Peer support, art lessons, and sense of belonging at PCAP virtual community workshops

The workshop's main goal is to stay connected and combat the isolation that many people are struggling with.
by Fernanda Pires

ANN ARBOR—The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made re-entry even more difficult. Many formerly incarcerated people—either recently or long ago released—are facing new challenges.  

Their sense of freedom was lost, this time in a statewide shelter in place order. No longer behind bars, but somehow still locked down, a community of Michigan returning prisoners asked for support.

In an attentive and quick response, the Prison Creative Arts Project's (PCAP) community workshops were reshaped from weekly in-person gatherings to weekly on-line meetings. The workshop's main goal is to stay connected and combat the isolation that many are struggling with at this time.

"We started it because we all had missed being in community and wanted to discuss what was happening with our lives, in our situations,wanting to support each other. The older folks wanted to support the younger ones," said PCAP program coordinator and co-founder Mary Heinen McPherson.
"So we have developed into this really nice tight group of facilitators and artists and of people in the community who are now free and are, you know, striving to help each other. And to me, that has always been true of the workshop."

PCAP volunteer Elizabeth Johnson explained the meetings didn’t have an agenda. The group started meeting to discuss whatever came up and provided support and help and encouragement for each other.

"It was a small but close group that I felt filled an important gap at that moment in time. To this end, I feel like the workshops were a success," she said.

This Fall, with students back in class at U-M, the group is expanding and is trying to rethink how to structure creative arts workshops for an online format, Johnson said. The broader goal is to support PCAP artists across the state of Michigan and it is looking like more of a reality now that people are able to meet online.

"One idea we are trying out is to have artists lead sessions to show their work, teach a skill, talk about their process, and so on. The irony is that, even though we are now limited in our ability to meet in person, it has presented us an opportunity to expand our participation across the state. Hopefully this will only lead to greater connection and communication among PCAP artists and volunteers moving forward and after COVID,” says Johnson.

This is Scott Tompkins's case, who lives in the woods of northwestern Michigan. An artist and photographer, he heard about PCAP when he was incarcerated and since his release in 2016, he has been a member of the PCAPLinkage program. 

Late this summer, Tompkins began attending the PCAP Monday evening workshop on Zoom and said the virtual gatherings are a "perfect way" to stay connected with the PCAP's community and to meet new students. 

"We hope to build and keep creating a safe, credible on-line community that provides support, hope, and understanding. I look forward to gathering virtually with my PCAP people each week," Tompkins said. "We come old and young, richer and not so rich, but, all blessed in the benefit of each other’s good intentions and sincere desire to be of help and assistance. Rich in resources and talents, we engage one another and maintain a positive atmosphere of mutual respect and care." 

The PCAP Community Workshop, formerly called the Reentry Workshop, is in its fourth year. Through this time, facilitators have been offering theatre, creative writing, music, and visual arts activities. The sessions are for all community members 18 and older, especially those returning home from incarceration.

"We have all been finding ways to bring normalcy and comfort to our chaotic lives right now," said Interim Director, Nora Krinitsky. "Even as we continue to face unprecedented challenges, I hope our participants find freedom of the mind to take any direction they wish. I do believe that it is the most valuable thing in the world and that is what PCAP is also all about." 


"One single square sheet of paper, no cuts and no glue. And inside that paper are infinite possibilities, there is truly no limit to what you can create," volunteer Elizabeth Johnson and origami artist said. 

Johnson started teaching this art during PCAP's workshops before the pandemic. Now that everything is locked down, and PCAP workshops are trying to figure out ways to run activities inside prisons without actually going into prisons, the community workshop had the idea of sending in some origami patterns to incarcerated participants through the PCAP newsletter. 

"Paper is cheap and readily available everywhere, including inside prisons," she said. "It’s a small thing, but it is one of the few creative arts activities that we can actually send inside prisons during this time of lockdown, as all you need to get started is a single sheet of paper."

Heinen McPherson couldn't agree more.

"This is a really interesting way of making art in times of COVID," she said. "Inside, what you can create yourself becomes your modus operandi. And of course, we know our artists are geniuses. [I expect] those [origami] cranes will come out of their base and fold in an envelope. They'll be painted or there'll be poetry that they'll turn them into these very classic works of art."

Release Date: 11/11/2020
Tags: Prison Creative Arts Project