Art and Incarceration Series from

We are excited to announce that several of the organizations connected to the Prison Arts Coalition including Judy Dworin Performance Project, Inc., Shakespeare Behind Bars, Stephen Hartnett of The Prison Communication, Activism, Research, and Education Collective have been reviewed by Wendy Jason on We are grateful to Wendy for helping to get the word out about our important work and for her other articles on important criminal justice reform issues.

Some Day I Won’t Be Alone: Building Bridges with Children of Incarcerated Parents

This article was originally posted on November 29, 2010.

There are over two million people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails. Most people never think about these men and women. Some of us do, often considering their plights and advocating for a more humane and equitable criminal justice system. But even the most impassioned activists often forget the other lives involved in prisoners’ stories — that the effects of incarceration reach far beyond the razor wire. In fact, some of those most impacted are the children who wait for the return of their imprisoned parent. According to a study by The Sentencing Project, in 2007 more than 1.7 million children in the U.S. had a parent in prison or jail.

Judy Dworin and a team of teaching artists at the Hartford, CT-based Judy Dworin Performance Project, Inc. (JDPP) are utilizing the arts to provide members of this oft-ignored group with a forum for self-expression, trust-building and restored family connection. While providing collaborative arts residencies for women incarcerated at York Correctional Institution (YCI), Dworin began to understand how traumatic the forced separation of parent and child is for all involved.

Wanting to create a space for incarcerated parents and their children to explore their feelings and nurture their relationships, JDPP collaborated with Families in Crisis (FIC) and the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at Central CT State University (IMRP) to lead a pilot project consisting of a series of eight simultaneous workshops in which mothers at YCI and their children in Hartford communicated through dance, song, poetry and visual arts.

At the end of the series, the children and their caregivers were brought to the prison to share in a memorable day of collaborative arts engagement with their mothers. After the final session, the children expressed a strong desire to continue the process and to involve more children in it. They wanted others to experience the sense of belonging and acceptance that came with their participation in the JDPP collaborative, as they were all too familiar with the silence and loneliness that often sets in when one’s parent disappears behind bars.

The children that JDPP engages are part of a hidden population that Dworin believes has been “overlooked and under-represented.” The criminal justice system pays little mind to the familial needs of those it incarcerates, and the fear of stigma prevents both parents and children from telling their stories. A National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated fact sheet shows that as a result, children often internalize the feelings of guilt, shame, fear, anger and sadness that result from a parent being locked up, and in turn can experience anxiety, depression, isolation and attention problems. Many have difficulty controlling aggressive, self-destructive and disruptive behaviors that are deeply rooted in their pain.

There is a very strong chance that these children will follow their parent’s footsteps right into the criminal justice system. However, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has found that interventions that strengthen family ties can have a positive impact on incarcerated parents and their children. When parents return home with strengthened relationships the chance of recidivism declines, and children who have the support they need in order to cope with their parent’s incarceration are more likely to succeed in school and undergo healthy child and adolescent development.

Understanding the unique needs of incarcerated parents and their children, and having experienced the power that involvement in arts-based initiatives has in fulfilling these needs, JDPP and its partners sought funding for a three-year program that would allow them to continue the work that began with the pilot project. Last year, they were awarded a grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, providing a partial base of support from which they developed a comprehensive program involving after-school workshops for youth ages 7 – 19, and in-school workshops for elementary and high school students. After these 8-week sessions, seven of the younger children and four high school assistants took part in an intensive one-week camp in which a performance piece was created and performed for caregivers and friends. Additionally, a group of incarcerated mothers came together with their children for a special arts-based weekend retreat.

Dworin has found that “there is an enormous silence that exists” among those directly impacted by incarceration, and “an enormous need for this silence to be opened up.” The arts, she believes, “is a special vehicle for them to find trust and tell their stories.” By engaging children with incarcerated parents, JDPP and its partner organizations have begun to address some of their most pressing needs.

Please support their efforts by sharing this story and visiting the JDPP website to see how you can get involved. And sign the attached petition to encourage your legislators to acknowledge the needs and rights of children with incarcerated parents. By maintaining a criminal justice system that disregards fragile family ties, our society has enforced the kind of separation that has lasting negative impacts. “What responsibility,” Dworin asks, “do we then have to restore connection?”

A Chance for Prisoners to Act Like Human Beings

This article was originally posted on December 6th, 2010.

Now in its 16th season, Shakespeare Behind Bars (SBB) has produced 16 plays within the confines of Kentucky’s Luther Luckett Correctional Complex. William Shakespeare, says SBB Founder and Producing Director Curt Tofteland, was “all about this journey of what it means to be human.”

Shakespeare never shied away from expressing every dimension of human emotion through his stories. Though there isn’t much space or tolerance for the expression of feelings other than anger in prison, SBB actors get the rare opportunity to fully embody raw emotion by taking on the roles of Shakespeare’s characters. Quickly the line between acting and reality begins to blur.

