Back to all news stories

Free expressions

By Dana Budzaj

With the assistance of the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project, inmates at the state’s corrections facilities are defying the odds. Founded in 1990 by William “Buzz” Alexander, PCAP works closely with incarcerated adults and youth, along with formerly incarcerated to strengthen a sense of hope, possibility and community through creative expression.

Alexander (photo left) is a U-M professor of English. His recent book, “Is William Martinez Not Our Brother?: Twenty Years of the Prison Creative Arts Project” is published by University of Michigan Press.

“Is William Martinez Not Our Brother?” offers a personal account of Alexander’s commitment to confronting the “human cost” of the continually rising numbers of prisoners in the U.S., which ranks as the nation with the largest incarcerated population, based on U.S. Justice statistics and independent agencies/organizations. The New York Times also reported the U.S. had the highest prison population; to read article, please go to WORLD PRISON POPULATION.

Beyond recounting PCAP’s significant events of the last two decades, the book is a testament of Alexander’s tireless effort to reach out to inmates on both a practical and emotional level.

Often viewed as a beacon of hope to those incarcerated, PCAP challenges — and encourages — participants to use creative expression as a positive means of self-expression, and a compelling way to communicate with the world beyond the prison walls. Through their artwork, Alexander tells how inmates move beyond the social and political barriers of their incarceration. The impact on those inside and outside prison walls, he claims, is that through the power of art the perception of inmates is broadened from the narrow view of incarcerated and criminal to “…fellow human beings with talents worthy of acknowledgement and appreciation.”

Over the years, PCAP has proven to given inmates an artistic outlet, and, at times, a vehicle to withstand the conditions of prison life. To date PCAP has facilitated hundreds of workshops in theater, creative writing, art, dance, music and video, each culminating in a final performance, reading or exhibit.

The Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, now in its 12th year, showcases the work of prison artists around the state. Other PCAP projects include: “Exhibition of Art by Incarcerated Youth,” “Portfolio Project,” and “Linkage Project.”

Alexander, who joined U-M in 1971, is U-M’s Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English Language and Literature. In 2005, he was named Carnegie National Professor of the Year.

For more information, please visit PCAP

ARTWORK CREDIT: Upper right– “Winter Destinations,” by James Eichelberg; and, top right — “Mother’s Love” by Daniel Valentine. Thumb artwork (Montage homepage): “Country Sunset,” by Brent Harding.

Dana Budzaj is a Montage arts writer.