image title

Writing a new chapter in prison rehabilitation

ASU prison education programs help not only inmates, but the helpers, too.
Lowering recidivism benefits the economy, prison experts tell crowd at ASU.
March 20, 2016

Prison conference highlights role of inmate education, including programs at ASU — and how we all benefit

The U.S. prison system is retreating from an era of force and punishment and is starting to think once again about education and rehabilitation programs.

And that’s not only good for society but good for the economy, according to a panel of experts who gathered at Arizona State University this weekend to discuss the role of prison education as part of the American landscape.

“Political positions on prison education shift like the wind, and we’re coming out of an incapacitation and punishment model and realizing again there’s a direct relationship between education and recidivism,” said Michelle Ribeiro, who recently retired as education director for the New Mexico Corrections Department.

“Not only does education help inmates when they release from prison back into society, but it’s also good for the economy and it saves taxpayers money.”

Ribeiro was one of several featured guests at the fifth annual Prison Education Conference, held March 19 at the Memorial Union on ASU’s Tempe campus. The event was hosted by ASU’s Department of English and the Prison Education Awareness Club, a nonpolitical student organization that is dedicated to raising awareness of the need for prisoner education programs.

The Great Recession had a profound impact on the budget of correctional institutes and nearly wiped out most educational programming, said Ribeiro, former education supervisor for the Penitentiary of New Mexico, 15 miles south of central Santa Fe.

“The budget to run my program in 2008 and 2009 was shrinking, and there was little money and few offerings for a high-quality education program,” Ribeiro said. “I was desperate, but it got me to brainstorming.”

Her desperation led to inspiration and ultimately the creation of the Pen Project — a writing class that allows maximum-security and other incarcerated writers to receive anonymous feedback from ASU student internsAfter being unable to find a New Mexico university that did prison outreach, Ribeiro reached out to the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing and made the ASU connection. in the Department of English.

Prison Education Conference

Michelle Ribeiro, former education supervisor at the Penitentiary of New Mexico, gives a demonstration of the "thin black line," the figurative divide between prisoners and corrections staff, during the fifth annual Prison Education Conference on March 19 at the ASU Tempe campus. Top photo: Sheldon Thompson, a former inmate and Pen Project participant, reads some of his written work at the conference. Photos by Ben Moffat/ ASU Now

The program was created in 2010 and has mutual benefits for incarcerated writers and students. Interns employ the critical skills they have learned over the course of their undergraduate education in order to read and critically comment on fiction, poetry and non-fiction prose produced primarily by maximum-security inmates in New Mexico.

“Inmates are getting a lot of good feedback from our interns, who are delighted to share what they know,” said Cornelia “Corri” Wells, director of ASU’s Prisoner Education Programming and English lecturer. “Those who are incarcerated have created an awareness for our students that life is tough, and our students are also getting humbled because they’re learning the writers are full human beings and are not always the people that are labeled or portrayed by society.”

English literature major and Pen Project intern Katerina Morosoff admitted it took a while for her to be humbled, but she said she is now won over.

“My first semester I felt bad, like this heartless person because I just analyze things because that’s what I’ve been taught to do in school — interpret and analyze,” said Morosoff. “This second semester I started to realize how passionate some of these writers are about their work. Now that I’ve opened myself up, I’m less cold and their writing has really connected with me to the point where I reference a lot of what they say in my mind because they have wise words of advice. I really don’t know what effect I have on them, but I know they have a great effect on me.”

The impact of the Pen Project on former New Mexico inmate Sheldon Thompson has been life-changing. The 35-year-old Native American was recently awarded a writing scholarship to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe and recited three of his writings to the crowd of approximately 100 people who attended the conference at ASU.

Prison Education Conference

MFA student Gary Garrison (second from left) shares his experience teaching creative writing in state prisons March 19.

“It’s strange reading my work to you here today,” Thompson said with a slight smile. “I’m used to reading in front of a room full of men in orange jumpsuits.”

Twenty-two students now coach 90 inmates in New Mexico and 50 at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence, who are under lockdown 23 hours per day and have no access to regular education programming.

ASU recently added another program offered through the School of Criminology and Justice SystemThe School of Criminology and Justice System is part of ASU’s College of Public Service and Community Solutions. called the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. The class brings together college students and incarcerated individuals to learn about the issues of crime and justice over a full semester. The culmination of this community-based learning is an actionable project designed to improve the correctional system.

“You never know who’s going to be tomorrow's warden or correctional officer or which individual might affect policy and change,” said Kevin Wright, who teaches the class. “My research is based on recidivism, and these projects help.”

The Rand Corporation thinks along the same lines, and a landmark 2013 study called “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education,” essentially stated:

• Correctional education improves inmates’ chances of not returning to prison.

• Inmates who participate in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than those who did not.

• Education programs improve inmates’ chances of obtaining employment after release. The odds of obtaining employment post-release among inmates who participated in correctional education was 13 percent higher than those who did not participate in correctional education.

