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Changing Colorado's Prison Culture through Art

Updated: Apr 27, 2023

Moe Clark’s article highlights the “Chained Voices” exhibit at the University of Denver which showcases art solely created by individuals incarcerated in Colorado prisons. The exhibit is part of a broader collaboration between DU and the Colorado Department of Corrections. The aim is to change the prison culture and to empower incarcerated people to find a purpose. Dean Williams, the director of the Department of Corrections, also highlighted that the showcase represents “normalization” with the intent of rehabilitation.

“DU opened up avenues that were so cut off for people, and they opened up the avenues to show that we can do it, we can do it if we want to. If we work for it and we do things and apply ourselves, we can make something of ourselves.” - said Jerry Martinez, one of the artists who spent 25 years in Colorado’s state prison.

Changing perception through art

It is clear that prisons have a long way to go, but efforts like the DU Prison Arts Initiative helps with reminding the incarcerated people who they really are and finding opportunities instead of hopelessness. Through art, the workshops provided by DU focus on restorative and transformative justice. Art helps to convince staff and incarcerated people that there is a brighter future ahead.

“I really view it as my job to create spaces where work is being made, whether that’s theater storytelling, fine arts, radio/audio work, whatever it is, that reminds us of who’s really inside,” said Ashley Hamilton, co-founder and executive director of the DU Prison Arts Initiative.

Reentering society with hope

Hassan A. Latif is the founder and executive director of the non-profit Second Chance Center in Aurora. One of the focuses of the organization is to raise awareness of the issues incarcerated people face when they reenter society. He believes that programs like the DU Prison Art Initiative will give hope back to formerly incarcerated people and help to dispel misconceptions of the general public.

John Sherman, who has won numerous art awards and mentored many of the artists whose work was on display at the showcase, reminds us how the punitive nature of prison culture has an indescribable impact on a person’s mentality. He also believes that such programs can have a positive effect on mental health, especially knowing that someone cares about what they have to offer through art. It helps them feel seen, which gives a sense of purpose.

Read Moe Clark’s full article here:

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