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Behind the bars: ASU prison education

Prison Education Programming at ASU broadens horizons and prompts important conversations

Behind the bars: ASU prison education

Prison Education Programming at ASU broadens horizons and prompts important conversations

For 40 or so ASU students and professors, going to prison is a regular occurrence. Lesson plans in hand, they make weekly drives to Florence, Arizona, where they pass through security checkpoints and spend a couple of hours in front of classrooms of incarcerated students.

These volunteers make up a crucial branch of ASU’s Prison Education Programming (PEP), and together they represent a diverse group of backgrounds and academic interests. This semester, ASU students and faculty are teaching a total of 13 classes in Arizona State Prison Complexes (ASPC) Florence and Eyman. These classes span topics including biology, math, Chinese, philosophy and creative writing.

While inmates who participate in these classes don’t receive credit, they’re incredibly eager to explore curriculum that wouldn’t typically be offered in a prison setting, says Dr. Cornelia “Corri” Wells, director of PEP at ASU.

Prison education took root at ASU in 2010, after Michelle Ribeiro, who was working with the New Mexico Corrections Department, had an idea to connect inmates in a Supermax facility in New Mexico with college students who could provide feedback on their writing. This idea gave birth to the Pen Project, which was instituted at ASU by Professor Joe Lockard.

Lockard began teaching in prison himself, and the prison education program grew from there. The Pen Project now accepts 25 to 35 students a semester, and Project alumni frequently go on to teach their own courses in one of the prisons.

ASU students can enroll in the Pen Project for ENG 484 internship credit. Through the program, students explore the criminal justice system and work on writing exercises to improve their own skills. Most importantly, students receive, edit and respond to poems, plays, short stories, essays and other writing pieces submitted by incarcerated participants from New Mexico and Arizona.

In the spring of 2015, Wells became director of PEP – formerly known as the Prison English Program  – but expanded after the program’s offerings began to extend beyond English.

“I wasn’t particularly interested in prison, I just fell into it,” Wells said. “But then when I started reading about prison issues, I just kept reading and reading and reading. I’d stay up at night, even when I was on vacation, in the bathroom with the light on reading these books. Prison education just became a real purpose for me.”

Wells also advises the Prison Education Awareness Club, a student organization founded by former Pen Project, interns.

The Prison Education Awareness Club (PEAC) connects passionate ASU students and community members interested in reducing incarceration. The club hosts roundtable discussions and speaker series and helps coordinate and supply volunteers for the prison teaching program.

According to Brigitte Nicoletti, PEAC president, a number of PEAC members have been formerly incarcerated themselves, and therefore can bring unique perspective to discussions on criminal justice.

“We bring together a diverse group of voices,” she said.

PEAC also organizes an annual conference, the Prison Education Conference, which was held on February 10.

Beyond her role in PEAC, Nicoletti is actively involved in teaching her own classes in Arizona prisons. Last semester, she taught a gender studies class. In the class, Nicoletti and her students engaged in complex and difficult discussions about gender and sexuality. “I was blown away by how open-minded my students were,” she said.

Grace Gao is a biology doctorate student who helps organize and teach the ASU biology course offered at Eyman’s maximum security Browning Unit. Gao notes that in the previous two years of the course, inmates were barred in cages around the classroom. This year, students sit at desks with their ankles shackled.

Gao and her fellow biology teachers strive to make course material relevant to their students, covering topics like vaccinations, the immune system and diabetes.

“During the reproductive system lessons, we talked about the HPV vaccine,” Gao said. “One of our students who had daughters asked us for more information about the HPV vaccine, because he wasn’t aware of it and wanted to learn more.”

Tim Lawrence, Northern Region Education Director for the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC), is an avid supporter of the prison education partnership between ASU and the ADC. He said that ASU teachers can serve as role models for their incarcerated students, helping them develop confidence and expand their horizons.

Aside from the non-credit courses offered through its partnership with ASU, the ADC operates a number of additional education programs. Lawrence says that the law requires inmates have at least an eighth grade education before their release. Beyond that education requirement, ADC offers GED classes and career and technical programs, as well as facilitating distance learning programs for some inmates.

Lawrence also said that the department is in the finishing steps of installing accredited high schools within all of its ten statewide prison facilities, an initiative which is unique from a national perspective.

“Education is the number one way to keep inmates from coming back to prison,” Lawrence said.

Even beyond the rates of returning to prison, prison education promises a deeper impact.

“I used to think of prison education in terms of recidivism. All education lowers recidivism, so we know it has a numerical impact,” Wells said. “But I’ve decided that every human service is a human service, and it’s pointless to talk only in terms of numbers.”

Another unique component of PEP at ASU is the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, where ASU students enroll in a semester long course taught in a classroom inside the Florence prison. According to the program’s website, ASU and incarcerated students “learn about crime and justice together through collaboration and dialogue.”

Throughout its many different initiatives, collaboration and dialogue are recurring themes of PEP, which prides itself on embodying the value of educational inclusivity outlined in ASU’s charter.

“Incarceration shouldn’t be the end of the conversation, it should the beginning of one,” Nicoletti said.

Editor’s note: The reporter has participated in the Pen Project internship and prison teaching program.

Reach the reporter at or follow @MiaAArmstrong on Twitter.

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