University students and staff are teaching English courses to inmates through the Prison English program, which consists of three separate courses that focus on teaching ASU students about issues of prison education.
Graduate students enrolled in English 584 participate in an internship where they do on-ground teaching in Arizona’s state prison in Florence. The students are paired in every class they teach and are not allowed to teach alone or work in a high-security level.
ASU faculty and staff teach classes individually. The courses taught at the prison include creative writing, English as a second language and poetry workshops.
Undergraduate students enrolled in English 484 also provide writing coaching to prisoners at the Penitentiary of New Mexico at Albuquerque. This course is a hybrid internship that has inmates who are in maximum security. Both the ASU students and the prisoners use pseudonyms when communicating.
English associate professor Joe Lockard created the program in spring 2009 and teaches a poetry workshop at the Florence State prison. Lockard said the U.S. prison systems hold about 2.4 million people, meaning many ASU students already know of someone who is in prison.
“In Arizona prisons, about 60 percent of inmates who arrive and get tested, test out in eighth grade reading level.” Lockard said. “We’re dealing with inmates who do have education and want to get more.”
Studies have found that if you educate inmates, recidivism drops near zero and, in Arizona, it’s currently 60 percent, Lockard said.
“The more education you give people in prisons, the less you see of them in the future,” Lockard said. “Something has to break the cycle, and that something is education.”
Lockard said even if prisoners have a long-term or life sentence, education is a human right. If prisons take custody of a human being, they are responsible for feeding, clothing and educating, Lockard said.
Creative writing program manager Corey Campbell teaches a fiction workshop at the Florence State Prison. Campbell said she teaches the sex offender population and has found that some of them are well-educated or had been educators themselves.
“They’re very eager to use their minds again and to be occupied,” Campbell said.
Campbell said her students range between the ages of 23 and 70.
“After a while, you don’t think of them as prisoners,” she said. “You don’t really think you’re in a prison. I mean, these are just people in a workshop who are trying to express themselves.”
This semester, prisoners have been writing about childhood memories and learning to how to understand by using them in fiction, Campbell said.
Fine arts graduate students Rachel Goldman and Christine Holm teach a creative writing class together at the Florence State Prison.
Goldman said she realized there is no barrier between the educator and the inmates.
“When you’re in this environment with them, they are obviously just these men who are there to learn in our classroom, and in that classroom, we’re their teachers, and they’re our students,” Goldman said.
Holm said this teaching experience will shape how she approaches teaching and the space for creative writing in the community.
“Someone has done something bad,” she said. “That’s true. They’ve broken the law. Our punishment is to throw them in this space, but how are you going to learn to not do those things If no one is telling you or teaching you how to think differently?”
Undergraduate students may enroll in the lower division courses to participate and graduate students may participate in the English 584 class. The third course is an online course that discusses U.S. prison literature. Students can take the classes as an elective and do not have to be English majors.
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