This story originally appeared in Colorado Newsline
As people shuffled in and out of a tiny art gallery at the University of Denver, Jerry Martinez stood off to the side, diligently working on an oil painting as the setting sun beat down on him.
“I’ve been doing art since I can remember,” 42-year-old Martinez said. “I remember picking up a pencil and finding paper when I was 3, 4 years old, and just drawing anything and everything I could find.”
Though he’s created art throughout his life, he never thought he would have the opportunity to share it with the world. After being convicted of a crime at age 17, he spent 25 years in state prison. He was recently released through a program for people who were convicted as juveniles.
On Aug. 20, he got an opportunity he never expected: to see his peers’ artwork on display during the “Chained Voices” showcase at the University of Denver. The showcase is part of a broader partnership between DU and the Colorado Department of Corrections to change prison culture and empower incarcerated people to find meaning, and purpose, through art.
For Martinez, art has always been a way for him to create something that could never be taken away.
“I thought I’d never get out. So I always thought to myself, well, if in 50, 60 years after I’m gone, somebody sees (my art), well, I’m still going. I’m still out there in the world somewhere, somehow,” said Martinez, who became a team leader for the DU Prison Arts Initiative program while he was incarcerated at the Four Mile Correctional Facility, a state prison located in Cañon City.
He said the program opened up doors for him. Since getting out of prison five months ago, it’s been hard for him to find time to create art while working and trying to get accustomed to his new life. But he’s working to save up money to buy more art supplies to continue to pursue his passion.
“DU opened up avenues that were so cut off for people, and they opened up the avenues to show that we can do it, we can do it if we want to,” Martinez said, who is also now a published playwright. “If we work for it and we do things and apply ourselves, we can make something of ourselves.”
“It’s so crazy to see a shift in the world where people are starting to say, ‘Hey, you’ve done something, we get that, but can you be better than that?’” he added. “‘Can you live a different life now?’ And it’s amazing that the opportunities are being given.”
Changing perceptions from the inside out
Dean Williams, director of the Department of Corrections, said the art showcase represents one aspect of what he calls “normalization.” Since assuming his role in 2019, Williams has been on a mission to make Colorado prisons less punitive and more rehabilitative.
“The reality is, we have such a long ways to go,” he said, as he sat in the middle of the art gallery. “Sometimes it seems like a formidable task to say that prisons can be different, that they can be more humane, safer for inmates, safer for staff, and be more purpose-driven.”
But he said efforts like DU Prison Arts Initiative are helping to push the status quo.
“I really view it as my job to create spaces where work is being made, whether that’s theater storytelling, fine arts, radio/audio work, whatever it is, that reminds us of who’s really inside,” said Ashley Hamilton, co-founder and executive director of the DU Prison Arts Initiative. “That folks inside are full humans, and are really complicated, just like us.”
Over the last few weeks, Hamilton, who is an assistant professor of theater at DU, has been teaching a workshop alongside six incarcerated men from Sterling Correctional Facility, a state prison in northeast Colorado. The workshops focus on restorative and transformative justice, using art as the vehicle.
“What I’m seeing happen in these workshops is utterly mind blowing,” Hamilton told the crowd during a panel discussion on Aug. 20. “Bringing staff and incarcerated people into a room and using art for them to connect on their humanity, is doing something that I don’t even have words for yet.”
“That is the heartbeat, I believe, of the change of prison culture,” she added.
Williams said Colorado’s prison culture has come a long way in just a few short years. He recalled a time when a woman stood up during a community meeting in Alaska — where he was the commissioner of corrections — to say she didn’t agree with the changes he was suggesting, and that the answer was to make prisons “hell holes” so that no one would want to go there.
“What we have done in this country with prisons, in the correctional system, has not only not worked, but we’ve made people in many ways worse than when they came in,” he said.
That’s why when Hamilton approached him early in his tenure in Colorado regarding the DU Prison Arts Initiative, he jumped in with both feet. Williams said the DU Prison Arts Initiative programs are helping to convince both staff and incarcerated people that a better way exists.
“I’m not sure if we’ll be able to articulate it tonight, but what’s happening in prisons because of this work is profound, more profound than any prison program,” Williams said. “But we’re becoming a bellwether of really what the future can be.”
