The Michigan Daily: First of all, congratulations on winning the award (for the Carnegie Foundation’s Outstanding Doctoral and Research Universities Professor of the Year). What do you think separated you from the rest of the applicants?
Buzz Alexander: I think it’s really clear. I think it’s the prison work that we’ve done. There are 300 candidates that have been nominated from universities across the country – it came down to an earlier elimination and then it went over to Carnegie and they did the elimination – and I’m sure it was because of what we’ve done at the University. We have this successful program, we go into prison, we have about 1,000 to 1,500 students involved here, we have several thousand prisoners involved. Nobody else in the country is doing anything like it. It’s just this thing that we gradually built – a lot of people built it – and now it’s in place and it’s just remarkable. I’m sure that’s what attracted them, and then the testimony from the students and the people who nominated me was very positive.
TMD: What was the motivation behind starting the University’s Prison Creative Arts Project?
BA: It began back in 1990. I was teaching a course in guerrilla theatre and we were going out in the streets and in the Diag and in classrooms and so on and disrupting with social justice issues. A student came into the class and she was visiting and working with two women prisoners. They wanted to take the course, and I was very excited. I grabbed it and went out there with three of my students, 180-mile round trip once a week, did a few exercises, talked and eventually asked them to ask us a whole bunch of questions and they asked us some really hard questions. We answered honestly and eventually they said they had to open it up to the whole prison. We had a good warden, it got opened up and that began all of the work that we’ve done ever since. We formed a theatre group over there, it’s called the Sisters Within Theatre Group and it’s on its 22nd play at this point. A couple other prisons contacted us. We had a lifer in Jackson said they wanted people to come in and do theatre because we need to tell people we’re human beings. I hadn’t thought a lot about prisons. I knew a lot of people were being sent there, but I hadn’t realized how many. I hadn’t realized how many were engaged in an economic and social process of control through massive incarceration.
I came here in 1971 and we had three prisons and 3,000 prisoners and now we have 51 prisons and 50,000 prisoners. I realize that certain people were being locked up