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The Atonement Project: Restorative Justice and the Arts

10 Feb

The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) is excited to announce an opportunity to be part of its new Atonement Project initiative—an arts-based restorative justice program that seeks to start meaningful conversations about crime, incarceration, and reconciliation.

Anyone whose life has been touched by crime or incarceration in any way is invited to join a weekly Atonement Project arts workshop in either Detroit or Lansing. Workshops are facilitated by University of Michigan students enrolled in PCAP Director Ashley Lucas’ Atonement Project course. Workshops began February 1 (Detroit) and February 4 (Lansing) and run for 12 weeks. Contact Ashley Lucas at for more information or to register. You are welcome to join even if you already missed the first weeks of the workshop.

Project Description

The Atonement Project is an innovative, arts-based approach to addressing issues that many crime victims and people who have committed crimes find difficult to discuss (i.e. forgiveness and reconciliation). We wish to create spaces, both through an interactive website and through arts workshops in prisons and in communities affected by crime, where the arts and creativity can help us bridge the divides created by crime and incarceration. The ultimate goal of the Atonement Project is to bring together people whose lives have been shaped by crime so that we can join our efforts to prevent further harm to our families, loved ones, and communities.

Drawing on a broad variety of art forms, including visual art, creative writing, theater, music, poetry, and dance, the Atonement Project uses creative expression to engage participants in tough conversations about crime, punishment, and reconciliation. Technology, including the Atonement Project website, video, digital photography, social media, and interactive online tools will enable web users to have access to the products of our arts workshops and participate in larger conversations about forgiveness and atonement.

The use of creativity and art in examining issues related to atonement and reconciliation is a central component of the Atonement Project. Many people respond more openly to and are able to connect with the experiences of others when they read their stories and experience visual art. The art created in our workshops and displayed on our website will focus on the following three areas of the atonement process:

  • Acknowledgement: Recognizing how we have hurt and how we have been hurt by others.
  • Apology: Apologizing to those we have hurt, and apologizing to ourselves for the hurt we have caused ourselves.
  • Atonement: Atoning through direct actions in our community, with people we have hurt as well as ourselves.

Community Workshops

Anyone whose life has been touched by crime or incarceration in any way is welcome to participate in community workshops, and there is no cost involved in participation. Workshops will take place once a week for two hours and will run for twelve weeks. We ask that participants try to come to all workshops, but we understand that not everyone who participates will be able to attend every single week.

Each workshop will be a space for participants to collaborate as a group on creative writing, performance, and/or visual art. No prior artistic training or previous affiliation with PCAP is required. Everyone is welcome, and no particular skill set is necessary for participation.

Detroit Workshop

Saturdays, 1-3pm

February 1-April 19, 2014

U-M Detroit Center (South Studio)

3663 Woodward Ave, Detroit, MI 48201

Lansing Workshop

Tuesdays, 6:30-8:30pm

February 4-April 22, 2014

Michigan State University

Snyder-Phillips Hall C301
362 Bogue Street (close to the intersection of Bogue and Grand River)
East Lansing, MI 48825

Contact Ashley Lucas at to register.

About the Prison Creative Arts Project

The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) was founded in 1990 with the mission to collaborate with incarcerated adults, incarcerated youth, urban youth and the formerly incarcerated to strengthen our community through creative expression. Housed in the University of Michigan’s Residential College, faculty and students work with community members both inside and outside prisons to engage in theatre, dance, visual art, creative writing, slam poetry, and music.

More information, including a link to the Atonement Project website (which we hope to launch later this month) will appear on this blog soon.

Meanwhile, my dear friend Margarita Mooney (a sociologist at Yale) visited our class and wrote a fantastic blog entry of her own that explains our work beautifully.  Thank you, Margarita, for your support of the Atonement Project and for your wonderful visit to the Atonement Project class!

O Prisioneiro da Grade Ferro: A Meditation on a Documentary Film and How We Encountered It in Rio

14 Jul

100_1754The UniRio campus has some great graffiti, but this bit is my favorite so far: POUCA VIDA, MUITA ARTE (SO LITTLE LIFE, SO MUCH ART).  The sentiment sums up my feelings about being here.  The students and I have had so many amazing opportunities to see and participate in theatrical activities since our arrival here that we really do feel quite conflicted about choosing which things to do in the few weeks’ time we have.  Already some of us are more than halfway finished with our trips.  (We all had different travel schedules, so Liz Raynes arrived first and is due to return home soonest.  When she leaves in a few days, we will sorely miss her!)  Each day there are more interesting things going on than we could possibly attend or that I could fully write about on this blog.  Today’s post is about just one of our recent adventures.  More will follow shortly in posts to come.

