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 – Executive Director
Co-Founder and Executive Director
Dr. Ashley Lauren Hamilton is an Assistant Professor of Theatre at the University of Denver and Co-Founder and Executive Director of DU Prison Arts Initiative (DU PAI). Ashley's work ranges from teaching in university and community spaces, creating theatre, storytelling and performance throughout the United States’ prison system, directing and devising university and professional work in Colorado and New York, and running one of the most robust and innovative prison arts programs in the country. Ashley's research and scholarship focuses on the complexities of teaching and creating theatre in applied spaces, specifically prisons, and how this practice can be used as a resource for authentic dialogue, affectual experience, transformation, and culture shifts. Further, Ashley 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.
Ashley has been working within the United States’ correctional system for over twelve years 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.
Ashley co-founded DU PAI in 2017 and acts as its Executive Director. On behalf of DU PAI, Ashley secured an unprecedented multi-million-dollar, six-year contract with the Colorado Department of Corrections to bring arts-based, educational programming into every prison in the state of Colorado. DU PAI is a robust program that brings arts-based, educational and therapeutic programming — covering numerous artistic modalities — into twelve prisons in Colorado and serves thousands of incarcerated people and their family members. In addition to Ashley’s administrative, management and visioning work at DU PAI, Ashley has a robust practice of creating and overseeing several unprecedented, innovative artistic projects for the organization — including directing and devising theatre productions, producing the With(in) podcast, executing two prison theatre tours (including one to the public), overseeing the first state-wide prison newspaper The Inside Report and the first state-wide, public-facing prison radio station in the world Inside Wire: Colorado Prison Radio.
Since 2018 Ashley’s work — and DU PAI — have been mentioned and reviewed in over 200 national, international and local media stories from The New York Times to National FOX News, NBC News, CBS News, US News, National Public Radio (NPR), The Denver Post, Colorado Public Radio (CPR), Associated Press, Yahoo News and beyond. DU PAI’s press release for Inside Wire: Colorado Prison Radio alone was shared on 330 different sites and reached a potential audience of 222 million people — it currently stands as the most shared press release in the history of The University of Denver.
Ashley has a PhD in Educational Theatre from New York University where she focused on theatre for social change. Her dissertation is titled: Towards Rehabilitation: Devised Theatre as Liminal Transformer in a Women’s Maximum Security Prison. Ashley also has an MA from New York University in Educational Theatre, Theatre for Colleges and Communities and a BFA in Performance from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Ashley is in the process of becoming a registered drama therapist (RDT).
Ashley has directed, devised and performed in diverse spaces: Off-Broadway, at NYU, in homeless shelters, in India and East Africa, in a dozen prisons, mental health facilities, at the University of Denver and with the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) Off-Center. Ashley teaches courses at the University of Denver such as Theatre Imagination, Page to Stage, Theatre for Social Change, Interview-Based Theatre, Devising Theatre and more.
Ryan Conarro – Director of Creative Media & General Manager, Inside Wire: Colorado Prison Radio
Director of Creative Media & General Manager, Inside Wire: Colorado Prison Radio
Ryan Conarro is a media producer and interdisciplinary artist who creates and facilitates multi-platform story-sharing experiences, from live theatrical events, to audio installations and podcasts, to community story websites. He cultivates collaborative processes in a range of rural and urban communities, with particular focus on working to amplify voices and stories that have been silenced or overlooked. Ryan served as visiting teaching assistant professor at the University of Denver Department of Theatre in 2020-21. Before that, he spent 6 years as Creative Producer and Community Projects Associate at Ping Chong + Company in New York, where his work included creative placemaking initiatives, live theatrical events, and community story websites. His original performance works include "Bad Husband//\\Bad Homo" and "Saints of Failure," both of which premiered at the Dixon Place HOT! Festival of Queer Culture. Ryan's experience in correctional settings includes facilitating workshops for residents of the Nome Youth Facility and presenting his original adaptation, "Arctic Magic Flute," at the Anvil Mountain Correctional Center. His work has been recognized with a Brooklyn Arts Council grant; TCG's Leadership U One-on-One Fellowship; Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Award; Juneau School District's Champions of Change Award; three Alaska Broadcaster's Association Goldie Awards, for his work as Public Affairs Director at KNOM Radio; three Alaska Humanities Forum Scholar recognitions; and residencies at University Settlement Performance Project, the Orchard Project, the JACC Gallery, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art and the University of North Georgia. Originally from north Georgia, Ryan grew up an Army brat. His parents are Virginia and Patrick Conarro. He earned a BFA in drama and English at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. For his MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts at Goddard College, Ryan's focus of practice and research included documentary work and arts education. For more, please visit Ryan’s website.
