Archive | Writing About Women’s Prisons RSS feed for this section

Patience and Resilience, a post by Dana El-Khatib

9 Jun

Dana hugging a child at a workshop for Teatro em Comunidades. Eddie Williams appears on the left.

My name is Dana El-khatib. I’m currently a rising junior at the university of Michigan, studying Economics. Though born in Ann Arbor to a Palestinian family, I lived most of my life in Jordan. For that reason, I constantly find myself comparing how different cultures approach different practices.

The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) at the University of Michigan aims to provide arts programming among other things to incarcerated individuals in Michigan prisons, and returning citizens. This is done through drama workshops, a literary art review and an annual art exhibition. This past winter semester, I was one of six alternating facilitators for drama workshops in the Federal Correctional Institute at Milan. When people ask me why I decided to join PCAP, I think of many reasons that I could blab on and on about. I think about how I cannot make a moral judgment about the people inside because I didn’t grow up in the conditions that many of them did. I think about our dysfunctional educational system, I think about systemic racism, etc. However, if I’m being honest, one of the biggest reasons I chose to do PCAP is for my own selfish desire to grow as a person. There is a word in Arabic that has a special value in Islam;الصبر; pronounced as“alsabir.” Though I do not believe there is a direct translation in English that could embody all of its meaning, if I had to explain it, I would say it’s a combination of resilience and patience. This concept has become more and more important for all Arabs due to the economic and social conditions the region faces. Even more than that, its value has become rooted in Palestinian culture with resistance and struggle. Although everyone faces adversity in their lives in many forms, I, having lived a very fortunate life, knew that I could learn a thing or two about alsabir from the incarcerated, and that’s why I initially joined PCAP. Imagine growing up in horrible economic conditions and then being stripped of your freedom because of the life that society has pushed you towards. Yet, I have never seen more forgiving and positive people than the individuals I have worked with on the inside. When setting guidelines for the workshop in Milan, two of the men immediately said that one guideline should be: peace and love at all times. If I had been in their shoes, I think I would have so much hate and anger in me that I would want to get revenge on this world, but most of the people I have met seemed to have a wonderful soul that just wanted to better their life; that is what I see as the embodiment of الصبر.

In Brazil, I wondered how the different social and cultural scene would affect how people reacted to their living situation. When we visited a facility specifically for mothers who give birth in prison and their children, I was amazed by the strength of the women. In Arab culture, when a woman gives birth, everyone is there to help her. The grandmother or mother-in-law also usually stay with the mother for a couple of months to help manage the burden of a newly born baby. As I watched the mothers in the prison holding their crying babies, I compared the life they live with the life that I had always expected a new mother to be living. There was no outside support or comfort. No one to hold you when you don’t know what to do, no one to take care of your crying baby at night so you could rest. You only had yourself and the other women in the prison. I tried holding as many crying babies as I could so that the women could have the closest possible experience to a normal workshop, but I knew that there is only so much of your reality that you can escape for a few minutes. I saw the women care for each other’s babies; I thought about their solidarity together. This doesn’t even compare to the burden of knowing that in a matter of six months, your baby will be stripped from your hands, and often put into foster care if the mother’s family does not take them in. Yet, I saw the women smile and laugh. One said she named her son Moses after the prophet, because she feels that he is a warrior in this prison; this gave her strength. Again, I thought about how resilient and patient these women were. I admired the amount of صبر they had and only hoped that I could be nearly as strong in my life.

The favelas offered a whole new look into what this strength could mean to a community. We facilitated workshops for adults and children in what is known as a favela. A favela is a unique low income area in Brazil. Looking at the favelas and walking through them, I felt as though I had already been there. They were almost a carbon copy of the older and more established Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan. The children had the biggest and brightest smiles. The elderly had the strongest spirits even after living so long in such harsh conditions. On the bus ride back, a friend of mine was very sad. When I talked to him, he said he kept thinking about all the shit these kids have been through in their lives. I simply smiled and said, they have the strength to handle it. I really do believe that the universe does not throw something on you that you cannot handle. These children are raised in circumstances that enable them to develop a level of صبر that we can’t even understand or compare to. They find ways to carry on and strength that radiates through their smiles. I wish no one in the world was put in such conditions, but the truth is many are living these conditions and worse everyday. If we want to wallow in sadness of how depressing that is, we surely all can; but that won’t do anyone any good. I admire their strength and I do not fear that they will not survive because I know they will. I refuse to think of them with pity, but I insist on admiring all those who have lived through much worse than what I have experienced because the truth is, they can teach us a lot.

