Our Team

The team behind the DU Prison Arts Initiative brings dedication backed by years of experience in working for the public good. We're a group of educators, scholars and professionals bringing together knowledge from across academic disciplines and creative forms. Our leadership has developed arts initiatives at prison facilities across Colorado and beyond, and works closely with a team of student scholars who contribute to research and programming. Faculty partners from across the DU campus provide critical insight into the challenges facing incarcerated people, enabling our staff to craft programs that transform lives.

DU PAI was founded in 2017 by Apryl Alexander, PsyD, Ashley Hamilton, PhD, and Rachael Zafer, MPA.

Meet the Team

  • Ashley Hamilton

    Co-Founder and Executive Director

    Ashley Hamilton, PhD is an assistant professor in the Department of Theater at the University of Denver and is also Co-Founder and Executive Director of the DU Prison Arts Initiative (DU PAI). She has been working within the United States’ correctional system for almost a decade as an educator and artist and has taught and created various educational and artistic projects in over two dozen prisons in the United States. Hamilton has taught for four different prison education programs, developing and leading various courses in associate and bachelor degree programs inside prisons. She also co-founded and ran a theatre company for men and women coming home from prison in New York City called ReEmergent Theatre. Hamilton co-founded DU PAI in 2017, a robust program that brings arts-based, educational and therapeutic programming into ten prisons in Colorado serving thousands of incarcerated people and their family members. On behalf of DU PAI, Hamilton secured an unprecedented three-year contract with the Colorado Department of Corrections to bring arts-based, educational programming into every prison in the state of Colorado over the next few years. Through DU PAI, she has also created and overseen several exciting, innovative projects for the Colorado Department of Corrections including a podcast hosted and produced by incarcerated people in Colorado called With(in), a prison theatre tour and more. Hamilton’s arts-based research and scholarship focuses on the complexities of teaching and creating art and educational experiences in prisons, and how this practice can be used as a resource for authentic dialogue, affectual experience, transformation and cultural shift. She has a PhD in Applied/Educational Theatre from New York University where she focused on theatre for social change and produced her seminal work Towards Rehabilitation: Devised Theatre as Liminal Transformer in a Women’s Maximum Security Prison. Hamilton employs innovative arts-based methods from a critical criminological lens. Further, Hamilton has special expertise in sharing the results of her work with the community and with the public through the arts to generate conversation and social change.

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  • Julie Rada

    Director of Programming and Lead Affiliate Faculty

    Julie Rada, MFA is a theatremaker, educator, and scholar. She has done theatre for 30 years and has worked on over 80 performance projects, with a focus on directing original work and new plays. As a performer and researcher, she has toured nationally and internationally. Her work has been reviewed in BackstageThe Denver PostThe Arizona RepublicThe Rocky Mountain NewsWestwordThe New Times, and others. As a performer and researcher, she has toured nationally and internationally. She was a 2015 recipient of the national TCG “Global Connections” grant and has received numerous local and national awards and grants. Julie has worked in the prison system for over six years, facilitating new works of theatre with incarcerated artists at 7+ facilities and was selected as an artist-in-residence by the National Endowment for the Arts at the Phoenix Federal Corrections Institution. She has founded three arts-based prison programs in three states, attended the national Arts-in-Corrections conference, published in journals on prison arts practice, and developed a Prison-Based Theatre course for undergraduates at the University of Utah. Additionally she has created theatre with refugees, people with disabilities, youth experiencing homelessness, professional actors, and people dying in hospice, infusing her background on psychology and social work into her arts practice. Julie has worked on faculty at the University of Utah, Community College of Aurora, and Naropa University. She holds an MFA from Arizona State University and attended Naropa and Tisch School for the Arts/NYU for undergrad.   

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  • Shannon Sliva

    Director of Research, DU Prison Arts Initiative

    Shannon Sliva, PhD is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver, where she conducts national and local research on the impacts of criminal justice policy with an emphasis on innovative justice alternatives. Sliva tracks state-level restorative justice legislation across the U.S., and is currently partnering with Colorado practitioners, policymakers, and advocates to document the impacts of leading-edge restorative justice laws and develop recommendations for policy transfer. Most recently, she was funded by the National Institute of Justice to evaluate the impact of victim offender dialogue on victims of serious, violent crimes in Colorado. Sliva works with other social work researchers on the national Smart Decarceration Grand Challenge, coordinating research and advocacy efforts to promote justice reinvestment.