On Friday nights the Teatro na Prisão program shows movies related to prison issues in Brazil.  Professor Fiche and her students gather to watch a different film each week and to discuss issues surrounding incarceration in their country.  Andy, Renee, Liz, Sarah, and I attended last Friday night’s screening of O Prisionero da Grade Ferro (called  Prisoner of the Iron Bars in English).  This documentary, released in 2004 and directed by Paulo Sacramento, depicts the conditions inside the infamous Carandiru prison in São Paulo.

In 1992 a fight amongst several prisoners in Carandiru escalated into a riot which involved an estimated 10,000 prisoners in the vastly overcrowded prison.  Carandiru was at its height the largest prison in Latin America, and at the time of the riot the prison housed more than double the number of prisoners it was built to hold.  Though prisoners offered their surrender when the prison was surrounded by police in riot gear, the police took the prison by force.  111 prisoners were killed, almost all by bullets (which, of course, only the police possessed).  These men were trapped inside a building they could not escape, gunned down by the dozens by their own countrymen.  In 2013, more than twenty years after the massacre, twenty-three police officers were convicted of killing just thirteen of Carandiru’s slain prisoners.

Drauzio Varella, a doctor who had been volunteering at the prison infirmary for more than a decade to try to curb the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS within Carandiru, wrote a popular book about the prison and the frighteningly bad conditions there.  The book, Estação Carandiru (published in English as Carandiru Lockdown: Inside the World’s Most Dangerous Prison), first published in 1999, was a critical success and was later made into a very popular Brazilian film called Carandiru (2003), directed by Hector Babenco.  My students and I had watched this film, which is not a documentary and is a bit glossier and sexier version of the actual events, in Michigan before we came to Rio.  We found the film to be very moving, and it gave us a bit of the history of Brazil’s prisons before we entered one ourselves.

O Prisionero da Grade Ferro, the documentary that we watched with the Teatro na Prisão folks here in Rio this past Friday, offered an even more disturbing look at Carandiru prison.  Filmed in the seven months prior to the prison’s demolition in 2002, this documentary showed similar conditions to those depicted in the more popular movie, except the truth was more devastating than the fictive version of events.  The team of documentarians taught a course on filmmaking inside the prison during the months that they were gathering footage, and some residents of Carandiru were given handheld cameras to record their own observations of prison life.  The final version of the film combines footage taken by the prisoners with that of the filmmakers.

The  most troubling scenes in the film depicted the “isolation cells.”  Ironically, isolation cells in Carandiru held up to fourteen men in a closet-sized space.  Their bodies were so tightly packed into the cells that the prisoners had to take turns sleeping.  They were not allowed to bathe or to leave these cells for months at a time, and they showed the filmmakers the rotting food that served as their meager sustenance.  The men looked into the cameras and pleaded with international human rights organizations to intervene.

Another portion of the film showed families visiting prisoners on the weekly visiting day. An incarcerated photographer would take snapshots of prisoners and their families in the central courtyard that defined each of Carandiru’s nine buildings.  The same photographer was also forced to take pictures of the bodies of the men murdered by fellow prisoners.  At times this man had taken a picture of a prisoner with his loved ones just hours before being called upon to photograph the same man’s body, riddled with stab wounds.  The documentary showed quite a few of these gruesome photos of corpses. Both before and after the massacre, Carandiru was a terrifying and brutal place to live.  Some of the men in the documentary held up giant knives the size of machetes and reported that most men kept two of them for protection–one for each hand.  Their accounts of the prisoner-on-prisoner violence in Carandiru reminded me of things I’ve read about Anogla Penitentiary in Louisiana.  In the 1970s when Angola was one of the most dangerous prisons in the United States, prisoners often slept with a phone book on top of their chests because of the likelihood that someone might try to stab them during the night.  Thankfully, my father has never had to live in a prison with this kind of reputation for bloodshed, but seeing this film rekindled anxieties that never quite dissipate for most prisoners’ families.  The contrast between the photos this incarcerated man took of the prisoners with their families and the ones he took of their mangled bodies starkly depicted what so many of us fear lurks behind the snapshots we carry home with us from prison visiting rooms.  Prisons are places where the potential for this kind of violence always exists, even though most prisoners don’t see this sort of thing happen every day.  No one is ever truly safe inside a cage.

