Service learning and civic engagement may be particularly hot motifs in higher ed these days, but the idea that students can learn a great deal through humanitarian works in their community is hardly new. To Buzz Alexander, who is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan, such a notion might seem not only long-familiar, but even anemic, underdeveloped.
It's been two decades since Alexander founded the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) , a University of Michigan-based organization of students, faculty, and community members who hold creative and performing arts workshops at Michigan prisons, juvenile facilities, and high schools. Now, in his forthcoming book Is William Martinez Not Our Brother?: Twenty Years of the Prison Creative Arts Project  (University of Michigan Press), Alexander details the project's history and growth, along with accounts of some of PCAP's notable successes and failures, and portraits of some of those who've participated over the years, whether as students, organizers, or prisoners. The book also describes some of the societal, cultural, and legal issues that motivate PCAP's work, specifically "the mass incarceration of American citizens and its devastating effect on countless neighborhoods, families, and millions of American- and foreign-born children."
Inside Higher Ed interviewed Alexander via e-mail.
Q: What is meant by the book's title, Is William Martinez Not Our Brother?
A: In April 1989, William Martinez was shot and killed by a corrections officer after walking away from a fight he had won in yard 4A-4L in the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) at California State Prison at Corcoran. In the book I tell what little I know about Martinez and refer the reader to a film that breaks down the shooting step by step. The title is meant to raise an age-old question. In Balzac’s Pere Goriot, Rastignac reminds Bianchon that Rousseau had asked his reader what the reader would do if he could become rich simply by willing the death of an old mandarin in China without leaving Paris. Rastignac pushes Bianchon on the question until Bianchon declares he would not kill the mandarin.
Perhaps like Bianchon we would not assent to the mandarin’s death were we confronted directly with the choice, no matter what the temptation. Who knows? But have we assented to the fate of William Martinez, a boy who grew up in Oakland, California, joined a gang, and very possibly committed an act of violence that brought him to a high-security unit? That is, have we assented because we have not thought of him as our child or brother? I mean this to be a difficult question. A thread in Is William Martinez Not Our Brother? is my own ambiguous relation to an incarcerated then formerly incarcerated man who called me his best friend and who I loved. I was unable always to be either his friend or his brother.
Q: How did PCAP get started?
A: It began by accident. I was teaching a course in which students and I performed guerrilla theater linked to social justice causes the students had identified. In 1990, Liz, a student who had enrolled in the course, told me that Mary and Joyce, two lifers to whom she had been bringing materials for the University of Michigan courses they were taking, wished to take the course. My personal political history led me to say yes immediately, though at the time I knew next to nothing about mass incarceration in this country. Liz, another student, and I made the three-hour round trip to the prison once a week, doing exercises and improvisations with Mary and Joyce and getting an education on life in prison. A specific exercise that I had once brought to a film project in a Peruvian shanty town gave Mary and Joyce a chance to ask us hard questions. At the end of the session they proposed that we open the workshop to the entire prison. The warden granted permission. We performed “The Show,” a collection of original monologues, dialogues, and scenes, in April 1991 and not long after named ourselves the Sisters Within Theater Troupe. In September 2010 we will perform our 29th play, in our third women’s prison (incarcerated women have been moved three times in the 20 years of our involvement).
Mary was only in our first two plays, but she and I remained friends and allies. She was nationally known as lead litigant in Glover v. Johnson, a lawsuit that had won equal educational and other rights for Michigan woman prisoners. I was among the many ministers, counselors, teachers, and others who testified for her at her public parole hearing a few years later. She was denied parole. Finally, after 26 years of incarceration, she was released and went home to care for her dying mother and to watch and support her father as he slid into Alzheimer’s disease. She is now our coordinator of the Portfolio and Linkage Projects, which I describe in Is William Martinez Not Our Brother? She serves on the steering committee of the Washtenaw County branch of the Michigan Prisoner Re-entry Initiative, is a tireless advocate for returning citizens, and is a bold and courageous speaker in the Prison Creative Arts Project Speakers Bureau.
Q: What does PCAP look like in its current form? What goals do you have in mind for its future?
A: We have a membership of 30-50 students and community members who facilitate workshops in Detroit high schools, juvenile facilities, and prisons. Most members have come from courses that Janie Paul of the School of Art and Design and I in the department of English teach. We have an elected executive committee with ex-officio members who don’t vote; three paid coordinators; a speakers bureau; an Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners; an annual Exhibition of Art by Incarcerated Youth; a linkage project that connects formerly incarcerated youth and adults with mentors in their communities; a Linkage Exhibition once every two years; and a portfolio project where mainly incarcerated youth and some adults create portfolios of their art or writing. Much of our staff time is taken up answering inquiries from everywhere in the states and from abroad. We are funded by the University of Michigan, by our patrons, by small and large grants, and by contributions from Inmate Benefit funds. Those who have left Ann Arbor or who have stayed in Michigan but have finished their work with PCAP become PCAP Associates. They receive a biannual newsletter, they have gathered twice nationally, and they gather in their local cities. Some of them are arranging a book tour for me.
The future? We need to be a permanent institution within the University of Michigan, and we are working with supportive university officials to make that happen. We need to find my successor. We are working with others across the country to build a strong coalition of prison arts activists. We have talked sometimes of having a center for prison arts at the university. Thanks to a two-year grant from the Kresge Foundation, we are adding a coordinator who will travel the state and work with colleges and universities, community groups, and prisons and youth facilities to establish fledgling workshops in prisons and youth facilities beyond our driving range. We wish to expand our connections and activities while being very aware of our limited energies and very clear about our local focus and the necessity of maintaining our particular practice and strong values.
