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Going Virtual Allows Prison Arts Program To Provide Incarcerated People With Outlet For Healing

Last year, the University of Denver’s new Prison Arts Initiative debuted its first performances — including a live production of “A Christmas Carol” — to audiences. The program is aimed at giving those incarcerated throughout the state of Colorado a place to find creative expression and healing.

Now DUPAI is preparing for its second event, “A/Live Inside,” in a much different format and for a much different time. Program co-founder and executive director Ashley Hamilton spoke with KUNC arts reporter Stacy Nick about the virtual showcase and how the program has evolved during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Interview Highlights:

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Stacy Nick: I saw some of the promotional videos online for the event, and one of them was a gentleman playing a guitar and he was singing. I think the lyrics were something like, “Did you ever come across yourself on a rainy day? Did you recognize you've lost yourself along the way?”

Ashley Hamilton: Travis Barnes was the man you saw performing. He's incarcerated at DRDC (Denver Reception & Diagnostic Center). He is a group leader and truly a really special student and person. He wrote that song, as well as he's written many songs. That song specifically was actually written for our podcast, “Within.” He is the songwriter for “Within” Season Two and he has written a song for every episode that we’ll be producing with our podcast. We're going to showcase a couple of those at “A/Live Inside.”

He’s very talented. That was really impressive.

He's so talented. We're so lucky to get to work with him and not even just singing. He's a songwriter and he's also a really well-rounded artist. He's a great theater maker and creative writer. There's a lot of folks like that inside. And that's what we're so excited to showcase to people. I think so often we have a pretty specific stereotype or idea of who we think is in prison. And what I love about our work is that we blow through that. We bust through those stereotypes and say, “Look at who these people are. Yes, they have caused harm and we're reckoning with that and taking accountability to that harm. But they're also full humans with incredible talent and intelligence, and they're part of the community.”

Last year, there was a live theatrical production with a live audience. Obviously this year is a little different. How have you adjusted to the pandemic?

That's a great question and sort of the million dollar question, right? Just like the rest of the world we have had to get really creative. We have had to be really agile and flexible. But luckily creativity is what we do best, and we have completely transformed our programming into virtual and correspondence-based programming. And we're really, really lucky to be able to say that we've gotten to do that.

Prison arts and education is, to my understanding, mostly on hold around the country and the world. Folks who do prison arts and ed work are fighters and they believe in this work, and so they're finding ways. But a lot of systems don't have the capacity right now to necessarily support it. I've been completely blown away by the Colorado Department of Corrections and the way that they have committed to finding a way.

What are you hearing from the members? How are they dealing with the pandemic?

I think in the same way that the pandemic is affecting all of us. It's hard for everyone, but particularly for folks inside. It's interesting because in some ways I've seen both folks who have — obviously everyone is struggling, we're all struggling. It's a really heavy, dark, scary time. Then on the other hand, I've also seen a lot of folks inside use this time and space to dive deeper into their work and into their solo work — their writing, their drawing — and spending their time that way.

So it's kind of been a mixed bag. And I've just been really proud of what I've gotten to witness in our students — their perseverance, their resilience. They’re making art in their cells. They're writing, they're drawing, they're continuing to be the full humans that they are.

What have you seen as far as the transformations from the participants in this program?

I think as humans, we all so deeply just crave a sense of connection and community. I mean, 2020 I think has really reiterated that to us. But also just that a space to be seen and not to just be seen as maybe the worst thing we've done or something negative that has happened or harm we've caused. But as the complex, full humans that we all are, including our harm that we've caused. Not ignoring that, but that and all of the other pieces. And our program is really committed to creating that kind of space where people can be full humans.

And what has happened as we created that space time and time again in different workshops and projects and different prisons over years now is that people begin to heal — they reckon and they heal. And then from that, the part that I think is the most exciting is they begin to then show up in the world as a more whole self. And when that happens, we see less harm being caused and they start to show up as the healthier version of themselves. And that's a beautiful thing.

“A/Live Inside” will be broadcast on YouTube at 6 p.m. on Nov. 21. The event is free but registration is required.

This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for Nov. 17. You can find the full episode here.

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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