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Prison Creative Arts Project

While teaching a few courses in English that facilitated writing workshops with prisoners 18 years ago, University of Michigan English Professor, Buzz Alexander saw a real need for creative expression among the incarcerated population that was screaming to be heard. In 1990 he started the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP). The mission of the project is to collaborate with incarcerated youth and adults, urban youth, and the formerly incarcerated to strengthen the community through creative expression. Their process is “to make the arts accessible to everyone and to create spaces inside to give voice to the incarcerated.” The program believes that everyone has the capacity to create art; art is necessary for individual and societal growth, connection, and survival. Art should be accessible to all.

The program has grown through the years to include workshops in improve theatre, dance, art, video, music and writing. The goal of all the workshops is to culminate the creative efforts of the incarcerated into an end performance, gallery or anthology. It’s all about getting their creative works out there and getting their art and words heard and/or seen for creative self-empowerment while they are being rehabilitated.

The program usually has 60 volunteers in the fall/winter semesters and 15 in the summer. There are mandatory biweekly meetings and the training for the program is quite intensive. It is emphasized from the beginning that a commitment is expected as many incarcerated individuals have been disappointed and let down by people in the past. Two co-facilitators visit the facilities every week. The volunteers are made up of mostly University of Michigan faculty, staff, students, and volunteers in the Ann Arbor, Michigan community.

PCAP, pronounced “peecap” has a Portfolio Project to which volunteers work one on one with incarcerated individuals to help them produce a professional portfolio of their work to present to parole boards, judges, schools, and employers when they return home. The Linkage program is a program that helps formerly incarcerated artists, writers, musicians, actors and dancers develop their creative talents so that they can continue their creative work once they are no longer incarcerated. Participants in the Linkage Program are teamed up with a mentor for one year who meets with them once a month. This is someone who has a similar artistic background. They are first transitioned back into the community to establish employment, suitable living conditions and emotional support before the Linkage program begins.

Mary Heinen, a former incarcerated and ambitious woman who now serves as PCAP’s Administrative Coordinator for their Linkage and Portfolio Projects gave this testimony…

“I think that the program has been very important to prisoners inside because it gives their lives meaning. Creative arts are their way to express that which is painful in their lives. And also it gives them hope and joy. PCAP has allowed prisoners the opportunity to express their own humanity. For returning prisoners and youth that we work with, the Linkage Program supports their efforts as an artist reentering the community and helps men, women and youth find their way home again and be able to stand on their own two feet and even find employment.”

Every year there is an Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners displayed on North Campus at the Duderstadt Center Gallery, 2281 Bonisteel Boulevard, Ann Arbor, MI. Last year more than 4000 people were in attendance. The next show will be held from March 24 – April 8, 2009. There are now 52 Prisons involved in the show and it is the largest display of prison art in the United States. Artists sell their paintings or drawings and get to keep a large portion of the sale with the remaining amount going to the facility to which they are incarcerated.

I attended the 2007 Annual Exhibit of Art. I was feeling a little uninspired at the time with my own painting process. So I ventured out to look at the Gallery with hopes of being stimulated by a painting or two. When I got to the gallery I was not only inspired, I was blown away. But more importantly, I was educated by what I saw. The art spoke to the deeper side of my soul from the deeper sides of the caged souls. I fought back tears because as an artist I know the freedom of expression I feel when I go to that place of creativity. I saw that creative expression, yet in a captured setting, but it spoke beyond the walls that held them. Many of the pieces included bars or captivity symbolism, which in one sense expresses the artist’s sense of feeling enclosed, but in another sense, many had the materials and canvas to express their pent up emotions in living color. Had it not been for PCAP, that expression would have never taken place.

A special thanks to Rachel Hudak, Program Administrator, for educating me on this incredible program!

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