Lilly Stannard – Assistant Director of Programming
Assistant Director of Programming
Lilly Stannard is an interdisciplinary artist, educator and artist-researcher interested in the transformative nature of the arts in various settings. Lilly has worked as an arts administrator and teaching artist within a range of schools and companies, some of which include Spellbound Theatre, America Reads, Ramapo for Children, Brooklyn Heights Synagogue Preschool, and the Verbatim Performance Lab where she developed engaging arts-based curricula for diverse populations. She received a degree from New York University’s Educational Theatre department where she studied applied theatre, community development and social intervention. Her writing about artistic transformative justice practices and verbatim theatre work can be found in various publications including Routledge Undergraduate Research Series and the Inquiries Journal.
Clare Hammoor – Pedagogy & Performance Consultant
Pedagogy & Performance Consultant
Dr. Clare Hammoor is a collaborative theatre-maker committed to justice and joy with experience teaching, directing and devising in universities, public and private schools, professional theaters and prisons. Clare has taught at New York University and University of Denver among other institutions and given lectures across the U.S. He has led classes and workshops internationally and his writing appears in articles, chapters and journal editorships. He has directed and devised theatre professionally in New York City and across the United States. Clare's passion for joy and justice has also led him to teach university courses and collaborate with folks who are incarcerated for the past twelve years. Clare is the performance and pedagogy consultant for the DU Prison Arts Initiative where he started a series of play-based arts workshops for children and their incarcerated parents. He is particularly animated by directing theatre with ensembles inside the prison system as a way of collectively imagining a more just and joyful world. Clare is also the Wellness Consultant with The Prison Journalism Project and works with The Clinic to create multidisciplinary wellness opportunities for people in caring professionals internationally. Clare's graduate work at NYU focused on objects and play.
Tess Neel – Special Programs Consultant
Special Programs Consultant
Tess Neel is a theatre producer and artist who believes in the idea that theatre and art help change perspectives, trajectories, and lives for participants and audiences alike. Through her background in stage management, production management, and business management, Tess has worked with many theatre companies including the Arvada Center Black Box Theatre, The Three Leaches, Reunion Entertainment LLC, Lamont Opera Company, and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Tess has been a part of DU PAI since its inception, serving many roles over the years including Operations Manager, Programs Assistant, Production Manager and Producer, Social Media Manager, Programs Coordinator, and now Special Programs Manager. Among Tess’s most notable work with DU PAI are the Unchained Voices Fine Art Show (Manager), Godspell at Colorado Territorial & Fremont Correctional Facilities (Producer & Production Manager), If Light Closed Its Eyes (Producer & Production Manager), and These Walls Film (Producer). Tess earned her BA in Theatre & Business Management from the University of Denver. She is currently studying at University College at the University of Denver where she is working towards her MA in Arts & Culture Management: Arts & Culture Outreach and Advocacy. Tess is deeply honored to have witnessed the growth of this organization and has grown as an individual and artist alongside it. For more information, please visit Tess’s website.
Shannon Sliva – Director of Research
Director of Research
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.
Our Advisory Board
Advisory Board Member
Michael Clifton is a certified paralegal, currently working as a legal assistant and investigator for ANL Legal Services in Denver, Colorado. He was recently granted clemency by Governor Jared Polis after serving nearly 25 years of a 98-year sentence imposed for two robberies when he was 19 years old.
This extreme sentence for non-violent conduct took an enormous toll on Michael, as he faced serving what amounted to a likely life sentence at such a young age. When he arrived in prison, he had to work through anger, confusion, and serious despair caused by this sentence, which led him to doubt his own self-worth and gave him little reason to think of his life as one that had a future. At one point, for months on end he was confined to a solitary cell for 23 hours each day, an experience that came close to destroying him as a human being.
