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Art on the inside: University of Michigan project highlights work of incarcerated artists

Art on the inside: University of Michigan project highlights work of incarcerated artists
Art on the inside: University of Michigan project highlights work of incarcerated artists 04:40

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (CBS DETROIT) - The University of Michigan Creative Arts Project visits 25 correctional facilities across the state each year on a mission to educate and support incarcerated artists. 

In some cases, PCAP also helps to sell their work at its annual exhibition. 

CBS News Detroit accompanied the PCAP team to Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti on Monday as they met artists and selected work to feature at the annual sale. 

Two women interviewed are serving life sentences without parole for murder, while one is serving a minimum sentence of 15 years for attempted murder. 

PCAP aims to see artists as individuals and does not take their crimes into account when curating artwork. 

Jill Day has been in prison for more than a decade. 

She became involved in the program 10 years ago and said it can be challenging to create art with such limited space. 

"I live on a top bunk in a room that's roughly 7x9 with two gym lockers, a small metal table, a toilet and a sink," said Day. "And there's really no space, and I end up sitting on my bunk with a piece of part of a book on my lap, and everything spread out over my bed. And when I'm finished, I have to put it away because that's where I sleep." 

The artists also have to purchase all of the supplies they use, which adds up quickly. They shared that in some cases they use everyday items like toilet paper or aluminum foil to create works of art. 

Susan Brown has had her work displayed in Germany and the U.K. through PCAP. 

She also mentors other incarcerated artists as part of the program.  

"It's just amazing to know that 20 years of this, to be able to show that I've changed, that I've become a renewed individual, that I'm remorseful and regretful for the things and the actions and the choices that I've made to lead to today," said Brown. "But, I'm able to share that no matter what with the world through my art. It's absolutely amazing." 

Brown said she enjoys visits from PCAP staff because they provide a personal touch. 

"Talking with all of the PCAP advisors and the interviewers, the way they come in, they make us feel so human," she said. "They talk to us. They shake our hands, which we don't get in here. We don't get that physical contact." 

During the process, PCAP staff visit each table to meet the artists, then have the artists step aside or leave the room to select artwork they'd like to bring back to campus. 

Ashley Lucas is a theater professor at U-M and teaches PCAP courses that send students into prisons to facilitate art workshops. 

"I think being an artist in prison is an uplifting way of doing something that betters the rest of the world," said Lucas. "People in prison feel very cut off from the world outside, and yet they're paying attention. They want the world to know that they have creativity, and intellect, and things to share.   

"So, the fact that we carry their art out into the world and display it in a gallery for thousands of people to come and look at. It gives them the opportunity to say something to people they otherwise couldn't come into contact with." 

Samantha Bachynski's case made national news and was the topic of a true crime series on the Oxygen network. 

She said PCAP has changed her experience on the inside. 

"Doing artwork has helped me grow as a human being because I didn't really have much to look forward to each year, and knowing that my name has been attached to so much negativity with my case, it's nice to be able to put my name on something positive," said Bachynski. "And with my artwork, I'm able to do that." 

She also said artists have to be resourceful with such limited art supplies.  

"You have to be very creative in here with the items that you have available because what one person uses an item for, I might be able to find a completely different use for," she said. "Pencils become structures of things, old bra clasps become fasteners." 

Artists earn money through each of their sales, which they say profoundly impacts their quality of life in prison. 

"That little bit of boost, that little, whether it's twenty dollars or more, into their pocketbooks, that makes a huge difference to the women here," said Day. "It really does." 

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