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Interviews

An Interview with Dr. Nora Krinitsky, Historian, Researcher, and Interim Director of the Prison Creative Arts Project

Dr. Nora Krinitsky is a historian of the modern United States who specializes in urban history, African American history, the history of racial formation, and the history of the American carceral state. She is currently working on a book, “The Politics of Crime Control: Race, Policing, and Reform in Twentieth-Century Chicago,” while working on research projects at the University of Michigan. She has been appointed Interim Director of the Prison Creative Arts Projecta program that seeks to provide artistic education to incarcerated individuals in the state of Michigan.

Special thanks to Dr. Krinitsky and PCAP for taking the time to speak with The Politic. 

The Politic: Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about the Prison Creative Arts Project?

Krinitsky: The Prison Creative Arts Project is a program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. We are now in our 30th year as one of the oldest continuously running prison creative arts programs in the world. We do several different kinds of programming that directly impact people who are incarcerated in the state of Michigan and people who have come home or have been formerly incarcerated. 

Every year we mount an annual art show featuring art created by incarcerated people, and that runs for two weeks in March and April—sort of the jewel in our crown if you can think of it that way. In addition, we run weekly creative arts workshops inside a nearby Michigan prison where we teach things like theater, creative writing, and visual art. All of those workshops are run by volunteers, most of which are undergraduate students at the university, but our volunteers also include graduate students, members of the community, staff members—I think last semester we trained nearly 80 or 90 new volunteers. It’s certainly one of our most popular programs. We also publish an annual literature review that solicits submissions from writers who are incarcerated in every prison in the state of Michigan, which is an important way that we stay in contact with people who are incarcerated far away from our location in Ann Arbor. We also run programming for people who have come home, called The Linkage Project, and this program also runs weekly workshops and other opportunities to engage with creative arts for those who have returned home and are trying to get back into their communities. 

Those are really the highlights—I could say more about each of them—but there’s really a wide range of things that we do here at PCAP. At the core of each of our programs is an emphasis on human connection and engaging that through creative arts practices.

What inspires a program like PCAP? What inspires so many people to volunteer for your programs?

We have such a wide range of volunteers that of course I would expect a similarly wide range of motivations. I think at the center of it, however, is a real fundamental respect for human dignity, and the belief that all people regardless of their circumstances, mistakes they have made in the past, and communities that they’ve come from, deserve access to education, deserve the ability to make art, and deserve the ability to express themselves. I know for certain that’s a motivation that had brought me to this work, as well as it’s something that motivates a lot of our staff members and volunteers and community members.

How did you come to work for this project?

I’m a historian—I study the history of policing and crime control in American cities—and I did my graduate work at the University of Michigan which is how I came to know the Prison Creative Arts Project. For a few years now I have been collaborating with some colleagues at the University of Michigan to start a massive humanities research project about criminalization and incarceration in our state, and it was through that project that I began to know PCAP better and better. This coming year I’ll be the Interim Director of PCAP as Director Ashley Lucas takes a leave of absence to finish her book manuscript.

I’m curious. You say that there are lots of motivations for dignity and human respect in people who work for PCAP, do you see that often reflected in the impact of the project’s work?

I do, I really do. For instance, our art show has grown really by leaps and bounds—the art show is in its 25th year now, and I think it’s grown literally by the number of works included in it, but also in the various kinds of media that are included in it. We’re seeing works on paper, painted art, mixed-media pieces, and other media that show people’s creativity and the sparks of creativity that they have, including some new ideas that have emerged over the many years that we have been working on the art show in particular. I would say also that we have a widening community of folks who have been involved in PCAP either as volunteers, staff members, or as former participants, and that community has really remained rich over the years. I think that’s a testimony to those values that bring a lot of people to work with PCAP, that desire for human connection and expression. This certainly comes through in workshops that last a discrete number of weeks, but in reality, extends past any standard period of a workshop as incarcerated folk are given the tools they need to express themselves.

Do you have any specific examples or stories of these lasting impacts?

One that comes to mind is an artist who worked with PCAP for many years—his name is Martin Vargas—who spent many, many years inside. He was incarcerated for several decades. But he came home last year, and I was really fortunate to get to hear him speak at the annual art show last March. Since Martin has come home he has started his own business as an independent artist and has been commissioned to create art for covers of literary journals, other creative projects, and he’s a really talented artist. It was really interesting to hear him speak because he had been featured in our annual art show for more than 20 years, and this past year was the first time he did not has a piece of art in our show because he was released. It’s always wonderful to see folks who have shown in our art show before come home and get to see the art of their friends and other incarcerated folk who have the opportunity to show their art every year. I think that’s one of the most exciting as well as satisfying moments for us at PCAP, is getting to welcome someone to see the show who has had work featured in it in the past—so they can see what they were a part of and will continue to be a part of for other people.

It seems rewarding to have that sort of long-term and lasting impact on people through the program. As Director, are you going to want to see any expansion in the program’s capacity to make these long-term impacts? Are there things that you wish the program could do that it currently isn’t or can’t with its available resources?

We are always, as any nonprofit organization is, struggling with doing the most work we can with as little resources as possible. So as Interim Director, that’s a lot of what I’m thinking about—ways to support our operations in a sustainable way for years into the future. One project that I’ll be working on along with the staff here and other colleagues is making our large archival collection of art accessible to artists, the family of artists, and the public through an online database where they can go and view the art. PCAP has now been mounting its art show for 25 years and we have a huge collection of photographs of art that has been in the show, but that archive is currently not accessible to everyone. It really comes down to issues of needing some staff time and financial support to create a more sustainable, successful archive. So that’s something I’m going to be tackling this year, working with students and graduate students in order to figure out the best way to do that, and especially to make images of the art available, like I said, to artists and the community surrounding those artists.

