'Sing Sing' tells story of wrongly-imprisoned inmate who helped others through art: 'God put me there for a reason'

Colman Domingo stars in 'Sing Sing'
Colman Domingo stars in "Sing Sing" | A24 Films

While serving time in Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York, for a crime he didn’t commit, John “Divine G” Whitfield had what he describes as a “spiritual epiphany” from God: Create a transformative experience for his fellow inmates that would prepare them for life beyond the prison walls. 

“God works in some very mysterious ways, and I'm 100% confident that He put me here for a specific reason,” Divine G told The Christian Post.

A former DJ, writer and actor, Divine used his expertise to help launch the Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) program, which used theater, music, dance and visual arts to help bring about positive change in the lives of inmates. The arts, Divine G believes, can be used as a means of rehabilitation and personal growth and potentially transform lives.

Get Our Latest News for FREE

Subscribe to get daily/weekly email with the top stories (plus special offers!) from The Christian Post. Be the first to know.

“One of the things that was an absolute requirement with RTA — you had to be open to change. You had to be able to embrace change because our whole mission was to use arts as not just a healing and rehabilitative tool, but as a tool for growth and development, a tool to make sure that when you walk out of prison, you don't come back. That was really the ultimate mission,” he said.

Under Divine G's leadership, the RTA program, established in 1996, flourished and expanded its reach to other correctional facilities, creating a network of chapters across New York state. The average for recidivism in state prisons is estimated to be 60%, but for RTA alumni, those rates are closer to 2%.

“I think we did a pretty good job," Divine G said, pointing to those statistics. “This program works; the power of arts is breathtaking.”

Divine G’s story is the subject of a new A24 film titled “Sing Sing,” starring Colman Domingo as Divine G, Paul Raci as the RTA program director and formerly incarcerated actors and RTA alumni. 

Rated R for language, the film, based on the lives and experiences of RTA participants, highlights the possibility of redemption and the ability of the arts to transform lives. As inmates become involved in RTA, performing in Shakespeare plays, dramas and even a comedy, they find purpose, mentorship and a sense of community. 

“It's just so unfortunate that people assume that there are no redeeming components in prison, that people don't change,” Divine G, who makes a cameo appearance in the film, said.

“People change, and human beings change. I want people to really understand that we need to invest more in our prisons, because we want people to come home and be healthy, wholesome and loving and caring because it makes society safe. Our program is a safety mechanism. It's a community safety network that enables people to come home and be a part of the community."

The film, the product of eight years' worth of research and work from writer-director Greg Kwedar and his co-writer Clint Bentley, shows how Divine G served as a jailhouse lawyer, spending countless hours in the prison law library to help himself and other inmates with their legal cases.

Divine G told CP he was motivated by his faith, something he said was honed during his time at New York Theological Seminary, where he earned his master’s degree. 

"What I would do when guys came to me for help was show them how to prepare motions, petitions and writs," he recalled. "They'd offer to pay me in cigarettes, stamps— whatever had value in prison. But I'd tell them, 'You don't owe me a dime. Just help someone else when you see they need it.'"

This approach, he said, often shocked his fellow inmates. "I would be doing legal work that could cost $20,000 to $30,000 on the outside, and all I'd ask was for them to pass it on," he said. "That was my way of making love contagious in our environment."

“I fell in love with the biblical Scripture 1 Corinthians 13 … which says that love is the most powerful of them all,” he added. “It's greater than forgiveness; it gave a whole listing of elements that God would like us to apply to our lives, but love is the greatest of them all … whenever you infuse love into a situation, and I'm talking about genuine love, it can solve things, especially when you allow love to become contagious.”

Divine G was eventually acquitted and released from prison and has since continued to advocate for prison reform and the use of the arts in rehabilitation. He's also written several books, seven of which have been adapted into screenplays, and won five national writing awards.

“All of that work and all the pain and the suffering, the trials and tribulations I've gone through — and it was really rough — look at this blessing I'm getting right now,” he said. “I will say once again that God works in mysterious ways. I'm here because I guess I was doing His work, and this is His way of saying He wants me to keep doing His work, and I'm going to keep doing His work.”

Divine G said he wants his story and the success of the RTA program to serve as reminders of the importance of investing in rehabilitation and the arts as tools for positive change. Through the film, he also hopes to challenge societal perceptions of incarceration and highlight the need for a more compassionate and effective approach to criminal justice.

“I hope this movie is a catalyst for showing people that the arts are not just a healing and a rehabilitative element, it’s a key to addressing this recidivism level," he said. 

"When you have a recidivism level in a country such as ours, which is the strongest, most powerful, most productive, most breathtaking, most successful country in the world — America is the greatest — it doesn't make sense. Why can't we get our recidivism level together? I think our program is the key. It's the catalyst that can start that whole process of instituting an approach to addressing this recidivism level.”

“Sing Sing” hits theaters July 12.

Leah M. Klett is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at:

Was this article helpful?

Help keep The Christian Post free for everyone.

By making a recurring donation or a one-time donation of any amount, you're helping to keep CP's articles free and accessible for everyone.

We’re sorry to hear that.

Hope you’ll give us another try and check out some other articles. Return to homepage.

Most Popular

More Articles