Archive by Author

Bonding with people in Brazil: A post by Nia Willis

13 Jun
My name is Nia Willis, I’m a junior at the University of Michigan. I became involved with the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) this past semester because several of my friends had volunteered and attended the Brazil exchange program. They told me about how it was a life changing and eye opening experience, and highly encouraged me to become involved. In this past semester I took Ashley Lucas’ class on Theater and Incarceration, and volunteered at a men’s correctional facility in Michigan.
Nia & the Big JC
When coming to Brazil, I planned on doing theater activities with those in prisons and favelas. I never expected to make such a strong connection with some of the locals. During our time at Universidade do Estado de Santa Catarina (UDESC) in Florianópolis (Floripa), there was this amazing student named Ale who showed us the city and made sure we had a good time, along with other students who always greeted us with huge smiles, hugs and kisses. After long days of conferences and workshops, it was refreshing to be around their positive energy and grow closer to them. In one week I made friends with people that I know I will stay connected with for years. I feel that when I return to Brazil one day, I have a place to stay and people I would be eager to visit.
In talking to people from both Floripa and Rio, I find it amazing how similar some of our experiences have been. During lunch one day at UDESC a student was talking about how difficult it is to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community: people using microagressions and families not being accepting of their gay or bisexual members. One of the gay bars in Floripa was threatened, which scared many frequent visitors from going back to the bar. This reminded me of the attack on the gay bar in Florida in 2016, and many of my friends’ experiences with not being accepted for their sexuality.
Favelas are parts of Rio that are not recognized by the city which means garbage trucks don’t come to pick up trash. There are no addresses or street names, and all electricity and running water is pirated from the city, rather than being offered by the city as a public servce. When we visited the favelas, I was working with a group ranging from 12 to 15 years old. Towards the end of the workshop we did an exercise where we split into five groups, and each group had to make a skit about discrimination. In the skit we all had to act and move like dolls. One skit showed how when selecting a doll many children desire the white Barbie that is skinny with long, blonde hair. I was so intrigued because I didn’t know longing for the blonde Barbie was an occurrence internationally. As a Black female I can relate to having a lack of representation of dolls and having a difficult time finding a doll that looks like me. I was saddened that young girls have to face race issues worldwide but was happy that kids in this workshop have a space to dialogue and learn how to navigate these issues.
Throughout this program, I have been amazed with the high level of interaction and deep connections I have made with students and workshop participants in both Floripa and Rio. I thought with a language barrier and difference of culture I would only be able to interact through theater games while here for a short time, but my bonds have been much more meaningful than I expected. Even with thousands of miles in between us, varying languages, and dissimilar cultures, it’s astounding to me the ability we have to form close relationships and how alike people are worldwide.

Our first week in Rio, including a visit to a men’s prison: A post by Katelyn Torres

12 Jun

My name is Katelyn Torres. I graduated from the University of Michigan in May, and it is safe to say that the Prison Creative Arts Project courses were some of the best courses I’ve taken throughout my college career. Art has always been a significant part of my life, and whether it was dancing, making music, or painting with acrylics, it has always been my greatest passion. The courses I took at the university also resulted in the cultivation of a new passion; social justice. When I discovered PCAP classes, I realized that they were a mixture of the two, which could not have been more perfect for me. In the course this year, I had the privilege of facilitating a theatre workshop at Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson, Michigan, with my classmates, Justine, Kevin and Erich. We had a large group of talented, incredibly creative men with whom we truly fell in love. While I was initially nervous to walk into a men’s prison, the room in which we held our workshop each week came to feel like one of the safest spaces in my life. We had so much fun, and the men were so appreciative of the work that we all do through PCAP. I love this work so much. And it just so happens that visiting Rio de Janeiro has always been at the top of my bucket list. I am so grateful for the opportunity to do work that I love in a place to which I’ve always wanted to travel. And what an incredible experience it has been so far.