• Providing correctional education can be cost-effective when it comes to reducing recidivism.

Officials from the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADOC), who presented at the conference, have embraced this notion and are aggressively applying for national and local grants to implement education and workforce programs as well as holding first-time job fairs in correctional institutions statewide.

“There’s a huge focus nationwide on re-entry and long-term recidivism,” said Nikki Studer, ADOC’s community corrections manager. “We don’t want inmates getting involved with the criminal justice system again.”

Reporter , ASU News


image title

Optimism in Cuba

ASU team finds mutual respect, mutual learning in Havana.
Researchers start to bring Cuba into ASU-led extreme-weather resilience study.
March 20, 2016

Team of researchers marks ASU's first visit to the island nation with scientific cooperation, relationship building and mutual respect

President Barack Obama arrived Sunday afternoon in Cuba, the first visit of a sitting American presidentPresident Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president, took his first foreign trip in office to Cuba in January of 1928. Unlike President Obama, who took Air Force One, Coolidge arrived on a battleship. to that country in 88 years.

It's an historic trip, occasioned by Obama's major recalibration of American foreign policy toward the Communist island that sits a mere 90 miles from Florida. While there, the president will speak with Cuban President Raul Castro, with business leaders and political dissidents, and he'll take in an exhibition baseball game between Cuba's national team and Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays.

Though restoring U.S.-Cuba diplomatic ties after decades of tension could be a rocky road, there are a number of positive signs. A team from ASU got to see some first hand.

A 12-person group of Arizona State University researchers spent six days in Cuba in early March, building relationships, demonstrating the university’s strengths in areas Cuban institutions are interested in, and showing ASU’s dedication to developing and sharing knowledge.

“It was very positive, very optimistic,” said Marga Gual Soler, who led the trip. “In only a year, I’ve seen so much advance in scientific relations between Cuba and the U.S. ... They are hopeful and inspired by the reopening of diplomatic relations.”

Unlike North Korea, Cuba is not isolated from the entire globe, said Mikhail Chester. Chinese cars on the street and Chinese consumer goods were testament to that.

“Cuba is not disconnected from the world,” said Chester, senior sustainability scientistMikhail Chester is also an assistant professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment in ASU's Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. “It’s disconnected from the U.S.”

Delegates weren’t sure how they’d be received or how much progress they would make. Was it going to be a closed-doors situation?

“I wasn’t sure about speaking to different representatives to how open they would be to collaborate or not,” said David Iwaniec, assistant research professor in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. “The most unexpected thing for me was how open it was, how eager they were to share the type of work they’re doing. What they’re doing, and even starting to learn the needs they have.”

The biggest accomplishment was starting the process to bring Havana into the ASU-led investigation into how cities can survive and bounce back from extreme weather events.

Chester and Iwaniec are researchers from the Urban Resilience to Extreme Weather-Related Events Sustainability Research Network (UREx SRNUREx SRN is a unit of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability.), a team of 50 researchers from 15 institutions led by ASU professors to investigate how cities can better endure storms like Joaquin, Sandy and Katrina.

They met with officials from the United Nations Development Programme, a small office in Havana in charge of resilience efforts for all of Cuba.

“We spent a long time talking about details about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it across our network of 10 cities,” Iwaniec said. “It really exceeded my expectations how fast we were able to gain trust.”

Cuba has issues with coastal and inland flooding, drought and hurricanes. Severely aging infrastructure is another problem.

“They’re dealing with urbanization,” Iwaniec said. “Rapid changes are happening — we heard that over and over again from people we talked to.”

The UN effort has focused on preparing Cuba with coordinating agencies and keeping communication lines open in times of disaster.

“Those efforts are great — that’s what we’d expect of most cities — that those plans are in development,” Chester said. “It was nice to see that they are doing this in Cuba proactively. ... They were pleased to hear about the things that were going on that might help them out.”

Cubans the delegation met on the trip really wanted to share information, said Soler, an assistant research professor at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. She also manages science cooperation projects between Cuba and the U.S. for the Center for Science Diplomacy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“Cuba has developed a very good warning system and response to tropical hurricanes, and this is something the U.S. can learn from,” Soler said. “It obviously benefits both countries to be communicating in response to disasters that hit both countries.”

Cuba’s knowledge of hurricanes and flooding could be a huge benefit to Miami and Puerto Rico.

“I see it as a potentially excellent partnership,” Chester said.

The team spent a significant amount of time with Sergio Pastrana, foreign secretary of the Academy of Sciences of Cuba, the gatekeeper between all Cuban science partnerships with foreign universities, deepening ties with ASU.

Given the political realities of Cuba and the uncertain state of bilateral relations, the delegation chalked up the trip as a success, with Cuba having as much to offer as the university.

“That is the most important point,” Soler said. “It is a mutual learning experience. It is based on mutual respect.”

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News