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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!


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.

Support Resistencia Bookstore in Austin, TX

30 Jun

raulrsalinas and Ashley Lucas

My favorite bookstore in the whole world is a little place called Resistencia in Austin, Texas.  They have a fantastic selection of rare and out of print books as well as a wide variety of titles by Native American, Latina/o, and black authors.  They specialize in literature by people of color, poetry, Southwestern writers, and nonfiction on social justice issues, particularly incarceration.  (Those of you who know me can see clearly why this is my kind of bookstore!)  The books are just the beginning.  A very active and progressive community organization called Red Salmon Arts also resides in this bookstore (which is in truth more of a community center than anything else) and hosts a ton of really exciting readings and social justice events.  If I lived anywhere near Austin, I would be there all the time.

Resistencia’s founder, raulrsalinas (also sometimes written as Raul R. Salinas) was one of the greatest human beings I have ever known, and his life and legacy are honored every day by the work of the good folks who keep Resistencia and its programming going every day.

I first encountered raul’s poetry when I was in high school–about a year and a half after my father entered prison. raul spent many years in prisons all across the US and wrote some of the most enduring poetry of the Chicano Movement from solitary confinement, including his landmark poem “Un Trip Through the Mind Jail.”  His poems were the first pieces of writing that helped me begin to understand what my father experiences every day behind the walls.  raul’s strength, fortitude, and passion for life gave me hope that my father and our family might be able to endure this particular form of devastation.  After he got out of prison, he went home to Austin and spent the rest of his life doing work that served others–those in prison, struggling youth, and the people of his beloved Austin.

I cannot do raul justice through mere description.  Here’s a taste of him performing some of his poetry:

My senior honors thesis when I was an undergraduate at Yale dealt with the subject of poetry written by Latina/o prison–a project inspired by raul’s writings.

By the time I actually met raul in person, I was a graduate student at UC San Diego, living in Sherman Heights–a historic Chicana/o neighborhood in the heart of the city.  The next neighborhood over from mine hosted a Barrio Book Fair in 2004, and raul was one of many distinguished speakers.  I introduced myself to him and told him how much his work had shaped my understanding of incarceration and its impact on communities.  By the end of the day, he had invited me to perform my then very new play about the families of prisoners, Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass, at Resistencia. He was one of the earliest and strongest supporters of the play, and in  hosting my performance, he not only provided opportunities for my work to grow but also introduced me to the incredible community of folks who make up Resistencia and Red Salmon Arts.

raul left this earth in 2008, and those of us who loved him continue to raise his name and honor his life by doing the kinds of community work he taught us to do.  The folks at Resistencia do an unfathomable amount of service for the people of Austin, for youth, for the queer community, African Americans, immigrants, Chicana/os, Native Americans, prisoners, and a whole bunch of other gente, and now in these tough economic times they need our support.  Here are a few things you can do:

  • BUY THEIR BOOKS!  You don’t have to be in Austin to do that.  I order books from them through the mail on a regular basis.  You can also order by phone: (512) 416-8885.  If you are lucky enough to be in Austin, check them out in person:

Resistencia Bookstore
1801-A South First St.
Austin, TX 78704

  •  GET THEIR EMAIL NEWSLETTER! I often learn of new book titles from the newsletter, which is awesome.  It also provides listings of all the exciting events happening in connection with Red Salmon and Resistencia. Like I said, if I lived within driving distance of Austin, I’d be there every week.  Send an email to to sign up for the newsletter.
  • DONATE TO SUPPORT THEIR WORK.  You can mail a check made out to Resistencia Bookstore to the above address or use their PayPal account.

Pa’ la gente de Resistencia, with gratitude and admiration.

Kerry Max Cook: An Innocent Man Still Seeking Exoneration; a post by Ashley Lucas

4 Mar

Kerry Max Cook with a copy of his autobiography Chasing Justice

In 1978 in Tyler, Texas, Kerry Max Cook was convicted of a murder he did not commit.  He remained in prison until 1999 a court finally released him after he pleaded “no contest” at the conclusion of his fourth trial for this crime.  Cook agreed to plead “no contest,” after maintaining his innocence for more than two decades of legal battles, because he believed at the time that he would likely be wrongfully convicted yet again and sent back to prison if he did not.  The District Attorney all of a sudden offered him a deal: a plea of “no contest” would enable Cook’s release for time served.  Cook took the deal and later found out that the District Attorney in question had recently acquired the results of new DNA tests of the crime scene evidence which definitively proved that Cook did not rape and murder Linda Jo Edwards.  Cook and his legal team only learned of this exculpatory evidence after the plea of “no contest” had been entered, and because of this, Cook has never been legally exonerated.  The murder conviction remains on his record, and at long last Cook is fighting a new legal battle to clear his name.  An excellent blog posting on the Grits for Breakfast site provides further details.

Cook’s autobiography, Chasing Justice, published in 2007, describes in detail the junk science, prosecutorial misconduct, and shoddy police work which contributed to his wrongful conviction.  Cook is also featured in the documentary play (and subsequent Court TV film) The Exonerated by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, despite the popular misconception in Cook’s case that DNA proof of actual innocence would lead automatically to legal exoneration.