ocean view

The people that we have interacted with thus far have been so beautiful in so many ways. I’ve noticed that in Brazil, people just seem to care less about how other people choose to dress, act and live their lives. Perhaps it’s different in other parts of the country, or even within other populations in Rio, but in the areas we’ve been exploring this seems to be the consensus. The women are natural. The sun and humidity serve as the makeup that illuminates their faces. Some shave, some don’t. Some wear bras, some don’t. Anything goes when it comes to clothing. And everyone is accepted and loved. I’m finding myself feeling so much better and more comfortable in my own skin- wearing less to no makeup, leaving my hair in its natural state and wearing whatever clothing I feel like wearing.
I’ve never been hugged and kissed more within a two week time span than I have since my arrival in Brazil. I love this aspect of Brazilian culture. It so starkly contrasts the somewhat distant, “Hi, nice to meet you,” (followed my a firm handshake) greeting one would receive in the U.S. Neither is wrong, but the Brazilians’ lack of value placement on personal space makes me feel much more loved and welcome in new spaces.
Brazilians also seem to have a different concept of time and timeliness. If something starts at 8 am, perhaps it will really start at 8:17, or later. They are not incredibly uptight about being on time (to the minute) like we are in the United States. It’s not a rat race. I feel my anxiety levels depleting in this country. It’s a very liberating and stress free atmosphere.
Our first week in Rio was a crazy one, saturated with different classes and workshops and events. We went into Brazilian prisons for the first time, which was an experience that I will not soon forget. My group (4 people) was assigned to the men’s prison, Evaristo de Moraes. This facility used to be a bus terminal but was transformed into a prison. We took the bus to UniRio, met two of the student facilitators and from there, took another bus to the facility. Upon pulling up to the area, the differences between this prison and the one in which I held my workshop in Jackson, Michigan, were immediately apparent. A group of about 40 individuals sat outside beneath a roof waiting either for visits or to drop off items for their loved ones inside. Of the 40 people, all but three were women.
As is anticipated when attempting to enter any prison, we ran into some difficulties getting in. The guard working at our entrance insisted that he did not have the proper authorization and documentation to let the Americans in, even though this had been organized well in advance. So, we returned to our small bus in the dirt parking lot and sat in the back waiting for things to be sorted out. It was about 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and we were in our “prison attire” which always consisted of conservative clothing (often long sleeves and long pants) and closed toe shoes. Leaning my head against the window, I kept the van door open in hopes of ventilating the space with some sort of breeze. This breeze never came. But something else did begin to circulate in the van. I started to hear the soft hum of feminine voices flowing together and looked over to see the group of waiting women forming a circle, holding hands. One woman was speaking to the others. She told them about how necessary it was to pray for their loved ones that were inside of the prison- how much they need their prayer and how much they need God right now. All of the women began to sing a song. I’m not sure what song it was, and I couldn’t understand much of it. But they sang it so beautifully and so passionately that it gave me chills. I could feel the pain and suffering that they’ve endured as a result of their loved one’s predicament; a pain and suffering that is not always acknowledged the way it should be.
The inside of the prison shocked me a bit. It was very dirty. The floors were made of dirt. The walls and the cell bars were riddled with stains and rust. Guards walked around fully padded and armed with intimidating firearms. The men were not in uniforms like those that I was used to seeing in the Jackson prison. They wore flip flops and shorts and t shirts and, to me, sometimes were not distinguishable from those inside who were not incarcerated. The prison was not surrounded by barbed wire, and my group and I spoke about how it looked like it would be much easier to escape from this prison than from those we’d seen in Michigan. We soon came to the realization that while it may seem this way, that is not the case. We learned that guards in Rio prisons use their guns very liberally and will shoot on the spot without much forethought. Or afterthought.
The things we’ve done this week have been diverse, yet they all relate to one another. For example, another of this week’s most prominent experiences occurred on Friday. While half of the group went to see Ashley perform her play in a women’s prison, the other half of us went to take a tour of downtown Rio de Janeiro. It was a bright, sunny day, and we walked around the city looking at old buildings and landmarks. The tour concluded with a visit to a small museum filled with ancient African artifacts. We were taken into a room which looked like it was some sort of construction, and we were led into a connecting room in which a documentary was shown to us. This documentary reflected on slavery in Brazil. The video was difficult to watch, yet incredibly important. I was shocked to discover that slavery was not abolished in Brazil for 30 years after it was in the United States. African American and Afro-Brazilian history have a great deal to do with the way our prisons systems are today, so this was supplementary to our prison work in Brazil. As the documentary continued, it began to discuss slave cemeteries and how the bodies of slaves were handled. It was then that I realized we were sitting on a Brazilian slave cemetery. Exiting the documentary room, still in a daze from the film, we entered the room that appeared to be under construction. It wasn’t. Peering over the edge of a large hole in the ground, I saw an archaeologist with a small brush in one hand and a petite sand shovel in the other. She was kneeling on the dirt, gently brushing an object that I couldn’t quite make out at first. Suddenly , I realized what it was, and this realization hit me hard.
art of woman's face
The archaeologist was brushing away dirt from the skeleton of a woman, a former slave, who had been buried there. The skeleton was still somewhat submerged in the dirt, but the entire body was clearly there and intact. As she gently grazed the woman’s teeth with her brush, a wave of emotion jolted through my body. I’ve watched videos and read books that told me about the horrors of slavery and about the inhumane ways slaves were treated even after death, but it had never felt as real as it did that day.
So far, our trip to Brazil has been filled to the brim with exciting new experiences, many of them life-changing. We’ve met new and incredible people who’ve taught us so much about their culture. We’ve gone on new adventures and tried new foods. And we’ve created bonds and memories that will last a lifetime. I’m so excited to see what the next week holds.
Katelyn on beach

