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Prison English program goes 'inside the wire' to educate an underserved population

February 14, 2013

There is a growing trend in the nation to improve access to education among underserved populations. But what about those locked behind cell walls and barbed wire fences? How do we improve the future for this population?  

Joe Lockard, associate professor in the Department of English at Arizona State University, believes that by offering education to neglected prison populations who may one day rejoin the workforce, we will better our society.

To do so, he created the Prison English program to bring English and literacy to inmates at Florence State Prison in Arizona and the Penitentiary of New Mexico. The program offers both online/hybrid and in-prison internships.

Department of English staff and students pay utmost attention to security. “We emphasize to students the primacy of safety and following prison regulations," says Lockard.

In addition to prison teaching, for ASU students who want to learn more about the role of prisons in U.S. culture, the curriculum includes an online Prison Literature course. Students read works from Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King, Jimmy Santiago Baca, John Cheever, and women’s prison writings.  

For undergraduates, English 484: Pen Project provides an online or hybrid internship taught by department lecturer Corri Wells. The Pen Project supplies long-distance writing tutoring to about 90 inmates per semester in New Mexico.  Most of these prisoners are celled for 23 hours a day and receive minimal educational services. The Pen Project serves as a creative outlet for prisoners to submit poetry, essays and stories. ASU students write supportive critiques. Last semester’s class portfolio amounted to nearly 1,000 single-spaced pages.  

The Prison English program operates an English 584 internship that brings mostly graduate students into Florence State Prison to work with minimum-security prisoners during a two-hour class that meets once a week. Students teach in pairs and are never left alone with inmates. Non-credit course offerings such as Shakespeare, creative writing and American English are available. Two faculty members – Lockard and linguistics professor Elly van Gelderen – and English Department staffer Corey Campbell teach in higher-security units of the prison.   

Lockard says that inmate motivations are wide-ranging. Some inmates use the creative writing courses as personal catharsis, while others participate in courses for general self-improvement.

The goal of such prison education programs is to reduce recidivism, and studies have shown that access to education behind bars dramatically decreases rates of recidivism.

“Many people ask why we do this," Lockard says. "In reality, 95 percent of inmates will be released and may one day be your neighbor. In this case, wouldn’t you want them exposed to education and the possibilities that are open to them?”

The response from inmates and prison authorities has been enthusiastic, Lockard said. Teaching "inside the wire" faces many challenges, especially class attrition and lack of student perseverance. Those participants who complete the classes take away a new sense of self-respect and self-worth.

“Many inmates realize their lack of education and look to take every opportunity to better themselves,” he said. “Education is one thing that can really change a life. Prison-university partnerships contribute post-secondary education that can make a difference.”

To learn more about the Prison English program, visit

The Department of English is an academic unit in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.