The Members

Michael Rhynes and Clifton Willamson, influenced by an acting class taken at Auburn through the Cornell Prison Education Program, hit upon the idea of a permanent group, run by men incarcerated at Auburn, that would use theatre techniques as a road to redemption and transformation. They invited others to join them as “founding members” in this experiment—ongoing since 2009. Those who leave Auburn are still considered members in good standing of PPTG.

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David bendezu | Founding Generation

*Now residing at Fishkill Correctional Facility

David Bendezu was born on January 25th, 1987. He has been incarcerated since 2006 and is currently serving a sentence of 15 years to life. ...

He is eligible for parole in 2020. Since his incarceration, he has earned a G.E.D and an Associates degree from the Cornell Prison Education Program and a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Management. He once worked as a teacher’s aide helping incarcerated men earn their G.E.Ds. While in Auburn, David volunteered in A.V.P. (Alternative to Violence Program) from time to time, working with men with violent histories. He also volunteered in Y.A.P (Youth Assistance Program). In that program, he taught young troubled adults not to make the same mistakes and choices that led him to prison by relating to them his personal experiences. At Fishkill Correctional facility, he volunteers with the Puppies Behind Bars program and has received his certification as a certified dog handler from the Department of Labor. He trains dogs to become service animals for wounded war veterans back for Iraq and Afghanistan. Although David loves being a part of all the programs mentioned, his heart will always be with PPTG. He was a founding member of the group. It was through PPTG that David learned about love, remorse, and peace. David “grew up” in PPTG having come to prison as a lost soul with nothing. He believes that PPTG is not a “program” because PPTG is not programmatic in any sense. PPTG has no hierarchy, as there would be in a ‘program’. And because of this, everyone benefits from the experience of participating in PPTG. PPTG is a place where one chooses to grow as a human being rather than being rehabilitated as a human being. He will continue to achieve his number one goal: a second chance at life. David considers PPTG his family.

 
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Kenneth Brown | Founding Generation

*released 2019

Kenneth was a special purpose organization clerk (1998), Muslim service facilitator (1999-2013), Chaplin clerk (2004-2013)...

radio room operator (2003-2013), Jaycees president (2001), part of the legal research class (1999), a core member of the Cornell Prison Education Program in 2009 (graduated in June 2012). He was one of PPTG’s founding members and stayed with the group until 2013 until transferred to a medium security facility. At Orleans, Kenneth has facilitated a Business Dynamics Class, Peer Education Health classes and Domestic Violence Awareness classes. "PPTG has affected my sense of purpose and willingness as an incarcerated person to realize that as an individual I am dependent on the ideas and values that I strive to put forth within my community."

 
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jason Calkins | Founding generation

*Released 2019

A founding PPTG member, no longer residing in Auburn, Jason was one of the youngest members of PPTG. ...

He transferred to Sing Sing to be closer to family and to pursue his BA degree, a goal he achieved in 2015. He left Auburn in the fall of 2010 and never got to perform with PPTG. Jason now has three college degrees, the most recent being a Master of Professional Studies NYTS. He is a member of Rehabilitation through the Arts (RTA) and has performed in four plays with the group. He is also a member of the Puppy Program, along with David Bendezu. Jason appeared before the parole board in April of 2019 and was granted release. He will be paroled in August of 2019. During his brief time with the group, PPTG allowed Jason to understand what he wanted to do with his life. PPTG allowed him to understand that he could become a better person. The original comradery the group had, allowed Jason to “Know and grow” into the man he is today. Check out Jason's TEDx talk: A Tear from the Phoenix.

 
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Efraim Diaz | Founding Generation

*Now Residing at Woodbourne Correctional Facility

“De” was a founding member of PPTG in 2009 and performed in both Inside/Out and Maximum Will. he was with the group until 2013. ...

He wrote the following statement for the Maximum Will performance program in 2012: "I would like to thank Stephen, Alison, Paula, Bruce, Judy, Ilana, the film crew, the PPTG cast and everyone else that 
helped to transform this presentation (Maximum Will) into a reality as it has been a great life changing experience. This opportunity for us to come together and participate in an environment such as this one is challenging in the best sense. Thank you for making me believe and giving me something to look forward to."

