DENVER (CBS4) – For the first time in the United States, a group of inmates is performing a play outside of prison walls, and it’s taking place at the University of Denver. A group of 40 inmates from the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility performed two shows of the holiday classic, A Christmas Carol, Thursday and Friday, and are scheduled to perform a final show Friday evening at 7:30 p.m.
All shows were sold out, organizers said, and dozens of people were on a wait list.
“I think we’ve had a lot of discussion about shifting the conversation about who is in prison, and we felt like this was a way to literally bring women out into the public to say look these are the people behind the walls, and what does it mean for us as a community for us to see them and share this experience with them,” explained Ashley Hamilton, director of the University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative.
The University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative has been around for three years, with inmates having the opportunity to perform for other prisoners and their families inside the confines of prison facilities. This is the first time a show has gone into a public space.
Dean Williams, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, made the decision to take the performance public.
“If we have a prison that has no hope, no purpose, where idleness is prevalent, where there’s subcultures and gangs and drug trafficking, what do we think is going to happen when they hit the door and their time is up? Nothing good that comes of that,” Williams said. “These kind of events will reduce recidivism and make us all safer.”
Jamiylah Nelson, who plays younger Scrooge in the play, is thankful for the privilege of a second chance. She’s served 12 years of a life sentence for murder, and believes her sentence may be overturned soon.
“I am really grateful to my victim’s family, they are extending forgiveness to whatever degree that they can,” Nelson said.
Nelson said the experience of participating in the Prison Arts Initiative has radically changed her life, and made her a better person.
“I feel responsible, I feel accountable, I feel human,” she said.
Fellow inmate Patrice Pullie agreed. She has one year left on her sentence.
“I think it will help me in a lot of ways, it will help me to be more positive, to be kinder, to take risks, to take chances, and not to go back to the things that got me here in the first place,” Pullie said. “Before this play, I would stay to myself, really, I wouldn’t try to mingle with other people, but now it makes me feel like a part of society, like I don’t have to hide from society, I can give back and be positive, and happy.”
But some have criticized programs like the Prison Arts Initiative for providing applause and praise for criminals who may have hurt others. CBS4 asked Williams what he would say to the families of the victims of the crimes committed by some of the women in the show.
“Justice doesn’t mean we don’t have compassion or respect or care and concern for victims of crime, none of that changes, we would all hold hands for anyone who’s been through a horrible experience like that,” Williams said. “But the reality is I can’t change any of those things that have happened in the past. What I can influence are the results going forward… Our job is to reduce future victimization and make us all safer by saying a prison experience is not going to be more traumatic than what it already has to be.”
That’s something inmates like Pullie are grateful for.
“I feel honored, I feel privileged,” Pullie said. “It has given all of us hope.”