Photography by Wayne Armstrong
The crowd of female inmates flooded into the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility gym, forming a green and yellow sea in their coordinated uniforms. The women barely recognized the space, despite the hours they’d spent there. On that day in September, a theater set — three grey-blue, pretend-brick walls, card tables and a chain-link fence — adorned the stage for a production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” masking the room’s usual cold floor and motivational posters.
Though the physical space was transformed, the themes of isolation, power struggles and search for identity in Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel and its theatrical adaptation felt familiar to the audience, as well as the actors. That’s because the production’s cast members were inmates themselves — all serving lengthy sentences at the Sterling Correctional Facility in northeast Colorado. The production was a project of the University of Denver’s Prison Arts Initiative (DU PAI).
Co-founded by Ashley Hamilton of DU’s theater department and Apryl Alexander of the Graduate School of Professional Psychology, DU PAI captures the healing power of the arts and uses it as a restorative practice for incarcerated men and women across Colorado. With an extensive variety of arts programming in 10 Colorado facilities, DU PAI draws not only on Hamilton’s expertise in the dramatic arts, but on that of graduate students and several DU faculty members, including photography professor Roddy MacInnes and writing professor Libby Catchings.
“There’s this ongoing pull for me to want to shift the understanding of who people in prison are,” Hamilton says. “Yes, there are people in prison who have committed crimes. But they are still whole human beings, many of whom deeply desire to grow, learn and be active, healthy members of society. I see it every time I step inside.”
THEATER ON THE INSIDE
That day in the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility gym marked the end of a 10-show tour that visited a number of prisons across the state, where inmates performed in front of families and friends, Colorado Department of Corrections staff, media and fellow inmates.
Seated in folding chairs lining one side of the set, the women met the play with initial skepticism, but were quickly transported, laughing raucously at each wisecrack, cooing “aww” at one particularly lovable character and expressing genuine heartbreak when the story took a turn for the tragic.
It wasn’t just about entertainment or a brief escape, though — it was a real opportunity to grow, even as an audience member. In a post-show talk-back, the women in attendance — many of whom went on to perform in their own DU PAI production on the DU campus in December — asked about acting through the barriers of prison, broached the topic of interracial differences among the actors and sought advice on dealing with the hostilities of the prison environment.
If the experience was therapeutic for the female inmates, it was positively transformative for the actors and crew members involved, including Vernon “RnB” McKinnie, an inmate serving 32 years.
During the early days of rehearsal, McKinnie stepped out of line and was removed from the program. “I had a minor setback,” he says, “and I actually wasn’t even supposed to be in this play.”
But Hamilton, seeing potential in McKinnie and sensitive to the power of theater, pushed for a second chance. McKinnie rejoined the play, cast as Henry Harry, an elderly character of his own creation.
His intense effort wasn’t just for himself, but also for “Dr. Ashley,” as McKinnie calls her.
“I’ve made bad decisions, and I’ve lost the faith of a lot of people,” he explains. “To have someone show that they believe in you and stick their neck out for you and to keep coming up here … it makes you want to do better. It makes you want to be better. It makes you want to believe in yourself.”
A NEW APPROACH TO INCARCERATION
Though many question spending additional resources to improve the well-being of people who have committed crimes, Hamilton views incarceration a little differently. Thanks to her extensive experience bringing arts to the prison setting, she sees the humanity even in inmates who have committed the worst of crimes. And she sees the way theater allows that humanity to be expressed.
She first came to the work while pursuing an acting career in New York, when a friend brought her along to a theater class in a homeless shelter. “That was my very first introduction to applied theater — the practice of taking theater into a non-normative space and using it as an educational [and] therapeutic … tool,” Hamilton says. “I was really moved by what I saw happening. At that time, I had no idea that the arts could be used in that way.”
Hamilton continued to explore the therapeutic power of theater, working in prisons, homeless shelters, schools and even abroad. She received a master’s degree and a PhD at New York University, where she focused on educational theater. She went on to found (Re)Emergent Theater, a company that brought the arts to people returning home after incarceration. When she came to DU in August 2017, she almost immediately got to work building DU PAI.
