In Prison Creative Arts Project, collaboration allows students and incarcerated individals to flourish
It’s not here to give out grades, to set learning objectives or to change people. It doesn’t teach about alcoholism or how to balance a checkbook. It’s not here to save souls or proselytize. The Prison Creative Arts Project goes into prisons around Michigan to bring joy.
Started in 1990 under Buzz Alexander, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, PCAP incorporates visual, written and theatrical art into the lives of inmates from prisons in southeast Michigan, and accepts artistic submissions from all 33 prisons statewide. The project is now led by Ashley Lucas, a professor of theatre and drama in the Residential College.
Originally intending to write a book about the program, Lucas joined in Jan. 2013. She spent a year following Alexander’s students to see its effects, which, she said, confirmed her suspicions.
“Doing this program as a student radically changes the perspective on what the arts can do and the feelings on the justice system,” Lucas said. “It’s a much greater learning tool about those ideas and our cultural as a carceral nation.”
Lucas eventually had to scrap her plans for a book. As she was studying PCAP by attending workshops, collecting field data and following Alexander around, PCAP was studying her.
“They were looking for somebody for about 10 years,” Lucas said. “Someone interested in continuing (Alexander’s) work capable of achieving tenure at the University of Michigan.”
In 1990, a class-action lawsuit was filed by incarcerated women vying for the opportunity to earn college credit while incarcerated, as men were already able to earn degrees in jail. At the time, Alexander had been instructing courses on street theatre when his students learned of the lawsuit and convinced him to bring his classes to the women’s prison in Ypsilanti, the only one in the state at the time.
Lucas said Alexander, who had taught at the University for more than 30 years before his recent retirement, found an entirely different learning environment from the one he had grown accustomed to at the University.
“You have the undivided attention of people in the room,” Lucas said. “It’s hard to walk into a classroom and find that level of attentiveness and readiness, to find that eagerness to be part of something bigger than yourself.”
Alexander was the program’s trailblazer and, according to Lucas, didn’t stop to consider what other people had to say about his project.
“I think Buzz did a lot of things on his own incrementally,” Lucas said. “The University was a different place back then. He was taking himself into prisons, I don’t think he asked permission.”
Mary Glover, now known as Mary Heinen, was able to earn a bachelor's degree from the University under Alexander’s tutelage. To achieve this, a student proxy went to class for her, took notes and sent her the assignments. Heinen has since been the recipient of the Soros Justice Fellowship, a fund to support criminal justice reform work.
“That climate educationally has changed drastically since the early ‘90s,” Lucas said. “The University was a much more open place in terms of how it approached people in prison educationally. In part, they’re no longer being taught by professors. You have to apply to the University and pay full tuition in order to get a degree.”
Alexander’s struggles in getting the program off the ground mirror those of current volunteers, who undergo extensive training and surveillance before stepping foot in prison.
The Process of PCAP
About four years ago, while still on parole, Aaron Kinzel started working with PCAP. He was in a graduate program at the University. A native of Monroe, Mich., Kinzel has never been incarcerated in Michigan as an adult. Before he was imprisoned on an attempted murder conviction that resulted in a 10-year incarceration for an incident in 1997 in Maine when he was 18 years old, Kinzel was in a juvenile detention facility.
Kinzel is now also a doctoral candidate and a faculty member in the Criminology and Criminal Justice departments. He said he felt disheartened before applying to the University considering his record. Though he had already received his associate’s degree at Monroe County Community College, and his bachelor's at Siena Heights University, he had been rejected by other colleges in the area.
“Probably one of the biggest things I describe is my own personal narrative,” Kinzel said. “I personalize myself with someone who is incarcerated. I know how empowering it is to get contact with people from the inside that I’m a part of their culture.”
Kinzel is a leader in the Linkage Project, a program through PCAP where former prisoners come back into the community to lead workshops. Kinzel led one such workshop at the Monroe County Youth Center, where he was incarcerated as a juvenile. He said the experience of returning, even as an adult, was stressful for him.
“It was creepy as hell, and very anxiety driven — there’s this anxiousness it’s really hard to describe,” Kinzel said. “Different sounds, smells, the clicking of a door … it really triggers a physical, emotional response. To go back where I was as a kid — even though I didn’t really spend that much time there — I felt that melt away when I was connecting with kids that were a mirror image of myself and how I overcome adversity really helpful.”
Kinzel said he was interested in art before being involved in the program as a student, and while incarcerated worked mostly on sketches and preparation for tattoos, which he administered to himself behind bars.
“I started shifting to more woodworking. I did carving, wood burning, building out of rare types of wood I put my soul into it,” Kinzel said. “I think that’s what art is — putting yourself into a physical form.”
Kinzel is now working on building his dissertation on the notion of Convict Pedagogy, a theory he’s devised surrounding the crafting of an oral history within a penitentiary setting in which older convicts educate the younger on a series of codes and traditions.