Accessibility Abroad, a post by Syd Lio Riley

8 Jun

Oi! My name is Lio Riley. I’m a rising sophomore at the University of Michigan studying theatre arts and (potentially) American Culture. Before classes even started Fall semester, I met the lovely Ashley Lucas, who said she took a group of students to Brazil each summer to study theatre and incarceration. I looked her in the eye and said, “I’m going with you.” Almost a year of facilitating workshops in Michigan prisons and communities has passed, and here I am in the Mango Tree Hostel writing about my experiences doing the same in Brazil. With only a week left, it still doesn’t feel real.

In the time between meeting Ashley and traveling to Brazil, I learned a lot about how prisons work. I took her class The Atonement Project in the fall and Theatre and Incarceration in the winter (both of which are co-taught by the lovely Cozine Welch. Hi, Cozine!). In addition to gaining an unexpected interest and passion for carceral studies and activism, I began to study the intersections of transgender identity and disability in the American Culture department (Hi, Prof L!). I’m a transgender student at the university, and I’ve been living with a chronic pain condition in my knees for just over six years. Both of these identities, along with academic study and my newfound passion for prison activism and justice work, have lead me to ask a lot of questions on this trip concerning accessibility and representation, in theatre and theatre work abroad.


An example of tactile paving on a sidewalk

One of the first things I noticed after exiting my plane in São Paulo was the tactile paving found on every walking surface of the airport. Tactile paving is a system of ground tiles with raised bumps and ridges, used to help blind and visually impaired people navigate public spaces. In the US, they’re commonly placed at the ends of sidewalks, but I’d never seen entire networks of them inside buildings. When we left the airport, I found them lining every sidewalk and many hallways inside buildings, too. I thought this was pretty cool — the more I learn about accessibility, the more I recognize it (or the lack of it) in public spaces. It made me wonder why we didn’t use tactile paving this generously in the US. Still, as I began to navigate the landscapes of Florianopolis and Rio, I found the cities to still be largely inaccessible.


With pavement more frequently broken than not and a lack of curb cuts (small ramps built into the ends of sidewalks for wheelchair or stroller users) everywhere, the physical accessibility of the cities has been frustrating. For me, a broken escalator or elevator that requires a key to use can be the difference between a fun night out with friends or missing the next day’s activities (I’m writing this from the hostel while my classmates sing and dance at the hospital). This was reflected in the prisons, as well. The conditions of the prisons we’ve seen have been heartbreaking. As a non-incarcerated person navigating the prison, there were often only stairs or incredibly steep ramps. We saw very limited space for the folks incarcerated to get sunlight or fresh air and in one prison, large trash-can sized bins filled with rice left out in the open for bugs to land on and crawl in. It made me wonder what accessibility looked like for the people living inside. With how everything else looked, I wasn’t optimistic.

In addition to just the physical accessibility of space for people with physical disabilities, accessibility also is about accessibility of education and other government-provided services. We learned right away that many of our friends in Brazil take the bus for several hours each day to get to school. Some take multiple busses, and even boats. We also learned when traveling to the favelas that in some places, streets are so narrow that cars can’t fit through. Many are built into hillsides which makes them difficult to navigate, and because there are no street names or house numbers, people living in the favelas can’t receive mail, and also have a hard time finding employment without a permanent address. This perpetuates the cycle of poverty. In prisons, the religion you practice can determine your living situation, making religious freedom complicated. Evangelicals are provided with “nicer” living accommodations and more colorful surroundings due to the prevalence of Evangelicalism in Brazil, while Catholics are more crowded and don’t have access to as many things. For the trans women living in the men’s prison, this can mean choosing between denouncing their identities and losing access to their community in order to claim a religion for access to slightly better conditions, or claiming no religion to maintain the ability to live as women and attend the theatre workshop exclusive to trans women. Most incarcerated people are denied access to any programming at all, as we’ve learned after visiting several facilities here.