“I can’t not do this work. It’s intrinsically who I am now,” she says. “When you see what the arts can do in the prison system, it is utterly transformative and incredible. I can’t ignore that.”
The “Cuckoo’s Nest” production took Hamilton, co-creator Julie Rada, the incarcerated cast members and two student-actors from DU through months of rehearsal, planning and a bit of group therapy. Not only did the tour represent the first time many of the performers had been in a vehicle in a decade or more, but it also was the first time they were able to interact freely with female inmates — a welcome dose of normalcy.
That normalcy is crucial not just in bettering the prisoners themselves, but in reforming a broken system, Hamilton says.
“It’s time for a change. More than 50% of people who come home [from prison] go back within three years,” she explains. “I know this works. I live it every day.”
DU PAI is in the process of collecting data on the success of its program, but in the meantime, Hamilton sees progress in other ways. “I have watched people who have major anger issues and various mental health issues be involved in an arts practice inside, and I’ve seen major changes happen in these folks,” she says. “They have a space to express and explore their feelings and thoughts in a healthy way, and they have to … learn how to be healthy in a group, how to support each other, how to take care of each other.”
The Colorado Department of Corrections agrees: In 2019, it awarded DU PAI a three-year contract to continue these “normalizing” programs that reduce recidivism and give incarcerated individuals a sense of identity, community
Similar programs across the country have produced results, Hamilton says, including fewer incidences of violence in prisons.
In Colorado, the progress has been noticeable, says Ryan Long, warden of the Denver Complex, which includes the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. “To see them mature and have ownership and personal accountability for something is awesome, and it makes the facilities better,” he says. “The offenders that are in this play come from all backgrounds and demographics, [including] crimes committed. … These programs knock those walls down and let them be who they are.”
That was certainly the case for Tony Shapiro, who is serving life in prison without parole at Sterling. Shapiro’s portrayal of Dale Harding, the intelligent leader of the patient’s council in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” won the audience over, despite the fact that the role was his first-ever brush with the arts.
One night, Shapiro says, he went to a production of the musical “Tick, Tick … Boom!” — put on by Hamilton and featuring DU students — to cut the monotony of yet another evening in prison.
“I fell in love,” he says. “I can’t believe all the theater I missed out on. It breaks my heart. … When I seen this pop up on the bulletin board — I’m there. I signed up.”
He took the preparation for his role so seriously that he even enlisted his sister back home to send character research to the prison. Although he had hoped to land the role of McMurphy, the play’s lead, he says embodying Harding was a gift.
“It’s human growth,” Shapiro says. “We are a team here, and I won’t call out the battles, but there have been near fist fights as we’ve done these five months. But in the end, we love and hug, and we have created something together that almost reminds me of doing sports with your team: ‘If you don’t block, I don’t get through this hole.’ We have to do this together.”
Hamilton says the opportunity to take the show on the road has opened up conversations that are shifting the perception of people in the U.S. prison system.
“This is an opportunity for people to see folks inside in a totally different way — as the rich, intelligent, talented people that they are and the complex people that they are,” she says. “They have risen to the occasion in such an amazing way. They have worked so hard, and they are so professional. They have taken this so seriously. They know what a big deal it is to be able to do this.”
EXPLORING ARTISTIC AVENUES
Theater is just one avenue DU PAI has explored when it comes to amplifying the voices of incarcerated men and women. Soon, the program will begin distributing a statewide Department of Corrections newspaper written, edited and organized by people in prison.
In September 2019, DU PAI launched its first podcast, “With(in).” Hamilton hosts alongside two inmates, Denise Presson and Andrew Draper, both serving lengthy sentences. In honest, open conversations, the 12-episode podcast takes on such topics as gang culture, shifting ideas of incarceration, crime hierarchy, learned violence, death in prison and restorative practices.
The goal, Hamilton says, is to give listeners around the world a look inside the prison system — as well as the humans who inhabit it.
Creative work — the podcast, theater, photography, writing — are crucial parts of being human, she says, whether you’re inside a prison or out in the world.
“The arts show us our humanity,” Hamilton says. “They are an opportunity for us to really look at who we are and where we are and who we want to be — and to connect as humans with the hard and the good stuff in life. Why not bring that into a prison?”