When you picture prisoners making artwork, what do you imagine? Is it something dark, like a roughly etched skull inspired by some grisly tattoo? Or a bitterly quipped poem, dripping with edge and resentment?

In a correctional facility void of color and the vivacious hum of life, it’s difficult to believe that creativity can thrive — like plants, art must be tended to, pruned by its habitat and nourished by its creator. Beautiful art comes from beautiful situations, not necessarily in the literal sense, but abstractly: the artist seizes a desire, a motion, then encapsulates it. But first, he must have the knowledge to execute his art, from hours of schooling and practice. He must have the agency to learn, to rove and be inspired by his surroundings — all privileges that are unavailable to people who are incarcerated.

Though in spite of this, prisoners — perhaps more than anyone else — have a desire to create art, not only for self-expressive and rehabilitative purposes, but also because of a humanistic need to produce something of value.

What makes something valuable? We treasure Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa because of its antiquity and haunting realness; we prize our mother’s jewelry collection because of its sentimentality and hushed worth. We value our friends, our essays, the college acceptance letters we ecstatically received. We latch onto landmark paintings in the Louvre and our own tiny trinkets of memory because of their uniqueness, for an object’s value comes from it being one of a kind.

Sometimes the sheer knowledge of one’s own value is the tipping point between a deadly fall down the wrong path and the drive to do something great in life. Ashley Lucas, director of the University’s Prisoner Creative Arts Project, found herself teetering on this point at age 15, when her father was summoned to a long prison sentence. In his absence, Lucas floundered in school and drifted toward a rough crowd, struggling to find a purpose each day.

“Theater saved her life,” said Phil Christman, Lucas’s husband and editor of the PCAP Literary Review of Creative Writing by Michigan Prisoners. “As a teenager, Ashley took refuge on stage and threw herself into acting. She eventually performed a one-woman play expressing the clashing emotions she had been feeling, which drew University attention and earned her a scholarship to study drama.”

Realizing the power of art, not just as an outlet for creative expression but as the turning key to a meaningful, fulfilling life, Lucas was inspired to give the men and women incarcerated in Michigan the same experience through PCAP. Initiated by University students in 1990, the project has since expanded its outreach: hosting annual events, including the Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners; showcasing the best artwork and writing submitted by Michigan prisoners, as well as a juvenile art show; directing the Portfolio Project, a one-on-one program that assists prisoners in preparing portfolios of their artwork to present to judges and future employers, and the Linkage Project, which provides a creative community for adults returning from incarceration.

PCAP also organizes collaborative workshops within correctional facilities and urban high schools for theater, creative writing, art, dance and music, driven mainly by small groups of University undergraduates. Facilitating these workshops is a richly rewarding way to get involved as an undergraduate, not only because they give volunteers insight into the justice system and allow them to tune their own artistry, but also because of the impact they make on those incarcerated.

At the book release and reading of the Literary Review on Sunday, Barbera Montez, wife of Steven Montez, read the essay “Confluence” on the behalf of her husband, who wrote it. Before beginning, she addressed PCAP by saying, “Thank you for giving the voiceless a voice. Even more, thank you for listening to what they have to say.”

The Literary Review, published annually, is a compilation of the best creative writing submissions from prisoners, as voted on by a large group of readers in the Ann Arbor area. I was fortunate to be one of the readers for this year’s volume, working with Christman, assistant editor Denise Dooley, copy editor Ian Demsky and others to determine which works to publish. Submission criteria are simple: anything goes, from poetry to essays, as long as the content is not explicit enough to shut down PCAP.

“Really, criticisms of the Department of Corrections should be made,” Christman said, explaining what can and cannot be published. “But there’s a big difference between writing a memoir about how bad prison food is and saying that you want to harm a particular officer.”

The fact is, writers write from experience. It only makes sense that frustration, confinement, isolation and homesickness are recurring themes among submissions. These themes come even more alive when reading the writer’s personal statement — a note to the reader that often describes the circumstances that led to his or her prison sentence, told in heartbreaking honesty.

For me, these notes made it difficult to reject submissions; I wondered what Christman thought.

“Deep down, you know that these are people who have been told ‘no’ their entire lives,” Christman said. “But you have to look past this and read them critically like anything else. The crueler thing would be to accept everything — it would devalue the writer’s integrity.”

“One time a writer we published asked me, ‘Are you all just doing this to be nice?’ It broke my heart,” Christman continued. “He wanted so badly to be taken seriously that it was impossible for him to believe that we heard him, that he had made something beautiful.”

The man was Thomas Engle, a talented writer who has been featured in several volumes of the Literary Review. Having now returned from incarceration, Engle appeared on Sunday to read his own story, “Jim.” I was able to catch Engle on his way out of the Art & Architecture Auditorium, where the reading was held. I hoped that he could reveal how, despite being removed from much of life’s beauty, creative inspiration still thrives within prisoners through PCAP.

“Their minds have been untapped — they have the focus and determination of those that have had no chance to express their talent,” Engle said. “The sad and lonely have a story to be heard.”

Though the sad and lonely may be imprisoned in body, they cannot be confined in mind. The mission of PCAP is to sift through the feelings of hate, of hopelessness and hurting, to seek a light and pull it shining to the surface.

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