Prisons and jails too often sap the soul out of people. But some offer educational opportunities and creative outlets that make life inside a little more bearable; they also teach skills that give inmates hope that they'll be able to share their new know-how when they return to their communities.
Ashley Hamilton has devoted the past ten years to empowering people to create while locked behind bars. Now a professor, she heads up the University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative, a collaboration of the university, the Colorado Department of Corrections, and the people locked inside the state's prisons.
On Saturday, November 21, some of the artists she has been working with at prisons across Colorado will be sharing their work during a virtual event, A/LIVE INSIDE: A Virtual Showcase of Artists and Their Stories From Colorado’s Prisons. This ambitious statewide performance will include music, dance, poetry, visual art and theater.
Westword caught up with Hamilton to find out more about her work, the Prison Arts Initiative and the upcoming production.
Westword: Talk about how you got involved in doing creative work in the prisons.
Ashley Hamilton: I've had the honor of doing this work for a decade now. I started in the New York system, right out of college, teaching creative writing in the jail system. I quickly realized that this is what I wanted to do with my career, so I went back to school to get my master's and doctorate, studying community-engaged and educational theater with a focus on prison theater and education. During my graduate work, I started teaching in several prison-education programs offering associate and bachelor's degrees inside and also creating art-based work with Rehabilitation Through the Arts. It's been quite the journey.
How did the Prison Arts Initiative come together?
When I was offered my faculty position at the University of Denver three and a half years ago, I talked with my deans and department about the idea of starting a prison arts program. I couldn't imagine not continuing my prison work, and everyone was really supportive. I applied to the Colorado Department of Corrections to start DU PAI in the summer of 2017. Then, when I got on campus, I started working with co-founders Dr. Apryl Alexander and Rachael Zafer, MPA, to apply for various grants and seed funding, and we received quite a bit of support from internal and external funding sources that got the group off the ground.
In those early days, we also worked with a group of other DU academics to think-tank and idea-generate as we laid the foundation of the program. I began teaching theater classes inside the CDOC in late 2017 in a few facilities, and the program began to take off.
In early 2019, I was offered a historic contract with the CDOC to bring DU PAI into every prison in the state, and we now have a full, incredible staff and advisory board and are fully running in eleven prisons in the state with really robust programming and projects.
What do these kinds of programs mean for the people you're working with?
I have had the honor of working with over a thousand incarcerated people and their family members in my career so far. And my sense — although I am always learning and discovering — is that programs like DU PAI offer a space for folks inside to show up as the full, complex humans that they are in a physical space that doesn't always allow that.
We are very intentional about creating community together, supporting each other and creating a new paradigm. Programs like DU PAI — and there are so many people doing amazing work — create a space of possibility, transformation and healing. I've seen it over and over and over again. It's truly powerful to be a part of.
What have the challenges been doing this work during COVID-19?
Well, just like in the whole world, creating in this time has had all kinds of challenges and barriers. This project, A/LIVE INSIDE, has been the most complicated project we have ever produced. But — and that is a big but — I think that is what is going to make it so meaningful. This work has never been more needed than it is right now, in this hard and dark moment.
Talk about the performance.
A/LIVE INSIDE is a virtual showcase of artists and their stories from Colorado's prisons. A/LIVE INSIDE is an unprecedented live virtual event inviting you into multiple facilities across Colorado. You’ll meet incarcerated artists and storytellers sharing their theatrical performance, song and dance, visual art and music, and panoramic true-life stories.
A/LIVE INSIDE encourages and embodies transformation and celebrates the boundless humanity and creativity of CDOC residents. The arts and storytelling showcase is followed by a one-of-a-kind roundtable discussion between incarcerated participants and leadership from DU PAI and CDOC. Additionally, we will be broadcasting A/LIVE INSIDE on every TV in every prison in the state — live and in real time.
I can't put into words how deeply moving the work we have to show you is. It's some of the most powerful work I've ever gotten to be a part of. Please join us.
A/LIVE INSIDE takes place at 6 p.m. on Saturday, November 21; it's free to view. For more information and to register, go to the DU Prison Arts Initiative website.