Prison English

Prison English News 3:1

The ASU Department of English’s Prison English program begins with a belief that education is a right that inheres within our humanity. It is not a right that stops at a prison’s gates. Education needs to traverse borders and boundaries, including prison boundaries. Read more [Prison English News Summer 2015]

Arizona State University espouses community engagement, an effort to reach out from its campuses in order to achieve beneficial and lasting effects. In the words of the university’s vision statement, “ASU strengthens communities by contributing to community dialogue and responding to communities’ needs. We provide an education that’s inclusive rather than exclusive. Our students engage in the world around them.” The Prison English program locates itself squarely within this work of community engagement.

This small program emerged from educational voluntarism – faculty who give their own time in order to assume additional workload – and a belief that prison education has been treated too long as a social leper. The participation of universities can help overcome the stigmatization of such work and push up the effective ceiling of secondary-only education in Arizona prisons.

In his 1837 essay ‘The American Scholar,’ Ralph Waldo Emerson found an auspicious sign in American literature because “the elevation of what was called the lowest class in the state, assumed in literature a very marked and as benign an aspect. Instead of the sublime and beautiful; the near, the low, the common, was explored and poetized...” For Emerson, to be a scholar was to engage with everyday life: “I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low.” The low and the familiar are our prisons. To engage with prison education is to work to become the scholars we hope to be.

Prison Literature and Writing Group

It is crucial to form a university-based support community around prison education to assure its sustained future. There are more than twenty graduate student and faculty members of the Prison Literature and Writing Group, three affiliated faculty currently teaching in the area, and a faculty advisory group for prison education. We have partnerships with the Arizona Department of Corrections and the New Mexico Corrections Department.

The faculty and staff advisory committee includes:

    • Ms. Corey Campbell (Univ. of Houston)
    • Prof. Peter Goggin
    • Prof. Alan Gomez (ASU School of Social Transformation)
    • Ms. Kristen LaRue-Sandler
    • Prof. Joe Lockard
    • Ms. Ruby Macksoud
    • Prof. Keith Miller
    • Prof. Sherry Rankins-Robertson (Univ. of Arkansas)
    • Prof. William Simmons (Univ. of Arizona)
    • Prof. Kristin Valentine (emeritus)
    • Prof. Elly van Gelderen
    • Ms. Faye Verska
    • Prof. Eric Wertheimer (ASU Graduate College)

English 345: Prison Literature

English 345: Prison Literature, a special topics course taught in-class and online, provides an introduction to selected US prison literature. US prison literature is a rich field, one that extends from textual moments such as Hawthorne’s “Prison Door” chapter opening The Scarlet Letter (1850) to major modern novels such as John Cheever’s Falconer (1977), which emerged from his work as a writing teacher at Sing Sing prison. The course considers prison literature as an integral part of US literary and rhetorical history; as a vehicle for civil disobedience; as an exploration of socially invisible worlds; as resistant autobiography; and as a genre model for US social self-comprehension. The goal is to provide students with a short survey of prison literature – particularly in the US Southwest – and to explore critical ideas about the intersection of incarceration and literature.

Syllabus (2015 online, PDF)

Syllabus (2014 in-class, PDF)

Syllabus (2011 online, PDF)


English 484: The Pen Project

English 484: The Pen Project debuted in 2010. It is a prison-university internship organized in cooperation with the New Mexico Corrections Department and the Arizona Department of Corrections. The semester-long internship course occurs in both Fall and Spring and employs a Blackboard management platform as a digital bridge between (a) inmate-writers in New Mexico and Arizona and (b) upper-level Arizona State undergraduates, who provide typed critiques of inmate-produced poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction prose.

