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Denise Presson and nearly 40 of her fellow inmates sang Christmas carols for most of the bus ride from the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility to the University of Denver’s Newman Center. It was the first time she had been in a vehicle, let alone seen outside prison walls, in six years. For many of the others around her, it had been much longer. They were being bussed in full restraints, but Presson overheard someone pondering out loud: “When’s the first time you ever thought that handcuffs would make you feel empowered?”
The group of women were heading to their rehearsal at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Denver for their production of A Christmas Carol—a show entirely designed, produced, and performed by Denver Women’s residents. The historic performance (it’s the first time a group of incarcerated individuals will perform in public in the U.S.) is a collaboration between the Colorado Department of Corrections and DU’s Prison Arts Initiative—a program founded in 2017 by Ashley Hamilton, Apryl Alexander, and Rachael Zafer that provides therapeutic and creative outlets for prisoners through art-based workshops, with a focus on empowerment and fostering healthy community. The initiative recently garnered national attention for a previous milestone: taking a prison play from the Sterling Correctional Facility on tour to other Colorado prisons this past October. Now, they’re bringing their vision to the stage for the public to see. The groups three performances of a Christmas Carol, spanning December 12 and 13, are all sold out.
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When the women arrived at the Newman Center on Wednesday afternoon for rehearsal, they saw the set they’d built on a proper stage for the first time. As they waited outside before entering backstage, they could be heard cheering. Presson says director Clare Hammoor asked the ladies beforehand if there was any kind of outside food they were dying to have. The unanimous response was french fries. So before they stepped inside, he surprised them with exactly that, along with some Wendy’s Frosties.
“We’re happy because we know what we’re doing,” Presson, 39, says. “We’re trying to change what people think about incarcerated people.” Presson was convicted of first degree murder in 2009 and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, but after being granted an appeal and taking a plea deal in 2014, her sentence was reduced to second degree murder and 42 years in prison.
Presson has been working as a part of the facility’s K-9 Companion Program for the past seven years, and was also brought on this past summer to be the co-host of the Prison Art Initiative’s new podcast, With(in). That’s where she first learned about the opportunity to act. She sees this production as just another opportunity to try to humanize the people behind bars. “We’re not all evil, and we make mistakes,” Presson says. “Everybody makes mistakes as human beings. That’s the human experience—to learn. But how do [prisoners] learn effectively to where, when we return to society, we’re still not broken?”
The themes of redemption and forgiveness found in Charles Dickens’ classic holiday tale were no coincidence on the directors’ part, as growth is a main focus of Hamilton’s work with the Initiative. “I just really believe in this,” she says. “When you create a space—in this case it’d be a space for theater, but it can be any artistic space—for folks to show up and sort of reflect on … who they are now and where they want to go … you’re [challenging] them to have to hit their own walls, right?”
Presson feels a deep sense of community created by the program—she says even the wardens have been supportive of their projects. She speaks fondly of her cast mates for helping her memorize her lines, even though some of them had never seen or read A Christmas Carol. She gushes about each of them and their roles in the production, be it technical or performing, calling them by their nicknames, like “little bear” and “lady bug.”
The energy in the room as they explore the 360-degree stage of the Byron Theatre for the first time mimics that of a group of giddy middle schoolers, and only subsides momentarily when the guards insist on an official roll call before rehearsal can begin. They call out last names, and the women respond one by one, shouting back a six-digit ID number. Then it’s quickly to their places for the first “stumble through,” as Hamilton calls it. The lights dim, and a few of them sneak in a quick handshake as they wait for the cue from their fellow inmates running lights and sound. Hammoor calls for fog from one of the stage entrances, cueing the entrance of Demika Roger, who plays Ebenezer Scrooge. Her cast mates holler as she emerges from the artificial clouds.
Presson awaits on stage nearby, playing the role of Bob Cratchit—Scrooge’s humble clerk. She describes the liberating feeling of being in that moment; how time seems to dissolve when she’s on the stage. “Time is our prison,” she says. “And for this moment, we’re free.”
She laughs about her attempts to perfect the stride of Bob Cratchit, and how putting on the leggings and giant fur coat for her costume made her feel like a real woman again—even though it was the garb of a fictional old man. She recalls how Hamoor and assistant director Jamie Law are always reminding her that Cratchit leads with his heart. “I do feel like I am Bob Cratchit in some ways because I’m very hopeful, no matter what,” she says. “I would work for somebody like Scrooge, always hoping for the best for him—that he would turn around and he would see, you know?”
Near the end of the play, Scrooge is eerily greeted by the last of several spirits—the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come—and is shown a grave with his name on it. He begs, “Why show me this, if I am past all hope?” This line, and how it leads to Scrooge’s eventual forgiveness, sticks with Hamilton.
“I invite people to really ask themselves about why it is we’re comfortable forgetting about people, or why we choose to do that,” Hamilton says. “People who are in prison who have caused harm—real harm—are still full, complex people who, if we want to change harm, need to be seen.”
Presson seems to equally believe in the power of this kind of dialogue. “I hope in time in, through enough positive doings—whether they’re big or little, if it’s just giving a smile to somebody or it’s a full-length production about redemption, change, and love—that maybe people can see that people incarcerated are not lost. We’re not garbage. We can’t be forgotten.”