The third annual Prison Education Conference brought ASU students and faculty members together at the University Club in Tempe with a number of different people from law enforcement and academic backgrounds to discuss how important education is to fixing the deeply flawed prison system of the U.S.
The event was spearheaded by the Prison Education Awareness Club, a student organization that is centered around bringing awareness to the effects education has on recidivism rates for inmates.
Guest speakers used workshops and panels to inform the audience about the morality and logistics behind the prison system of today.
English Department Chair Mark Lussier spoke briefly at the event and said PEAC is one of the English department’s most respected and impactful programs.
Arizona Department of Corrections Education Administrator Mark Jones talked about the challenges and requirements one may face when teaching inmates subjects like creative writing, poetry and Shakespeare.
“There should be a specialized degree for incarcerated education because there are so many factors that you have to take into consideration,” Jones said. “You have to balance the right kind of personality with the right kind of training and the right kind of expectations.”
The conference touched on many sensitive topics, including unjust arrests, improper treatment of inmates and blatant misuse of authority.
Marshall Frank, a retired Miami police officer, spoke about the travesties of the U.S. criminal justice system.
“Prisoners are the most ignored minority in the U.S.,” he said. “Maybe it’s wrong to possess drugs or drink alcohol, but unless you hurt somebody else, you don’t need to go to prison.”
Frank compared the U.S. justice system to the famous factory scene of the beloved television show “I Love Lucy,” where Lucy cannot keep up with an obnoxiously fast assembly line. He said prisoners are like the chocolates and the criminal justice system is Lucy, who doesn’t know what to do with the incessant amount of candy coming her way.
PEAC faculty adviser Cornelia Wells, an English lecturer, runs an internship program that provides PEAC members an opportunity to form a relationship with inmates by offering criticisms of writings that have been sent from federal prisons.
PEAC President Jessica Fletcher detailed the intimacy of these exchanges with prisoners by highlighting a response she received from a male inmate.
“He said that it was like was talking to an old friend in a library that was critiquing his work,” she said. “Apparently, he’s a big and scary kind of guy and all he wanted to know was, ‘Is my writing good?’”
ASU interns and faculty members including English professor Elly Van Gelderen spoke about their experiences teaching inmates subjects like writing and grammar in Arizona prisons and agreed that these classroom sessions were the highlight of many prisoners’ days.
“For two hours, they were treated as human beings,” Van Gelderen said. “They enjoy themselves even with a subject like grammar.”
Education Supervisor for the Penitentiary of New Mexico Michelle Ribeiro led a workshop that simulated either a day in the life of an educator in a prison or a prisoner himself and used audience interaction to provide insight to what prison education was really like.
“Education is a win-win situation,” she said. “The fact of the matter is that it reduces recidivism.”
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