Changing prison stereotypes

Art programs open creativity and opportunity to inmates
January 30, 2009

It was almost 20 years ago when a University of Michigan English professor, Buzz Alexander, entered a Coldwater, Mich., prison to conduct a theater workshop with inmates. At about the same time, an Episcopal priest, Joe Summers, and some members of his fledgling congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan, had decided to focus their outreach on people in prison through Bible study groups.

The paths of these men first had crossed 15 years earlier when Summers was a student in an English class taught by Alexander, a man who would become not only his teacher but also his mentor. Throughout their friendship since, the two have shared the challenges and rewards of working with men and women in Michigan prisons and juvenile-detention facilities.

Their work of reaching out to people in prison, they say, has been one of the richest experiences of their lives. And they cite ample evidence of hope and healing brought into the lives of the men, women and youth who have participated in the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP).

Opening 'creative spaces'
The expansive creative arts project is operated through the University of Michigan and includes some of its faculty and staff, an advisory board and up to 50 students each semester who conduct workshops at 20 different prisons, juvenile facilities and some inner-city high schools with at-risk youth.

PCAP opens creative spaces where they don't easily exist, said Alexander. Over the past two decades, he expanded the project to include creative writing, writing and performing plays, dance, music and visual art.

The most recent prison art exhibit and auction was held in December at Summers' parish, the Church of the Incarnation in Ann Arbor. Prisoners donated their work, which was sold to benefit the programs of PCAP. Such art exhibitions encourage prisoners to develop their artistic talents and provide them with constructive opportunities for growth and self-expression, Summers said.

One artist recently wrote of his experience: "I feel growth in my artwork and in who I am. This exhibition gives me a goal, helps my self esteem."

A family member of one artist wrote: "The advantages of growth for the prisoners spill over to their families in allowing them to see their loved one gain self-confidence and pride and shed what can sometimes be overwhelming feelings of despair and destitution."

In an interview with The Record of the Diocese of Michigan, Summers said his leadership in Bible study in prisons and collaboration with the arts project enabled him to see and experience the growth and development of those in prison.

"Among the incarcerated," he said, "there are some very rigid ideas about Christianity. Through art, many of those issues can be sidestepped and people can get in touch with their emotions and imagination that enable them to survive and transcend
their circumstances."

Prison art is among his favorite art, said Summers, who admitted this kind of art caused him to change his outlook on how the Bible is read.

"A lot of the Bible was written by people in prison," he said. "Reading it with the incarcerated changes your perspective."

Others have been similarly impressed by creativity developed by those in prison.

"The art hits you in the face," said Merilynne Rush, a member of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, Ann Arbor, after visiting the art exhibit at the Church of the Incarnation. "Seeing the full breadth of the artist's humanity and diversity challenges the damaging idea that there are good people and bad people.

"And once that happens, one can no longer just forget -- as is too often the case with the incarcerated."

Challenging expectations
When people think about visiting the prison art show, Alexander said, "what they imagine is poor-quality art and gloomy prison themes. [Then] they walk into the gallery and they see a huge, colorful range of artistic talent and themes and some extraordinary stuff," he said. "People are really struck, and they have to change their stereotypes of who's in prison."

One of Alexander's former students, Suzanne Gothard, went into Southern Michigan Correctional Facility at Jackson, Mich., as an undergraduate to lead a poetry class. The experience, she said, changed her life -- she began conducting theater workshops and directing one-act plays with youth incarcerated in a local juvenile detention training school, then coordinated PCAP's annual art exhibition held each March at the University of Michigan.

"It's been the best creative experience that I've ever been a part of," she told Record Editor Herb Gunn. She said she found a level of honesty she hadn't expected in the poetry and theater workshops.

"People think the opposite. They say: 'Oh, you are going into prison -- how can you trust anyone?' But I find that when we all come together in the space, it becomes something very precious."


-- Jerry Hames is editor emeritus of Episcopal Life. Herb Gunn, editor of The Record, and Merilynne Rush, a member of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan, contributed to this story.

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