ANN ARBOR—It was an intense day of learning, discoveries, testimonials, and discussions about social justice, arts, mass incarceration and life inside prisons. 

At the Residential College, classrooms were packed with about 80 University of Michigan students and staff, community members, local artists, all pursuing the same goal: get trained to work with incarcerated people, using creative arts as a tool for mutual learning and growth.

Attentive audience at The Keene Theater.

Among the trainers from the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), a group of former prisoners, who shared their experiences inside and the importance of arts for people in confinement. Artist Martin Vargas—a juvenile lifer, locked up for over 45 years, released two years ago— said there is a great need for facilitators to go inside Michigan prisons.

"Prisoners need to experience firsthand that you care enough to assist us in developing and perhaps mastering a skill that can increase self esteem and self worth; and who knows, maybe this can even help us when we are released," he said.

Vargas is self-taught and mentored many artists inside. He remembers when "an intimidating, 6’2”, 230 lb. fighter who didn’t know much about art," quietly watched him work on a painting and said, 'I wish I could do that.'

Vargas accepted the challenge and decided to teach the aspiring artist.  After an intimidating beginning and a lot of encouragement, a new artist was born. "I saw and felt his joy because he was painting," he said. "Three or four years later, Merko became, and still is, one of PCAP’s better artists and his impressionistic work is always on demand."

But mentoring inside comes with a lot of responsibility. Establishing boundaries, clear and open communication and keeping sessions focused on the creative work are some of the rules for healthy workshop culture.

"Workshops are at the heart of everything PCAP does—they provide space for creative expression, human connection, and community building. Training PCAP members to facilitate workshops empowers students and community members to take part in all three of those processes—their work is critical," said Nora Krinitsky, PCAP's Interim Director. 

During the training, PCAP's Program Coordinator, Mary Heinen McPherson, stressed the importance of understanding trauma while workshopping inside prisons. "Trauma manifests itself everywhere in prisons. All the people I knew inside had a serious trauma. It can happen in different ways," she said. "Part of understanding trauma is understanding you are working with folks who have really suffered. You may not get the reaction [to your workshop activities] that you think you might."

Heinen McPherson also said the work done by PCAP's facilitators inside is healing itself. "We are not in to save anybody, treat or do any type of analysis, but the cathartic process of the art itself is healing and brings light in very dark spaces. You are the gift. You are the one who will bring joy and that is really critically important." 

Community member and writer Michelle Webster-Hein is a new PCAPer and took the training for the first time. "I've wanted to get involved with PCAP ever since I stumbled across their literary journal at a U-M event, and since then I've heard all sorts of stories about their impact," she said.

Webster-Hein said the training was efficient and motivating, and she is eager to get started. "I'm a writer, and writing has transformed my life, so naturally I'd love to help bring that power alive in other people, especially those at the mercy of a system that seems set up to bring them down."

Artist Kimiko Uyeda was incarcerated for some years and since then has helped and inspired many prisoners to explore visual art. "You have so many that come and say I can’t even draw a straight line, and when they find out that they’re actually artists they are just amazed by themselves," she said. 

"Seeing the amount of growth and self confidence in so many women is an amazing thing and of itself because of PCAP. They give them outlets that build self-esteem self-confidence and allow them healthy ways of expression."

A new member to PCAP, U-M anthropology student Paul Tabisc took the training and wants to work with photography inside prisons together with the Humanize the Numbers team. They will be facilitating workshops inside a men’s prison, making photographs together.

"I saw it as a unique opportunity to offer our services to those who need it," Tabisc said. "We are hoping to make a lasting impact and provide some valuable photography training to the prisoners that might one day change their lives, much like the stories heard during our training." 

New PCAPer U-M anthropology student Paul Tabisc: "We are hoping to make a lasting impact and provide some valuable photography training to the prisoners that might one day change their lives, much like the stories heard during our training."