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From the Audience and Classroom at Oregon State Penitentiary

25 Jan

About the guest blogger: Michael Zinkowski has taught college-credit writing classes at Oregon State Penitentiary as well as youth correctional facilities in Oregon.

Yesterday I was an audience member for a play-in-progress entirely written and performed by inmates at Oregon State Penitentiary. For the last year, I’ve taught college-credit Writing courses there and one of my students invited me, looking for my feedback on the script he’d largely written. As both inmates and members of the “general public” entered and took their seats in the Chapel room, two guitarists and a keyboardist, all inmates, jammed together. It was a soaring prog-rock instrumental that carried us into the headspace we’d need to be for the play.

I took my seat towards the back right and saw my student (we’ll call him David) perched atop the radiator in the opposite corner of the room, behind the musicians. He sat there, shoulder-length dreads and thick-framed glasses, his hand covering his mouth like The Thinker. With his own office and a thousand responsibilities on the education floor, I’m not sure I’d ever seen him so still or unmoving. In his late 30s, over 20 of which have been spent inside prison walls, he’s possibly the most positively-driven and focused person I’ve ever met, using every waking moment to spread love and compassion, to atone. As I took my journal out to take notes, he looked out through the barred window.

What I didn’t know, is that the play had essentially already begun. After a lanky, older guy wearing a transparent latex glove passed out chocolate chip cookies and cups of water to the crowd of about 30, David stood up, continued to glare at the world out the window, out over the walls of the prison, and began a boisterous, gripping monologue. It felt like a sermon.

His imagery wove everything in the cosmos together, including the “invisible population in the middle of a city.” He functioned as the spoken-word narrator of the play, speaking from the all-knowing perspective of a bird who’d flown into the hospice care room here at OSP. The play featured many vignettes and characters, including the personified voice of Cancer, surrounding the story of a dying inmate, Michael Popper, Sr. David’s wisdom-inflicted bird interjected to help tie the narrative together.

To underscore just how invisible a man becomes dying in hospice care inside a maximum security prison, no one performed the role of Michael Sr. Instead, family members, prison guards, a doctor and nurse all spoke to a voiceless piano bench. Michael Sr.’s silence and invisibility was powerful because it turned our attention to the interconnectivity of all these other characters, each one essentially speaking to themselves but about related struggles. We can put someone inside the walls of a prison but we cannot, the play suggested, no matter how hard we might try, sever the connections they have with the world.

After a “talk-back,” in which members of the audience offered praise and critique, I got up and congratulated David on his performance, on the script, on his ability to make it all work somehow. The audience clapped and cheered as loud as they could without calling too much attention to itself. We were inside a prison after all. However, by no means was this the first time I’d been impressed with him or any of the other student-inmates I’ve had. In fact, my sheer delight and excitement I felt reminded me, unfortunately, that I sometimes reinforce commonly held beliefs about the abilities, talents, and intelligence of the human beings who live inside the prison’s walls.

Without being too scientific about it, it’s probably safe to say that American culture assumes the worst about prisoners. I don’t simply mean of their ethical choices or their “criminal nature” but of their potential and their capacities. And though the last year has taught me nothing but how smart, focused, artistic, grateful, and compassionate my student-inmates can be, I’m sometimes left asking myself: why should I be so surprised over and over?

Realistically, yes, I’m allowed the smile across my face whenever a student here reads a moving, original poem or performs a gripping monologue from the perspective of a talking bird or shows me a hugely improved draft of a 20-page research essay. And, of course, I do. I’m allowed the instinct I have to say “that was amazing,” “great job,” or “I can’t wait to hear the next draft!” and so I do.

Sometimes, though, I struggle with the origins of my excitement. If I’m surprised, is it because I, too, carry with me this idea that these guys shouldn’t be as smart as they consistently prove they are? If I’m moved, is it because the level of work is higher quality than I expected? Did I have low expectations in the first place? And did I have these expectations because I, too, hold the belief that being a prisoner necessarily means one has intellectual or artistic limits?

Probably. It’s something I continually work to deconstruct. It’s probably also true, though, that the quality of their work often surpasses that of my students at “regular” community colleges and that the odds are often very stacked against them and have been before they even got here. Can I not feel, then, that the high quality of work they produce, creatively or academically, is indeed a triumph?

My student-inmates know the world thinks the least of them. Sometimes their families do. Sometimes they, themselves, are burdened by these expectations. Is it in spite of those attitudes that these men excel, or because of them?

Right now I don’t have a solid answer. I’m sure haven’t even asked all the right questions or listed all the variables at play. So I don’t think I need a solid answer yet, but I’d like to use this blog to explore some of the questions I’ve already asked and share stories to complicate our ideas about prisoners, about their potential, and how when we talk about “their” potential we really mean our potential.



