Bridging Learning and Doing:DU Prison Arts Initiative Family Reunification Events

By Ashley Hamilton, Assistant Professor of Theatre and Founder and Co-Director of the University of Denver Prison Art’s Initiative

A mini-grant from the Center for Community Engagement to advance Scholarship and Learning (CCESL) that was awarded to the DU Prison Arts Initiative (DU PAI) has supported growth and expansion of some of our most important work yet – our family reunification events. These events are a collaboration with the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) and the family members of our incarcerated students. During these events, the family members of our students come to the prison facility and get to experience family visiting in a whole new way.

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In traditional prison visiting, family members sit across the table from their incarcerated loved-one with little to no physical contact, a practice that has been in place for decades. But, in our family reunification events, we have completely re-imagined visiting. Family members arrive at the facility and come into a visiting room or gym that has beautiful music playing, arts and crafts set up around the room, tables and chairs set in a circle, and lunch provided. And, for the next handful of hours, DU PAI (faculty and students) facilitate arts-based activities for our incarcerated students, their spouses, parents and children. These activities have ranged from acting out children’s books like Where the Wild Things Are and Olivia, to painting half of a dream landscape on two canvases to make a whole, to creating family and community gardens on large tarps together. The feedback we have gotten from both our incarcerated students and their family members on our new program has been incredibly positive.

Our family reunification events have been an incredible success, often with 100 to 200 people in the room at a time, the energy in the room is high and the laughter is full. Families are connecting in new, special ways and using art as a vehicle for the experience. And, we’ve been able to include over a dozen members of the DU community in these events, including faculty, staff, and students.

IMG_1556.jpegIn the past six months, we’ve already collaborated on twelve different family reunification events and have plans in the coming year for over a dozen more, including expanding to other prison facilities in the state. We have CCESL to thank for our incredible success. Because of the mini-grant that we received from CCESL we have been able to offer a completely new and exciting program to our incarcerated students and their family members, and have made this program a new staple for the CDOC, hopefully for decades to come.

**Read more about the family unification events here.

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