However, through participating in and becoming a leader in programs like the University of Denver’s Prison Arts Initiative (DU PAI) and the Peace Education Program, Michael once again found his true self, able to have empathy both for himself and others. Through his participation in DU PAI, Michael acted in a groundbreaking inmate production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as well as If Light Closed Its Eyes, an original verbatim play recounting the stories of both inmates and prison officials. Through these opportunities, Michael experienced the joy of creative development and began to see himself and his life in a new light. Through his participation in the Peace Education Program, where he progressed from participant to group leader and facilitator, Michael came to know that regardless of his present situation, he could take control of his life and achieve inner peace based on how he chooses to conduct himself on a day-to-day basis.
Grounded in these lessons, Michael helped develop and initiate the Pathway to Freedom Program currently in effect at Sterling Correctional Facility. This program helps those grappling with hopelessness in situations like those he faced to find meaning in their lives, engage in positive activities in their facilities, and create a record of good conduct that could open the door to eventual clemency and release.
Since his release, Michael spends his time hanging out with his family, working hard at his new job, and spreading the messages of peace and creative expression that helped him rediscover himself and which ultimately opened the door to his clemency.
Advisory Board Member
Eric Davis grew up skiing and roaming the mountains around Idaho Springs, Colorado. But he longed for a life in the shining city down the hill—Denver. By the time he was eighteen years old, he had not only lived in Denver, but he had also found a way to make choices that altered the lives of countless people. For the next thirty-four years he was incarcerated in the Colorado Department of Corrections. During those three decades Eric made a concerted effort to become a man of integrity, who looked to affect the world in positive ways. He was a member of the Shape Up program at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility and the Territorial Correctional Facility. This program brought teenagers into the facilities to spend time with the men of Shape Up who offered advice to these younger men heading down the wrong path in life—a path similar to the one the men of Shape Up had taken. Rather than continuing to engage in more destructive behavior while inside, Eric constantly sought out productive, meaningful programming and activities. Then in 2019, DU PAI found him. While working on the Fremont Correctional Facility’s Pens & Paradigms newsletter, he and that team were approached by DU PAI and CDOC with the idea of creating a newspaper written and produced by men and women in CDOC. With that, The Inside Report was born, and Eric was officially a part of the DU PAI family. In February of 2021, Eric was granted early parole by Governor Polis following Eric’s participation in the Juveniles Convicted as Adults Program. DU PAI wrapped their arms around Eric as he reentered the community he had abandoned so long ago, and he is now officially an employee of DU PAI. Eric hopes to work every day to change the world with his new family and all who have supported and encouraged him for so many years.
Advisory Board Member
A Denver native, Jessica attended the University of Colorado before moving to Chicago, and eventually the East Coast to pursue the arts. In 2007, she moved to Baltimore with a team of other CU folks and co-founded Single Carrot Theatre, Baltimore's award-winningest ensemble theatre. After nearly 10 years with SCT, Jessica is now the director of culture and community for Allovue, a software company pioneering edfintech and changing the game in school finance. As a comedian, Jessica has opened for well-known acts Michael Ian Black, Joe Pera, Brooks Wheelan and Rhea Butcher and performed at the Women in Comedy Festival in the UK. She can also be seen in Wham City’s live melodramas The Cry of Mann and The Call of Warr. Also a writer, Jessica’s work has been commissioned by the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Associated Jewish Charities, and her essays have been picked up by Human Parts and Bmore Art. She still participates in the theatre community by teaching and directing in schools and prisons and serving on the board of directors for three theatre companies. She lives in beautiful Baltimore City, Maryland.