When I was an undergraduate at Yale in 2001, I took a seminar about the death penalty, taught by two men who were at the time Yale Law School students.  Our final assignment for the class was to research a death penalty case and write a twenty-page paper on it.  I wrote about Kerry Cook, and in the course of my research, I made contact with him, and with the help of Stanton Wheeler–a law school professor and then Master of my residential college–I brought Cook and one of his lawyers to campus to speak.  Kerry and I have since lost touch, but I remain deeply moved not only by his story but by his willingness to continue telling it despite how much it obviously hurts him to expose himself, his wife, and his son to continuing public scrutiny and judgment.

May you finally receive some relief from the courts, my friend.  I watch your struggle with admiration and hope.  Your continuing work against the death penalty and wrongful conviction serves a cause much larger than your own case, and I am among a great many people who are grateful for your life and your efforts.

“Razor Wire Women Transfixed”: Drawing and Poem by Valencia C.

2 Nov

How much longer
will the night last?
Nightmares cost lives
but sweet dreams are priceless.
A dream that will sweep you away
perhaps is your wish,
to take you to a place
where loved ones are kept
Keep on wishing then. . .
Therefore it all means hope
and not everything is yet lost.
After all you will reunite
with the ones you most want.
From that world apart
were captured; they still are.
There, time has been upheld
So the dark night slowly flows
and hours are continuously spent
yearning for twilight.

Rest in Peace, Piri Thomas; a post by Ashley Lucas

22 Oct

On October 17, 2011, one of the great prison writers died.  Piri Thomas, best known for his memoir Down These Mean Streets (1967), provided readers all over the world with a glimpse of how factors like racism and poverty encourage incarceration, and he articulated a version of Nuyorican identity years before the founding of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe popularized the concept.

In Seven Long Times (1974)–an additional, lesser known volume of memoir–Thomas recounts the years that he spent in prison, and his efforts to bring about social justice continued for many decades after this publication.  One blogger is now crediting Thomas with having the vision to prophecy the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Thomas believed in the human dignity of all people, as is evidenced by his poem “If in the Moment of Passing,” quoted here from his website:

If in the moment of passing an eternity,
I could have the interfaced essence,
The power of looking back at me,
I would say it truly as I would for the world–
Let me be free.

I know that the blood that pounds and pulses its way
through my veins,
Does not alter the course toward the star that not only I,
But all can aim for.
It is a beauty that we all can reach.
It is a beauty that we all can teach.

Given unto each one, what do we truly own, except that
which we truly are,
And what we can choose, be it a rainbow, a star,
Or the agony of a past of present scars.
I am not a poet who makes things unreal,
I am a poet who makes one feel the strength that is
in our people.
Human beings upon the face of this beautiful earth,
Who must know their dignity, their honor, no matter their race,
No matter their creed–from the moment of their birth.
Born of earth and universe. Punto.

Que en paz descanse, maestro.  You shall not be forgotten. Punto.

Valencia C. in Images and Words, a post by Ashley Lucas

3 Jul

Valencia C., a RWW contributor incarcerated in California, is the only male prisoner featured in our book.  From the moment he read our initial call for contributions to the special issue of the National Women’s Studies Association Journal on “Women, the Criminal Justice System, and Incarceration: Processes of Power, Silence, and Resistance” (Summer 2008), Valencia (also known as Ciri) expressed genuine concern for and solidarity with women in prison.  The book Razor Wire Women eventually grew out of the abundance of high quality contributions we received for that journal issue.  Valencia was the first artist to get in touch with us and is the only artist featured both in that special journal issue and RWW.

After reading RWW for the first time, Valencia sent me an extraordinary letter accompanied by three new drawings.  Here are the images and the words he wrote to accompany them.  This first image is split in two here because my scanner wasn’t big enough to get it all into one image, but the daughter and mother figures here should be side by side (daughter on the left and mother on the right):

Drawing #1 is called “Epiphany.” (charcoal, pastels, and colored pencils on paper)

For this, I wrote:


                freedom, rights, and hope

                                are taken away

                dignity, sanity, and justice

                                carried out

                Young loved ones are left

                                to face danger and become

                                                society’s prey.

                Morals, humanity, and identity

                                are swept up

                and in a single epiphany,

                all is gone. . . forever lost.

Drawing #2 is called “Thrown Away.” (charcoal and pastels on paper)

It goes as follows:

                Legally thrown away

                                by the hand of those

                that are supposed to help

                                into a senseless place.

                A ruthless labyrinth

                                with the exits weld

                were many denied

                                you are illegally held

                your identity captive

                                as a rare bird in a cage.


#3 is titled “Ashley.” (watercolor in paper)

The first two pieces are a recapitulation of all I read in the book.  After I brainstormed, this came out.

The last one is a way of me showing gratefulness/gratitude for your work (and all “free” people who take a serious look at the problem and actually take the initiative to find a helpful solution).  This is for accepting my work and including it in your book, and I am willing to participate in any future projects if you would like me to, and if there is any in sight.

Might the Lord God bless you all.

Respectfully and thankfully,

Valencia C.

Valencia, we will gladly post your artwork and thoughts on this blog any time you would like to share them with us.

If those of you reading this blog would like to invite Valencia to contribute artwork to any of your future endeavors, please send a message to us using the “Contact Us” portion of our website, and we’ll be sure to send your words along to Valencia.  We would do the same for any of our incarcerated contributors, so please use this site to reach out to them and let them know how much their work means to you.  We sustain one another through communication.

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