Most of the writer-inmates live in maximum-security units, are under lock-down 23 hours per day, and have no access to regular education programs. Handwritten work is collected by prison staff, mailed to ASU instructors, scanned into Blackbloard, and transcribed by the interns. The interns then employ the critical skills they have learned over the course of their undergraduate education to critically comment on the inmates’ writing. This individualized instruction provided by interns is edited by the instructors, transferred through Blackboard back to the prisons, printed in hard copy, and hand-delivered by prison staff directly to prisoners in their cells. ASU writing interns currently coach about 150 inmates who, together with the interns, produce between 1500 and 2000 pages of writing and critique per semester.

English 484: The Pen Project is unique. To our current knowledge there is no other writing project in the United States that partners a university with maximum security inmates via online technology. This online internship is a model for development and expansion.

Some of the first Pen Project interns organized the Prison Education Awareness Club (PEAC) to work both within the university community and with the community at large. As part of its awareness mission, PEAC facilitates the Prison Education Conference on the ASU campus each March, now in its fourth year, with attendees from around the state and keynote speakers from around the country. PEAC has hosted, among others, John Burroughs Medalist Ken Lamberton (Wilderness and Razor Wire: A Naturalist’s Observations from Prison), journalist Alan Elsner (Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America’s Prisons), Hudson Link Executive Director Sean Pica (Zero Percent: A Hudson Link Documentary), retired detective Marshall Frank (Criminal Injustice in America: Essays by a Career Cop), and poet Richard Shelton (Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer).

Pen Project Meeting

English 484 interns meet with Prof. Kristin Valentine to discuss prison education, October 2010

Syllabus (PDF)


English 584: Florence and Eyman State Prisons

English 584, a small graduate-level internship, consists of classes taught once a week at Florence and Eyman State Prisons. Since 2010, ASU has provided courses in creative writing, linguistics, Shakespeare, TESOL and – in cooperation with other departments – also provides courses in art, biology, Chinese, math, philosophy, psychology, and theatre. The internship operates in close cooperation with the Arizona Department of Corrections.

Syllabus (PDF)

ENG 584 Online Portfolio (used w/permission)


ASU Prison Education Initiatives

The ASU Prison English program has been associated with developing, supporting, and often providing field supervision for a network of ASU prison education initiatives. These include:

Theatre: As of 2013, theater MFA students have organized drama workshops at the medium-security Cook Unit of Eyman State Prison. Supervisors: Profs. Stephani Woodson and Erika Hughes

Theatre (THE 514 / ENG 584): Beginning January 2015, in cooperation with Pima Prevention Program’s Arizona Collegiate High School, this initiative is developing a community theater pilot project for children of incarcerated parents. Supervisor: Prof. Stephani Woodson

Art (ARP 484/584): The Prison Drawing Project at the ASU Herberger School of Art, modeled after the Pen Project, provides long-distance art education to prisoners at the maximum-security Browning Unit of Eyman State Prison. Supervisor: Prof. Janice Pittsley

Biology (BIO 584): A teaching group of ASU graduate students from the School of Life Sciences organize an introductory biology course at the maximum-security Browning Unit of Eyman State Prison. Supervisor: Prof. Tsafrir Mor

Philosophy (PHI 584): Philosophy graduate students regularly teach an introductory philosophy course at the medium-security Cook Unit of Eyman State Prison. Supervisor: Prof. Thomas Blackson

Chinese (CHN 584): Beginning 2013, ASU has offered Chinese language and culture studies at Eyman State Prison. Various faculty supervisors.

Prison Libraries

The Department of English organizes used book collections and delivers them to prison libraries in Arizona and New Mexico. The department facilitates donation of hundreds of books in shipments made several times a year.


Book Drive - 2005

Department volunteers prepare to deliver books, 2005 
Photo Credit: Elizabeth McNeil

Prison Education Materials

Prison English Brochure (PDF)

Talk by Joe Lockard at Sichuan University, China, December 2010. "Reading, Writing and Prisoners: Literature and Prisons in the US Southwest" (PDF)

Prison English News 3:1 (Summer 2015) [PDF]

Prison English News 2:1 (Summer 2014) [PDF]

Prison English News 1:1 (Summer 2013) [PDF]