou, who settled a dispute at his former school two years ago by pulling out a pistol and shooting a rival. Because the victim survived, he received only a six-year sentence.
"The lessons give me peace of mind," Chou says with a coy smile. "I can release my anger and all my other negative emotions by beating the drum very hard."
Chou said he meditates in his prison dormitory at night and tries to recite by heart the choreographed drumming lessons he has learned from the ensemble.
U-Theatre founder and artistic director Liu Ruo-yu says the group's spiritual approach emphasizes teamwork over ego.
"As each performer becomes progressively calmer, he can hear his and his partners' drumbeats achieve a kind of harmony," she says. "After finding their inner tranquility, they will progress from their former state of restlessness to gain maturity and stability."
U-Theatre also works with school dropouts and runs a summer camp for wayward students amid the lush mountains of suburban Taipei. But its highest-profile endeavor is the prison program, which began two years ago as part of attempts in Taiwan to expand rehabilitation efforts beyond handicrafts and carpentry.
Changhua warden Tai Shou-nan has been so impressed with the results that he recently took the unprecedented step of allowing inmates to perform before 10,000 spectators at a local stadium. He wasn't disappointed, saying the audience's enthusiastic response helped boost the inmates' confidence.
"They realized they were not inferior to other people and they too had great potential," he said.
Tai noted with pride that U-Theatre recently hired two freed inmates to join its professional ranks.
"This gives other inmates hope that they too will have a bright future when they are released," he said.