Seeking input on building a national prison arts association

5 Jan

Dear friends of The Prison Arts Coalition:

Building upon a new level of cultural awareness regarding the benefits of arts in corrections programs, we would like to know if an expanded national organization would be a valuable asset to you and the work you do.

In these early stages, we feel the association could offer the following to its members:

  • Raise awareness of programmatic efficacy
  • Host national or regional conferences
  • Share best practices
  • Foster community
  • Support, collect and disseminate relevant research
  • Offer professional development opportunities
  • What else can you imagine?

The following 5-minute survey is designed to help better understand the need for a national prison arts association and how it can best serve potential members like you.  Your input is incredibly valuable during this early stage.

National Prison Arts Survey

We are hoping to collect all responses by January 29th.

Thank you for your time!

This survey has been developed with input by an ad hoc steering committee of prison arts advocates and practitioners, including:

Cynthia Gutierrez – Barrios Unidos Prison Project

Ella Turenne – Artist, Activist, EducatorOccidental College

Freddy Gutierrez – Community Worker, Performing Artist

Illya Kowalchuk – Pop Culture Classroom

Jonathan Blanco – Oregon State Penitentiary Hobby Shop

Laurie Brooks – William James Association

Lesley Currier – Marin Shakespeare Company

Nate Henry-Silva – Imagine Bus Project

Nathalie Costa Thill – Adirondack Center for Writing

Treacy Ziegler – An Open Window

Victoria Sammartino – Voices UnBroken

Wendy Jason – Prison Arts Coalition

Alma Robinson – California Lawyers for the Arts

Weston Dombroski – California Lawyers for the Arts

Call for submissions: writing by artists who facilitate workshops inside

3 Apr

Project: An anthology of writing by artists who lead/teach (or previously led/taught) arts workshops inside correctional facilities. I seek submissions to construct a book proposal for publication.

Submission Guidelines + Instructions: Writing must be inspired by your prison work. It does not need to be directly connected to a specific event, experience, or person. Please indicate where names/identifying information has been changed.

  • Writing may be fiction, non-fiction, prose, poetry, experimental, non-traditional, un-categorizable.
  • You may submit as many pieces as you like (though not all are guaranteed inclusion in the anthology)
  • No length restrictions
  • Previously published material is acceptable, though un-published is preferred
  • .doc or .docx format, 12 pt. font
  • Email submissions + submission form to

Submissions accepted now through September 15, 2015

About: My name is Leigh Sugar. I previously edited the Annual Anthology of Michigan Prisoner Creative Writing and facilitated creative writing workshops inside Michigan state prisons (both through the Prison Creative Arts Project). I have seen anthologies of writing by inmates, but never a collection of writing by the artists who facilitate or teach writing behind bars. My motivation to embark on this project stems from reflecting on how heavily my own writing has been influenced by my experience going inside prison, and not feeling like I have an outlet or a means by which to share that writing. I know have this writing based on my time inside, so I know others must as well. It is critical that we strengthen our connections to each other and find ways to share our experiences and writing so we can expand the reach of the creative work that is generated in connection to the criminal justice system. I feel a real artistic resonance with other writers who bring their craft to prison and am committed to creating an entire collection of our writing. No contract yet exists for this volume; accepted abstracts will be organized into a book proposal, which I will then submit to publishers.

More information at Please circulate this call to any individuals or organizations you know involved in prison writing.

Domestic Violence Awareness Day

20 Mar

by Emily Harris

On Saturday March 12th, I had the honor of attending the 5th Annual Domestic Violence Awareness Day at Valley State Prison for Women.  The day was incredibly moving, full of lots of emotion, tears, laughter and many familiar faces.  It was such an honor to be present to witness the powerful skits, music, dance, poetry, and testimony about domestic violence.  One of the creative acts of resistance was the purple paper chain that the event organizers created that wrapped around the entire gymnasium. Each piece of paper had a quote such as “you are not alone”, “it is not your fault”, “break the silence” and as each speaker came to the stage they would breaking a chain off and read it out loud.

The event was organized by the Domestic Violence Peer Educators and attended by 400 women and transgender people at VSPW.  The event planners invited outside guests to participate and speak at the event, in attendance this year were members of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Justice Now, TGI Justice Project and CURB!!

Click here for more photos from TGIJP!

Below is an article from the Merced Sun-Star about the event:

Inmates at Chowchilla women’s prison address vicious cycle


Camilla Russell was abused as a child. “I never talked about it,” she recalled. Not talking about it for years caused the tension inside of her to build up as anger.