Prison Arts and Education Conference at UDESC: A post from Julia Timko

12 Jun

Hello folks! My name is Julia Timko, I have been a student of Ashley’s and a PCAPer for the past three years. When I transferred to the University of Michigan in 2014 and enrolled in Theatre and Incarceration it somehow slipped my mind that we would actually be going into the prison, but after my first week at Women’s Huron Valley, I was in love with everyone in my workshop. Working with PCAP has changed my life in so many ways and I am so grateful to have had the experience. I recently graduated with a degree in theatre, and although I will no longer be at U of M, I hope to continue the work wherever I end up. This starts with Brazil.

While in Florianópolis, our group attended the first “Seminario International de Arte e Educação Prisional” at the Universidade do Estado de Santa Catarina. We, the Americans, were the international element. Everything was conducted in Portuguese, with our fearless leaders Ashley and Silvina (and some lovely English-speaking UDESC students) translating as best they could along the way. As a person who is often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of social injustice in the world, it was so moving and inspiring to be in a room full of people who cared deeply about folks who are incarcerated and have identified that the arts are a way to help them. It reminded me that even though these problems are numerous, there are also so many people in this world working towards justice.

On the first day of the conference, (after singing both the Brazilian national anthem and the anthem for the state of Santa Catarina) we listened to different presentations about prisons in Brazil and the kinds of work being done in them. The conference provided handy little pads to keep notes, and I used mine to get down some of the quotes/ideas that really stuck with me. The first of these is the idea the prison is the last frontier of education. As the daughter of an educator, education is something that’s on my mind a lot – what the purpose of education is and how we make the system better for those who come from marginalized backgrounds. People in prison generally tend to be forgotten in the overall discussion about education in the USA, and I feel that it’s important that they be factored in.

Later on in the day, one of the speakers discussed the fact that prisoners in Brazil have been conscripted to work on restoration projects such as fixing up old buildings. The people who are made to do this work develop skills that they could easily take with them once they are released, but even when they do have skills it’s difficult for them to get hired. Similarly, some incarcerated folks are taught to bind and repair books but are not taught to read them. These issues that were brought up, with specific reference to people incarcerated in Brazil, are also issues that are faced by people who exit prison in the US.

Another similarity worth mentioning (but briefly, as I wasn’t able to get the full translation) was the fact that false research about who is more pre-disposed to go to prison continues to affect darker skinned Brazilians. This is something that we have been talking about with our UniRio friends as well.