 
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Michael Shane Hale | Founding Generation

*Now Residing at Sing Sing Correctional Facility

Michael Shane Hale was a Cornell Prison Education Program 
Member beginning in 2007. ...

“Shane” received his Associates degree in 2012. He was one of PPTG’s 
founding members in 2009, and stayed with the group until 2013, when he requested a transfer to another prison so he could pursue his B.A. degree. He was the unofficial “historian” for PPTG, collecting important documents and keeping notes on individual sessions. “Shane” performed in both Inside/Out and Maximum Will. Although he wrote pieces for An Indeterminate Life and rehearsed with the group for the performance, he was transferred to another facility just a few days before the performance in May of 2014. "PPTG affects my sense of purpose by actually giving me space to have a purpose and meaning. To be able to share my enthusiasm and gifts with this group affirms me as a whole person and not a prison caricature."

 
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Michael Rhynes | Founding Generation

*Now Residing at Attica Correctional Facility

Michael Rhynes is the co-creator and one of the founders of The Phoenix Players Theatre Group/PPTG. ...

One of his beliefs is that deep space exploration and exploring the depths of our oceans are not the final frontiers. The inner depth of humanity is. Michael obtained his Associates degree in arts, humanities and social sciences, and at this very moment he is striving to obtain a bachelor’s degree. He did not learn how to write poetry at the finer universities, but he has published a chapbook of poems entitled Guerillas In the Mist. He did not learn acting on the grounds of any campus, but in the bowels of Auburn prison. He considers himself a homegrown poet, actor, and urban philosopher. PPTG has its roots in the same fertile ground that the Harlem Renaissance sprung from. PPTG at its finest is the notion that incarcerated people can redeem and rehabilitate themselves if given the chance. The Phoenix Players Theatre Group by definition is an acting troupe. Our aim is not to create actors, but to engage in the activity of acting to reconnect us to our humanity. **During the last week of August, 2015, Michael was transferred to Attica. Since the escape from Clinton over the summer, The Department of Corrections and Community Services has mandated that any incarcerated person who has served more that ten years in the same facility, be moved to another facility. Michael’s “relocation” is heartbreaking to PPTG. While at Auburn, Michael had completed his required GED, received his Associates Degree from the Cornell Prison Education Program, initiated a domestic violence program, and founded PPTG.

 
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Clifton “Skye” Williamson | Founding Generation

*Now Residing at Woodbourne Correctional Facility

A founding PPTG member, no longer residing in Auburn, “Skye” and Michael Rhynes were key to the development of the proposal to form PPTG. ...

Together “Skye” and Michael wrote the early proposals and recruited the “founding” members. He remained with PPTG until the late fall of 2010 when he was transferred to another facility. He never got to perform with PPTG.

 
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Demetrius Molina | Second Generation

Demetrius Molina, in his ninth year of incarceration, is thrilled to return to PPTG for a fifth year. ...

He rounds out his time in prison by working as a peer counselor for a re-entry program, and spending time with his wife and son. Demetrius is unendingly grateful for the support he receives from his family as he serves seventeen years in prison. He has completed his Associates degree through the Cornell Prison Education Program.

 
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Nathan Powell | Second Generation

*Released 2018

Nate was drawn to this theatre group by a fierce need to witness. There is a HUGE GAP between the idea of “criminal” and “Prison” and “Justice” and their reality. ...

Communicating the facets of this truth is not easy but this GAP is where inhumanity, brutality, falsehood and racism breed. Awareness can bridge this GAP and witnessing truth is a vital link to understanding and positive change. During his incarceration, Nathan became a facilitator for AVP (Alternative to Violence Program) and YAP (the Youth Assistance Program). He was elected vice president and treasurer of the Logan Jaycees (a convict organization involved with charity groups in many New York neighborhoods). He is a proud member of the Cornell Prison Education Program where he has earned a degree as well as a certificate in journalism. A living example of the transformative power of PPTG, Nate firmly believes in putting compassion first.