Many of these problems are too large for any one of us to solve in the three weeks we spend here, and I’ve been struggling with finding ways I can help improve accessibility while also honoring my own body and accessibility needs. Throughout the trip, the most surprising thing I’ve learned is how central accessibility is to PCAP. By literally bringing theatre into spaces like the prisons, hospitals, and favelas, we are making theatre and the arts accessible. One of the most striking examples of this was in a women’s facility called Unidade Materno Infantil, a facility where incarcerated mothers can keep their newborn children for about six months before either their families care for them or the babies are turned over to the state. The workshop participants included both mothers and their babies, meaning that many women (and some of us!) were occupied feeding, changing, soothing, and holding babies. Because there was such an obvious need for theatre games that accommodated this situation, we played each game sitting down, and adapted the game or our own movements to the needs of ourselves and the group. While the obvious reason for the accommodations was the babies, playing the games sitting down alleviated my pain personally and made it easier for me to facilitate and participate.

prison workshop

Materno Infantil workshop facilitators standing in front of their bus after workshop

The fact that these games were so easy to adapt for mothers and their new children, but we still struggle to adapt theatre for folks with other less-obvious access needs frustrates me at times.  PCAP is built on uncertain schedules and arbitrary rules of the prison, as well as creativity and improvisation, so accessibility is often an easier goal in our small workshops. Not to say that PCAP has mastered accessibility — there is always work to do — but we can use these principles and mindsets when addressing accessibility and disability representation in theatre as a whole. This starts with how we include disabled people in our conversations. Do we use language like “deformed” to describe babies who are born disabled because of the Flint Water Crisis? Do we put an elderly actress in a wheelchair for the entirety of a show, but prompt her to get up and dance when comedic timing calls for it? Do we expect less from the elderly folks in our workshops than we do of the young ones, and express surprise when they actually can act (or twerk!) better than most of us? Changing our own attitudes of what disability looks like, what counts as “comedy,” and what kinds of people are disabled can lead to a larger attitude change that hopefully builds a more accessible world for everyone — whether that means physically, financially, religiously, based on gender or sexuality, or any other reason.

Teatro Renascer

Teatro Renascer participants and facilitators in a tableau from a short scene. They are all posing with different expressions of fear.

Navigating my own access needs abroad has been a challenge, and I’ve learned many of my classmates are struggling similarly. It is incredibly frustrating at times, especially when I have to miss class, workshops, and other fun outings, but it’s made me keenly aware of where accessibility falls short in other areas, both here and in the US. Learning about the work our friends in Brazil are doing with trans women in prison makes me wish PCAP offered resources like that, and has encouraged me to pursue the study and advocacy for transgender people in prisons at home upon our return. Facilitating a theatre workshop with a baby in my arms reminded me that theatre is secondary to access and inclusion. There’s a lot of work to be done in regards to accessibility in and out of prison, as well as in theatre, but addressing the problems that exist and recognizing solutions we have found can help us continue to push for an even more inclusive environment in our workshops and our world.

Solidarity and Storytelling: The Women of Joinville, a post by Hannah Agnew

30 May

My name is Hannah Agnew, and I will soon be starting my senior year at the University of Michigan with a major in Sociology and a minor in Crime and Justice. I have been involved in PCAP since my freshman year of college and it has completely changed my life, to the point that I have decided to enter a career field in which I can work with incarcerated women. For over a year now, I have been facilitating the Sisters Within at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, the longest running theatre troupe in a women’s correctional facility in the U.S. As I have been doing the work here in Brazil, I have constantly had the Sisters on my mind and in my heart––I truly wish they could be here with us.  