Tofteland sees the work of SBB as being “fundamentally about transformation and change of the human heart, soul and psyche.” Like all of us, incarcerated folks have stories to tell – ones of happiness, suffering and survival. For most of those behind bars, these stories remain locked away, suffocated by silence. “The moment an individual enters the correctional system they begin the journey as the voiceless other,” laments Tofteland.

But through their participation in SBB, prisoners begin to find their voices. SBB was founded on values that affirm the humanity and inherent goodness of those who engage in the program. When a prisoner joins SBB, they enter a realm in which it is safe to be completely honest, sincere and vulnerable. They are challenged to look deeply within themselves to take responsibility for who they have been, who they are and who they wish to become. It is because SBB acknowledges that those who are incarcerated have the power to recreate themselves that Tofteland sees, time and time again, participants “enter the cocoon of SBB and come out as butterflies.”

SBB actors spend nearly 500 hours in workshops and rehearsals during the nine months it takes to produce a play. They do not receive any “good time” (time taken off a sentence as a reward for engagement in educational, therapeutic, or other programs), and nobody is mandated to take part. When participants opt in, they do so with full knowledge that they are making a huge time commitment, and are going to be expected to maintain SBB’s values. They also know that they are entering a space in which their humanity will be acknowledged and they will be treated with respect and care.

It is in such a space that true transformation can occur, and Tofteland has the experience and the data to back it up. Indeed, while the recidivism rate across the county is a dismal 65 percent, the rate among SBB participants is 6 percent. In fact, in 16 years, just three men who have gone through his program and have later been released were locked up again. “You cannot take someone who has done an inhuman act and put [him or her] in an inhumane environment,” says Tofteland. “You have to put them in an environment that exudes everything you want them to be.”

Check out the trailer for Shakespeare Behind Bars — and ask educators in your area to consider adding it to their curriculum:

Writing for Redemption

This article was originally posted on December 9th, 2010.

In his 20 years of work within prisons, Stephen Hartnett has learned that if we really want to know how to deal with crime, we need to start listening to prisoners. When we do, he says, “we find that they have stories to tell, and from these stories we can learn all we need to know about fighting crime and poverty.”

Hartnett, who is Chair of the University of Colorado Denver Communications Department and founding member of the Prison Communication, Arts, Research, and Education network (P-CARE), provides those behind bars with opportunities to tell their stories by facilitating writing workshops. He calls his work “community empowerment through the arts,” because by sharing their stories, incarcerated people can “engage with their communities like never before.”

For the last three years, Hartnett has been bringing students from his UC Denver Communications classes into the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility (DWCF), where they provide tutoring support to incarcerated learners. For the students, just as for the prisoners, this experience is always life changing.

According to Hartnett, virtually all of the women his team works with at DWCF have something in common – they “never had a shot at the American Dream.” They come from broken homes and have survived some form of abuse. Though they have a variety of backgrounds — African American, Chicano, Latino, American Indian and White — they all come from poverty, and all have experienced what it feels like to exist in the margins of American society. But Hartnett and his team are committed to empowering students to explore their own voices, and in doing so creating bridges between these women and the communities to which they will some day return.

Hartnett and his students offer prisoners three classes, each running for eight weeks. Along with two levels of composition classes, there is a public speaking class in which learners get to write speeches and practice useful skills such as creating resumes, as well as composing cover letters, memos and emails. All too often, Hartnett notes, the vocational training offered within prisons provides few truly marketable skills that enable those returning to the free world to find lasting, meaningful work. However, when those in prison are supported to develop their own voices, and acquire the ability to connect with others via the written and spoken word, they have a much greater chance of finding success when they return home.

At the end of each eight week session, Hartnett weaves the student’s writing and art, as well as submissions from other prison writing programs, into a Zine entitled “Captured Words/Free Thoughts.” There’s also a celebration in the prison, during which students can read what they have written in front of an audience of fellow prisoners and invited guests. Every couple of years Hartnett organizes a community event as well, where the incarcerated writers’ work is read aloud.

“It is both challenging and rewarding,” says Hartnett. All of the incarcerated learners he’s worked with are “super hard working, and super motivated,” and the classroom has “unbelievable energy — students understand that knowledge is power, and they want some of it.”  These are students who know in their hearts that they have hurt people, and they’re looking for redemption. “Here’s a generation of Americans we’re told are monsters. But with just a little love and guidance, they begin to blossom. It is an honor to share a classroom with those who want to reclaim their lives through education.”

There are resources that can help us to offer a little more guidance, and to nurture the energy that so many of our nation’s prisoners have to change their lives, their communities and our society. One easy step in that direction is to reinstate access to Pell Grants for prisoners, which would be a small step in the right direction — one toward empowering those most directly affected by the cracks in our society to be involved in their repair, and our restoration.

2 thoughts on “Art and Incarceration Series from

  1. Pingback: Reasources for caregivers to children with incarcrated parents | GoomBaz

  2. So glad to be able to help spread the word, and grateful to you for re-posting! I am welcoming of any feedback and would love to spotlight more organizations/projects, so please send your ideas my way!


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