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Artwork and Performances from People Inside Colorado’s Prisons

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Laura Miller

Communications and Events Manager

Laura I. Miller photo

Feature  •
Travis Barnes performing "You Lost Yourself"

Travis Barnes, incarcerated at the Colorado Department of Corrections, performs "You Lost Yourself"

For those caught in the U.S. prison system, communication with the outside world can dwindle to nothing at an alarming speed. People who are incarcerated are denied internet access, and the cost of phone calls to loved ones can be prohibitive. In many cases, friends and family members are helpless to improve the living conditions of their loved ones and are left in the dark about the kind of mental and physical care they receive.

Since 2017, the DU Prison Arts Initiative (DU PAI) has been working with the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) to shed light on prison culture and to “enrich the lives of incarcerated people and shift the conversation about prison.” The DU PAI team, including Assistant Professor of Theater, Co-Founder and Executive Director Ashley Hamilton, brings arts programming to nearly a dozen facilities in Colorado. What began with theatre workshops has evolved into feature-length productions, a national podcast, a statewide newspaper and so much more.

On November 21, 2020, in an unprecedented live virtual performance, DU PAI and group leaders within CDOC broadcasted their work to thousands of people who tuned in from around the world. The three-hour event, A/LIVE INSIDE, weaved together theatrical performances with visual art and original song and dance from people who are incarcerated and was followed by a roundtable discussion with CDOC Executive Director Dean Williams, as well as four of DU PAI’s incarcerated group leaders.

For many of the people watching, this event provided a first glimpse of their loved ones' lives inside the prison system, as well as the positive impact they’re making on the lives around them. The performances, artwork, interviews and songs expressed the range and complexity of emotional responses to being incarcerated, from guilt and regret to anger and fear to hope and gratitude.

Perhaps the most common theme was the desire for redemption, which Michael J. Clifton, group leader at Sterling Correctional Facility, expressed as being dependent on the recognition of the humanity of others. Clifton is the assistant director of movement and dance for DU PAI’s theatrical interview project, “If Light Closed Its Eyes.”

“With this [interview] project, we have an amazing ensemble of 44 hopeful men, men in search of redemption through finding understanding in our shared humanity. That’s what we wanted to explore in this work, the relationship between our shared humanity and the criminal justice system,” Clifton says.

Ashley Hamilton has said in previous interviews that the participants’ capacity for growth and change keeps her and her team hard at work, driving thousands of miles to facilities across the state and pivoting to virtual workshops when COVID-19 prevented them from being inside. 

As CDOC Executive Director Dean Williams says in the A/LIVE INSIDE Q&A: “This program is so impactful because it gives responsibility to the men and women behind the walls to make their space livable, and through making their space livable, impacting others … and also impacting the criminal justice system overall.”


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