Prison English

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 2014]

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
    • Prof. Peter Goggin
    • Prof. Alan Gomez (ASU School of Social Transformation)
    • Ms. Kristen LaRue
    • 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
    • Dr. Cornelia Wells
    • Prof. Eric Wertheimer (ASU Graduate College)

English 345: Prison Literature

English 345: Prison Literature, a special topics online course, 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 (PDF)


English 484: The Pen Project

English 484: The Pen Project is a prison-university community internship organized in cooperation with the New Mexico Corrections Department. This semester-long internship employs a Blackboard course management platform as a digital bridge to link inmate-writers in New Mexico with Arizona undergraduates who provide critiques of inmate-produced poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction prose. Interns employ the critical skills they have learned over the course of their undergraduate education in order to read and critically comment upon writing – fiction, poetry, non-fiction prose – produced primarily by maximum-security inmates at the Penitentiary of New Mexico.

Most of these writer-inmates are in maximum-security units, are under lock-down 23 hours per day, and have no access to regular education programming. Individualized writing coaching provided by interns represents education delivered direct to prisoners in their cells. Course interns currently coach about 150 inmates in writing. English 484 is taught both at the Downtown and Tempe campuses with coordination between the two sections.

English 484: The Pen Project is unique. To our current knowledge there is no other writing project in the United States that links a university and a prison, specifically maximum security, as partners via online technology. This online internship, taught in both semesters and summer session, represents a model for development and expansion.

Students from English 484 have organized the Prison Education Awareness Club (PEAC) that works within the university community on prison issues.

Pen Project Meeting

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

Syllabus (PDF)


English 584: Florence State Prison

English 584, a small graduate-level internship, consists of courses taught once a week at Florence State Prison. ASU programming at the North, South and East units currently provides courses in creative writing, poetry, Shakespeare, TESOL, and reading skills. The internship operates in close cooperation with the Arizona Department of Corrections.

Syllabus (PDF)

ENG 584 Online Portfolio (used w/permission)


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 2:1 (Summer 2014) (PDF)

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