Across prison walls: Connection between U-M students, incarcerated artists withstands pandemic

December 22, 2020
Written By:
Fernanda Pires

Screen cap of zoom call.

The inability to enter prisons during the COVID-19 crisis challenged a group of University of Michigan students who wanted to keep supporting and working together with incarcerated artists.

With a lot of creativity and meticulous mailing logistics, U-M faculty, staff and students from different schools, all part of the Prison Creative Arts Project, remodeled the structure of their creative arts workshops for an online format and offered them in four areas: theater, creative writing, music and visual art.

About 260 incarcerated artists from 12 prisons throughout Michigan participated and have just successfully concluded their workshops. Thirty of them were part of the Out of the Blue choir, which also made a total shift in their programming to reach and interact with their confined audience.

“Instead of traveling to the prisons each week and giving the workshops, the teams worked to put together packets of information that got mailed into the prisons before the semester started,” said Ashley Lucas, associate professor of theatre & drama and the Residential College. “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.”

Snail mail

Each week, facilitators and incarcerated artists participating in theater, creative writing and visual art workshops mailed activity packets back and forth. As the facilitators received member’s 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 H. and I’ve been touched. I laughed. I cried,” said political science student Hannah Skye Sher. “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.

Picture of Connection activity drawings.

“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.

Maija Veinbergs, a student at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, says the class has expanded her worldview and the way that she views art.

“The way that it has pivoted to make things work has been really effective,” she said. “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.”

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.”

Singing together

The annual calendar for the Out of the Blue choir was set: seven anticipated and approved performances inside men’s, women’s and youth correctional and treatment facilities around Michigan. U-M musicians were thrilled to be able to perform for and bring joy to hundreds of incarcerated people.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic crossed out those dates from the singers’ agenda. Locked outside of their venues, the choir remained undeterred and switched their programming this fall.

“It doesn’t matter what facility or our performance format, the point is that we always want to bring joy into a space where there is almost never any,” said School of Social Work graduate student Rikki Morrow-Spitzer, who co-founded the choir in 2018 with a dozen music students.

Out of the Blue is an auditioned outreach choir that brings choral concerts and workshops to prisons, juvenile detention centers and reentry programs across Southeast Michigan. The singers receive training on how to thoughtfully perform music in nontraditional settings as well as enhance their knowledge about the history of the Michigan prison system. In two-and-a-half years, Out of the Blue has performed for approximately 850-900 people inside.

After some stumbling and changes in the original plans, U-M students found a perfect way to circumvent the pandemic and even from a distance, interact with and bring joy to the incarcerated men at the Milan Federal Correctional Institution.

Each one of the 12 students chose one song that had brought hope and joy during a difficult time. The next step was to record individual messages explaining their choices and to come up with prompts that the men could answer about the songs. The result is a one-hour DVD, combining the students’ selected songs, some other music performed by them and their testimonials.

The DVD was sent inside and the facility employees printed out the worksheets. In total, 26 men participated (which was the maximum allowed to be together in a room at a time), answering all the activities and also picking their favorite songs.

“The session was a huge success,” said FCI Milan chaplain Jonathan Cooper. “The men were so grateful for the time to stop, listen and reflect. It meant a lot that the students took the time to put this together. Their kind words and musical selections were very uplifting.”

Cooper sent all the participants’ responses back to the U-M students.

For music director Katherine Roher, the responses from the men were overwhelmingly positive, and the students are excited to continue engaging and corresponding with them next semester.

“At a time when music-making can feel so disjunct and abstract, working to put together this virtual choral project for the folks inside gave us real inspiration and purpose,” she said. “It reminded me—and I think all of us—about music’s power to foster connection, even in unexpected and nontraditional ways.”


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