Danielle Maude Littman
Advisory Board Member
Danielle Maude Littman, LCSW, AM is a PhD Candidate in Social Work at the University of Denver and will be an Assistant Professor at the University of Utah College of Social Work as of July 2023. She uses place-based, arts-based, and participatory methods to explore (and reimagine) supportive settings and care practices for people at the margins. Her current research explores third places (community settings) and sense of community among young people in permanent supportive housing, mutual aid during the COVID-19 pandemic, peer support among young people experiencing homelessness, and the impacts of prison arts programming for those who participate in—and witness—it. She has been a member of DU PAI's evaluation and research team since 2019. Prior to her doctoral studies, she worked as a clinical social worker, teaching artist, and community-engaged facilitator across Chicago—often traveling to every corner of the city to teach theatre classes, facilitate community meetings at local parks, and hold clinical sessions. She received her BA in Theatre and Creative Nonfiction writing from Northwestern University, her AM (MSW equivalent) from the University of Chicago Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice, and her PhD from the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work [June 2023].
Advisory Board Member
Advisory Board Member
Sarah McKenzie is a visual artist based in Boulder. Her paintings document our built landscape, exploring changes in our architecture (what we build) for evidence of societal, economic, and cultural shifts (why we build). She has exhibited her paintings nationally, including shows with the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the Yale School of Architecture, the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, among other venues. Since 2020, Sarah has been working on an extended project exploring the architecture of prisons. In 2021, she was awarded the Marion International Fellowship for the Visual and Performing Arts to support this project. That same year, she also began teaching with the University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative (DU PAI). Most recently, she co-taught a visual arts and creative writing workshop called Creating (in) Place at Sterling Correctional. In the fall of 2022, Sarah was honored to exhibit her paintings of prison interiors alongside work by eighteen DUPAI artists at the Marion Art Gallery at the State University of New York (SUNY) Fredonia. Her work is currently represented in Denver by David B. Smith Gallery.
Advisory Board Member
Kristen Nelson is a Denver-based criminal defense attorney whose areas of interest and expertise include capital punishment, life without parole and other excessive sentences. She is currently the director of the Powell Project, a philanthropically-funded national capital trial consulting project that works alongside defense teams representing individuals facing the death penalty to provide resources and assistance in order to achieve non-death resolutions to cases. Previously, Kristen served for seven years as a deputy state public defender on the Complex Litigation Team for the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender in Denver, which represents indigent clients at the trial level in complex felony cases, including those in which the State is considering or has declared it is seeking the death penalty. She also spent four years as a staff attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, representing individuals on death row in various stages of the appellate process. Kristen began her indigent defense career as a trial attorney at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia following a clerkship with U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson in the Middle District of Alabama. She is a 2004 graduate of Harvard Law School.
Advisory Board Member
JoyBelle Phelan, a Colorado native, has been creative since childhood, playing multiple instruments before focusing on her vocal skills. She is a writer, epoxy resin artist, cross-stitch aficionado, beginner crocheter, and public speaker. She was incarcerated twice, for a total of seven years behind the walls, successfully completed community corrections, and was granted early release from parole. She passionately believes that no one should be remembered for the worst decision they ever made and that incarcerated people's stories need to be out in the world, humanizing the perception of who is incarcerated. She is using her lived experience to challenge the perceptions of what prison is like for women and what re-entry can look like for everyone. While incarcerated, she fostered her love of the written word as she completed Cosmetology, Breakthrough (formerly Defy Ventures Colorado), Realness Project's Art of Being Human workshop, the inaugural Inside-Out Prison Exchange program at La Vista, and volunteered as a Peer Education Mentor and a 7 Habits Core Group Member. She worked as the Pre-Release Clerk and assisted in the development and implementation of the Re-Entry Unit Program at La Vista Correctional Facility. Upon her release, she began networking with community re-entry resources and speaking out, testifying in front of the state legislature, and sitting on the Clean Slate Colorado and RESTORE Implementation committees. She is currently an operations associate at the Prison Journalism Project. She was the first woman from La Vista to be published in The Inside Report newspaper. She served as Managing Editor of The Inside Report and Reverberations from July 2022 to February 2023. She has been a guest on multiple national podcasts focused on re-entry and has an essay published in the CCJRC Go Guide about being successful on parole. She also gave a talk at TEDx San Quentin.
Kerstin Caldwell is an improvisational actor and experiential educator who combines the principles of improvisation with neuroscience to deliver memorable lessons in how we maneuver as humans. Her passion is serving individuals and communities as a means for building self-awareness, authentic self-expression and reminding individuals of their innate brilliance. Her toolkit includes communicating authentically, shining light on unspoken group dynamics and bringing perspective and levity to heavy situations.
