Women experiencing incarceration at Perryville facility join Watts 5K

‘Inside’ students also perform other charity activities throughout the year


People in orange jumpsuits walk on an outdoor track.

Women experiencing incarceration at Arizona State Prison Complex - Perryville join other ASU criminology and criminal justice students in the Watts 5K run/walk for charity Nov. 4. The women inside the facility participated simultaneously with others outside. Photo courtesy Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry

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The ASU Charter’s description of how Arizona State University measures success by whom it includes, not excludes, is often evoked regarding the university’s outreach efforts.

Associate Professor Kevin Wright and his criminology and criminal justice students decided that the charter’s charge to assume “fundamental responsibility for the economic, social, cultural and overall health of the communities it serves” also applies to people experiencing incarceration.

That’s why the most recent Watts 5K run/walk on Nov. 4 was held simultaneously inside the Arizona State Prison Complex - Perryville, for the first time.

The 5K, an effort by ASU’s Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions to raise donations for the university’s annual United Way campaign, involves participants from across the college’s community. The walk/run has taken place at a number of Phoenix-area locations, including Papago Park and Tempe Town Lake.

The 5K is not the only charitable function the women of the Perryville facility, located just west of Phoenix, participate in. They also joined in a Dec. 2 walk to raise funds for cancer research, as well as other similar activities.

Heeding charter’s call for inclusion

Wright said he, criminology doctoral student Alexis Klemm, and Monica Guevara, an undergraduate in the School of Social Transformation who is a research fellow at ASU’s Center for Correctional Solutions (CCS), gave much thought to how the charter applies to their work with people experiencing incarceration.

“Enhancing the lives of people who live and work in prison means including them as part of our communities and sharing responsibility for the health of those communities,” said Wright, CCS director. “Our community members couldn’t leave the prison to join us for the 5K, so we brought the 5K to them.”

Wright said the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry’s (ADCRR's) response to the idea was quick and supportive.

“They understand the value of empowering people to give back to their communities,” he said. “We were welcomed to the facility by staff who coordinated a special weekend opportunity for our team.”

In addition to the Watts 5K, the ADCRR and the school also work together in other partnerships. 

"The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry is proud to partner with the ASU School of Criminology and Criminal Justice on the Watts 5K, the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, and the (INK)arcerated art show hosted by ASU’s Center for Correctional Solutions," said ADCRR Director Ryan Thornell. "As a department, we are committed to reimagining corrections, including engaging in these partnership programs that offer unprecedented education opportunities and critical learning skills that help to prepare our population for success upon release."  

‘It is very important to give to our community’

ASU’s fostering inclusion meant enabling people experiencing incarceration to share community-building experiences, even from inside, said Wright. This is an idea also shared by some of the women incarcerated at Perryville, including Bernie, Christy, Jessica and Lizzette, whom ASU News is only referring to by their first names to protect their privacy.

Bernie said people experiencing incarceration participate in charitable events throughout the year.

“(We participate in) fundraising for various charities and special events like the cancer walk that is a once-a-year event organized by the individual units. This year, the women on this unit also got to participate in a Locks of Love event that meant a lot to the women who donated,” Bernie said.

Locks of Love involves donating hair for wigs for cancer patients.

“For us women, it is very important to give to our community and try to build the best rapport we can with the community,” Bernie said.

Christy said when she was asked to sign up for the Watts 5K, “it was a no-brainer.”

“To do this walk with Kevin, Alexis and Monique, I felt like an equal, even though I'm here. But just for that day, I felt free and alive walking for a cause that benefits thousands or more,” Christy said. “I participate in events whenever I can. ... Whenever something or someone needs help to facilitate, you can always count on me; l'm your gal for the task. I just donated 15 inches of my hair for Locks of Love.”

Klemm, the doctoral student, said she has been working with the women at Perryville for four years, and tried to get the 5K to take place simultaneously inside and outside the facility.

“But different logistics or timing issues have resulted in us being unable to do so. However, we at CCS still register the women for the event, and they usually do the 5K on their own on the inside while we participate on the outside,” Klemm said. “This year, everything aligned to where we were able to go inside and join a larger group of women for the event.”

Consider them colleagues

Klemm said she considers the people incarcerated at Perryville as her colleagues.

“It is exciting to include this community in larger, positive, ASU community events,” she said. “Honestly, doing the 5K at Perryville feels more ‘normal’ than it probably would to do it on the outside.”

Jessica, a woman incarcerated at Perryville, said she wants the outside community to know she and others inside the facility think about them and the issues they face.

“We recognize how communities are struggling and have organized events to help like food drives, monetary donations, backpack drives, hygiene donations, hair donations for Locks of Love, and sock and beanie drives for the unhoused,” she said. “We also make cards for active-duty military and the elderly. We care and help however we can.”

Lizzette agreed. “We participate in charitable events all the time,” she said. “We have fundraisers once a month, and we have hosted multiple food drives and straight donations to help the Red Cross in natural disasters.”

Guevara, the undergraduate student, said the experience has taught her people inside prisons are humans first, above all else.

“In the times I have been to Perryville, I see people with goals, passions and determination who are actively trying to make a change in their lives and working hard to rehabilitate,” she said. “I wish incarcerated people were regarded in this way — humans, first — instead of being defined by their worst mistakes.”