It seems as though a lot of the work that PCAP does is not only to help incarcerated folk but to help bridge the gap between them and the community—do you think having all of this art available online would help with that goal?

I think that is exactly right. I think one of our goals as a project is to sort of expand our values of human connection, to make expressions of people’s experiences or perspectives or memories more widely accessible and understandable to the public. And that’s really part of a bigger research project that PCAP is involved with at the University of Michigan—to collect people’s records of their experiences who have been incarcerated or otherwise impacted by the criminal justice system. All of that is working towards the goal of making that human experience visible, more tangible and accessible to a wider public.

Why do you think that experience is so important for the public to see?

I think that ultimately, the last five decades have seen a huge boom in the number of incarcerated people in the United States—and that’s a fact and a figure that I think, at least to those of us who work in this field, are pretty used to hearing. There are some two and a half million people incarcerated in the United States, over seven million under some form of correctional control. We hear these stats, and we hear them tossed around a lot in the news pretty frequently, but we have yet to see a dramatic decrease in the number of people who are either incarcerated or under some form of surveillance—parole or probation programs—in this country.

So, kind of the shared premise of the people at PCAP or my colleagues at the University of Michigan is that these numbers have only gotten us so far, and when it comes to making real, sustainable social change it comes down to experiences, connections, and stories. These play a really important role—and that’s something that we ought to have in mind in terms of what we see as the broader purpose of this project. All of us are really committed to a more just, de-incarcerated world. I would say that’s one of the many shared goals that a lot of us bring to this work, and that we’re all trying to create a sort of toolbox of ways to do that because the ones that we have so far haven’t really created the impact that we would like to see.

Do you think the project helps to humanize people who are often dehumanized by the carceral system?

I do, and I think that happens in several different ways. I’ve been lucky to attend workshops that our volunteers facilitate inside prisons—and during these workshops, you can literally see the humanization of people who have otherwise been very alienated by the criminal justice system. It’s so exciting to see a group of actors mount a final performance, for instance, and really see the pride and value that they feel after several weeks of working on planning that performance. But I think that the criminal justice system, prison, incarceration, detention—these are systems designed to kind of wipe the human face off people. They put a label “lawbreaker,” “criminal,” “felon,” or “convict” on someone who really is, the majority of the time, a community member, a family member, or a significant person outside of the system. So restoring that level of dignity and humanity to individuals who otherwise exist as numbers or labels is something I know as core to my mission at PCAP.

Do you think that those labels extend beyond the prison or the carceral system? Even after people are released from prison?

Yes. Coming home from prison is incredibly difficult—as you’d expect. It is extremely difficult to find reliable employment after you have been incarcerated, extremely difficult to find housing if you’ve been incarcerated, and it’s difficult, for instance, to do a lot of professions that require a license. These can be really difficult to access if you’ve been incarcerated or convicted of a felony. There are just a huge number of hoops that we as a society ask folks to jump through after they’ve come home. It’s also just difficult to navigate the world as well—if someone comes home and needs to check in with their parole officer every week, they’d have to possibly take time off work which would affect their ability to get or hold down a job. They would also likely have to pay for transportation to get to their parole office or do other things that may be beyond their reasonable capacity as a previously incarcerated person. 

So it can really be astounding, just all the levels of surveillance and burden and challenges that people face when they’ve come home. People who have been incarcerated, with the way our system is set up, essentially retain that label of “criminal” that has been thrust upon them while they were incarcerated. Getting people out of prison is one thing, but that’s an even bigger, more tangled challenge.

How does PCAP work with other humanitarian organizations that work with incarcerated people or post-incarcerated people? Does it often work with other organizations on this challenge?

We do work with some other organizations—in the state of Michigan, mostly. One that comes to mind is the Youth Arts Alliance, which is a nonprofit organization that provides arts programming to young people who are in juvenile facilities or other carceral systems in the state of Michigan. We also have a relationship with several universities in Brazil who are also doing theater and similar creative arts programming in prisons there. So those are just two of several that immediately come to mind.

But to kind of the bigger point here, I would love to see our collaborative work with other organizations expand, and I would especially love to see the University of Michigan begin to offer credit-bearing courses and degree-granting programs to people who are incarcerated in the state of Michigan. This is the flagship public university of the state, as well as some degree the public university system in the United States, and it’s my position that it should be serving all of the people in Michigan, including the ones who are inside prisons, and that’s not something that the university currently does. There are some other universities in Michigan that do offer prison education programs—a few of the community colleges in our state, for instance, are Second-Chance Pell Program pilot sites. Education for people on the inside was really gutted by the 1991 Crime Bill that eliminated access to Pell Grants for incarcerated people, and so restoring that access—kind of thinking to the bigger policy and politics realm—is really something that should be a priority for anyone working in this field, and is also something that is on our radar as an organization.

I guess PCAP would be just one of many ways to address the myriad of issues and challenges facing prisoners who are incarcerated or people who are living post-incarceration.

Absolutely. It’s a multifaceted problem with a multi-faceted solution, so it’ll undoubtedly take that sort of collaborative work that is happening through organizations like ours. But also in the policy realm, we must be working to grant people access to education both while they’re on the inside and when they come home. So I would certainly say that’s the case and why our work as an organization is so important in the context of a broader effort.