While it was challenging to listen to an academic conference in Portuguese, overall I was very grateful to have been included in the conversation and to have learned more about Brazil and the way that the system functions. If anything it has made me more determined to continue the work.


Apropos of nothing written in this blog post, I’d like to share this picture of a monkey that was spotted on an adventure to the Botanical Gardens in Rio. Just after this picture was taken, we watched him eat a banana out of a toddler’s hand.

Forming bonds with children through theatre work in the U.S. and Brazil: A post by Roland Gainer

9 Jun

Hi! My name is Roland Gainer. I am from New York City. I am a senior here at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Last semester I had the opportunity of volunteering for PCAP at Lincoln-Caulmet juvenile facility in Detroit. I had the pleasure of facilitating a workshop with Renisha, Yara, and Hannah. They were the best workshop partners I could’ve ever asked for. The young men in the facility were such intelligent, silly, respectful and inquisitive people. They were always excited to see us and always participated with such joy and high energy.

PCAP in the sand

One of my favorite moments in the workshop was when we were all playing hangman. I learned so many new words that day. We all got pretty competitive and the Michigan students lost the majority of the games of hangman. I really appreciate the lesson that they taught us. They taught me that there is a reason for every person’s experience and that fundamentally we all are great people and should not be judged by the decisions we’ve made in the past. One of the purposes of life is to learn and grow from each experience that you go through. I really pray that I will be able to see and interact with the young men in the workshop again.

I wanted to come on this trip for multiple reasons. One reason is that I have a goal of transforming the minds of people all over the world to love those around them and make the world a better place and to believe in themselves and one another. Traveling with PCAP gives me an opportunity to have a positive effect on those around me and gets me closer to my overall goal in life. Another reason is that I am culturally inexperienced. I want to understand and immerse myself in different cultures and learn from them. No longer do I want to walk around ignorant not knowing anything but the small and shallow culture that exists in America.

My experience here has been unbelievably great. I’ve grown really close to a large number of people in such a short amount of time. When we attended the social justice theatre festival at UDESC, we spent the day moving from one theatre workshop to another with a group of children who are part of a theatre program in a rural part of the state of Santa Catarina. The children who were attending the theatre festival in Florianópolis were the greatest group of children ever! They all had so many ideas and perspectives and was not afraid to express them. What really got me was when the children started crying on our last day when they realized that we would be leaving Florianópolis. The children made my heart melt. I would not have traded experiencing them for anything else in the world. We formed such strong attachments, and I love them so much.

Roland with kids from theatre festival

Roland with children who participated in the theatre festival at UDESC.

I really enjoyed the workshops that we did at the theatre festival. One workshop that we did was called “See, Judge, Act.” The kids who took the workshop with us decided to improvise a scene of bullying because the friend of one of the boys in the workshop was getting bullied at school, and this boy wanted to know how he could help his friend. The performance was very powerful and created by the children. I played the kid being bullied, and Erich, another Michigan student on our trip, played the bully. The kids decided to play supporting roles where they stopped me from getting bullied because they didn’t want to be bullied nor did they want bully anyone else. They are so creative and caring. It’s beautiful.

Reflections on a panel at the UDESC Prison Arts and Education Conference: A post by an anonymous student guest blogger