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  • Dan Manzanares

    Development and Communications Manager

    Dan Manzanares, MFA is an arts and cultural community organizer. He held his position as Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s community programs manager from 2012-2020. During that time he specialized in partnership management, donor cultivation and fundraising, event planning, program and volunteer coordination, and teaching in non-traditional settings. For these efforts, he won a Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Arts and Culture in 2016. His community engagement portfolio comprised of multi-year partnerships with correctional facilities, daytime drop-in centers, libraries, hospitals, detention centers, rehabilitation communities, and many arts and cultural organizations in Colorado. Dan represented Lighthouse at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs in Chicago, Boston, and Minneapolis, as well at the National Endowment for the Arts Research Labs Summit in Washington DC. He’s served on several committees, including Denver Talks, a social justice project in partnership with the City and County of Denver, Doors Open Denver Arts & Culture Platform, History Colorado Center’s Creative Civic Programming, and the NEA’s Big Read Reading Committee. He published the Write Denver Toolkit (Creative Exchange & Springboard for the Arts, 2018), which is being used in twenty-seven states and nine countries. He’s co-author of the forthcoming arts-based resiliency article with American Association of Critical-Care Nurses and co-editor of the anthology All the Lives We Ever Lived, a 2020 Colorado Book Awards finalist. Dan is an award-winning poet, and his fiction has been supported by a residency at Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts. He earned is Master of Fine Arts in Genre Fiction from Western Colorado University.

  • Tess Neel

    Operations and Production Manager

    Tess Neel graduated from the University of Denver with a BA and BS in Theatre and Business Management. As a student at DU, she focused on stage management and production management for various theatre productions. Tess has worked with theatre companies including the Arvada Center Black Box Theatre (Stage Management Intern), The Three Leaches (Stage Manager), Reunion Entertainment LLC (Assistant Stage Manager), Lamont Opera Company (Production Manager), and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (Stage Manager Apprentice). Her first experience with social change theatre came when she assisted Ashley Hamilton with a DU summer course in 2017 that focused on devising theatre with students in Zanzibar, Tanzania. The program opened her eyes to the idea that theatre can serve as more than just entertainment for participants and audiences alike. She is very excited to help work with and expand this amazing DU PAI program and experience first-hand how theatre and art can be used to help change people’s perspectives, trajectories and lives.

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  • Joan Dieter

    Program Coordinator

    Joan Dieter received her BFA in theatre performance from the University of Colorado and since then has been working with communities and individuals to share their stories and create support from within. Following her time as a student at CU, she was part of the pilot team to begin "CSF in the Schools" — the educational outreach program with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. In partnership with the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado, the CSF team worked to create programs that gave tools to Colorado students to create safer climates in their schools. For the last four years Joan has worked with SOS Outreach as their Program Director and Colorado Regional Director to provide mentorship and outdoor opportunities for youth who are at-risk in the state of Colorado. Joan joined the DU PAI team as their first social work intern and is now looking forward to learning more about how theatre and the arts can provide for incarcerated populations.

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  • Danielle Littman

    Research Assistant

    Danielle Maude Littman is a PhD student in the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver. She works as a Research Assistant with the DU Prison Arts Initiative (and Shannon Sliva, PhD) to research and evaluate impacts of DU PAI programs. Danielle's research explores how places of belonging, connection, and re-storying ("counterspaces") may buffer against the impacts of isolation and trauma, especially for marginalized groups in multiply harsh contexts; she is committed to the integration of artistic and participatory methods in her research. She holds her Masters in Social Service Administration from the University of Chicago, and her Bachelors in Theatre and Creative Writing from Northwestern University.

  • Karen Lausa

    Literary Arts Consultant

    Karen Lausa has introduced engaging literature to hundreds of incarcerated readers through her work as executive director and founder of Words Beyond Bars, a nonprofit, evidence-based book discussion program operating in the Colorado prison system from 2011-2019. Karen holds a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Antioch College as well as a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science from SUNY/Albany. She has over twenty years experience as a reference librarian and is certified as both a Great Books Facilitator and Restorative Justice practitioner. In June 2013, she became certified in the Inside-Out Training Institute prison education program. In her previous position in Research and Public Policy at the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center, the creation of the Colorado Child Protection Ombudsman office is a direct result of her work with a coalition of legislators and stakeholders in the Colorado’s child protection community. Karen has participated in the prestigious Aspen Institute Justice and Society Seminar in July 2016 as a Halle Scholar. Her goal remains focused on a sustainable model for a literature curriculum that is inclusive and represents a generous sampling of genre. In her discussion communities all disciplines emerge and incorporate literature, history, philosophy and social science through reading and discourse.