Throughout my week of facilitating theatre workshops in correctional facilities located in Florianópolis, Brazil, the pain and frustration of seeing what we do to incarcerated folks all over the world has really hit me. A few days ago our group was given a guided tour of a men’s correctional facility which felt like a bad joke–– we walked along the top of the wall that forms the periphery of the grounds hearing the administration relish in how “progressive” they believed their facility to be as we observed fragments of the men’s everyday lives from a literal line between freedom and captivity. While this tour was necessary in helping to establish a relationship with this facility and beginning new theatre workshops there, I felt a wave of frustration wash over me as I realized that this work really never gets any easier. But after thinking about it, I realized that seeing the injustices that happen in prisons shouldn’t ever become easier and that we must always keep fighting for those inside. While this week I have seen humanity at some of its worst in the way we confine and attempt to strip incarcerated folks of their sense of self, I have also seen at every facility I have gone to that despite the restrictive conditions they are kept in, people inside continue to maintain their identities and a sense community in the most creative and inspiring ways. I was particularly struck by the group of women I worked with at a prison in Joinville, a town located three hours outside of Florianópolis.

Due to the fact that the workshop is facilitated in a very small space, only four of us were able to join in––me, Ashley, Vicente (a theatre professor from UDESC), and one of his students. We were accompanied by the two women who regularly facilitate the workshop and a journalist who was able to take pictures of our time together. When we arrived at the facility, I was taken aback by a long line of primarily women waiting outside, all dressed in the same uniform-like outfits consisting of a white t-shirt and grey sweat pants. I soon learned that they were visitors of the women inside, required to dress this way so that guards could distinguish them from the incarcerated women, and I was painfully reminded of the fact that when someone is prison, their loved ones are held captive by the prison as well. Not only did these visitors have to go through the frustrating and often humiliating ritual of being searched by guards in order to simply see their loved ones, but the prison took a sort of ownership over them as part of their individuality was diminished by the outfits (similar to the incarcerated women).

The women’s prison is located right next door to a men’s prison, and in the middle of the two lies the programs building, which is shared by both the men and the women (but never at the same time). We later learned that the room we had our workshop in was also used by the men for literacy classes, but the women did not have access to them and were not able to learn how to read or write. As we made our way to the room we were overtaken by a toxic smell in the air, a mix of paint fumes and other unknown substances, and not long after we all began uncontrollably sneezing, coughing, and trying to exude the foreign stench from our bodies. I wanted to run outside and take in the nearby fresh air, and my heart broke for the women who are constantly surrounded by these conditions, being seemingly poisoned by the cruel and unforgiving institution.

After adjusting to the air, we finally made it to the room where we would facilitate the workshop, and I was completely taken aback. I had never been in a space like this for a workshop. It consisted of two adjoining cage-like rooms separated by large metal bars with gaps in them big enough for us to reach through and touch the women but still effective in segregating and emphasizing the difference in status between the facilitators and the incarcerated women. We were to have two workshops in this room, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and during the entirety of them we would have to adjust all of our games and exercises to working through these bars. I had a feeling similar to the day before at the men’s prison, struck by how the facilities used very physical ways to remind the folks inside where they were. But despite all of this, the women were an absolute joy to work with,and I will never forget how inspired I felt by their creativity and determination to create art with us despite the literal and symbolic barrier that separated us.PHOTO-2019-05-27-20-48-23.jpg

In the first workshop we began with an activity in which we got together in pairs and helped each other stretch and gave our partners massages. While I was paired with Vicente, I watched as several women worked with each other through the bars, and at some moments I even forgot that we were separated. For the rest of the workshop we primarily led group games in which all of us held hands and formed a circle that permeated through the bars. The women we worked with did not let the barrier stop them from connecting with us and each other, and the joy I felt in that room was palpable. Despite the prison telling us we were different and separate, we still found a way to create community which I think is a very common theme in all of the PCAP workshops that we do. After the first session, we facilitators left for lunch as we waited to begin the second workshop. It has always been difficult leaving prison and knowing that everybody else has to stay behind, but I particularly felt it in this moment as we all had the privilege of being able to decompress, relax, and take in the fresh air while the beautiful women we had just worked with were forced back into their monotonous and dehumanizing every-day routine at the facility.

During the second workshop, we facilitated mostly all of the same games from the morning and of course these women were just as excited, creative, and joyful as the first group. At the end of our time together, I told them all how touched I was by their ability to be so open in this space and that when I returned home I would carry this experience with me and tell the Sisters all about them. The women then proceeded to ask all about the Sisters and even expressed their wishes to exchange letters with them, despite the fact that have never met and probably never will. It was beautiful to see a sense of solidarity that transcended cultural and geographical barriers between these women and the Sisters.