 

James Squires | Second Generation

 
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Leroy Lebron Taylor | Second Genereation

*Now Residing at Green Haven Correctional Facility

Leroy has been a member of PPTG since 2012. He is the proud father of four beautiful children— ...

three young women in their twenties and a son who is sixteen. Leroy spent twelve years in Auburn. His portrait of Doris Buffet was given to her as a gift for her support of the Cornell Prison Education Program from which Leroy received his Associates Degree in December of 2014. In July 2017 he transferred to Green Haven where he has been working in the law library for two years. He has been an active member of the PACT organization (Project for a Calculated Transition). For two years he co-lead workshop groups and personal development programs, Character Resurge and A Challenge 2 Challenge, both geared toward eliminating criminal thinking patterns and promoting healthy community building. He loves to crochet, a hobby he picked up as a member of the veterans group in Auburn. Leroy loves being a member of PPTG and continues to carry on his transformative process that he, and other PPTG members were able to nurture while actively participating every Friday evening in Auburn.

 
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Eric Paris Whitfield | Second Generation

*Now resides at EasterN Correctional Facility

Eric Paris Whitfield Paris graduated Summa Cum Laude from Cornell’s Prison Education Program from his time at Auburn. ...

Paris now resides at Eastern Correctional facility where he has completed his Associates degree in the Bard Prison Program. He is applying to enter the Bard B.A. program to work toward his degree in sociology. Paris wants to continue on to obtains his Master’s degree in Public Health. Paris is a published poet (Florida Atlantic University’s Anthology of Community Writers). In his brief time with PPTG Paris learned that there is power and healing in forgiving, including forgiving one’s self. Through theatre, PPTG, Paris knows that there is a healing power in believing in causes bigger than oneself and working to fulfill those things one is most passionate about—being of service to others.

 
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Sheldon P. Johnson (A.k.a. Superb) | Third Generation

Sheldon P. Johnson received his Associates Degree from the Cornell Prison Education at Auburn in May of 2019. ...

In addition to the time he dedicates to PPTG, he is President of the LIFER’s organization, has instituted a book club and parole preparation class, and facilitates the Urban Monks Poetry Corner at Auburn Correctional Facility. In 2012, Sheldon was applauded by the Albany Times Union newspaper for his performance in the lead role of Macbeth at another facility. In February of 2015, Sheldon was awarded second place out of one thousand entries in the National Prison Writing Contest. He is currently serving a disparaging fifty-year determinate sentence for non-homicidal offenses.

 
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Phil Miller | Third Generation

*Released 2016

Phil is an aspiring thespian who loves to read classical literature, write poetry, and study foreign languages. ...

He listens more than he speaks, gives more than he receives, and believes that the only limits that exist are the ones we place on ourselves. Phil was released from Auburn February 10, 2016! He completed his BA in Corporate Communications in 2018 and is now an Associate Director at the Correctional Association of New York.

 
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Adam Roberts | Third Generation

*Now residing at Fishkill Correctional Facility

Adam Roberts, a near graduate of Syracuse University, completed his bachelor’s from a cell in Attica. ...

He is serving twenty-five years to life for murder, and goes before the parole board in 2024. In addition to spending time with family and friends, Adam fills his days with purpose by working as a peer counselor, and engaging in creative pursuits such as drawing, painting, and writing narrative nonfiction. Having spent four years in the Attica Writers’ Workshop, he now hopes to earn a master’s in literature. Adam returns to the theatre after a thirty-year hiatus – previously, he garnered critical acclaim for his portrayal of the caterpillar in fourth grade production of “James and the Giant Peach”.

 
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JIm Ryant (a.k.a JR) | Third Generation

*Now Residing at Altona Correctional Facility

Jim is from Brooklyn and moved to Oswego in 2007. When he’s not studying to pass the High School Equivalency Exam, JR enjoys a good laugh with friends...

along with keeping in touch and bonding with his family and girlfriend. He was in Auburn for six years and joined PPTG during his fourth year there. In his whole time in prison, up to that point, he was never in a group like PPTG. He wishes to than PPTG for giving him a chance to tell his story, but most of all, for allowing him to meet people who helped him whe he was down and out. JR has set himself the goals of passing the HSE and learning electrical wiring before being released in 2021.

