Prisoners perform along a stairway in the prison

DU Prison Arts Initiative Lets Unheard Voices Be Heard

Prisoners perform along a stairway in the prison

Photo courtesy of the Prison Arts Initiative

According to a 2018 study by the Virginia Department of Corrections, odds are 50/50 that a formerly incarcerated individual in Colorado will return to prison within three years. With an estimated 2 million people living in prison across America, it is in every community’s best interest to reduce the rate of recidivism by preparing inmates for life beyond bars.

Enter the University of Denver’s Prison Arts Initiative (DU PAI), a program founded in 2017 by Apryl Alexander, PsyD; Ashley Hamilton, PhD, and Rachael Zafer, MPA to improve the quality of inmates’ lives and prepare them to make a positive impact on their community upon release.

Dr. Ashley Hamilton works with a class of prisoners during the Prison Arts Initative

Dr. Ashley Hamilton. Photo courtesy of the Prison Arts Initiative

In a 2019 DCPA NewsCenter interview by then-Senior Arts Journalist John Moore, Dr. Hamilton said: “I believe the arts can create a space for incarcerated people to reflect on who they are and where they want to go. I have watched theatre offer a space for these men to become more self-actualized, sharpen their communication skills, become better at conflict resolution and more sociable. Theatre gives them a stronger sense of empathy and a stronger sense of hope. Those are great skills for anyone to have, but they are especially useful for people coming home from prison.”

In fact, participants in the program have reported that the Prison Arts Initiative makes them feel more connected to fellow participants and the DU PAI community, better able to work through conflicts and differences of opinion, and more likely to affect people in positive ways.

Using a multi-disciplinary arts approach, inmates are empowered to tell their stories, express their creativity and build community. Example of programs include:

Sterling Prison Theatre. Photo courtesy DU Prison Arts Initiative

Photo courtesy of the Prison Arts Initiative

The theatre component was launched in 2019 with a performance of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the Sterling Correctional Facility, which was chronicled in the DCPA NewsCenter. Since then, the program produced A Christmas Carol in 2019 at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility and toured to the University of Denver’s Byron Theatre where more than 1,200 people attended the public performances. Additionally, a staged reading of Our Town was produced in 2021 at DU’s Newman Center for the Performing Arts and broadcast via zoom.

Beginning in 2020 and continuing over the course of two and a half years, more than 50 inmates began creating If Light Closed Its Eyes. This documentary-style play wove interviews of incarcerated individuals with those of victims, elected officials, relatives, lawyers and more.

“We tried to set out and understand the 360-degree view of the criminal justice system,” Hamilton said to the University of Denver. Members of the project incorporated more than 100 interviews into a story that explores the criminal justice system and shared humanity.

“People’s stories never cease to amaze you. The resiliency of humans is incredible, and there’s such a deep desire to be seen. There’s so much misunderstanding because we don’t stop to see each other.”

And they were seen. The live performance debuted at the Sterling Correctional Facility in July 2022 for more than 1,200 guests at which time it also was filmed. Now, the movie will be shown on the big screen at the University of Colorado in Boulder on November 14, 2023 at 6pm.

To schedule a screening of If Light Closed Its Eyes, email For more information on the University of Denver’s Prison Arts Initiative, visit