Prison Theater: Performing New Lives

12 Jan

This review was originally posted on January 12th, 2011 by Lois Holzman, Director of the East Side Institute here.

“We have a play to perform. We are accountable to one another. In programs that culminate with performances for prison audiences, and (especially) public audiences, there is an opportunity for prisoners to display and celebrate the culmination of their weeks or months of hard work. They can show themselves to themselves in the mirror of the audience, as people of value, as people who can make a contribution.” Jonathan Shailor

At the end of last year, I got a phone call from Jonathan Shailor, associate professor of communication at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. Jonathan had participated in an early Performing the World conference I organized and we’d been in touch very infrequently since then. He called to tell me about a new book he had edited: Performing New Lives: Prison Theatre, and to see whether the East Side Institute was interested in having an event to promote it. (We are. It will take place on March 18. Check the Institute’s website for details.)

I don’t think very often or very concretely about prison life. I imagine most people don’t. We know the horrific statistics, but not the people. Unless we ourselves or friends, colleagues or relatives work in or have served a prison sentence, our forays “inside” come through film and TV. Since I’ve read Jonathan’s book, its imprisoned men and women and the theatre artist-activists who work with them have become part of my life. I think about them, remember their stories, the roles they played on mostly make shift stages, and the ways they spoke of the impact. Jonathan’s book includes chapters on sixteen different prison theatre projects in the US, and each one is a good read. There’s honesty in this book and no polemic. I recommend it!

To learn more about prison theatre programs, check out the PrisonTheatre Consortium blog.

Is William Martinez Not Our Brother? Twenty Years of the Prison Creative Arts Project

2 May

Professor Buzz Alexander, founder of the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) at the University of Michigan, has authored a new book celebrating twenty years of PCAP. The book is NOW AVAILABLE from the University of Michigan Press.

Buzz’s Book Tour Dates:

Battle Creek, MI
(after) Prison: Denied Opportunities or Safer Communities?
Friday, Oct. 1st @ 7:00pm
Book reading, signing & Prisoner Art Exhibit at Urban Art Museum
60 Calhoun St., Battle Creek, MI

Los Angeles
Friday, October 15th @ 6:30p.m.
Book reading & signing at Mama’s Hot Tamales
2122 West 7th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90057
More information: 213-487-4300

San Francisco
Tuesday, October 19th @ 7:00pm
Book reading & signing at the Green Arcade
1680 Market St. San Francisco, CA 94102

New York
Education and Incarceration: A Conversation with the Founder of the Prison Creative Arts Project
Thursday, October 28th @ 5:00-7:00pm
Book reading, practitioner panel & signing at Teachers College
Milbank Chapel (Zankel Hall) Teachers College, Columbia University
525 W. 120th Street, New York, NY 10027
More information: 314-651-4862

Panel Includes:
–Kathy Boudin, of the Weather Underground and Columbia University’s Incarceration Working Group
–Jondou Chen, Teachers College Student Press Initiative
–Chris Emdin, author of “Affiliation and Alienation: Hip Hop, Rap and Urban Science Education”
–Michael Rebell, Executive Director, Campaign for Educational Equity
–Carol Shapiro, seminar leader, “Rethinking Criminal Justice: Moving Beyond an Individual Approach”
–Julia Taylor, contributing author, “Performing New Lives: Prison Theatre”

Saturday, October 30th @ 2:00-4:30pm
Workshop at Teachers College (Room TBA)
Columbia University, NY
More information: 314-651-4862

Ann Arbor, MI
Wednesday, November 3rd @ 7:00p.m.
Reading & signing at Hatcher Graduate Library Gallery in Room 100
University of Michigan, Central UM Campus
More information:

Saturday, November 13th @ 2:30p.m.
Reading & signing at Enoch Pratt Free Library in the Poe Room
400 Cathedral Street, Baltimore, MD 21201
More information: 410-396-5494

Washington DC
Sunday, November 14th @ 3:00pm
Reading & Dialogue with Arts for Change Activists
Potter House Bookstore
1658 Columbia Rd NW, Washington DC

Friday, November 19th @ 7:00pm
A Dialogue on Prison Arts, Mass Incarceration and Community Engagement
Reading, panel & signing
Resident’s Dining Hall at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum
800 S. Halsted at UIC, Chicago IL
Seating is limited please RSVP:

Panelists include:
-Mariame Kaba, Founder and Director, Project NIA
-Meade Palidofsky, Artistic Director, Storycatchers Theatre
-Jonathan Shailor, Founder and Director of the Shakespear Prison Project
-Amanda Klonsky, Girls Program Director, Free Write Jail Arts and Literacy Program