After we watched the documentary (which thankfully had English subtitles), the Teatro na Prisão students and Professor Fiche had an energetic discussion about what we’d seen in the film.  Unfortunately, Sarah had had to leave a bit early to return to the student hostel where she serves as the emergency contact person for all of the University of Michigan students traveling in Rio right now.  (Brazil Initiative folks, you can be very proud of Sarah’s attentiveness and responsibility to her work for you!  She didn’t even get to see the end of the film.)  Since Sarah is by far the most fluidly bilingual person in our group, we had to make do with my mixture of Portuguese and Spanish and our best efforts as a group to discern the various Brazilian accents of the members of Teatro na Prisão.  (Many members of Teatro na Prisão speak excellent English, but none of those folks were on hand on Friday night.)  Despite our language barriers, we had a very productive conversation about the differences and similarities between prisons in the U.S. and Brazil.

The Brazilians were eager to find out what surprised us about the documentary, and the thing that surprised me most was that the film exists at all.  I cannot imagine U.S. prisons allowing filmmakers or even photographers that kind of access to the human rights abuses that exist inside our prisons.  In most states in the U.S. you cannot even take photographs of the exteriors of prisons without risking punishment.  In 1997 Ken Light put together an incredibly powerful book of photographs called Texas Death Row, showing portraits of all of the men who were awaiting execution in Texas at that time.  He also took pictures of death row itself and the few material belongings of the condemned, including family letters and photos.  The final image in the book shows the cross-shaped table to which prisoners are strapped before receiving lethal injection.  The book was so disturbing that the state of Texas vowed not to let cameras back inside their prisons again.  In fact, maps are also banned in Texas prisons because they might give prisoners a sense of where they are and help them to escape.  The fact that this Brazilian documentary could show images of dead bodies and men piled up like firewood inside overcrowded cells is something that I could never imagine happening in such a film made in my own country.

To be sure, documentaries and reality television shows are allowed to film inside U.S. prisons on a regular basis, but that footage  and the filmmakers are strictly monitored by prison authorities.  In this Brazilian documentary, incarcerated men at Carandiru and the filmmakers recorded footage of moonshine being brewed and crack being prepared for sale within the prison.  The prisoners in Carandiru filmed guards sleeping while on duty, and the prisoners provided candid commentary on what the guards do and do not do at the prison and how they treat those under their supervision.  This, too, could not happen in the U.S.  I cannot imagine a scenario in which prisoners could film guards or comment on their behavior in a negative light.

The UniRio students and Professor Fiche told us about a prison in Rio, which, like Carandiru, was demolished.  This prison was closer to the university and to the city center than the prisons where they now conduct their theatre workshops, and it was also more conveniently located in terms of enabling families to visit their incarcerated loved ones.  Rio has an extensive public transportation network, including many different bus lines and a rather limited subway system (which is currently being renovated in anticipation of next year’s World Cup).  However, riding public transportation here can be quite an ordeal.  One of the Teatro na Prisão students told me that he transfers between several different buses to travel between his home and the university and that the journey takes about two hours in each direction.  Here he was at UniRio on a Friday night watching this film with us until after 10 PM, only to face two hours of bus riding to get home.  The fact that prisons in the center of Rio are closing means that it’s more difficult and more time consuming for Teatro na Prisão to do their work.  We face the same problem at the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP).  The Michigan Department of Corrections has closed several of the prisons in Detroit, where most incarcerated people’s families live, and is shipping even more prisoners to remote parts of the state, especially Michigan’s Upper Peninsula which is rural, distant from the urban centers of the state, and difficult to navigate during our brutal winters.  Prisoners in rural and isolated locations get far fewer visits from loved ones and receive much less programming from volunteer organizations, like ours.  PCAP students, faculty, staff, and volunteers sometimes drive up to two hours each way every week to get to some of the prisons where we hold arts workshops.  The more time we spend in transit, the less time and energy we have to do our best work.  The closing of prisons in Detroit, which is only forty-five minutes from our campus in Ann Arbor, give us fewer options for nearby sites for PCAP’s work.

