Behind the bars: ASU prison education
"ASU's Prison Education Program brings coursework to those serving at the Florence or Eyman Complexes." Illustration published Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017.
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.