 
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Raymond Van Clief | third Generation

Mr. Van Clief was born and raised in Mt. Vernon, New York. He graduated from Albany High school in 2001, where he and his family had later moved. ...

During high school junior year (1999-2000) he joined the army reserves under the split option program to pursue a college education. His education was placed on hold when he was later deployed to war in 2003. Afterwards Mr. Van Clief joined the army full time in 2005 and was again deployed to Iraq and later to Afghanistan (2008). Shortly after returning from Afghanistan (2009), Mr. Van Clief, due to adjustment disorders/PTSD issues/family problems found himself in a conflict that ended with the loss of a man’s life. Still believing in being the good father, kind hearted individual he has been during his imprisonment, Mr. Vanclief seeks to help himself and other people to avoid the pitfalls of life. As well as reach their potential. Currently in Auburn correctional, he is the president of veterans of modern warfare chapter #24, a Cornell Prison Education Program student, having received his Associates Degree in 2016, a facilitator for the Alternatives to Violence Program, and an actor (participant) in the Phoenix Players Theatre Group.

 
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Larry Greene | Third Generation

*Now Residing at Fishkill Correctional Facility

Larry, 25, is from Queens, NY. He chose to have one of his poems, “The Relationship,” displayed on his bio page. ...

The Relationship All aboard on the relationship Are you sure you want to take this trip? What is your relation to this ship? Are you crew, captain Cruz or is this just a short term cruise? When you start tripping it is because of the crew? The crew says ‘it is dreams for sails’ Now I am afraid to sail… I am sold! But… is it me… or… though I seem so sure as I seem on shore… though the ship seems safe so is the sure as the love is deep, love aint painless.. love is so dangerous… The captain of the titanic loved his ship He died as it sank for the love of it I hope that your relation to this ship is not just crew, but captain Cruiz A voyage, not a short term cruise Can you reassure that the ship is secure? As I stand on the shore, where I am sure it is safe If it sinks, what If we never make it to the shore Damn, I sound so insecure Pessimism is a bore If the ship is not built for war Catch your breath and swim some more

 
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Robert Lawrence | 4th Generation

Robert Lawrence is a devoted PPTG member who was a troubled adolescent. ...

Incarcerated since the age of sixteen, he is serving a sentence of thirty years to life. His earliest possible release opportunity is in the year 2020. Robert is a humbled individual who continues to evolve, transforming himself for the good. Among other things, he enjoys sharing as much time as possible with his beautiful wife and adorable stepson. Currently, Robert is pursuing his Associates degree through the Cornell Prison Education Program at Auburn Correctional Facility. Robert wants to share his experiences, with the hope that fewer adolescents will travel down the wrong road, making the same mistakes he has.

 
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Mark THompson | Fourth Generation

Mark “AZ” Thompson has spent the thirty-eight years of his incarceration consistently growing into the man he has become today. ...

Mark earned a Bachelor’s of Science degree from Canisius College while housed in Attica, and he hopes to one day have an opportunity to earn a Master’s degree. Since 1992 he has worked as a peer counselor and currently enjoys teaching Aggression Replacement Training (ART). Mark passes his time as an amateur “finger flinger” and recently has learned the art of origami. Mark draws his strength through his faith in God and the unending support of his wonderful friend and trusted advisor of thirty-eight years. Mark is serving a sentence of sixty-six years to life.

 
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Jerome Walker | Fourth Generation

Jerome Walker is a father of two and a grandfather of three. While currently serving a 23 years to life sentence ...

e is actively pursuing an Associates degree through the Cornell Prison Education program, and serves as an Inmate Facilitator in the Youth Assistance Program. Through working with the youth in the surrounding area, Jerome is able to help them realize their sense of self-worth and make better decisions and choices in life. As a member of PPTG he uses the transformational and therapeutic process he learns to assist him in his personal journey.