7 Jun
Group at Lagoa
In an institution where every aspect of humanity, identity, and individuality is stripped from you as a prisoner, those aspects become harder to maintain. Prisoners both in Brazil and the United States can use their imagination to create visual arts, music, theater and more to oppose such a system. While we were in a conference lecture in Florianópolis, Professor Natália Fiche talked about the importance of theater and acting within the prison. She and many others discussed how this ability to express oneself and one’s imagination is liberating in a place where you have no liberation. There are similarities but also stark differences between Brazilian prisons and U.S. prisons. In Brazil, prisoners are allowed to critique the system. They can speak or create art about their oppression, the corruption of the government, or even a revolution. However, once they critique a specific guard or figure of authority to their face, that is when their lives become threatened. Guards will not put up with disrespect to their name, but they’ll allow it when it addresses someone else. But this “freedom of speech” within Brazilian prisons comes with a cost. The lives and bodies of Brazilian prisoners are disposable in the eyes of the authority. Guards in Brazil are armed to the teeth and will not hesitate to use it. U.S. prisons are the opposite. In most prisons guards are not as heavily armed, and prisoners cannot criticize anything systemic without being punished for it. It’s interesting because as similar as prisons can be or seem, the differences are deeper than we see from outside their walls.
Houses on edge of water
Additionally, Natália said something that caught my attention. She was talking about her students who went into the program and did workshops in prisons. She said something along the lines of “My students go into these prisons as boys and girls but come out as men and women.” I found this line in particular to be quite profound and relevant to all prison related work in general. There is a process of maturation that occurs when one enters these prisons. You see things that you didn’t believe existed behind prison walls. You learn that society is lied to about human rights protections for such populations. And I feel like what Natalia said was a perfect way to summarize this.
Florianópolis was amazing. The people welcomed us with open arms and smiles on their faces. The theatre students and lectures kept the audience entertained but never lost track of the purpose of this whole conference. I’m extremely humbled to have met some of the people I did on Florianópolis. I look forward to more experiences like this in Rio.

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.

Welcome to the PCAP Brazil Exchange for 2017: A blog post about theatre class at UDESC by Adelia Davis

4 Jun

Dear Readers,

It’s that time of year again! University of Michigan students have traveled with me to Brazil for a three-week prison theatre exchange program. You will now start seeing posts from the students about our journey. Enjoy!


UDESC:PCAP students in class

UDESC and PCAP students together in Prof. Vicente Concilio’s class on May 29, 2017.

Hi, my name is Adelia Davis. I just graduated from the University of Michigan with a Bachelors of Science in Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience on the pre-med track. I have had the privilege of participating in Prison Creative Arts Program (PCAP) this past Winter semester for the first time, which gave me the opportunity to facilitate a theater workshop with teenage boys in the Spectrum Juvenile Justice Calumet Center in Highland Park, Michigan. That experience of working together to create a space where the boys and my co-facilitators and I could be creative and joyful in a space that is typically bleak and painful truly touches my life. I think about the idea of humanity with a broader point of view recognizing that we are all deserving of it. The Theater and Incarceration course as well as the facilitation experience has challenged me to not define people by the worst thing they have ever done whether they are strangers or have hurt me personally. My desire to learn from people who society has disregarded by denying them their humanity also led me to apply to study abroad in Brazil for three weeks over the summer with the professor leading the theater and incarceration work.

The Brazil program includes visiting two cities: Florianópolis (Floripa for short) and Rio de Janeiro. We will be meeting students and professors doing similar work to PCAP in both cities. One of the first experiences we have had in Floripa was visiting a theater class at UDESC – Universidade do Estado de Santa Catarina. As we entered the theater portion of the UDESC campus we heard a roaring chant: “MI-CHI-GAN, MI-CHI-GAN, MI-CHI-GAN!” The students greeted us with a kiss on the cheek and big hugs. The were so warm to their new friends from the U.S. before we were even able to become friends. The rest of the day followed with as much energy and love. The two-hour class consisted of sharing theater games with each other. My group taught games we played in our workshops in Michigan, like “DOWN,” where we ask each other to show us a new dance move and “Whoosh,” where “energy” is sent around a circle with many different twists to get people interacting and excited. Similarly, they should us games with passing energy around a circle (Zip, Zap, Doing) and a game to get more comfortable with each other through a name game (saying the name of the person to your right or left in the circle but the direction and speed changes). The biggest thing I took away from the class we shared is how grateful I am to have met people from across the world who treated me and my classmates like old friends. Since the class, the students of UDESC have gone out of their way to show us a good time, especially one student in particular who I love so dearly. I will miss them when we leave for Rio, but I will always cherish all that they have shared. This time in Floripa has shown me how it doesn’t matter how much people have when it comes to showing love. Many of the students here have never left the island where Floripa is located but have found joy in hearing our stories from across the world. I hope I have given them as much inspiration and hope as they have given me. Thank you, UDESC, for having us and loving us.


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