  • Jeffrey Lin

    Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminology

    Associate Professor Jeffrey Lin, PhD studies crime and punishment in the United States, focusing on the complex interactions between institutions and individuals in the criminal justice system. In particular, Lin is interested in the ways that criminal outcomes are impacted by systemic arrangements of policy and practice. He has examined these dynamics among juvenile offenders, parolees, and sex offenders, and through analyses of media coverage of serious crime and the effects of large-scale changes to state correctional policies. He typically uses quantitative and comparative methods in his research.

    Lin received his PhD in Sociology from New York University in 2005. His dissertation research explored court decisions to incarcerate juvenile offenders in New York City, as well as the impact of incarceration on the criminal behaviors of these young offenders. After completing his dissertation, Lin served as a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Irvine, where he studied issues related to the reform of California's adult prison and parole systems. Since coming to DU, he has continued to research correctional reform in California. He has also been working with the State of Colorado to assess the effectiveness of new strategies of supervising offenders in the community, and he has studied the management of sex offenders in Colorado, assessing the utility of laws designed to control their continued offending.

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  • Apryl Alexander


    Apryl Alexander, Psy.D. is an Associate Professor in the master’s in forensic psychology program in the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver. She is Director of the Forensic Institute of Research, Service, and Training (Denver FIRST) Outpatient Competency Restoration Program, which provides outpatient competency education and restoration for low-risk, court-ordered adult defendants and juveniles. She received her Psy.D. in clinical psychology from the Florida Institute of Technology with concentrations in forensic psychology and child and family therapy. Her research focuses on violence and victimization, forensic assessment, sexuality, and trauma-informed and culturally informed practice. She is an award-winning researcher and her work has been published in leading journals including Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, Child Maltreatment, Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, and Sexual Abuse. Dr. Alexander is the recipient of the 2017 APA Early Career Achievement Award and the APA Section on Child Maltreatment Early Career Award for Outstanding Contributions to Research. She also received the 2019 APA Early Career Award for Outstanding Contributions to Benefit Children, Youth, and Families and the 2020 Michele Alexander Early Career Award for Scholarship and Service from the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI).

  • Rachael Zafer

    Co-Founder and Consultant

    Rachael Zafer is an educator, writer, facilitator and consultant with deep experience in higher education, community arts, economic development and healing justice. Rachael served as the founding director of the Prison Education Program at New York University, directed state-wide programming with the Prison Creative Arts Project at the University of Michigan, and directed national arts-based programs with Sister Helen Prejean and DePaul University. Rachael began collaborating with incarcerated artists in 2004 and has taught hundreds of workshops in prisons and jails in Michigan, Illinois, New York and Colorado. Rachael is a writer for Penguin Random House and HarperCollins and has written curriculum and study guides for a dozen texts including "How to Be an Antiracist" by Ibram X. Kendi, "Just Mercy" by Bryan Stevenson and "Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Rachael is a core member of Mourning Our Losses, a crowd-sourced memorial for people who died in prisons, jails and immigration facilities due to COVID-19. She provides creative and technical consulting to organizations across the country, and currently leads communications at a nonprofit advancing employee ownership. Rachael holds an executive MPA from New York University and a BA in English and Creative Writing from the University of Michigan.

  • Nicholle Harris

    DU Prison Arts Initiative Social Work Intern

    Nicholle Harris is currently a graduate student in the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver. She has been involved in theater work for over 20 years and is also an Air Force Veteran. She is a Teaching Artist with the Black Actors Guild and Mirror Image Arts, focusing on social emotional learning through theater and improv. Nicholle believes in the depth and diversity of the human spirit and the powerful tools theater can provide. She is excited to be a part of this program and to learn about the application and impact of these tools within incarcerated populations and systems.

Affiliate Faculty

DU PAI draws on expertise from the DU campus and beyond to teach workshops, produce theatrical performances and operate other prison arts programs.

  • Elizabeth Catchings
  • Dee Covington
  • Clare Hammoor
  • Laura Kregeul
  • Jamie Law
  • Karen Levi-Lausa
  • Roddy MacInnes
  • Elijah Null
  • Anne Penner
  • Joanna Rotkin
  • Tara Rynders
  • Suzi Q. Smith
  • Rachael Zafer