Q: What are some of the issues that PCAP addresses? Why is it important to involve students in this work?
A: Incarcerated individuals are punitively stereotyped by Americans who do not know them. Prisoners often tell us that they know that everyone out there hates them. Of course because of the United States policy of mass incarceration, people from certain communities know the incarcerated very well. Those who do not know them picture them as alone, isolated in cells or in violent prison yards, see them as scruffy, violent, and depressed, as people who have no love for their families, who have no talent or creativity, and who are all murderers, rapists, and child molesters. It is a deliberately created stereotype, necessary to justify mass incarceration.
Few people among the 4,000 who walk into our Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, now in its 16th year, can see the 422 powerful and beautiful pieces of art on the walls and in the bins and maintain that stereotype. PCAP members facilitating workshops speak with roommates, friends, and family and invite them to performances. The stereotypes are broken and prisoners are revealed to be the complicated people they are, and prisons complicated places.
It is important to involve students for several reasons. It would have been important to involve students during the years of slavery. We live in a country with 25 percent of the world’s prisoners and with the longest sentences in the world. We are the only country that gives its youth life sentences without the possibility of parole. The statistics on the incarceration of minority groups are staggering. Students who facilitate workshops in the arts in prisons and youth facilities and in the Detroit high schools where we work cross social, economic, and cultural divides, as do those youth and adults who join them in the workshops. We work responsibly. The institutions need to know that we understand security issues and will conform to their rules and regulations. And the academic component – reading, analysis, discussion – is essential, as is discussion that respects, values, opens, and contests every point of view.
Q: You write that "the work of PCAP, underneath," is "a little edgier, a little more angry and combative than other forms of public scholarship." How and why is this the case?
A: I celebrate the public scholarship movement in my introductory chapter and pay tribute to those who initiated the movement and made it possible for us and so many others to find support in our academic institutions. Taking advantage of the “volunteer” movement intended by Presidents Reagan and Bush Senior to replace the gutting of federally funded social programs, the initiators of the movement have created opportunities for several generations of students to go where they wouldn’t have gone in the past. At their best, they have trusted those students to reflect powerfully and analytically about what they find and have trusted them to challenge themselves and each other. What the student does with such learning is up to each student. Students who take their placements seriously emerge with a deeper understanding of the complexities of our society, and they take that understanding into the polling booth and beyond.
I call PCAP a little edgier, more angry, and combative because we are looking at a national policy of mass incarceration for the purpose of social and economic control. Particular groups of human beings – sometimes referred to as a “caste” or as “the mass incarceration generation” – are dumped into incarcerating institutions and emerge so many years later that it is nearly impossible for them to function economically in their communities or as caregivers in their families. In my opinion this is a great evil. Not everyone in PCAP is edgy, angry, and combative (nor are those who are either simplistic or thoughtless in their analysis or behavior). Everyone in PCAP brings energy and joy into their workshops, and the work is beautiful. It is all we ask of each other. I know very well that other public scholarship experiences, in related communities, bring out the same edginess, anger, and combativeness.
Q: How has PCAP affected the lives of the students who've participated?
A: After their first experiences in the classes, students who become PCAP members continue to facilitate workshops in the high schools, youth facilities, and prisons, without academic credit. They join the speakers bureau, work on the art exhibitions, take on leadership, and bring new ideas and projects to the organization, all the while deepening their knowledge and commitment. After they graduate or leave the community, they become PCAP Associates (there are now 190 of them). Almost to a person they are doing one form or another of social justice work somewhere in this country or abroad. My final chapter is about them, about the qualities and values they have in common because of their roots in the prisons, youth facilities, and high schools and in our particular values and practice. The experience in the courses and in PCAP is often transformative: values deepen or change, career plans alter, new connections are made.
Q: Would you like to see similar programs begun in other parts of the country? What resources can you recommend for those who might like to start such programs at their institutions?
A: I would love to see similar university- and college-based programs develop around the country and hope that Is William Martinez Not Our Brother? will serve as a resource and model. This is not to say that there are not related programs everywhere, though not on the scale of PCAP working out of a university. If you look at prisons, juvenile facilities, and urban high schools, you will find special activities directors, wardens and deputy wardens, counselors, program directors, community members and high school and incarcerated youth and adults venturing, establishing, and funding programs. The arts spring up everywhere, including in the darkest and hardest of places.
For resources, as a starting point I am going to quote from pages 194-195 in Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson’s great new book, By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives (New Village Press, 2010):
“The single best resource for anyone wanting to teach art in prison is Creativity Held Captive: Guidelines for Working With Artists in Prison, Patricia McConnel, Logoria Books, 2005. Other helpful guides are PEN American Center's Handbook for Writers in Prison and Words Over Walls: Starting a Writing Workshop in a Prison, Hettie Jones and Janine Pommy Vega; and Teaching the Arts Behind Bars, Rachel Marie-Crane Williams, Northeastern University Press, 2003. Judith's Manual for Artists Working in Prison can be downloaded from her website .
"PEN American Center 's PEN American Center's Prison Writing Program offers an annual contest for prisoner writers.... The Prison Arts Coalition blog ... allows conversation and shared information among people sharing art in and around correctional settings.
“For an extensive list of prison arts programs nationally... Creating Behind the Razor Wire: Perspectives from Arts in Corrections in the United States, Krista Brune, lulu.com, 2008.”