The difficulties that come with integrating into prison life are why a lot of care is given toward training for the program, the bulk of which is preoccupied with what is permissible in the prison for both volunteers and participants.
Requirements for volunteers are minimum — they have to be older than 18 with no criminal record to get into the prisons. Though there are few non-student volunteers, the amount shifts from semester to semester.
Lucas said the program devises a list of agreements before the workshop can begin, usually incorporating some of the rules of the facility, like no touching. Additionally, they observe trauma issues and avoid activities that would require participants to close their eyes or turn their backs, which are safety concerns within a prison setting.
Music, Theatre & Dance senior Leia Squillace began working with PCAP her junior year and said she initially got involved because she’s been interested in the utilization for theatre and performance for social change.
“I think that theatre has an incredible capacity for people to relate to each other, and to bolster empathy,” Squillace said. “So when I learned about PCAP, I thought what an incredible opportunity to put those theories to the test with practical experience.”
Squillace led her first workshop at Cooper Street Correctional Facility in Jackson, Mich., with another student facilitator. She participated for that semester, instructing about 10 participants once a week in two-hour sessions.
“I was very prepared for leading theatre exercises,” Squillance said. “I felt I was prepared to have fun with the participants. What I didn’t feel prepared for, or what surprised me, I guess, was working in a prison. This is one of the most closed-off communities and environments in our entire country.”
Squillace said it was difficult to access that community because there are legal stipulations meant to keep people out. Personally, she knew few with access to people with those experiences, and said she found depictions of prison life through media to be mostly inaccurate.
“One of the most, I think, difficult aspects about PCAPS is that after the workshop I can’t casually enter the prison to see them and it's heartbreaking,” Squillace said. “I became so close with them, and I had honestly more uncomfortable interactions with the guards than with any of the incarcerated people.”
“Honestly, I’m not sure what the perceptions are of PCAP,” she said. “I think maybe one is that we are entering the prison to educate our participants, because I think really the mission of PCAP is all people regardless of whether they are incarcerated have a right to creative expression. And ultimately, that’s what we aim to provide.”
Squillace traveled last May with Lucas and about 18 other facilitators to conduct similar workshops in prisons, hospitals and isolated communities in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“That trip proved to me that what we are doing at PCAP, while it seems unique, it’s work that a lot of people find important not just in Michigan or in the United States but internationally as well.”
Anna Clark, a University alum and current Knight Wallace Fellow, said she got started with the program as an undergrad. Alongside Matt Erikson, another University and PCAP alum, she started a theater program in Detroit. This January will be the five-year anniversary of their program.
“I was doing a workshop at a prison in Jackson that’s now closed,” Clark said. “It was a writers group. It involved a lot of props, objects. I also happened to bring a copy of The Michigan Daily because it had an article about the annual prison art show.”
Clark said some challenges she faced were dealing with the vagaries of the prison system. She said it was difficult when a long-time participant is relocated and there isn’t an opportunity for closure. She also remembers a time when she was banned from one of her workshops.
Clark said traditionally items brought into the prisons were catalogued with the guards. This day, they were running late and the group was waved in. Also among the props Clark had gathered for the improv workshop was a bracelet. On their way out, Clark was showing the contents of her bag when she realized someone had written on the newspaper.
“They saw the note, and a bracelet that could have been a gift, so they kicked me out,” Clark said. “Sometimes that kind of stuff happens. I get it. When you bring in young people that are new at this and whether intentionally or not there can be risks that you don’t even realize, and I get that. I think the people who work in these places have an exceptionally tough job. They would rather be over cautious than under cautious. Some facilities, they don’t have to let us come in — and some don’t.”
“Anything that you take into a prison you have to get approved for,” Lucas said. “You can get the whole program thrown out of the prison for not taking all five pens out. Many times it happens that they were expelled from a prison.”
Another, perhaps less obvious, concern is the stigma of romantic relationships occurring between the volunteers and the prisoners.
“It's perfectly natural to develop feelings,” Lucas said. “Prisoners may want to pass a love note, but you can’t bring anything out of the prison that you haven’t secured permission for ahead of time. But the majority of what we do in the prison has to stay in the prison, you have to contact the facility weeks in advance. If someone slips a love note into a notebook, so even if my students didn’t know it was there, our program suffers.”
Lucas said one year on a sponsored safe-sex day on campus, condoms were being distributed on the Diag. One female participant unthinkingly slipped it into her pocket on her way to participate in PCAP.
“You can understand why that looks suspicious even though she didn’t have sexual designs on anyone,” Lucas said. “We support our students. We are here for them, but we have to abide by the rules of the facility. But what can happen to the people in our workshops, if rules are broken, even if we’re the ones breaking them, then the people who signed up to participate in our workshops are the one who really suffer.”
During her freshman year, Clark was a work-study student and was interested in joining despite obligations working at the Daily.
