Inside a gymnasium in northeast Denver, a group of actors are performing the play 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.' The lights dim, synthesized music blares and Chief Bromden stands on a box, arms outstretched. Bromden is the narrator, a catatonic, half-Native American man who talks to the audience through hallucinations.
The play is about a group of men locked in a mental institution who long to be free. This theme is not lost on the male actors — they are inmates at the Sterling Correctional Facility.
Chief Bromden is played by Douglas L. Micco. Micco has been incarcerated for over 16 years for violent crimes. For the role, he's swapped his forest green Department of Corrections uniform for a Native American-inspired costume that includes a fur vest, gray pants, a long-sleeved shirt and a black hat over his long black hair.
"I think the best part has been being able to express myself, to be able to go out and step out of the prison itself, the prison, the mentality, the mental thinking," he said.
Micco and the cast and production crew are part of the University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative (DU PAI). The show is part of a partnership between DU PAI and the Colorado Department of Corrections which aims to normalize prison, empower inmates to improve their lives and prepare them for a productive and positive life upon release.
Ashley Hamilton is the founder of DU PAI and an assistant professor of theatre at DU. She also directs the play.
"I deeply believe in the power of arts and education inside prison," she said. "As a way to create transformation for both folks inside but also in supporting the system as it grows and changes as well."
The incarcerated men worked on every part of the production from the music to set design to stage managing. The group started working together in April, once a week for a couple hours. By the time they got to technical rehearsals a couple months later, the cast and crew were putting in 10- to 12-hour days.
Micco viewed this acting role like a professional job.
"I don't have to like everybody, I don't have to be best buddies, but when we're here we have to accomplish, we have to set goals, attain the goals, set higher goals and began to work as one unit," he said. "We've done that and I'm very happy."
Luke Barela is one of the music and sound designers. He's been at Sterling for most his 15 years served and will be eligible for parole in another 20.
The experience has been rehabilitating, said Barela, and given him a level of responsibility that he isn't used to in prison. He's also learning to reconnect to an outside world that he's felt isolated from for more than a decade.
"You start realizing this is what I should be working for, towards," Barela said. "Trying to learn and grow, everything I can while I'm incarcerated. To have that goal of getting out and being part of the community, being part of society, being part of my family."
The play premiered at the Sterling facility on August 28. The men performed seven shows in front of family, friends and the public. The cast and crew then traveled to two prisons, including the Denver Women's Correctional Facility.
"It's a great opportunity for us to provide them another outlet of expression and to bring humanity, more humanity back into incarceration and institutions," said Ryan Long, warden of the Denver Women's Correctional Facility. "Then to provide them an opportunity to get out of what they normally do."
The audience at the Denver facility is a mix of visitors and female inmates. The women are dressed in green pants and yellow t-shirts and sit together on one side of the gym. They are immersed in the performance and regularly burst into howls of laughter.
Jamiylah Neslon is serving life without parole and has been housed at the Denver facility for about 10 years. She said the show was amazing and one scene, where toothpaste was locked up and the patient couldn't get it, resonated with her.
"Just small things like that and within facilities, which I think is changing now," Nelson said. "But back in the day it used to be really petty and things that didn't matter, mattered so much."
The Department of Corrections hopes the program will normalize the prison environment. Nelson said this is happening and points to the Denver performance, where both female inmates and the public were in the audience.
Nelson is part of DU PAI's theater program at the women's facility and will perform in the next big play, A Christmas Carol. She's already worked with Hamilton on a short play and is eager to take the stage again.
"I'm ready to go man, I'm just so excited. I hope that we get to travel like this. This will be just an honor," Nelson said. "Hopefully it will shift the paradigm of society and so that they look at us differently and a lot of people in here, we want to change. We have changed."