The more I see of prisons outside of the U.S., the more struck I am by how much all carceral systems have in common.  What is it in human nature, in globalization, or in our systems of national governance that enable so many of the same problems to reoccur in so many different parts of the world?  I am deeply convinced that we have to keep having public conversations of a detailed and informed nature about systems of punishment if we hope to stem the tide of mass incarceration worldwide.  There has to be a better way to deal with crime and violence, and we will only find potential solutions if we share information and continue to seek the humane treatment of all people.


Univ. of Michigan/UniRio Theatre Exchange Program: Day One from Rio de Janeiro

6 Jul

The University of Michigan is beginning a new campus wide exchange program with the Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janiero (also known as UniRio), and I arrived in Rio yesterday to begin a fifteen day trip to explore ways in which Michigan’s Theatre & Drama Department can partner with UniRio’s five various theatre departments, which specialize in directing, acting, theatre education, dramaturgy, and design. Though I am here to help establish as many connections as possible between our departments, I am particularly interested in a program called Teatro na Prisao in which UniRio professors Natalia Fiche and Viviane Narvaes take their students into Brazilian prisons (one men’s facility and one women’s) to conduct theatre workshops.  We are making plans to establish an exchange specifically between the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) at Michigan and Teatro na Prisao here in Rio.  PCAP student Renee Gross will be arriving in Rio tomorrow to participate in this exchange and to help me find ways in which our programs can best share our theatre practices with one another.  We will go into the both the men’s and women’s prisons here in Rio with the Teatro na Prisao folks in the days to come during our stay in Brazil.

In the meantime, I’ll be blogging about the highlights of our theatre department’s exchange with UniRio, so regular readers of this blog may not see quite as much about prisons as you are accustomed to finding here over the course of the next fifteen days.  I will, of course, include observations and reflections on the work of Teatro na Prisao once we have seen the work that they are doing.

Jodie Lawston, co-editor of the book Razor Wire Women and co-author of this blog, is here in Rio with me, as is Andy Martinez who is currently pursuing his doctorate in World Arts and Culture/Dance at UCLA.  University of Michigan Theatre & Drama major and actor Liz Raynes is here in Rio participating in the exchange, and Hector Flores Komatsu, a directing student in our department, will arrive tomorrow.  Lighting design student Liz Williams will travel separately to Rio later in the summer to participate in a lighting and set design project at UniRio.

UniRio professor Renato Icharahy, chair of the directing program, is serving as our host, and Andy, Liz, and I were able to observe one of his directing classes this afternoon, after which he introduced us to a number of UniRio faculty and students.  We attended a performance of Afro Brazilian dance this evening on campus, hosted by Professor Zeca Ligiero who runs a program connected to African and indigenous performance.  The dance troupe performed two pieces that evolved out of Yoruba narratives about Orishas and nature.  The athleticism and strength of the male dancers in particular was very impressive, and the audience was invited to participate in the performance when we were handed cups of white paint and small brushes and encouraged to paint on the bodies of the dancers.  (We took pictures of the performance but are having trouble uploading them tonight.  Hopefully we’ll be able to post them later.)

Tomorrow we’ll be going with Professor Marina Henriques and her students to the Mare favela where UniRio faculty and students conduct a weekly theatre workshop.

Shaka Senghor on Prisoners and Technology

11 Jun

My dear friend and Prison Creative Arts Project Associate Shaka Senghor gave a talk about prisoners and their lack of access to technology at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York City last week.  Check out the video of his speech on his website.


Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, Vol. 5

7 May



Every year for the last five years students at the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) have volunteered to undertake the incredibly unwieldy task of soliciting, receiving, reviewing, and responding to creative writing submissions from hundreds of prisoners throughout the state of Michigan.  Every single person who submits writing receives personalized feedback on his or her work; PCAP sends no form rejection letters.  The result is a remarkable collection of writing called the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, published annually in conjunction with the PCAP Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners.  This year’s review is a particularly good one, and I highly recommend it to those of you might be looking for prisoner writing to teach in your courses next year and to those of you who just want something great to read.

To order this year’s review or one from a previous year, use this order form.  Each copy of the review is only $15, and all proceeds go directly back into making the next year’s review.

New Beginnings: The Prison Creative Arts Project and the University of Michigan

21 Feb

Those of you who know something about the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) might recognize at least one of the very silly people in this picture.