Hassan A. Latif, founder and executive director of Second Chance Center in Aurora, said he can feel the change, too. Latif spent 18 years incarcerated in Colorado and has since helped thousands of people released from prison land on their feet and find meaning in the process.
He said one of his organization’s main goals is to help the larger community expand their perception of formerly incarcerated people and to foster a deeper understanding of the issues that they face when reentering society.
“Walking in tonight and I see David Coleman, the gentleman right there in the black shirt, who embraced me and welcomed me at Shadow Mountain Correctional Facility back in 1989,” he said, pointing to a man in the crowd. “I feel like crying right now seeing him out in the world.”
He said the DU Prison Arts Initiative has helped dispel misconceptions about people who are incarcerated.
“Sometimes, it’s a space that’s devoid of hope,” he told the crowd. “We could fake it, like we believe something good is going to happen or we think we’re going to be successful in one appellate process or another. But basically, when the lights are out, and we are wetting our pillowcases with the tears of missing our loved ones and the recognition of mistakes made and opportunities blown, it’s just a deep sense of hopelessness.”
He thanked Williams for the work he’s done to try and reform the prison system, and for allowing programs like DU Prison Arts Initiative and others to work with, and give hope to, incarcerated people.
“One of the things we tried to do with community is to get them to see that our folks, are just folks,” Latif said. “Maybe they’ve made some terrible decisions, but we try to get them to see that in many instances, if not most instances, our folks were victims before they were ever perpetrators. And that there’s a common thread between all of us, whether you’ve ever been in conflict with the legal system or not.”
An increase in hope
Award-winning artist John Sherman said that one of the biggest impacts DU Prison Arts Initiative has made is helping incarcerated people feel seen.
After going to art school and launching a sign-making business, Sherman spent 34 years incarcerated in Colorado before having his sentence commuted by Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2018.
Sherman, who has won numerous art awards and mentored many of the artists whose work was on display at the showcase, has painted dozens of murals in prisons throughout the state. During the panel discussion, he talked about how the punitive nature of prison culture has an indescribable impact on a person’s mentality.
“When programs like DU PAI comes through … there is an increase in hope,” he told the crowd. “It gives such vitality to a guy’s spirit to know that someone cares, that somebody wants to see what he has. Somebody wants to witness his voice, whether it’s art or music or theater.”
Coleman, who was released from prison just two days before the art gallery event after 30 years behind bars, chimed in from the crowd to share a story about how Sherman’s art impacted him while he was incarcerated.
“Every birthday in prison, he would do a free birthday card for anybody who had a birthday,” Coleman said. “There would be a deadline, maybe two or three days, a birthday be coming, and I’d be like, ‘C’mon John, my daughter’s birthday is coming.’ And I know he had a bunch of other stuff going on and he would take time out and put another project to the side to get that card out. My kids still have all those cards.”
Coleman said when his parents passed away, Sherman slid a handmade card under his cell door.
“I had gone right to my cell, I didn’t want to talk to nobody. I didn’t think nobody cared,” Coleman recalled. “But when that card came in and I opened it and I read it and I seen the art and everything that everybody said, that got me through.”
Sherman said that while he was incarcerated, he always dreamed of seeing his art hanging on someone’s wall. He shared a story of a time when his sister, who has since passed away, had walked into a neighbor’s home and recognized the art displayed on the mantle.
“And so later on, she leaves, and the guy comes running out to her, and he was like, ‘Hey, that artwork that you seen? That was done by somebody in the joint. But don’t tell my wife because I told her I did it,’’’ Sherman said with a laugh, recalling the conversation he had with his sister.
“So she asked, you know, who was the guy that did it?” Sherman recalled. “Cause she recognized my work. And he said, ‘John Sherman.’ And she said, ‘That’s my brother!’”
Sherman said he was recently contacted by someone on Facebook who was trying to figure out who had drawn a picture of her mother.
“She sent me an image of that picture on Facebook, and I was that guy,” he said with a smile. “So, you know, that made me really, really happy to be able to get out and see my work.”
Artwork from the “Chained Voices” exhibit can be purchased online on DU’s website.