Monday, November 29th @ 6:30-8:30pm
Reading & platica featuring Author, Save Our Youth, Ex-Pinta Support Alliance, & the Hutto Visitation Program
Resistencia Bookstore
1801-A South First St.
Austin, TX 78704

Thursday, December 9th @ 7:00pm
Reading & panel discussion
Leopold’s Books
15 East Kirby Street
Detroit, MI 48202

Helping Our Prisoners Elevate
Friday, December 17th @ 6:00pm
Reading and panel discussion
Urban Network Bookstore
5740 Grand River, Detroit

Panelist include:

  • Yusef Shakur Author and Activist
  • Kwasi Akwamu Author and Activist
  • Peter Martell from the American Friends Service Committee
  • Michelle Bazzetta from the Prison Creative Arts Project
  • Readings in Petoskey, Maine, and Philadelphia coming soon!!

    About the book:
    “Prisons are an invisible, but dominant, part of American society: the United States incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world, with 25 percent of the world’s prisoners currently held within its borders. In Michigan, the number of prisoners rose from 3,000 in 1970 to more than 50,000 by 2008, a shift that Buzz Alexander witnessed firsthand when he came to teach at the University of Michigan.

    Is William Martinez Not Our Brother? describes the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), a pioneering program founded in 1990 that works with incarcerated youth and adults in Michigan juvenile facilities and prisons. Alexander recounts the genesis and evolution of this radically pragmatic and original system that begins with university courses for credit, then offers students a university-based nonprofit organization through which they may continue and deepen their practice, and finally gives them a national network as well as connections with the national movement resisting mass incarceration in this country, and with social careers in general.

    By giving incarcerated individuals an opportunity to participate in the arts, PCAP enables them to withstand and often overcome the conditions and culture of prison, the policies of an incarcerating state, and the consequences of mass incarceration.

    The book is also a deeply personal account of Alexander’s long commitment to confronting the continually rising numbers of prisoners in America, his dedication as an educator, and his attempts to provide a way to reach out on a practical and emotional level to inmates. The model he describes applies to both public scholarship and everyday politics and will inspire readers in all fields.”

    Buzz spoke recently at Dartmouth college. Read about that presentation in The Dartmouth.

    Recent news about the book….

    ‘Is William Martinez Not Our Brother?’
    Inside Higher Ed
    August 23rd, 2010

    ANN ARBOR: U of M-based Prison Creative Arts Project enters 21st year
    The Heritage Newspapers
    September 5, 2010

    Utah inmates escape through art
    by Jennifer W. Sanchez
    The Salt Lake Tribune
    September 13, 2010

    Creating art from within: A profile of the Prison Creative Arts Project
    by Chantel Jennings
    The Michigan Daily
    September 20th, 2010

    The Prison Focus radio show with Leo Brutta on KPOO
    October 21st, 2010

    Change Makers Buzz Alexander
    October 25th, 2010

    ARTFORMS: Art Behind Bars
    Interlochen Public Radio
    November 4th, 2010

    Recent panel discussion addresses the value of arts in prisons
    by Julia Eussen
    November 5th, 2010

    Literary Treats for Politics and Policy Geeks
    by Bill Castanier
    December 16, 2010

    Art Behind Bars: How an Innovative Program Changes Lives
    by Lauren Monsen
    December 22, 2010

    College to host prison art lecture
    by Rachel Brougham
    Petoskey News
    February 8, 2011,0,2480043.story

    The Judy Dworin Performance Project

    13 Apr

    The Judy Dworin Performance Project is a company of performing artists who, on stage and in the community, seek to innovate, inspire, educate and collaborate as they engage in art making rooted in the belief that the arts can be a powerful agent for change.

    They premiered their lastest piece, Dreamings on April 2, 2009. It was created during an arts-based residency at York Correctional Institution for women in Niantic, CT. Dreamings played to a sold out crowd, thunderous applause, standing ovation and a talk back which lasted almost as long as the performance.

    Carli Beatty is a former inmate, now living in a half-way house (due to be paroled in June) was granted permission to be part of the public performances. She performed in Dreamings while she was in prison. After she was transfered to a halfway house she was able to remain a part of the Judy Dworin Performance Project . This allowed her to perform with the company in the public performances This was a first for Connecticut. Last night Carli was terrific as were the other formerly incarcerated women, daughter and sister of inmates who joined the company. The uniquness of this piece is that it was created inside prison but added individuals previously incarcerated and their family members into the public performances.

    Listen to the radio interview here.

    DVDs of the public performances of Dreamings will be avaialble for purchased through the Judy Dworin Performance Project’s website.