January 19, 2021

Continuing the Conversation...University of Denver: Prison Arts Initiative

Tai Bickham


Continuing the conversation... is a series of interviews with individuals and organizations in Colorado working on the issues discussed in each week’s free virtual programming for Citizenship: A Practice of Society.

This week, we interviewed Dan Manzanares, Development and Communications Manager with University of Denver’s Prison Art Initiative Program.

1. Can you share with us your name and your role with University of Denver Prison Art Initiative (DU PAI)?

My name is Dan Manzanares and I’m DU PAI’s Development and Communications manager.

2. Can you talk about what inspired the creation of this initiative and its mission?

DU PAI’s Executive Director, Dr. Ashley Hamilton, co-founded the initiative in 2017 with other professors at DU as well as community members who are dedicated to this work. Ashley’s passion and expertise is in prison arts programming and I believe she saw the need to create a community-centered arts-based program mostly led by residents within the Colorado Department of Corrections and acted on it.

3. How many correctional facilities have participants in DU PAI?

As of the closing of this fiscal year, ten facilities; however, we’ve already expanded to all twenty-two facilities in the CDOC through our special journal project called Sojourn: The Search. It is our goal that more robust and regular DU PAI programming will be available to all facilities—beyond Sojourn—in the next year or two.

4. Does the program run year round?

Yes! Especially now during COVID-19, we feel the need to be “in” facilities as much as possible. Although, right now, that mostly means via virtual chats, pre-recorded lessons, and correspondence.

5. You offer really great art-based workshops for incarcerated students, what are some of the workshops offered and who typically leads these workshops?

We have a strong faculty and staff who lead the workshops and have tons of prison arts teaching experience. Their skills range from theatre to creative writing, movement to visual arts, and much more. They are highly trained professionals who can navigate the prison system as well as create safe and inspired communities within the walls of the CDOC. Pre-COVID, we offered many theatre-based workshops culminating in productions that went on tour. We’re focusing now on 12-week workshops, among other offerings. Our current 12-weeker is called “Tell It Slant: Reading & Writing Creative Nonfiction,” which will culminate in an anthology showcasing the students’ work.

6. How do you see the importance of arts-based programming in correctional facilities and why Prison reform matters?

The process of art-making heals, begets self-confidence, and creates community. Once a community is established, it tends to humanize itself as well as those people on the outside looking in. It’s our goal to exist beyond reform where greater community transformation is possible. This means bringing empathy into the voting body—people who have the power to change the system.

7. How can the community become involved in contributing to DU PAI?

Lots of ways! You can follow us on Facebook and Instagram; sign-up for our newsletter; subscribe to our podcast With(in) and our newspaper The Inside Report; you can watch our most recent production on YouTube called A/Live Inside; purchase our arts journal Sojourn: The Search on Amazon; or simply donate to the program through our website.

8. Can you share any resources to learn more about prison based reform programs?

Absolutely. Here are a few! There are many more:

Prison Performing Arts

Prison Arts Collective

Shakespeare Behind Bars

San Quentin News

The Marshall Project

Ear Hustle

The Prison Journalism Project

PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program

Cedar Tree Incorporated

The Medea Project

The Actor’s Gang Prison Project