Soon after, they began a political discussion about their wishes to protest the current President and climate of their country, but someone expressed their frustration in the fact that they could not do anything from behind bars. But Vicente was quick to point out that this was not true. He went on to explain how theatre can be used as a form of protest and that several folks he has worked with have been given permission to perform on the outside and create something that represents what they want others to know about them. The women seemed particularly excited about this, and I felt a new wave of passion and intensity take over the room. On this note we headed out of the prison, and it left me with a lot to think about.

With this experience I have a newfound passion for the work that PCAP does, and I have a deeper understanding of the power of theatre and the creative arts in creating solidarity and enabling folks in total institutions to preserve their humanity. Each workshop was only two hours long, but even in this short amount of time, I felt like I had gotten to know the women on a deep and personal level (despite not speaking the same language). I saw a deep sense of community and solidarity between the women, facilitators and even the Sisters, and I saw everybody in the room use theatre to permeate the wall between us. I often take theatre for granted in my everyday life, but in this context I realized just how powerful it can be in uniting folks and maintaining agency.  I also have immense respect for the women that regularly facilitate the workshop, one of whom drives three hours there and three hours back home every week. I learned so much about movement, language, and vocals from them, and I am excited to shared everything with the Sisters when I get back home. In working with these women I realized how much I still have to learn as a facilitator and how valuable it is to exchange different pedagogies in order to bring new perspectives into our workshops. Throughout the entirety of this trip, I have gained so much insight not just from the participants but from the other facilitators, scholars, and students from UDESC who are conducting work similar to ours. I don’t think it will be possible for me to ever forget this experience, and I hope to keep the women, both participants and facilitators alike, in my mind and heart even when I leave Brazil. I find myself wishing I could tell you all even more about these women and that they could be on the outside to tell you all their stories themselves, but I hope that this post gives you all a sense of the beauty, creativity, and resilience that they all possess.


How I Got to a Women’s Prison in Brazil, a post by Christian Ureña

27 May

Oi! My name is Christian Ureña. I just completed my junior year at the University of Michigan. I am majoring in Movement Science in the School of Kinesiology.  I was first introduced to PCAP over a year ago when one of my fraternity brothers, Sergio Barrera, was in Ashley Lucas’s Theatre & Incarceration class. He talked so fondly of his experience in PCAP and about the fun he would have with the men in prison when playing theatre games. I wanted to be able to make an impact as well by bringing joy to people who have not experienced positive emotions like that in quite some time. The following semester I enrolled in Ashley’s Atonement Project class. Through this class, I was able to do a workshop. I was a co-facilitator with Sergio and another one of our Fraternity Brothers, Carlos. We facilitated at the only Federal Prison in the State of Michigan in a city called Milan. Throughout the course of the semester I was able to see firsthand the benefits of programming for the men in prison. I enjoyed that experience so much that I felt that I needed to continue doing this work because one semester was not enough. From there, I went on to facilitate the community workshop at Miller Manor that included people from that living community and reentered citizens. Through these workshops, I was able to learn a lot and bring people a lot of joy in several prisons in Michigan. When Ashley told me about the trip to Brazil where I get to do these same theatre games and continue to impact people and bring them joy, I knew this was something I wanted to partake in.


Christian Ureña and his fraternity brother Sergio Barrera on the beach in Florianópolis.

Now that I am in Brazil, I know I made the right decision coming here to continue doing this work. Today, I had the privilege of going into one of the women’s prisons here in the state of Santa Catarina. Going in, I knew it was going to be much smaller than the men’s prison we were able to see earlier this week but besides that I did not know what to expect. First off, I was surprised with the lack of security that there was going into the prison. There was no metal detector or pat down or anything. I do not know if this is because we are “The US citizens,” so they just trust us, or if this is the normal protocol. That surprised me, but besides that, I had a great time.