Kerstin studied Improvisation at The Second City and iO (formerly improvOlympic) in Chicago and has been honored to have taken workshops on the human experience through the lens of improvisation with Academy Award Winning actor, Alan Arkin. These experiences took Kerstin from a space of striving to be funny to relaxing into being real both on stage and off.A big believer that life often hands you exactly what you need to learn to grow, Kerstin was thrust onto a journey of recovery after a car accident that left her with a Tramautic Brain Injury and subsequent diagnosis of PTSD. Embarking on therapies centered in neuroplasticity and healing her nervous system, Kerstin had first-hand experience in her ability to bounce back from difficulty through repetitive practice and care. She made connections in the overlap between the repetition of games used to become skilled as an improvisational actor and the brain-based therapies she was using to heal. Her workshops evolved into sharing what she was learning about the brain alongside her work with play. This combination has become the foundation Kerstin infuses each of her workshops with whether she is teaching in prisons, schools, corporations, or at the Denver Center for Performing Arts.
Abigail Corrigan is a Denver based dancer, choreographer, and educator. She has performed with OddKnoock Productions, The Queen’s Ball: A Bridgerton Experience, and Opera Colorado’s production of Die Tote Stadt. Abigail has also performed in the Denver Center for Education’s One Act Play Festival and has been a company member of Hannah Kahn Dance Company and jk-co. While living in New York City, she performed with VALLETO Dance, Summation Dance Company, Lila Artists, Drye/Marinaro Dance Company, The Nathaniel Hunt Project and more. Abigail received a BFA in Dance Performance and Choreography and a BA in Arts Administration from Elon University. Abigail was also a student and choreographic resident at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance. In September of 2021, Abigail was commissioned by T2 Dance Company to create a work for presentation at the Dairy Arts Center. Abigail is currently and Entertainment Lead and Performer at Casa Bonita and takes acting classes at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. She loves being a part of the DU PAI community and growing alongside so many incredible artists.
Steve Franklin is a musician and educator. He has taught instrumental and vocal music for more than 30 years. He has extensive performing and recording experience and his music can be found on most streaming platforms. He is currently teaching songwriting for the University of Denver's Prison Arts Initiative.
Sarah McKenzie is a visual artist based in Boulder. Her paintings document our built landscape, exploring changes in our architecture (what we build) for evidence of societal, economic, and cultural shifts (why we build). She has exhibited her paintings nationally, including shows with the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the Yale School of Architecture, the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, among other venues. Since 2020, Sarah has been working on an extended project exploring the architecture of prisons. In 2021, she was awarded the Marion International Fellowship for the Visual and Performing Arts to support this project. That same year, she also began teaching with the University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative (DUPAI). Most recently, she co-taught a visual arts and creative writing workshop called Creating (in) Place at Sterling Correctional. In the fall of 2022, Sarah was honored to exhibit her paintings of prison interiors alongside work by eighteen DUPAI artists at the Marion Art Gallery at the State University of New York (SUNY) Fredonia. Her work is currently represented in Denver by David B. Smith Gallery.
With an MFA from CU Boulder in Sculpture and Post-Studio Practice, Molly's main creative expression is teaching while also constantly playing with and pushing her surroundings. She is excited by the multidisciplinary possibilities that each unique inspiration can require. She loves to consider rituals of Americana and the personal myth via using food as an art material. She has worked as a naturalist, an English language teacher, a goat milker, and a waitress, but working as a faculty member with DU PAI has been the best job of them all.
Brandon Welch is a dancer, teaching artist and creator. He holds a BFA from SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Dance with a semester on exchange at the Western Australian Academy of the Performing Arts. His performance career includes being a company member of Momix Dance Illusionists, Doug Varone and Dancers, Alpine Artist Collective, JK-co and Gibney Dance Company. Brandon has facilitated movement workshops in a variety of unique education settings including New York City and Chicago public schools, Pennsylvania prisons and jails, shelters for vulnerable populations and health recovery groups. He is passionately committed to utilizing movement as a catalyst for social change.