Buzz & Ash

Buzz Alexander–the taller of us–founded PCAP in 1990 at the University of Michigan, and in the years that followed Buzz built this extraordinary program into the largest organization in the U.S. (and perhaps the world) that links university students and incarcerated youth and adults through arts programming.  PCAP sends undergraduates into Michigan prisons, juvenile detention centers, and urban high schools to facilitate arts workshops.  PCAP also hosts the Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, which displays over four hundred works of visual art from every prison in the Michigan Department of Corrections.  PCAP’s annual literary review publishes writing by Michigan prisoners, and the organizations many workshops host dozens of performances each year.  In fact, last week PCAP celebrated the performance of its 600th play.

Now I have the honor of succeeding Buzz in running this incredible organization.  As of January 1, 2013, I am a new Associate Professor of Theatre & Drama at the University of Michigan and the Director of PCAP, and I am deeply grateful to Buzz and to Janie Paul (the other long-serving member of the PCAP faculty and Buzz’s wife) for the years of preparations that went into the process of getting me hired at Michigan.  Many other people worked very hard to get me to Michigan, including Priscilla Lindsay, chair of the Dept. of Theatre & Drama; Dean Christopher Kendall of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, & Dance; and Angela Dillard, chair of the Residential College.  Half of my faculty appointment at Michigan is in Theatre & Drama (the field in which I was trained), and the other half is in the Residential College (RC) where PCAP will soon be moving.

PCAP has long lived in Michigan’s English Department because that’s where Buzz founded it.  Though PCAP will maintain connections to the English Department through Buzz and my husband Phil Christman, who will be teaching as a lecturer in the first year writing program in English, the PCAP’s administrative operations will move into the RC in Fall 2013. The PCAP staff–Sari Adelson, Shannon Deasy, and Vanessa Mayesky–and I will all have offices in the RC, while Buzz and Phil will be the PCAP faculty with offices  in English.  I also have an office in Theatre, and Janie, of course, has an office in Art & Design, which gives PCAP a strong presence on North Campus as well.

Buzz is considering retirement in the coming years but has not set a date for his retirement.  We hope to have a few semesters or years of working together before he stops teaching, though he will never truly leave PCAP or stop participating in its activities. (Thank goodness!)  Though I will undoubtedly do many things differently than Buzz has in the past–because I could never hope to fill his shoes completely–I endeavor to honor the incredible work that he has done and continues to do with hundreds of students, volunteers, and incarcerated people.  Buzz’s main purpose in bringing me to Michigan, and mine in coming here, is to protect PCAP’s sustainability so that this organization can thrive for twenty more years and beyond.

My husband Phil–a writer and former lecturer at North Carolina Central University–will play a significant role at PCAP as well.  Starting with the 2014 issue, he will be the editor of PCAP’s annual Review of Literature by Michigan Prisoners.

We have taken up residence in Ann Arbor, though neither of us will start teaching until Fall 2013.  Though we already miss many friends and colleagues at UNC, we are very happy to be at Michigan and plan to be here for years to come.  The PCAPers, colleagues at Michigan, and our neighbors have done much to welcome us and make us feel at home here. We are grateful for all the good will and kindness that is being shown to us, and we look forward to meeting all of the current PCAPers and to teaching our first Michigan students in the Fall.

PCAP Linkage Art Exhibition, April 20 to May 5, 2012 in Holland, MI

23 Apr

The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) is an amazing program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, that takes undergrads into prisons, juvenile facilities, and urban high schools throughout Michigan to conduct collaborative arts workshops.  One of their other programs, the PCAP Linkage Project supports formerly incarcerated artists, writers, actors, dancers, and musicians who worked with PCAP during their imprisonment.  Working with returning citizens is far more difficult than working with folks in prison.  Though life in prison is terribly unpleasant, the incarcerated don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, how they’ll find work and make an income, or where they will sleep that night.  Returning citizens often find the free world very changed from what they knew before they entered prison, and those of them who became artists while in prison struggle to continue working creatively after their release because other concerns take precedence over the desire to make art.

On April 5, 2012, the PCAP Linkage Project held an amazing conference, organized by staff member Heather Wilson, for formerly incarcerated artists.  I had the privilege of getting to attend the day’s events in Detroit, meet the artists, and see some of their work.  Many of the artists brought drawings and paintings to the conference, and all the works of art collected that day are now on display at the Ridge Point Community Church at 340 104th Avenue in Holland, MI.  (That’s in the western part of the state, not far from Grand Rapids.)  Click here for more information about the exhibition which runs from now until May 5, 2012.  If you’re out in that neck of the woods, don’t pass up the opportunity to see these wonderful works of art.

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