The women are absolutely hilarious and super nice. Before our workshop started, the ladies prepared a mini performance for us. I honestly did not understand a lot of it. I know something was going on with a hitch hiker of some kind that had a lot of belongings. I also know that they played the pancake game at the end, and it was honestly the best version of the pancake game I have ever seen. I laughed so much. Later, they showed us this amazing game that I got to play in which there is a cat and a mouse. The mouse and the cat are both blindfolded. The objective of the game is for the cat to “catch” the mouse. It is a game that would never be allowed in a US prison [because it involves blindfolds and physical contact] which makes me think back to my friends at Milan because I know they would love to play this game.


Back to the ladies, after the workshop, we were allowed to celebrate with them and eat cake that they made for us. It was the most delicious thing I have had so far while being in Brazil. I am a huge fan of sweets, and it truly hit the spot. However, throughout this celebration, I couldn’t help but notice something. Their bathroom door is bigger than the door frame; therefore, the door does not close. There is also no soap in the bathroom. Also, the toilet is missing its toilet seat. These are things that I feel are basic in the maintenance of the prison that unfortunately these ladies have to live without. The warden of the prison explained to us that there are still a lot of renovations happening so I truly hope adjustments will be made to their restroom. One thing that the warden shared with us that made me happy was that she used to be a prison guard who did not understand the use of programming such as the one we provide. However, once being promoted to warden she was able to see and appreciate first hand the impact programming can have on the women. She spoke very fondly of the impacts of the theatre workshop which is something that gave me a lot of hope for the women in the prison.  

A Visit to the Women’s Prison in Florianópolis, a post by Stevie Michaels

28 May

My name is Stevie Michaels, and I am a student at the University of Michigan. I became affiliated with PCAP, the Prison Creative Arts Project, just one semester ago. After graduation, I plan to attend the Police Academy and become a police officer. I thought that PCAP would be an amazing opportunity to gain a well rounded education about the criminal justice system in the United States. And in the past six months, I’ve gained so much more that simply education. I have found passion, hope, and humanity in every person in the program as well as the inmates that have participated in the workshop that myself and two co-facilitators led in a men’s prison in Jackson, Michigan.


Michigan and UDESC students at the university, getting ready to go to the women’s prison.

Coming to Brazil was not something I intended to do when I began my journey with PCAP. I thought PCAP would be a one semester class and in April, when my workshop ended, I would just walk away. That wasn’t the case. I didn’t want to stop learning about the people and I just wanted to immerse myself in a program that could actually bring change to a system that I found to be so cold. Maybe I couldn’t make a change individually, but as a collective group I found that, at the very least, PCAP brings smiles and fun to the inmates all around Michigan. So I decided to pack my bags and get on a plane to see what PCAP does with its partnerships in Brazil.

On just day two in Florianópolis we had the opportunity to visit an all women’s prison. The prison was right next to a historic men’s prison which is over 90 years old. The women’s prison is perched up on a hill, very small, and one might not even realize it is there. Prior to becoming a prison, it was a storage shed for the men’s prison. When I say shed, I mean it. It is incredibly small, housing 71 women inside it, which is overwhelming. They are currently building an addition onto the back of it so that by June they will be able to house 220 women. At the moment there is no grass, unlike the prisons I have seen in Michigan. Usually there is grass in the “yards.” If you look around you can see the paint chipping off the cement walls, and the unkept corners of dirt buildup and places where the air conditioners into the offices would leak water and rust. Because of the lack of space, the theater space that Vicente, a professor at the university here in Florianópolis, uses is an awkward open “cage” where everyone can see you. Vicente has only done a semester worth of workshops here, as he is still trying to gain more access to run programs in the nearby prisons. This type of area where the workshops are held is different than in the US, and many of the prisons have classrooms.

We spoke with the Warden of the prison, along with three of the women on the Minister of Justice’s staff, who were in a meeting the previous day with both Vicente and my professor Ashley to discuss prison programming and its importance. The entire time a woman from the Ministry of Justice was taking photos and staging photos of us to put in a press release. This was a bizarre experience because in the US no photos are ever taken inside the walls.

Although the prison doesn’t have conventional places to run the workshops, I think that this is a vital place to run them. Because of the lack of space and programming, a workshop could really bring some hope and happiness to a place where there may not be much of it.

