In 2015, a volunteer committee of defense attorneys, clinical social workers and criminologists came together to create Unchained Voices. Supported by Denver community members, the first of what would become an annual art show featuring incarcerated artists was born. Since its inception, folks from various backgrounds such as fine artists, curators, arts advocates and criminal justice reform advocates have joined the team to continue to enhance and expand the show with their expertise. 

 

If you would like to support the future of Unchained Voices as a team member or volunteer or would like to host an Unchained Voices exhibition in your space in the future, please email us at unchainedvoicesartshow@gmail.com.

 

 

 

Unchained Voices Committee

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie is a visual artist based in Boulder. She has exhibited her paintings nationally, including shows with the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the Yale School of Architecture, the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. Since 2020 she has been working on an extended project researching and painting the architecture of prisons. In 2021, she was awarded the Marion International Fellowship for the Visual and Performing Arts to support her research into carceral space. That same year, she also began teaching art classes inside the Colorado Department of Corrections through the University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative. In 2024, along with Lillian Stannard, Sarah founded Impact Arts, a non-profit that creates and supports exhibition opportunities for formerly and currently incarcerated artists.

Tess Neel

Tess Neel is a theatre maker and artist who believes in the idea that theatre and art help change perspectives, trajectories, and lives for participants and audiences alike. Through her background in stage management, production management, producing, and business management, Tess has worked with many theatre companies including the Arvada Center Black Box Theatre, The Athena Project, The PACE Center, The Three Leaches, Reunion Entertainment LLC, Lamont Opera Company, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Bailey Theatre Company, and the University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative (DU PAI). After graduating in 2019, Tess became one of the first employees of the University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative (DU PAI). DU PAI is a nonprofit organization that seeks to center incarcerated voices through theatre and art programming. This organization has collaborated with 19 state prisons across Colorado, impacting thousands of individuals behind the walls. While at DU PAI, Tess served many roles over the years, including: Operations Manager, Programs Assistant, Production Manager and Producer, Social Media Manager, Programs Coordinator, and Special Programs Manager. Among Tess’s most notable work with DU PAI are the Unchained Voices Fine Art Show (Manager 2020 - 2023), Godspell at Colorado Territorial & Fremont Correctional Facilities (Producer & Production Manager), IF LIGHT CLOSED ITS EYES, the play & film (Producer & Production Manager), and These Walls Film (Producer). She is also one of the founding team members and Producing Director of the Denver Theatre Ensemble, a new theatre company focused on creating meaningful new, classic, and devised theatre in a professional environment. For more information, you can visit www.tessneel.com. 

Ashley Ratliff JD, MSW 

Ashley Ratliff was recently appointed as a district court magistrate in Adams County, Colorado. She is recognized for both her trial work and her scholarship in the realm of juvenile and family law. Ms. Ratliff’s expertise representing youth, young adults and adults has garnered national attention and led to coordinated efforts for policy changes grounded in social science and brain development research. Those changes informed and improved Colorado laws impacting juveniles and adults and are widely used today. Ms. Ratliff is also an author, editor and nationally recognized expert in comprehensive, holistic, child-centered advocacy for youth and families. Working alongside national organizations, Ms. Ratliff has written guidelines, standards of practice and reports for the U.S. Department of Justice and practitioners alike. She also co-edited and authored the seminal textbook, Criminal Defense-Based Forensic Social Work, which is the first publication of its kind in the field. She earned a Master of Social Work at San Diego State University simultaneous with her Juris Doctorate from California Western School of Law.

Ryan Smith, LCSW

Ryan Smith, LCSW, is an alumni of the University of Denver, graduating from the Graduate School of Social Work in 2014.  Since that time, Ryan has worked as a Forensic Social Worker, working with incarcerated juvenile and adult clients.  Ryan joined the Chained Voices team right before the first art show back in 2015, and has been an active member of the committee since.  Ryan loves being a part of Chained Voices not only for the positive impacts it has for all of our artists, but also because it provides a platform to bring awareness to the larger community about incarceration.

Lilly Stannard

Lilly Stannard is an interdisciplinary artist, educator and artist-researcher interested in the transformative nature of the arts in various settings. Lilly has worked as an arts administrator and teaching artist within a range of schools and companies, some of which include Spellbound Theatre, America Reads, Ramapo for Children, and the Verbatim Performance Lab where she developed engaging arts-based curricula for diverse populations. She received a degree from New York University’s Educational Theatre department where she studied applied theatre, community development and social intervention. Lilly served as the Assistant Director of Programming for the DU Prison Arts Initiative overseeing various programs in twelve state prison facilities throughout Colorado. In 2024, along with Sarah McKenzie, Lilly founded Impact Arts, a non-profit that creates and supports exhibition opportunities for formerly and currently incarcerated artists. Her writing about artistic transformative justice practices and verbatim theatre work can be found in various publications including Routledge Undergraduate Research Series and the Inquiries Journal.

Kyle Varvil, LCSW

Kyle Varvil, LCSW, has been providing forensic social work services with the Office of the Alternate Defense Counsel (OADC) since 2014.  Kyle also works on private criminal cases and federal cases in Colorado.  Some of the many areas that Kyle has worked in are: juvenile direct file, aging adolescent cases, JLWOP re-sentencings, post-conviction, COCCA, mental health heavy, burglary and assault, ID/DD, SO, DF1s, and, capital cases. In addition to providing thorough mitigation on complex cases, Kyle dabbles in leading trainings and provides clinical supervision for OADC contractors. Kyle graduated from the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work with his MSW in 2014.   Kyle was part of their clinical track that focused on the various impacts of trauma and mental health. 

Hillary Vervalin, MSW, LCSW

Hillary Vervalin is a licensed clinical social worker who holds a Master of Social Work (MSW) from the University of Denver with a focus on family systems and trauma-informed care. She has worked as a forensic social worker with the Office of the Alternate Defense Counsel (OADC) for eight years and has supervised new social workers at the agency for the past four years. Hillary is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in social work at Colorado State University. Since collaborating with a group of social workers and defense attorneys to create Chained Voices in 2014, Hillary has remained involved and is grateful for DU PAI’s incredible efforts to expand the program.

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