UDESC Prison Arts and Education International Conference: A post by Christa Shelmon

5 Jun

Olá! My name is Christa Shelmon, and I just graduated from Michigan with a Bachelor’s degree in Cultural Anthropology (woot!). This past semester was my first semester being involved with PCAP, and I wish I hadn’t waited until the last semester of my senior year to join.

I facilitated a theater workshop every Saturday morning from 8:30-10:30 am with Brittani Chew at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility (WHV) in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Waking up that early on a Saturday was not ideal. However, we had an awesome time every week. Our experience was unique in the sense that we concluded our semester with only woman in our workshop—a PCAP first!

I was really interested in coming on this trip, especially after finding out that theater and arts programming was actually a thing in prisons, and the fact that we could do such a thing in a totally different country struck gold for me. I have been learning so much already during this first week in Florianópolis, particularly at the first annual Seminário International de Arte e Educaçao Prisional, hosted by the Universidade do Estado de Santa Catarina (UDESC). This two-day conference featured guest speakers from all across Brazil who spoke about the challenging, yet rewarding work they do in prisons, as well as a concluding presentation by our very own Ashley who explained what PCAP is and what us students do in our weekly workshops. The conference was not catered to us—it was entirely in Portuguese. So, you can imagine how difficult it was for us to follow along. But, with the help of our Brazilian friends, Ashley, and Silvina (the graduate assistant for this trip), we were able to receive translations along the way in order to be present and attentive throughout the conference.

UDESC conf group pic

Michigan students pose with the panelists.

The second day of the conference particular was meaningful to me, for it highlighted many challenges and triumphs that I experienced with the workshop I was a part of this past semester. Day two of the conference consisted of various presentations on the work that was being done in prisons across Brazil. Most, if not all, of the presenters worked in women’s prisons, as I did, so I was that much more curious to listen to the type of workshops and classes they facilitate or teach. Carinie, one of the presenters, had a very interesting presentation that stood out to Brittani and me. Her first experience almost paralleled our workshop at WHV, and we immediately began making connections and comparisons. Initially, Carinie was a student who just wanted to make art and do theater, and did not think too deeply into the prison institution itself. She reflected on how she did not realize the effects of the prison institution until after two years of facilitating workshops. I found this to be relevant for me as well, and it is very hard to know how things are going to go each time you visit the prison. Some days are better than others—it’s so situational. This has been frustrating for many of us at PCAP.

Later, Carinie talked about how at times she found it hard to connect with the women, especially as a twenty-one year old college student who didn’t have as much life experience as some of the women she worked with. She also discussed how many women were experiencing depression, which obviously hindered them from participating in the workshop at their best ability, or how the prison staff failed to communicate to the women about her absence, leaving her in a tangled web of angry women and careless workers.

Finally, Carinie mentioned how the women opted out of a final performance at the end of the semester, and instead vied for sharing out their experiences with others instead of putting on a show. Listening to Carinie’s story allowed us to reflect on things we could have done differently in workshop. Brittani and I were so inspired, that we went to speak with her one-on-one during the break, just to get some feedback and let her know how similar our situations were. Carinie could understand English, but could not speak it very well, and therefore Silvina helped translate during our conversation. She was very insightful and appreciative of us going up to her and sharing out our feelings. After talking with her for a few minutes, she revealed that she, too, finished her semester with one woman in her workshop. This was heartwarming, and made that moment even more special. She left us with some really good advice of focusing on the work and not the grade—it is important to always consider the needs of our workshop group. She also reminded us that persistence is key, and although we may not be able to see the impact we had on the group, do not let that deter you. “Just one, that’s all it takes to make a difference!”

After the other five presentations, the presenters formed a panel for a question and answer discussion. The final question asked what inspired or motivated each individual to continue doing the work that they do, despite the trials and challenges they face daily. The entire panel gave beautiful answers, closing out the forum portion of the conference. It was an amazing opportunity to hear from individuals who are striving to be the change they want to see in the world, and served as motivation to never give up, despite how tough it may be to crack the system.

UDESC conf Q&A

Question and answer time after the panel.

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