Having the opportunity to speak with the Warden has encouraged me to learn more about the laws and rules of the criminal justice system in Brazil, not only to advocate for programming in prisons there, but also to compare to the US and see what we can take and use and learn from each other.

Theatre in a Prison with Mothers and Babies: A post by Alex Bayer

17 Jun

My name is Alex Bayer, and I am entering my senior year at the University of Michigan. I am a psychology major and ultimately hope to be a therapist who works with youth. I’ve always had passion for the arts—I was a dancer for 15 years, participated in theatre throughout middle school and high school, and discovered how much I love creative writing during college. I heard about the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) during my freshman year of college and was instantly intrigued by the idea of bringing different art forms (creative writing, theatre, and fine arts) into a prison, where people are constantly denied of their humanity and self expression. Although I was intrigued, I was also slightly hesitant. I was well aware of the stigma attached to incarcerated people and didn’t know enough about the prison system to justify why I wanted to involve myself in this type of work. After taking a study abroad course in Copenhagen, Denmark, called the Psychology of Criminal Behavior and visiting various rehabilitation programs, my frustration with the prison system in the U.S. escalated. By my junior year at the university, I made the incredible decision to join PCAP.


Alex on the dock behind a restaurant where we ate in Florianópolis.

It’s safe to say that PCAP has changed my life. Compared to all other classes I have taken at U of M, I have never been surrounded by a group of such intelligent, open-minded yet skeptical, and passionate individuals. I facilitated a workshop at a youth facility in Detroit with Adelia and Kaitlin, who are now two of my closest friends. We went to Lincoln every Sunday at 5 PM and led a group of 10 boys in various theatre games. It didn’t take long for us to fall in love with these boys, and going into that facility soon became the highlight of my week. We continued our workshop into the summer, and only stopped because we were all going to Brazil, where we would have the opportunity to visit prisons and hospitals and exchange our knowledge and excitement for the work we do with Brazilian students who engage in similar work.

We are now in our third and final week of our experience in Brazil. Today I went into a prison with two students from UniRio (a university in Rio) and four students from the PCAP program. We went into a facility with mothers and babies, made for incarcerated women who are pregnant during their sentencing and can keep their babies for the first six months of their lives. After six months, these women are forced to find someone else to take care of their baby or hand that baby over to the government.

view from the mountain

Before arriving to Rio, I had never visited a women’s prison, only the juvenile facility I worked in during the winter. Going into the women’s facility was much different than what I had experienced in the past. I never went inside this facility; we played theatre games with the women right outside of their rooms on a deck. As we walked up to this deck, we passed a church built for the women in the prison. We then approached a group of women on the deck, and they were all holding their babies or gently rocking them in their strollers. At first, I was so distracted by the cuteness of the babies. The women welcomed us and seemed happy for us to play with their kids; many of them even handed us their babies to hold for a little bit. We began the workshop with a name game, but at this point, a lot of women left. Many of them were preoccupied with other tasks, such as breastfeeding or changing diapers. After the name game, we played a couple of games that involved dancing/singing/hugging, and we got much more comfortable with one another. During these games, we had a rotating group of about 3-4 women, depending on who could participate in each moment.

Following the games, one of the women suggested having a group discussion instead of playing more games—a suggestion I would have never heard when I worked in a facility with teenage boys. The woman began by asking Asma, one of our group members, about the hijab she was wearing. The woman was curious as to why Asma wanted to cover up her hair, and explained that Brazilian women are often very comfortable with displaying their bodies in more revealing clothing. Although Asma was put on the spot a little bit, she handled the pressure really well, and the woman was thankful for her willingness to answer the questions. The woman admitted that she has never really talked to anyone from the United States and does not see many people wearing a hijab, so she wanted to educate herself. These questions sparked openness among the whole group, and a lot more women came to the deck to join the discussion and ask more questions to all of us.

In class in Floripa

Our PCAP group in class with Prof. Vicente Concilio’s theatre students in Florianópolis.

