Women inmates get time with families and ‘sense of normalcy’ in DU arts program

"A visitation like this ... you feel more of a human"

A prisoner at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility and her daughter spend time doing crafts together in the gym on a recent Saturday. (Photo by Annaleisa for the DU Prison Arts Initiative)
A woman incarcerated at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility spends time with her daughter at a crafts table in the gym. The University of Denver’s Prison Arts Initiative aims to reconnect inmates and their families through arts and education. (Photo by Annaleisa for the DU Prison Arts Initiative)

The Denver Women’s Correctional Facility stands between a train track and Sand Creek on the east side of the city. Rows of taut razor wire line the top and base of the chain-link fence that encloses the prison. Nearly 1,000 women are incarcerated here, and on a recent Saturday, several dozen, in dark green prison uniforms, gathered in the facility’s gymnasium and waited as music blared on speakers. Nearby tables were laden with art supplies. In the middle of the gym, a swath of butcher paper was taped to the floor.

The doors leading out into the courtyard suddenly swung open and women, men and children, the inmates’ mothers, fathers, partners, siblings and children, came trickling in. A boy, maybe 5 years old, spotted his mom among the green uniforms and ran toward her. Smiles on both faces, she swept him into her arms and swung him in a circle. The gym suddenly filled with a joyful pandemonium of inmates and families reunited.

The next few hours were filled with visiting, arts and crafts, kids sitting in moms’ laps or running around the gym shouting and laughing. It was a stark contrast to a typical visit, which is usually much more structured, with contact and movement restricted.

That difference is exactly the point.

“A visitation like this, you feel more of a human, because you get to interact with not only your family, but other families as well,” said Elyse Brigman, a mother and inmate, as she colored with her young son and another family sitting nearby.

A prisoner embraces her mother at the start of the arts and education day at the Denver women's prison. (Photo by Annaleisa for the DU Prison Arts Initiative)
An inmate embraces her mother at the start of an arts and education day at the Denver women’s prison. (Photo by Annaleisa for the DU Prison Arts Initiative)

The Saturday visit was part of an ongoing collaboration between the University of Denver’s Prison Arts Initiative, the state Department of Corrections, and the women’s prison. The initiative seeks to offer inmates and their families a chance to connect and rebond through arts and education programming. The idea is to give inmates something most of them lose when they start their sentences — the opportunity to sit with their loved ones, eat a meal with them, hug each other, and even participate in group dances and arts and crafts.

“When it comes to the younger kids, being able to have a happy, normal experience with their mom while she’s in prison, rather than having that memory of, ‘I had to sit across the table from her and Mommy wasn’t allowed to get up,’ being able to have that normalcy makes it a lot easier for them,” said Sabrina Davis, one of five inmate group leaders. She helps facilitate such events, as well as mentor other inmates. Davis, who has served a year in this facility, is scheduled to be released in September.

This was the 10th such visitation event with many more to come, said Ashley Hamilton, director and co-founder of DU’s Prison Arts Initiative. Hamilton, who has spent nearly a decade bringing educational and arts-based programs to prisons in New York and Colorado, introduced the program to the Denver women’s prison two years ago.

“I deeply believe in the power of bringing educational and arts-based opportunities inside the facilities and what it can allow for in terms of creating possibility for folks to expand, feel more free, to imagine themselves in new ways and grow, as well as deepening their conflict resolution and personal communication skills,” she said, noting that much research points to the benefits of arts-based and educational programming in prisons.

Those benefits are practical as well as emotional, an in-custody planting of seeds to help inmates reintegrate into society upon release and so reduce recidivism rates. Last year, Colorado prisons’ nearly 50% recidivism rate was 10% higher than the national average, according to state statistics,

Multiple studies on benefits of art- and education-based programs in prisons have concluded that inmates with backgrounds in these programs “are statistically more likely to approach problems with greater creativity and intellectual flexibility compared with those without exposure to the arts,”  Hamilton said.

“We are aiming to not only support the reunification of families but also to prevent further crime. And, we believe the arts are the perfect vehicle to deliver that mission.”

Several inmates told The Colorado Independent that they need more such opportunities to better reintegrate both with their families and with society. Sarah Warner, 36, another inmate group leader who is serving an 8-year sentence, believes these visitation events can help reduce recidivism rates at prisons.

“The thing they are trying to build is reunification; they are trying to help offenders [close] that gap with families to have support,” said Warner. “They have a high recidivism rate here. I think they are trying to figure out ways to help these women who keep coming back, trying to help build that bond.”

Another inmate, Jamilyah Nelson, says she believes the recidivism rate is as high as it is because during incarceration, a person can lose all sense of normalcy. “There is really no rehabilitation. The facility does offer us classes to take, but as far as the way staff treats us, our individuality being taken, we can’t make individual decisions because we are all clumped into a group. I would just like to see more normalcy so that I can maybe see myself outside of these walls one day. Right now all I know is structure, and I lost what freedom looks like for myself.”

Nelson, 35, has been locked up for 11 years, but said she remains optimistic about the future for herself and the other inmates. She said she is drafting a proposal for a program to help bridge the gap between offenders and crime victims. “The majority of my community — I do see people with the will to change, and I’d like to see the world see that in us, so I would like to bridge the gap with community.” As she spoke, her mother, who visits her every weekend, sat next to her as they crafted a paper sunflower together.  

The University of Denver’s Prison Art’s Initiative program has been introduced in four facilities in Colorado, and Hamilton says its leaders hope to grow that number. Hamilton is now working with male inmates at Sterling Correctional Facility on a stage presentation  of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which she envisions traveling to other state prisons.

An inmate and her mom paint side by side. The day also includes a meal together. (Photo by Annaleisa for the DU Prison Arts Initiative)
An inmate and her mom paint side by side. The day also includes a meal together. (Photo by Annaleisa for the DU Prison Arts Initiative)

Stephen Hammoor, a DU Prison Arts Initiative facilitator who has been working in prisons across Colorado and New York for 10 years, says these programs are not possible without acceptance from prison staff. Hammoor said once the Denver Women’s Prison was approached with the idea, “They were like “Yes, let’s go.” Now they are slowly growing.” Neither the warden, Ryan Long, nor Colorado Department of Corrections Executive Director Dean Williams were available this week for comment.

As evening approached and the visitation came to a close, the women lined up on either side of the exit, arms raised to form an archway — the tunnel of love, they called it — and their families passed through and out the door as they all danced. Once the last visitor left the gym, staff lined the women up for a headcount, patted each down and led them back to their cells — inmates, but also mothers, sisters and daughters.