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Dean Williams did not earn a 2022 True West Award because he acted in a play. He earned a 2022 True West Award because he acted in his four years as Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections’ 19 state prisons.
He did perform in a play this year – he played pretty much himself in “If Light Closed Its Eyes,” a groundbreaking new play written and developed by more than 50 incarcerated residents of the Sterling Correctional Facility.
More important, in his considerable job and in his everyday life, he acted on his convictions. With the zealousness of a minister, Williams preached the gospel of normalization within the state prison system as the best possible way to ensure that the incarcerated succeed when they reintegrate into the outside world. More than 80 percent of the state’s prison population will get out someday. The question is: Who do we want them to be when they come out?
Outgoing Colorado Department of Corrections Executive Director Dean Williams performed in the DU Prison Arts Initiative’s play, ‘If Light Closed its Eyes,’ at the Sterling Correctional Facility.
Williams’ fundamental belief is that the purpose of prison should not be punishment but restoration. “The punishment is the loss of your freedom,” he said. “It should not be the loss of your human dignity, or the loss of your personal responsibility.”
Williams is the rare institutional leader who gets it: The power of the arts to change hearts and minds. He is both the leader of the state’s prison system … and a total theater geek.
Working closely with Dr. Ashley Hamilton and the University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative, Williams supported, championed and participated in arts-based initiatives ranging from theater, dance and film projects to launching the nation’s first statewide prison radio station to starting the “Inside Report” prison newspaper.
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“Dean was, and is, a visionary artist and thinker,” Hamilton said. “He has supported and motivated so many different forms of storytelling during his tenure – particularly through the use of theater.” This very weekend, in fact, residents of the Fremont Correctional Facility in Canon City are performing the musical “Godspell.” I know first-hand that every prison theater performance affords all involved a brief moment in time where they are acknowledged and admired for the art they have created. Each and every one another stake in the ground for change. And each one happening only because Williams not only lets it – he believes in it.
“We are changing the system … one theater show at a time,” Williams told me.
All those initiatives have made Williams, who last month announced his abrupt retirement effective next week, both one of the most significant contributors to arts and culture throughout Colorado – and an easy target. Williams has been a lightning rod in the national criminal-justice conversation because he has had the audacity to believe that justice and mercy can live together in the same cell block alongside accountability and redemption.
“Every day there are forces working against me who want to go back to the Dark Ages,” he said. “We are showing the world how it can be different. But prison has to be a place where things can get better, not worse.
Hamilton believes Williams has altered countless lives for the better – ”all because he answered his calling,” she said. One is Denise Presson, a 41-year-old resident of Denver Women’s Correctional Facility who has served 12 years of a 42-year sentence. She’s also a co-host of the “With(in)” prison podcast. “Dean totally rocked the system because it’s always been, ‘Just lock them up, throw them away, they don’t exist,” Presson said on a farewell episode to Williams. “But he made us accountable. He not only made us accountable for ourselves, and the things that we do, he saw us as full, complex human beings capable of many things. And that’s what being a leader is.”
Simply put, Williams shifted the prison paradigm.
“Dean’s advocacy of culture change, programming, and transformation through the vehicle of the arts has inspired residents and staff across the system to feel empowered for change and hope,” Hamilton said. “I believe Dean’s vision of how prison can be transformed is, itself, a work of art.”
Note: The True West Awards, now in their 22nd year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. Denver Gazette Senior Arts Journalist John Moore celebrates the Colorado theater community by revisiting 30 of the best stories from the past year without categories or nominations.
John Moore is the Denver Gazette’s Senior Arts Journalist. In 2020-21, he taught a journalism class to the staff of the ‘Inside Report’ newspaper at the Fremont Correctional Facility. Email him at [email protected]