ANN ARBOR—The certificates signings are in full swing. About 240 incarcerated artists, from twelve prisons throughout Michigan, have just successfully completed the first correspondence workshops in the history of the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP).
Together with University of Michigan students, formerly incarcerated people and community members from different states, these artists concluded a 12-week program via mail, offered in three areas: theatre, creative writing and visual art. One third of the workshops were facilitated by students in PCAP’s Atonement Project course and the rest by PCAP volunteers.
"Instead of traveling to the prisons each week and giving the workshops, the teams worked to put together packets of information and activities that got mailed into the prisons before the semester started," said associate professor Ashley Lucas, who co-instructs the course with Cozine Welch. "Since the pandemic prevented us from being able to offer in-person programming, we created this correspondence programming inspired by what we have historically done in person."
With a lot of creativity and meticulous mailing logistics, workshop facilitators and incarcerated artists mailed activity packets back and forth each week. Workshop participants and facilitators each received a copy of a book to create a shared experience, one based on reading instead of being in the room together.
Each week, as the facilitators received participants’ responses, they would curate selections of everyone’s work to share in the next activity packets. In this way everyone was able to see what others were doing and get inspiration from each other.
"I've read every single packet that's come through from Gus Harrison, and I've been touched. I laughed. I cried," political science student Hannah Skye Sher said. "There are some beautiful sentiments. They were really interested in participating, even the people who did just one packet. They really put their all into it, and I was really touched to read their work and that meant a lot to me."
Lucas explained that every participant also had to work on "connection activities," to get to know each other.
"We gave them activities like, 'if you had a dream day that you could live out, where would you go, what would you eat, who would be with you, what would you be doing?' just so people could tell a little bit about themselves, have a sense of the other people in the workshop and not feel lonely," Lucas said.
"This class has expanded my worldview and the way that I view art. The way that it has pivoted to make things work has been really effective," said School of Music, Theatre, & Dance student Maija Veinbergs. "I really loved getting to read and ruminate on what our group members sent us. When their message is written on paper, we get to see everything that they wanted to say about something. So I think that was really, really awesome."
"When we first started, we didn't know if the mail was going to go through. We didn't know how any of this was going to fly. We worked. It worked," said PCAP program coordinator and co-founder Mary Heinen McPherson. "In the middle of the worst pandemic in history, we managed to reach hundreds of people who were able to finish our correspondence workshop. That's better than an Oscar, that's better than a Grammy, that's better than anything they could throw out of Hollywood."
Participating from afar
The possibility of virtual participation in the Atonement Project class brought some good surprises, according to Lucas. The course had half and half regularly enrolled students and community volunteers, who were mostly formerly incarcerated people.
"The fact that people didn't have to come to campus twice a week and find parking in downtown Ann Arbor made a huge difference," said Lucas. "People who live far away, even out of state, could take the class and make history with us."
PCAP facilitator Cindy Wenig participated from California. She learned about PCAP through her daughter's college application process. Although her daughter did not ultimately attend Michigan, Wenig remained on PCAP's mailing list and was invited to volunteer to bring theatre to prisons, starting with a facilitator training on Zoom.
"Replying 'yes' to that email brought me, by Zoom, to Michigan's campus and an eye-opening educational experience." she said. "The PCAP program is unlike anything else offered in higher education. The deep bond the program has created over decades with Michigan's penal system is unique.
"Where else can inmates, formerly incarcerated people and undergraduate students share theatre, writing and art and forge lasting bonds of friendship? While most universities are scrambling in 2020 to create programs which educate about racial justice and prison reform - Michigan has had the premier program all along, PCAP," Wenig said.
Wenig's family has no affiliation with the University of Michigan, but her experience with PCAP inspired a donation of $25,000 to create the Devin and Cindy Wenig Prison Arts Fund.
"When faced with COVID and the loss of in-person theater programs at the prisons, PCAP pivoted to create written packets to send into the prisons," Wenig said. "They could have just suspended the program for a year, but seeing first-hand how much good the program does, for the inmates and especially for Michigan students, made that unthinkable."
The fund will support co-instruction for PCAP courses, workshop supplies, books, and outreach. Lucas says the fund’s support for co-instruction is particularly important. “A formerly incarcerated co-instructor means a great deal to the students and positively influences everything we do together,” Lucas says. “I am committed to sustaining collaborative teaching at PCAP. Nothing I do has a greater impact on student learning or the quality of intellectual engagement I can offer them.”
Dani Hourani, who met Lucas while serving time in a federal prison and joined PCAP after his release this Fall, couldn't be prouder after completing his first course outside prison.
"I had a life sentence. I'm not supposed to be here. I'm not supposed to be talking to you guys, I'm supposed to be dead. I'm supposed to die in prison," Hourani said. "Instead, because of the work I did inside, the programming and my certificates I heard from my judge, that I had helped so many people inside. It was time to let me out. You are doing great work and your compassion is inspiring to me."
The rest of the PCAP correspondence workshops from this semester will be posting their videos on the PCAP YouTube channel by mid-January. To see them, check out PCAP's YouTube account.