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
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.
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 Backstage, The Denver Post, The Arizona Republic, The Rocky Mountain News, Westword, The 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.
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.
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 is composed 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 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 his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Western Colorado University.
Program Coordinator & Operations 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.
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.
Administrative Associate & Advisory Board Member
Jamiylah Nelson was born in Boston, MA and moved to Denver, CO when she was nine years old. Jamiylah was incarcerated for fourteen years in the state of Colorado while serving a life-without-parole sentence, which was overturned in 2020. While incarcerated, Jamilyah became a master dog trainer and also helped to facilitate the Mom and Kids Back-to-School and Christmas events. Jamilyah also served as a DU Prison Arts Initiative (DU PAI) group leader. Jamilyah performed as a leading role in DU PAI's production of A Christmas Carol which had performances at Denver Women's Correctional Facility and went on a historical tour to the Newman Center for the Performing Arts at DU in December 2019. Jamilyah now acts as an Advisory Board member to DU PAI and is also on staff as an administrative associate. Jamiylah is passionate about serving and advocating for her community, specifically the incarcerated community, and is grateful to share her story as much as possible.
Xavier Bird is currently enrolled in the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver. He earned his BA in Psychology at Ohio University, where he found his passion for living a life in service to others. Xavier believes that pursuing a PsyD is the next stepping-stone on a lifelong journey to bring assistance to underserved and underrepresented communities. His hope is to help DU PAI in the same capacity and to perhaps learn more about how he can best assist others.
Creative Producer & Affiliate Faculty
Ryan Conarro is an interdisciplinary artist and producer who creates and facilitates multi-platform story-sharing experiences, from live theatrical events, to audio installations and podcasts, to community story websites. He cultivates non-hierarchical processes in a range of rural and urban communities, with particular focus on working to amplify voices and stories that have been silenced by racial and cultural hegemony. His practice includes documentary performance, creative placemaking and civic engagement, devising original work, and Queer performance. Ryan served most recently as creative producer and community projects associate at Ping Chong + Company in New York. His recent original performance works include "Bad Husband//\\Bad Homo" (2020) and "Saints of Failure" (2019), 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; 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 and an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts at Goddard College. For more, please visit Ryan’s website.
Program Assistant & Advisory Board Member
Emmitt Compito was born in Buffalo, NY and moved to Colorado in 1998 when he entered the US Army for three years. In 2003, Emmitt was sentenced to 84 years; he served 17 in the Colorado Department of Corrections before his sentence was reduced. While incarcerated, Emmitt became a Mental Health Peer Assistant and was actively involved in many programs. Emmitt also served as a DU PAI group leader. Emmitt now acts as an Advisory Board member to DU PAI, and he’s also an associate with Peace in the Hood and Skidrow Brigade — organizations started in California by his father, Manuel Compito. Emmitt is very grateful to share his story and give back to his community.
JoyBelle Phelan is a Colorado native who grew up in Arvada. She was incarcerated twice, for a total of seven years behind the walls, and has also been in community corrections. While inside, she completed Cosmetology, Defy Colorado, the Art of Being Human, the Inside-Out Prison Exchange, Beyond Thinking and served 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. She was the first woman at La Vista to be published in The Inside Report and has an essay published in the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition’s Go Guide. She is the first fellow named at the Prison Journalism Project.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
With(in) Podcast Producer
Caroline Sheahan received her Master's in Social Work, with a concentration in Mental Health, from University of Denver's Graduate School of Social Work in June 2020. She holds a B.A. in Cinema Studies from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. After nearly a decade in the hospitality and event production industry in New York City, Caroline decided to pursue a career in social work, focusing on trauma, substance use and mental health treatment with forensic populations. She is currently a Jail-based Behavioral Health Therapist with Behavioral Treatment Services in Jefferson County, Colorado. Previously, Caroline has worked with harm-reduction organizations, prison-based employment programs and treatment programs in community corrections. Caroline joined DU PAI in June 2019 as the producer of the collaborative podcast, With(in), and is passionate about the initiative's innovative approach to healing, connection and community.
Performance and Pedagogy Consultant
Clare Hammoor, PhD 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 is fascinated by object-oriented ontologies, playing with things and interdisciplinary collaboration. 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. While in New York, Clare taught at Blue School and worked with Brooklyn Acting Lab as its Director of Education. 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 in prisons for the past ten 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 earned a doctorate from NYU where his research focused on the agencies of children and things in play. If you’re looking for a particularly niche conversation starter, his dissertation is titled Theatre of Children: Absurd Agencies in/of the Anthropocene. He also holds a MA in Educational Theatre from NYU, a BA in Theatre and Religious Studies from Indiana University, is an ordained interfaith minister through The New Seminary, and a certified advanced Integrated Energy Therapy practitioner. Clare is currently studying at Iliff School of Theology where he is working toward his Masters of Divinity.
Advisory Board Member
Libby Catchings is a teaching assistant professor in the University Writing Program, a community writing facilitator at the St. Francis Center for the homeless, and DU PAI affiliate writing faculty in Colorado corrections facilities. Working at the intersection of rhetoric, critical prison studies and theories of the public sphere, her research examines the truth-telling practices and hip-hop poetics of juvenile detainees, somatic metaphor in prison-based literacy scholarship, and the procedural rhetorics of student craft/DIY practices. She has previously worked as a prison literacy coordinator for the Fresno Center for Nonviolence, a co-editor for California Prison Focus, and a program evaluator/writing facilitator for The Beat Within (a workshop-to-publication program in juvenile detention facilities). Having studied theories of slavery and incarceration with Angela Y. Davis, Libby received her PhD at the University of California, Irvine, and has served as a writing consultant at the California Institute of Technology.
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, MD.
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.
DU PAI draws on expertise from the DU campus and beyond to teach workshops, produce theatrical performances and operate other prison arts programs.
- Libby Catchings
- Dee Covington
- Joan Dieter
- Tara Falk
- Clare Hammoor
- Laura Kruegel
- Karen Lausa
- Jamie Law
- Roddy MacInnes
- Sarah McKenzie
- Elijah Null
- Anne Penner
- Joanna Rotkin
- Tara Rynders
- Suzi Q. Smith
- Rachael Zafer