The discussion was just like it would be with any group of women I met in Brazil—our group shared experiences with these women, and they did the same in return. It felt natural, and I quickly forgot I was in a prison. At the end of the discussion, we hugged and kissed the women goodbye. It wasn’t until exiting the prison that I was reminded of where I was. Right in front of the prison, a police car was parked with a giant rifle sticking out of the window. My heart immediately sank. I knew that it was used for intimidation and that I wasn’t in any personal danger, but it reminded me of the intimidation tactics that are constantly used against the women I just talked to for the past two hours. I was reminded of the fact that these women aren’t free; the fact that these women will have to say goodbye to their babies soon; the fact that one mistake a person makes could lead to being incarcerated and put in inhumane conditions.

Thinking about these facts cause a lot of frustration, but I then remind myself of the people I am surrounded by and become hopeful again. Such strong, resilient people who also recognize the problems with the prison system surround me. Of all aspects of this trip, the people are why I am most grateful—not just the PCAP group, but everyone I have met on this journey. I am beyond grateful for the various professors and students from Brazil who not only include us in their work but also welcome us with wide arms and make us feel at home. The Brazilian students who speak English continuously translate for us during conferences and classes. All of the students we met have taken a huge interest in us, asking us questions about our lives, showing us around, and teaching us about their culture. Although I knew I would have an amazing experience with the entire PCAP group and our fearless, nurturing leader Ashley, I had no idea how much I would connect with the Brazilian students here. I am looking forward to the rest of my week in Brazil and will always carry the love I have received from all of the people here.

The City Behind Bars: A post by Renisha Bishop

16 Jun

Why are the darker skinned people and indigenous people treated the worst in every country? Why are the rumors, stereotypes, misconceptions so standard across the board for these people? They are poor. They are dangerous. They are uneducated. They are criminals. WHY? Is it that the people in control are afraid of their potential? Their strength? Afraid that they would actually be smarter, more creative, intuitive, in fact more powerful? So powerful that they would actually be on the top and not the bottom.

It really saddens me to think about the mistreatment, discrimination, abuse that people face globally. For some reason, I only believed that racism existed in the United States but I was so wrong. My friends here in Brazil quickly dispelled this myth for me. I thought I wouldn’t have much in common with them, but we share much more in common than I ever imagined.

Renisha mural

Prior to coming to Rio de Janeiro, I was told that it was very dangerous, that I shouldn’t walk around by myself. I really feared for my life. I was paranoid for the first couple of days. I thought there would be people just waiting to rob me for the little I had. Once I got adjusted and saw more of the city, it seemed just like any other major city in the US. Rio really reminds me of Los Angeles for some reason.

I’ve been to two different prisons here in Rio; both are facilities for women, but one had a wing for women with infants. During our workshop with the mothers, I was able to hold a two-month-old for almost the entire workshop. It was a different experience, being inside of a jail with babies. Babies are a source of innocence and pure joy, but the reality of their futures is dark and unfathomable. The women are able to keep their babies for up to two years legally, but since the facility is over-crowded, they are only able to keep them until they turn six months. Then the babies go with their mother’s family or are given to foster homes. Most of the women don’t have any family to raise their children until they’re out of prison, so the babies are given to the foster homes. It’s a hard process for women to give their babies away. I felt the pain of uncertainty while being inside of the prison with them. It was such a stark contrast. The happiness and innocence of the babies but the heaviness of the women. I was glad that we were there to take their minds off of their realities for a brief moment with theater games. But it’s always sad leaving workshops knowing that once we leave it’s back to reality for them.

The other women’s prison I went to was very different than the first. As soon as we got there, it was a small room near the gate with a small opening where the sun could barely peak through. These two women came to the small hole to speak to us. I was very disturbed that two women were in that small room, and we were told to not speak to them. Once we got into the prison, the other incarcerated women warmly welcomed us affectionately with hugs and kisses. We all sat through my professor’s performance about families who had loved ones incarcerated. We were all deeply moved by the various monologues in Spanish, English, and Portuguese. I left the prisons and returned to a chic neighborhood that had bars around the houses and apartments. It’s a crazy dichotomy. Everyone is behind bars for various reasons. Who are the real criminals here?

Renisha Bishop is a recent graduate of The University of Michigan. 

%d bloggers like this: