Inmates as actors: University of Denver takes theater to Colorado prisons

DENVER -- They are the last people you'd expect to see taking the stage: Colorado prisoners, performing for other Colorado prisoners.

Early Tuesday, inmates at Sterling Correctional Facility took their show on the road, performing their production of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" to a crowd of female inmates at the Denver Women's Correctional Facility.

The inmates have been practicing their performance for six months. The production is part of a unique partnership between the Colorado Department of Corrections and the University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative.

Ashley Hamilton teaches theater at the University of Denver and is the director of the production and founder of the program. She's been working with the inmates nearly every day and has watched them change.

"I mean, I've watched people who have been inside for 30 years praise these men for turning corners and really standing for something positive," Hamilton told FOX31.

"We have had people leave gangs over making sure they can stay in the show," she added.

Most actors take inspiration from their past. Few actors have a past like Bret Philips.

"I'm in here for second-degree murder," he told FOX31.

Philips plays the lead character in the play. He's been in prison for 10 years and has 28 years left on his sentence.

"I've never said that I didn't do it. I admit to my mistakes and I'm trying my best to overcome those things. But on the same note, we are still humans and we still want to interact as such," Philips said.

He's one of dozens of inmates from Sterling taking part in the play.

Terry Mosley Jr. is serving a sentence of life without parole for a 1998 murder in Aurora. He never expected to be on a stage. But surprisingly, he says, this step outside his comfort zone has made him more positive. And it has made him a better inmate and a better person.

"Even if I'm in prison, I matter because of the way that I can affect and help people, including staff and other inmates that are going home," Mosley said.

This isn't just a play. Corrections officials say it's a sense of purpose -- something that can be hard to come by behind prison walls.

"It's really awesome to see them enjoy themselves and to see them come out of their shells," said Ryan Long, warden at the Denver Women's Correctional Facility.

This production is just the beginning for the partnership between the University of Denver's theater department and Colorado prisons. Next, they plan to produce "A Christmas Carol" later this year at the women's correctional facility.

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