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By: Mimiko Watanabe, Clinical Psychology

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Group of incarcerated men doing yoga

The University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative was founded in late 2017 by Dr. Ashley Hamilton and Dr. Apryl Alexander, with a mission to provide therapeutic and educational arts programming to people incarcerated in Colorado prisons. Over the past several months, the DU PAI has grown exponentially. There is now arts programming in four different correctional sites, with plans to implement more. Here are the latest updates!

Unique Model of Engagement

The first step of beginning arts workshops in any facility is to establish Group Leadership Committees. This is a group of incarcerated individuals who complete an application process and interview to participate in this role. They meet with Dr. Hamilton on an ongoing basis to shape the initial goals of the workshops unique to that site, and to provide feedback throughout the process. Examples of this include providing insight to group dynamics, to the morale of the group, and overall culture of the specific facility. They also have a role in determining the next workshop- for example, the Group Leadership Committee at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility requested a workshop on short play production and they are currently in the midst of that curriculum. Group Leadership Committee members also serve as a resource to other participants in between workshops, so that if a participant misses a workshop or needs clarification on what to work on, they have a peer to support them. 

Denver Receiving and Diagnostic Center

This site hosted their first pilot playwriting workshop in January 2018, which was run by Dr. Ashley Hamilton. The Group Leadership Committee decided they would like a creative writing and movement workshop next, which launched in April 2019 and is currently engaging eight participants. 

Denver Women’s Correctional Facility 

This facility has already had an ensemble theater workshop, conducted by Dr. Hamilton, which focused on introducing participants to basic theater principles. A workshop focusing on arts and spirituality was conducted by Dr. Clare Hammoor throughout this past winter, where each week focused on a different artistic spiritual practice such as creating mandalas or exploring origin stories. The Group Leadership Committee requested a short play writing workshop where participants put together ten-minute long performances, and this began in April 2019. Each of these workshops has a curriculum of meeting on a weekly basis for ten weeks. The next project will be longer as participants will create a full production play, which will begin this summer.

Sterling Correctional Facility

This site has 30 participants, 5 of whom are in the Group Leadership Committee. A 10-week ensemble theater workshop was run by Dr. Ashley Hamilton. This workshop culminated in a final performance of newly written scenes in March 2019 for an audience of fifty incarcerated men. A history of photography workshop is also currently in process, taught by Professor MacKinnis. Additionally, a full production play of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has begun! Auditions have been held and participants will be rehearsing over the next few months in preparation for an opening in August.

DU students are also involved at this site as actors and performed the play produced on campus, Tick, Tick…Boom! for incarcerated individuals on February 23, 2019. There were a total 150 incarcerated individuals in the audience—this theater production drew a crowd!

Colorado Correctional Center

The most recent to join the DU PAI sites, this facility began to host workshops in March 2019. The Group Leadership Committee met for about two months to determine what type of workshop they would like to see in their facility. They completed a creative writing workshop with great success. Participants are now in the middle of a reentry through theater workshop, focusing on issues of reintegrating into their communities following release from prison.

Family Reunification Events

In addition to arts workshops, the DU PAI holds arts-based reunification events at Sterling Correctional Facility, Denver Receiving and Diagnostic Center, as well as at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. Five parent-child reunification events have been held, the activities of which are based on “Where the Wild Things Are” and involve dramatic play and crafting. There have also been couples’ reunification events, where incarcerated individuals are reunited with their partners and they engage in fine arts painting. Undergraduate students have assisted in creating and facilitating these events. 

Future Directions

The DU PAI is in the process of launching an Inside/Out class, where DU social work students would be able to take classes inside prison alongside incarcerated students. The plan would be for 10 DU students and 10 incarcerated students to take the Restorative Justice and Performance social work class, taught by Dr. Shannon Silva and Dr. Ashley Hamilton. Details are to be determined!

Mimiko Watanabe, M.A. is currently pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology at the Graduate School of Professional Psychology, University of Denver. She has also worked at the Center for Community Engagement to advance Scholarship and Learning (CCESL) as the Arts & Engagement fellow for the past two years (2017-2019). In this role, she has supported the development of the Prison Arts Initiative and has worked on several photovoice projects in the community. Through both clinical work and organizing community engaged projects, she strives to support processes of empowerment on an individual and interpersonal basis while simultaneously pursuing broader sociocultural transformation. 


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