Buzz Alexander doesn’t teach his class in a classroom. Instead, the University of Michigan English professor takes his class inside a prison in the surrounding Ann Arbor area.
The Prison Creative Arts Project, created in 1990 by Alexander, offers incarcerated persons inside the Michigan prison system a chance to express themselves through the creative medium of art, writing, or theater workshops. Their expressions are not judged or censored, and it is considered a fundamental step in a prisoner’s healing process. Alexander’s students are asked to collaborate with the prisoners using the creative medium of theater. Two separate groups – students and prisoners – coproduce an original work over the course of one semester.
Entering a prison isn’t easy. Before the students are even allowed to step inside for their first day of class, they must provide the prison specific information such as their full name, gender, height and weight, to name a few. Once the students are cleared, the partnership can begin. The first days of the workshop begins with introductions. Short, improvised skits are bounced back and forth between the students and the prisoners, slowly creating a comfortable atmosphere for both groups. These skits, usually about the banalities of daily life in a prison, become the foundation for the creative themes and plays created by the students and prisoners. Gradually, their art is formed. The students and prisoners have the rest of the five months to work together. The weekly meetings as small steps toward a finished product, a testament of hard work and cooperation.
Alexander doesn’t want to limit workshop participation to just students. Volunteers are welcomed, even appreciated, as an integral part of the creative healing for prisoners. As the five-month semester progresses, the students and prisoners see the participation between each other grow, which creates a space of mutual inspiration and respect. Every semester, Alexander sees the production of a workshop galvanize personal growth and character development among the participants. Everything created is original, with no two workshops alike. Many of the prisoners conceive highly personal pieces that reflect how incarceration has changed them as a person during their term behind bars.
The project’s Coordinator of Exhibitions and Development, Phoenix Moore, says the work the volunteers and prisoners do is a compassionate labor — a labor that inspires them to continue volunteering year after year. Since the project’s inauguration in 1990, the recidivism rate in Michigan has lowered. Moore sees men and women she has worked with leave the prison system to pursue volunteer work in their own community. She says the program is even saving prisoner lives.
These affirmations keep Alexander and Moore motivated to continue their work. The day Alexander first visited a prison inspired him to act. Since then, the project has given the prisoners representation through their creativity and talent. The prisoners are no longer just a number, but a voice.