The University of Michigan offers many programs and courses for community members to work with incarcerated individuals. Some opportunities were canceled because of the pandemic and others found new ways to proceed despite COVID-19 restrictions. 

The Prison Creative Arts Project hosts community and academic programs that allow students, volunteers and faculty members to work with currently and formerly incarcerated adults. Ashley Lucas, associate professor of Theatre and Drama and the director of PCAP, teaches classes offered by PCAP such as Theatre and Drama 335: Theatre & Incarceration.

Theatre and Drama 335 teaches the history of performance in prisons by examining plays written by or for people in prisons. Students learn about various strategies for creating performances that best serve the performers and incarcerated individuals. Under normal circumstances, students attend workshops in prisons and juvenile detention centers.

Lucas co-teaches the class with Cozine Welch, a formerly incarcerated poet and executive director of A Brighter Way, a non-profit organization that helps people integrate back into society after getting released from prisons. This semester, the class consists of 13 enrolled graduate and undergraduate students, nine formerly incarcerated people and 13 other volunteers from across the U.S. and one in England. They divide themselves into five facilitation teams and offer weekly correspondence theatre workshops with incarcerated men at four Michigan Department of Corrections facilities — Macomb, Brooks, Thumb and Saginaw — as well as the Federal Correctional Institute in Milan, Mich.

Instead of meeting incarcerated individuals in person, trained facilitators put together weekly activity packets that are then mailed to participants in the PCAP correspondence workshop. The facilitators read the responses as they come in and incorporate ideas, chunks of writing and images drawn by the incarcerated participants into the next packets that go out. Through this exchange of ideas, each workshop will put together a final project that is written down and mailed back to the participants in prisons, performed on Zoom and posted on the PCAP YouTube channel.

Lucas wrote in an email to the Daily that despite being unable to work with incarcerated individuals directly, this new form of learning engages students in a more challenging way. She also noted the unique ways facilitators have to interact with prisoners due to the limitations with mailing letters and technology in prisons.

“In the correspondence workshops, facilitators have to get more creative about pulling together a script from the many fragments that they themselves are writing and that the incarcerated participants are sending to us in the mail,” Lucas wrote. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a way to include the incarcerated participants in our video performances, but we try to make sure that something significant from each participant is featured in the final performance.”

Shannon Harper, a facilitator of the correspondence workshops and a teacher’s assistant for Theatre and Drama 335, emphasized the importance of keeping up with the connections they’ve built with incarcerated individuals. 

“Since we can’t physically be there, we always send a packet each week to let people on the inside know we haven’t forgotten about them and we are thinking about them,” Shannon wrote in an email to the Daily. “I miss being able to workshop in person, but my experience has taught me a lot about making a hard situation work.”

PCAP’s Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing is a collection of writings from incarcerated individuals that accepts submissions of poetry, fiction and essays through mail. A team of faculty and students make up the editorial team that used to meet in person, but now meet through Zoom. Students in English 221: Literature and Writing Outside the Classroom, are asked to give feedback to rejected works.

Philip Christman, an editor of the Review and an English 221 lecturer, commented on how he misses being in-person. 

“I miss talking to my volunteers in person, as I miss talking to most people in person, but I think it’s worked relatively well for us, and our post-vaccine meetings will probably either be Zoom or in a hybrid format (some people Zooming in, others physically present),” Christman wrote in an email to The Daily. 

Christman said he has noticed a huge negative shift in the content of the submissions they’ve received during the pandemic because of lockdowns and self-isolations.

“A lot of prisons seem to have dealt with the pandemic by going into semi-permanent lockdown, and with infectious prisoners by putting them in solitary confinement,” Christman said. “However bad you’re imagining it, it’s probably worse. I can’t really get my mind around how hard this has been for them. I have also heard from some writers who we have a longer history with that they are too depressed and overwhelmed to write at all.”

LSA junior Reid Schreck took English 221 during the pandemic and commented on how highly he valued his experience. 

“Reviewing submissions left me with a strong appreciation for the talent and creativity of many of the incarcerated individuals the editorial team had the pleasure of working with,” Schreck wrote in an email to the Daily. “Providing prisoners a chance to express themselves and sharing feedback with them on how to improve their writing was a unique experience. I would encourage anyone interested to get involved with this great course and program.”

The U-M Carceral State Project’s research initiative, Documenting Criminalization and Confinement, aims to document the stories of those directly impacted by modern criminalization and confinement systems and to provide them to public and academic audiences such as policymakers and journalists. It also aims to keep records of those who are impacted by racialized criminalization and mass incarceration. The DCC has a special collection of testimonials on the impact of COVID-19 from incarcerated individuals in Michigan called Inside Accounts COVID-19.

Sociology 225, a class titled Project Community: Sociology in Action, developed out of an experiential learning program called Project Community that was founded by U-M student activists in 1961. The original program aimed to reduce racial inequality in the school system. The class now consists of three sections: education, public health and criminal justice. Though much of the class is currently remote, students continue to attend classes on Zoom and conduct community service. 

This semester, students in the criminal justice section will write letters to people in prisons in partnership with the American Friends Service Committee, a non-profit organization that advocates with Michigan prisoners. Students, GSIs and AFSC staff also discuss topics such as physical and mental health care, navigating the parole process, segregation and solitary confinement. 

According to Rebecca Christensen, director of Project Community and Sociology 225 instructor, the course has inspired students to become “future change agents.” Some students have expressed interest in becoming lawyers who work with criminal defense and attending medical schools that provide incarcerated individuals’ health care, Christensen said. 

This semester has the largest number of enrollments since Christensen has been in charge of the program, which she said she finds interesting. Christensen hypothesized that students are more inspired to help others and make a difference during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time where many disadvantaged people may be struggling.

As for when students and staff can work with incarcerated individuals again, Lucas predicted it will take longer than they would like.

“Even after the world outside prisons has been largely vaccinated, I predict that conditions in prisons will remain difficult for quite a long time,” Lucas said. “I would like to hope that we could begin in-person workshops again in prisons in Fall 2021, but I think that’s incredibly ambitious and unlikely to happen. Sadly, it will be a long time before we can share space with incarcerated people again.”

Update: This article has been updated to clarify details regarding the Project Community program.

Daily Staff Reporter Caroline Wang can be reached at wangca@umich.edu.

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