Skip navigation

Prison Plays Go on the Road, Teach Prisoners Life Skills

The Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) teamed up with the University of Denver’s Prison Arts Initiative and took some prison plays on the road last December. It’s the first time a prison play has gone on tour.

About 40 prisoners from the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility traveled to the Newman Center for the Performing Arts at the college’s campus to put on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for three sold-out shows.

“I think in our society, we tend to have a very specific stereotype of who is in prison,” Ashley Hamilton, founder of the college’s program, said. “My experience these last 10 years have really shown me that the majority of people who are inside are really ready to make a major change ... and I think that the arts are one way they can do that.”

In another prisoner production under Hamilton’s direction, 30 prisoners from Sterling Correctional Facility, a higher security men’s prison, took the classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on tour to another prison. The play is about a psychiatric ward run by strict staff and is not unlike real prison, Hamilton noted. She was surprised the DOC allowed the prisoners to put on a play about how abusive the prison system is.

“We’re learning how to talk to each other, relate to each other in a way that is not prison-y, I guess you could say,” Brett Phillips, who is serving a 38-year sentence for murder, said.

Dean William, the executive director of the DOC, said bringing the arts into prison was part of a strategy to make life inside as much like real life outside as possible. “There’s a few of us leading these systems who realize that something’s wrong,” he said. “We’ve made prison a place of starkness, idleness, a place without purpose. Then we’re confused where people get out and they don’t make it. I think that’s on us.”

In California, a podcast called “Ear Hustle,” about life in San Quentin State Prison and created by prisoners, gets 30 million downloads. The state spends $8 million a year on creative arts projects in all of its prisons.

“People are looking for new ways to engage the system and to transform it from the inside out,” Wendy Jason, managing director for the Justice Arts Coalition, said about these programs.

“There is something that happens for people when they have to work on a large project and make it come to life,” Hamilton said. “We see major changes not only within the group in their ability to work through conflict ... but we also see shifts start to begin within the whole prison culture.”