“I think, well, one of the challenges is it's just time,” Clark said. “I think a lot of the folks you work with have been on the wrong side of a broken system, just being there despite all odds over time.”
A PCAP associate, Clark still does a workshop but isn’t a regular participant. One misconception that she’s conscious of surrounding the program is that it’s more instructional than collaborative.
“They teach us how to be better,” she said. “They make up an exercise. I think that back-and-forth energy is better for everybody. It’s not a charitable project that implies a one-directional relationship.”
Clark said the program opened her eyes by granting her the freedom to see first-hand the realities of a prison setting.
“There really aren’t a lot of programs like this, and the fact that this has lasted as long as it has, after a change in leadership with the University, change in leadership from the department of corrections, and the change of leadership through the program,” Clark said. “That’s amazing, that's a testament to the infrastructure to the program and the people that have shown up to it.”
Lucas describes the Skills in Arts facilitation teaches facilitators to be respectful to sensitive populations and obeying the rules of those enviornments. Violations, whether the facilitator is aware of them, could cost the program.
Training for the volunteers has several components. There is one occurrence of all-day training in the first weekend of the semester, which Lucas said has regularly supported 60 to 80 participants, including some people enrolled in the classes. After that, facilitators meet every other week to meet with mentors about workshops and get advice with program staff and faculty.
Diversity is a staple among those who volunteer for PCAP, from slam poets from Detroit to a woman in her 60s who provided a quilting workshop last year with a University student. There are cases like Susan Ashmore, a community volunteer, who got involved because one of the long-time PCAP volunteers went to her church and gave a talk in 2008. Ashmore is pioneering the project’s first workshop in a federal prison for the first time alongside Larry Root, a professor in the School of Social Work.
The Program Today
The art show is the program’s climax and biggest expense. All of the art is matted, a technique that involves spraying a protective sealant over the piece, so the pieces are ready to be displayed. Walls must be constructed within the showroom at the Duderstadt Center each year, though it’s still not enough space for the artwork.
“We make a video to send to all the prisons because they can’t come to see their art,” Lucas said. “We (film) every piece of art in the show. And we send that video and produce the video nicely and asked that it be played on the closed circuit TV.”
Certain facilities have a TV system that's plugged into all of the day rooms and the living spaces that can broadcast video throughout the prison.
Another consideration that differs from prison to prison is the access the program has to its participants. Workshops are conducted in both private and public juvenile facilities as well as the adult prisons. In general, Lucas said, to be involved in the program an inmate must be “ticket-free,” or have gone without incident, for six months.
As for the weekly workshops, Lucas said security level is a concern. The program provides services for level-one prisoners, who are nearing the end of their sentences, but can only accept submission from those at level five, which is solitary confinement.
“The things about levels is that they are separated from each other for various security reasons,” Lucas said. “We are only allowed to program with people of a select level together. We never ask about people’s crimes.”
Lucas said over the course of the project the types of submissions have varied, some in direct correlation to what’s happening in the world outside.
“Things like technology is often confusing to people in prison,” Lucas said. “There’s some things that are difficult to picture, but there are other things to which people respond to contemporary critique.”
Notable shifts in submissions occurred after Hurricane Katrina and after the news broke about the Flint water crisis. The year President Barack Obama was elected, he was featured in many pieces displayed by the program.
“There are often very thoughtful pieces that address environmental concerns,” Lucas said. “You can spend decades of your life without touching a blade of grass. (Inmates) are not allowed to be barefoot, so to think about wildlife and nature. There’s a lot of contemporary political thought.”
Lucas said, based off her studies of similar programs, she believes PCAP to be the largest prison arts programming in terms of the number of people, the number of prisoners that have access to our programming and the number of people they serve.
“It's above and beyond anything we’ve seen anywhere else and it's the infrastructure of the University that makes that possible,” Lucas said.
Because the material reality in prison is so constrained, the project has acquired a reputation as a refuge for the incarcerated. Lucas said while bringing art is a gift to anyone’s life, the benefits brought to the prisoners is miniscule in relation to how it changes the student volunteers.
“I think the patent assumption that people tend to make when they hear about this program is that it's changing people in prison most of all,” she said. “I would argue strongly about that. There’s a lot of very casual remarks that say that we liberate people in prisons with the arts, that people feel free.”
There’s some truth in that — the limited freedoms within a prison are discrete and specific. The program enables prisoners to engage not just with those outside their scope, but also each other, building a community that enables all involved to have connective positive activity that they cannot engender by themselves. Prisoners cannot congregate together, as it increases the risk of gang activity or violence.
Prison activity must be supervised, and PCAP qualifies by the standards of the prisons that they enter. Lucas said though is the role the prisons cast them in, the primary objective of PCAP is to bring the joy.
“I think we do change people, to connect meaning with others, give them some agency," Lucas said. "We try to let the prison drive the programming, but once we’re in there we say to the folks in prison or in the facilities, what should the end product of this look like let us help you make what you want."