 
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Tyreek Williams | Fourth Generation

*Now Residing at Coxsackie Correctional Facility

Tyreek Williams is currently serving a twenty-one year prison sentence in Auburn Correctional Facility. In 2014 he graduated ...

from the Cornell Prison Education Program, earning an Associates Degree in Liberal Arts. As a legal aid, Tyreek provides legal assistance to unfortunate inmates. As an aspiring poet, Tyreek performs slam-style poetry whenever an opportunity presents itself. One day he noticed that his poetry evoked social consciousness in the hearts and minds of attentive audiences. Then, in 2016 Tyreek was called to the theatre arts where he “transforms” with a rising ensemble.

 
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Jake Winter | Fourth Generation

*Now Residing at Cayuga Correctional Facility

Jake Winter was born and raised in western New York. He’s goofy and down for pretty much anything if it will make people smile. ...

His parents are his best friends. Sports and cooking are his two top hobbies and number one on his bucket list is to go sky diving. “Of all things, I never thought theatre would be where I found comfort in my own skin. PPTG has helped me to understand that even if people seem to come from opposite ends of the world, through a common interest they can grow together like a family. Now I’m open to new experiences and I’m honored to be a young Phoenix.”

 
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Daniel Brunell | Fifth Generation

Daniel Brunell is currently pursuing an associate’s degree through the Cornell Prisons Education Program. ...

He is the lay leader for the protestant community at Auburn, preaching and teaching the Word, ministering to those in need of guidance. Daniel loves to cook and challenges himself to transform commissary items into exquisite slices of home. It is an honor for him to be a 5th generation member of PPTG, to contribute and receive warmth, love and compassion. Daniel stays committed to improving the quality of his life and the lives of those around him.

 
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Jason Bethea | Fifth Generation

 
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Simeon Duggins | Fifth Generation

How many of you know me from my first introduction to the world: Simeon Duggins/TedX Sing Sing/Beautiful on YouTube? ...

Pass my work around and help me show that I am not my crime. Shout out to my mother, father, brother, wife and my baby sister who I haven’t met as of yet. And thanks to all those who support me. I will not let your down as I continue to put it down with my family here in Auburn known as the Phoenix Players Theatre Group. Check out Simeon's TEDx piece: Life is Beautiful.

 
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Kevin Fitzrandolph | Fifth Generation

Kevin FitzRandolph was born in Buffalo, NY on July 14, 1991. He was raised in West Seneca ...

by his mother. With a great love of family, as well as his education, Kevin quickly became known in the community for his unique personality. Music and art have been tow of his greatest passions, and throughout his life he has become adept at playing the guitar. He attended the University of Rochester from 2009 to 2011 with a major in Pre-Medical Sciences but did not graduate. Kevin is determined to make a positive change in the world.

 

Martin Heidgen | Fifth Generation

*Now Resides at Woodbourne Correctional Facility

Martin Heidgen is a 2003 graduate of the University of Mississippi. ...

He is an avid outdoorsman and believes in the transformative power of nature to heal. He is new to PPTG and loves how the power of theatre can heal just like nature. The love and empathy he has received from PPTG has influenced him to pursue socially conscious entrepreneurship and coaching. He is in his 13th year of an eighteen to life sentence and yearns to be reunited with his family in Arkansas and Mississippi bolstered with the skills he has learned from PPTG to positively impact the lives of others.

 
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Ariel Myers | Fifth Generation

Ariel Myers is a young aspiring musician that grew up in Troy New York with two brothers, two sisters, and a single mother. ...

He gets his ambition and dedication through his struggle. He loves to paint a picture of his pain, love and passion through his music. He’s a high school graduate that went to college to become a radio broadcaster and a photographer. He’s a big sports fan of the NFL and the NBA. He aspires to become an actor in a larger field, pursuing his dreams no matter what his circumstances. He’s hoping he can inspire youth to develop a positive outlook on their community.